Gender and a Sense of Mystery

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Hey guys. Today and tomorrow I’m at the Literary Weekend at the Carolina Renaissance Festival (Misty and several other writers will be there as well, so if you are in the area, please come out and say hello–we’d love to see you!) Anyway, that being the case, I might not be able to check comments until Monday, so don’t think I’m ignoring you. Since I’m on my way out, today I’m posting an article I wrote a while back about gender in writing. I’m very interested in reading your take on the matter.


When it comes to politically correct terms for gender roles, anyone who knows me personally long ago gave me up as a lost cause. I don’t care one bit about the generalized ‘man’ being a collective for both males and/or females such as in words like mankind and chairman. I find the insertion of the word woman in such words to be amusing, and the substitution of ‘person’ downright silly. In person, I’m not even particularly inclined to differentiate male and female versions of long held titles. For instance, I may mention the party’s host, and mean the woman hosting it. And as far as new ‘titles’, well, expect an eye-roll if someone refers to me as an authoress.

In print, my characters speak and think in terms that are in line with their views. Unless they are particularly pushy in the politically correct department, my characters typically follow conventional gender grammar rules simply because 1) so far I haven’t had a good reason for one not to and 2) it is less confusing for the reader. But occasionally the issue arises where the character doesn’t know the gender of the person they are referring to. This is an issue I run into a lot when building a mystery. When a suspect’s gender is unknown, and the characters are talking or thinking about the suspect, there are only a couple options for pronouns, and I’ve yet to find a great solution.

Technically, English does have a singular, gender neutral pronoun. That would be the word ‘it’. Yeah . . . I don’t know about you, but in my experience people get upset if you so much as refer to their pet as an ‘it’, let alone use the word for a person. The word just isn’t accepted. Imagine a character saying, “We’ve tracked the suspect to the warehouse district. Don’t worry, it won’t get away this time.” Nope. People would be up in arms.

Okay, what does that leave us with? The cumbersome his or her/ he or she? Imagine a conversation filled with his or her. It would get old fast, and it just doesn’t sound natural. Sometimes writers are encouraged to alternate pronouns when the gender is unknown. One sentence use ‘he’ and the next ‘she’–Ugh. Just ick.

Well, there are always generalizations (which drive the PC people nuts but always seem to be the grammar-pushers top choice). I admit that this is what I’m typically forced to resort to, though I hate it–particularly when forced to pick a gender pronoun as it relates to the mystery of the story.

Why do I hate it, especially since I stated above that in my personal life I’m not particularly politically correct and don’t mind gender generalizations? I have a two main reasons:

  • As mentioned earlier, confusing the reader is never good. The words on the page are the only way I have to convey my story, and unless I’ve established the fact my narrator is unreliable, the reader expects the character’s interpretation of events to be true. If my character refers to the suspect as a ‘he’ an unknown male is painted in the reader’s eyes. What if the suspect is female? That’s not a fact that can just be tossed out there, but the reader should also not be mislead unless the red herring is part of the plot.
  • the automatic assignment of gender pronouns can make the character sound prejudiced and shallow. Why should the character assume that the killer is male and the dead prostitute is female? Until the facts are available, gender is unknown.

To get around at least the first of the above, a character’s assumptions are often laid bare. I’m sure we’ve all read/seen on TV some version of the following conversation more than once:
Character 1: “He shot the victim three times from close range.”
Character 2: “How do you know the shooter was male?”
Character 1: “Well, statically/ based on height/ some fact that could eventually be challenged . . . ”

So if we can’t use “it”, “he or she” is too cumbersome, and generalizing is  unappealing, what option is left? Not anything your high school grammar teacher would approve. Personally, I tend to try to get away with using “their” and “they” as singular gender neutral pronouns. It’s incorrect, but I like it better than the other options. Unfortunately, my copy editors don’t tend to agree. I don’t use ‘their’ or ‘they’  for this purpose often, but at every instance, my copy editors leave me notes about number agreement. *sigh*

What do you think is the best solution? Have you found a good way around this issue, or read a book that used a clever method of handling the singular gender neutral pronoun?

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12 comments to Gender and a Sense of Mystery

  • AJ and David once told me that *they* and *their* were (once-upon-a-time) both singular and plural. But like yours, my CE hates it. (Hmmm. We’re both at ROC. We might have the same CE.)

    Anyway, my rule of thumb is to say *he or she* the first time I mention a character whose gender is unknown. After that I drop into the universal *he*.

    Like you, I’m too grown up (or callous, take your pick) to care about being PC. I don’t get my panties twisted when I hear God being called he, (though *I* think He’s genderless, and what do I call him if he’s genderless???) or when a wait-person is called a waitress. I’ve been a waitress. And I just don’t care.

