After FedSmith published one of my articles (Five Proofreading Tips You Should Try), I received the following email from a reader accusing me of sexism:
“I am appalled by your choice of words in this article. Why is the less competent colleague a ‘she?’ First of all, you could have used ‘they’ or even ‘he and she.’ It is disconcerting to know that someone who writes so many praised documents is in fact a sexist.”
The offending passage? Here’s what I wrote:
“When a colleague sends out documents with frequent typos, many of us cannot help but view that colleague as careless and even less competent than she truly is.”
I won’t attempt to defend myself as a non-sexist. Waste of your time. Mine too.
But this reader’s email can be useful in helping you better understand just how sensitive people have become in our age of political-correctness-gone-wild.
To be fair, my reader was correct in pointing out that I had options to describe this hypothetical person. Let’s consider these options to see if they, too, might have upset people.
I could have used “they” as a singular pronoun, to describe the typo-maniac in my article. It’s grammatically correct, as half of the academics who decide such things will tell you (sending the other half into a violent rage). But to a lot of people, hearing “they” to describe one person just doesn’t sound right. As a writer, I prefer not to slow down, confuse or otherwise derail my readers from smoothly following along with my writing.
If I had used the clunky “he and she,” as my reader suggested, I would have received emails from readers accusing me of giving in to political correctness. (And I speak from experience, having received several emails like this.)
Of course, I could have simply labeled the poor person “he.” But is that okay? Haven’t we been taught to mix up our pronouns, so we don’t always label professionals men by default? Or does that rule not apply when we’re discussing a hypothetical person negatively?
You probably have an opinion about this he/she/they business. I do too. But that’s not the point. What makes me comfortable might make you uncomfortable, or even furious. And vice versa.
Whatever your position, you need a position.
The point is, you need to form your own position when it comes to the he/she debate and consistently write and speak with that position in mind. That is the only way you will be able to defend yourself against the inevitable offense-finders who read your work or listen to you speak.
Maybe you worry about offending readers who are sensitive to any hint of sexism – like the person who emailed me. Use “she” for hypothetical people you are referring to in a positive way – describing a generic supervisor as “she,” for example. Sensitive readers often take offense when people refer to a hypothetical boss as “he.”
And if you’re going to refer to a hypothetical person negatively – like my proofreading article, which describes someone sending out documents riddled with typos – you’ll want to make that poor person a “he.” For some reason, no one assumes if you use “he” in this context that you are suggesting only men are guilty of excessive typos.
But maybe you’d rather take a less politically correct approach. Maybe all of this “he/she” stuff bothers you, and you’d prefer simply to write what reads and feels right to you. That’s fine, too, I believe. Just understand that you will likely offend someone – and you should be prepared to explain your reasoning for using “he” when the politically safe move would’ve been to write “she” or “he/she” or “they.”
My point is, in our hypersensitive, politically correct time, you need a position on the “he/she” issue. You will often need to choose which pronouns to use in your work-related documents, and your safest bet is to have a thought-out stance on how you want to handle them.