charlie's blog

Sunday, July 19, 2009

when a person wants to be neutral, what words should she use?

A while ago, I picked up an introductory book on statistics, so that I could better understand some of the jargon being used by the engineers I work with and the biologist I'm married to. I wanted to know what chi-squared analyses are (I now know) and what ANOVAs are good for (I've already forgotten). However, one of the most interesting finds in the book had nothing to do with math or science, but instead had to do with culture and language.

What I noticed was that the book used "he" and "him" as gender-neutral pronouns, e.g. "When a scientist chooses a statistical method, he must consider...". This was quite surprising to me the first few times I ran across it, and the surprise itself was meta-surprising, since the use of male pronouns as gender-neutral is far from new. In fact, it has been the norm for a long time (you can consult Wikipedia or your favorite historian/linguist/etc. for details).

The reason this caught me off guard is that most of the nonfiction books I read, specifically computer books, use female pronouns as gender-neutral. I've never had a chance to ask anyone in the computer-book publishing industry about this, but it seems quite consistent; I will boldly claim (without gathering any proper data) that well over half of the computer books I've read follow this pattern. I've read so many books like this that it actually stops me in my tracks when I find a more "traditional" one, such as that statistics book I mentioned.

Anyway, I don't have that much to say about this, but I thought it was noteworthy. If nothing else, I'm hoping that it counts as evidence that we're making some progress on unseating "he", "him", "mankind", and their brethren from the role of "neutral".

This post is dedicated to my mom, who taught me to pay attention to things like this. Thanks, mom!

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