    I know I get annoying about it. But honestly, to me, all the PC stuff is what people get all bothered about when they don’t have enough to worry about just keeping alive. I mean, people are starving to death in Africa. Who freaking cares if someone uses a universal *he*? It is so much easier.

    Oh my. I got on my soapbox. Please let me put my lady-like Southern manners back on and fan myself whilst all the men-folk discuss it. :)

  • Hepseba ALHH

    This is interesting. Granted, I’ve never worked with a copy editor, but I never would have worried about this issue simply because ‘they’ is so universally used as the unknown-gender pronoun. It bothers me from a language-limited standpoint, but if my character would think and talk using ‘they’ or ‘he’, then why should the copy editor try to alter how their (:-D) brain works? Authors should help preserve good grammar in the culture, but from Dante to Mark Twain there has been strong recognition that using the language of the readers is also very important.

  • Martin

    I made the mistake of calling my friends’ unborn child ‘it’. Much groveling was necessary.

    When reading, I think I prefer seeing ‘they’ to the cumbersome or revealing options. So that’s how I write most of the time as well, but I called my son ‘it’ before we knew what he was as well.

    I’m just glad we don’t use thee, thou, thy, thine, etc. anymore.

  • I think the line “We’ve tracked the suspect here. It won’t get away this time…” Is amazingly provocative, esp. if you are setting up a “superhuman/supernatural isn’t human” bias. So the speaker uses “it” to refer to ALL werecreatures, vampires, etc.

    But that’s not the question. I deal with this all the time in my English classes. There isn’t a smooth way around it. The pronoun/antecedent agreement issue bugs me. The “suspect” followed by “they.” It is grammatically wrong, and so it makes my eye twitch. :)

    That said, sometimes it is the only way, and in dialogue I don’t think it is a problem. Because people DO talk that way. If you’ve got a language conscious character, he or she might say “he or she.” Or, what a lot of academics (some, anyway) have started doing, which is replacing the generic “he” with a generic “she.”

    I guess it is my way of saying until we invent a gender neutral singular pronoun, I don’t know how to fix it. Ahh, all the awkwardness feminism causes! 😀

  • Oh dear … have you ever tackled the thorny paths of gender politics within the new ‘sexual fluidity’ of Generation X and Y? Or their sub groups within the LGBTQI communities.

    Once upon a time we had butch and femme, and androgynous, but now those terms from a gentler time have splintered into hundreds of definitions, each with their own sets of rules and PC terms. (that fluctuate as well)

    This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, language regularly needs to be taken by the throat and shaken up, otherwise, how would that ponderous middle ground ever shift.

    I’m in favour of ‘they’ and ‘their’ as a gender neutral pronoun until the dust settles and one pronoun rises to the top of the pile and enters into general usage.

    I do wonder though, if we set a story completely within a single gender world, how would we construct a language that didn’t need ANY gender pronouns. Has anyone heard/read of anything like this?

    I know in her Hainish Cycle book, The Left hand of Darkness, Ursula Le Guin tried, but opted to use the male pronoun as her default.

  • Razziecat

    This subject fascinates me for several reasons. First, it’s irritating to me that in English, the terms “he” or “him” can be considered gender-neutral when you don’t know the gender of the person (as in your mystery-novel example), but “she” and “her” are not. They’re too specific. Like with “unisex” clothing, the standard is male, and the deviation is female. I don’t like what that suggests about how we see gender.

    Second, in my space opera cosmos, I have a race that’s gender-neutral until sexual maturity and then they are hermaphroditic, so I had to come up with a new pronoun for those stories, and I’m still not satisfied with it.

    Third, the novel I’m going to work on for NaNoWriMO has a major character who happens to be a hermaphrodite. I had to decide if this person presented as a male, female or something in between, what pronoun the other characters used in reference, and so on.

    I think it would be useful if English-speakers adopted some gender-neutral pronouns from another language. We already use thousands of words that came from other languages, why not a few more?

  • If you use ‘sie’ or ‘hir’ I’ll roll my eyes. Then I’ll take a power drill to my skull with the hope of drilling out all memory of you. And I’ll use a one inch paddle bit.

    I tend to be fairly gender neutral in speaking, and use ‘they,’ ‘then,’ and ‘their’ often. Probably because I grew up in politically correct yet passive aggressive Seattle.

    When I read, I find it distracting when people go overly PC when the characters and settings call for something else. People didn’t tiptoe around gender in the 50’s. And these days, most people still use gendered pronouns. Well, except for some left coast liberal arts colleges, but that’s different.

    When I write, I do occasionally reword sentences to get rid of the pronoun altogether.

    “The suspect ran into the building.” “Good, we have him surrounded.”
    would be
    “The suspect ran into the building.” “Good, we’ve an officer at every exit.”

    Now my real pet pieve with the English language? Using ‘you’ for the plural ‘you’. Honestly, I hate it. I’ve adopted “y’all”, but I probably sound like a redneck because of that.

  • This is something I struggle with, too. I have tried using “he or she” and I think it can work (if not repeated too often) in a contemporary work. But I used it in Thieftaker, and I think I need to take it out and replace it with “he” when I get the copyedits, because in 1760s a POV character would absolutely assume “he”. I may get some bad fan feedback, but historically speaking it is the way to go.

  • I’m of the opinion that by trying to work around something you often draw more attention to it.
    eg: He or she threw the apple at the car as it passed.
    Rather than drawing attention to the fact it was an apple that was thrown or that it happened while the car was passing, we are drawn to the gender of the actor (actress?) :)
    I just use he as gender neutral and don’t draw attention to it unless the gender is important, which probably is the case in mystery writing as opposed to epic fantasy, which is what I normally write.
    As for babies, my wife and I assigned a “project name” to the unborn one to avoid the awkward use of “it” or stuttering around he/she. Our first was named “Horace” and the second “Arnold”. Both male names so the fetus can be referred to as “he”. As it came to be, Horace was a little girl, no big deal. (Arnold’s gender is TBA)

  • sagablessed

    Reading Widdershins’ comment brought to mind my own work. I have a character who is post-operative transeexual. And they realities of pronoun use-as well as the confusion it brings for those not part of that subculture-has been difficult. That being said, it is common among most Indo-European languages to use the term ‘he’ when refering to a gender unknown. I do not let this bother me. As English is a Germanic language, the useage is simply part of the culture. Trying to change it unless it is germaine to the storyline will only confuse the reader, and pardon my french, but PC-speak be damned. It can only go so far. Unless you wish to rewrite the past and alter modern language, it is not going away anytime soon.
    To Razziecat: Finnish has a gender neutral word for him and her: han. mina voin, sina voit, han ohn (I am, you are, s/he/it is.) the also do not have a word for ‘the’, thus avoiding the need for gender-specific endings and so on.

  • An acquaintance decided to use e instead of he/she, to describe a genderless character. Didn’t ever figure out if she decided on how the possessive worked, though.

  • As a bit of a lingua-phile… I’ll say this: your copy-editors are kind of wrong. “They” and “their” are acceptable colloquial parlance as a gender-neutral singular pronoun, becaues virtually everyone uses them that way. Not using those words is actually more confusing than dancing around to avoid it.

    In formal writing this use is probably not acceptable. Formal rules are somewhat different from the language as it’s actually spoken. If you’re dealing with character speech and thoughts – and it story-writing you often are – it would be unrealistic not to use “they/their/them” that way.

    The fact that language is a maleable, changing and effervescent thing is something I’ve come to love about it. I make it my business to use correct grammar and all that… but all of those rules exist only to help aid communication. The rules are in the eyes of the beholder, so to speak, and the beholders of language are its users. When the majority of users consistently break a “rule”, then that rule is in effect invalid, and needs to be re-addressed.

    Frankly, I don’t think it’s really a matter of individual opinion… it’s a matter of actual usage. Language does not have a board of rule-makers who decide the rules for everyone else: the rules are agreed upon collectively. (I consider myself something of a middle-of-the-road kind of guy between presciptivist and descriptivist. I guess it probably makes sense, though, that most copy-editors probably lean toward the hard-core prescriptivist side. But that doesn’t make them right.)

    Of course, all of that is really only valid for contemporary usage. If you’re going for period-authenticity… I don’t have the answers for that. (I’m a very part time lingua-phile and haven’t had the time to delve into historical pronoun usage, except in the case of the plural and singular/formal vs. familiar second person pronoun in English… English used to have a t-v distinction and contrary to popular belief, thanks to rampant misuse of the King James Bible, the “thees” “thous” and “thines” were actually the familiar/singular usage, not the formal. I’ve said too much already.) For secondary-world fantasy, I take the approach of modulating my language to fit the culture: more formal use of English for a more formal culture and less formal, more colloquial and more contemporary (though avoiding anachronisms where possible) for everyday parlance.

    Also, “it” doesn’t work because it implies a lack of animacy or a lack of sapience: both highly important characteristics of a human being (and sometimes of their pets). Basically… gender and number are not the only potentially salient qualities of a pronoun.