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  • Illinois bans male pronoun

    The University of Illinois has banned the male pronoun.  Starting Jan. 2, 2007, all print and web-based publications, whether for audiences inside oroutside the university, must follow the rules laid out in the style guide published by the universitys Office of Public Affairs.  And in the section on nonsexist language, the style guide tells us:

    Avoid gender-specific language such as the use of a male pronoun.

    There it is in plain English: we may no longer refer to anyone’s gender specifically.  What the U probably intended to write was something like this:

    Avoid using a generic masculine pronoun when the antecedent includes both men and women. 

    But that’s not what the style guide says.  (They also tell us not to use informal terms like “the U” when referring to the university, which is always supposed to be  capitalized, but people who mistakenly outlaw gendered pronouns deserve to have their other rules ignored.) 

    You’d think that someone would be careful writing a set of language rules that everyone else is required to follow.  But the way the style guide reads now, sentences like (a) and (b) are out:  

    (a) Everyone loves his mother.

    (b) Everyone loves her mother.

    Since we’re also told to avoid using they  as a singular, (c) is out as well:

    (c) Everyone loves their mother.

    Plus it’s not altogether clear whether (d) would be approved, since while it’s certainly inclusive, it’s also gender specific:

    (d) Everyone loves his or her mother.

    If a professor or a dean is a women, we can’t call her her.  If he’s a man, him  is improper.  What’s a writer to do? 

    Before the university style guide came along, English grammar was pretty clear on the matter: when referring to a person of the male persuasion, use a masculine (not male) pronoun.  Use the feminine to refer to women.  It’s when gender isn’t specified that English has a pronoun problem, causing people to resort to the generic masculine, the generic feminine, an inclusive but clumsy-if-overused him or her, or a singular they.  Or they punt and rewrite the entire sentence in the plural: 

    (e) People love their mothers.

    The U. actually encourages us to use the plural, which has the unintended effect of erasing such useful gender-neutral indefinites as someone, anyone, everyone,   and nobody.

    The Illinois Style Guide's mistake isn't surprising.  Style guides either get it right, or they don’t.  In my opinion, they mostly don’t.  Of course, by the time you read this the problem may have been corrected:  I’m not the only one to notice the university's sex ban, and I’m probably not the only one who fired off an email (they want me to write e-mail) pointing it out.  

    I actually think the University is right to encourage sex-neutral language, provided they're sensible about it.  But fixing one rule won't make that much difference.  There’s a bigger issue at stake than the fact that style and usage guides, despite their claims to be authoritative, are riddled with error and bad advice.  I have no problem with a house style that sets parameters for spelling, punctuation, and usage. But it’s one thing to say that publications should look professional if they bear the university imprimatur, and it’s another to require blind obedience to rules, particularly ones that haven’t been thought through.  

    Like our logo, the style guide is supposed to help establish the university's brand, distinguishing us from Michigan, Wisconsin, California, and the rest of the competition.  In a message to the campus, the administration explains that we need the new standards because “We are stronger when we speak as one.” But I don't see how writing e-mail with a hyphen, capitalizing Internet, or requiring commas to separate all the elements in a series of three or more does much to identify the University as a unique entity.

    Even if they’d gotten the pronoun rule right the first time, style guides like the U of I's never really do the job they set out to do. Plus, unless the university’s planning to hire a squad of copy editors to check the faculty’s online prose, there’s no way they’re going to catch all the irregularities and inconsistencies endemic to the sentences that every writer produces. 

    Finally, there’s simply no usage regulation, no grammatical prescription, no punctuation cheat sheet, that’s going to produce linguistic consistency every time, in every context.  That’s why style guides are guides,  not commandments.  And no matter how you feel about nonsexist language (again, I'm for it), there are some times when context requires one or the other gender to be excluded; times when gender-bending wreaks havoc not just with our pronouns, but also with more general notions of sex and gender; and times when we simply need to violate decorum and let off a little steam.  Which is what I’m doing now. 

    UPDATE: the Style Guide was corrected by the university almost immediately, and the state's male pronouns have been spared the axe.  

    However, I've decided to leave this post on the Web of Language in the interests of historical accuracy, and because it's a good illustration of why editing advice should be dished out very, very carefully.

#1
ipeckh1@lsu.edu Jan 3, 2007 5:17 am
It is surprising that the u of i should have published an official style guide without someone having looked carefully at what they said rather than what they meant--but the error pales in light of the more serious official administrative errors (like the lynching of Hussein) now raining down upon us.
#2
gailhap@gmail.com Jan 3, 2007 8:44 am
Oddly enough, I don't think the University of Illinois has actually lynched anyone in ever so long.
#3
larvan@illinois.edu Jan 3, 2007 11:12 pm

Dennis

 That was a good post to read and I agree in all respects save one.  You bent over backwards to be fair, and I interpret your comments aboug gender-neutral language in this light, but I believe there are cases where gender specific language is not only appropriate, it is necessary.  The first case where it is a must is when a particular individual has already been mentioned by name and then subsequent references to the indivual occur, where in those subsequent references a pronoun is most apt.  The particular individual has a gender, and so that gender should be used in this case to select the appropriate pronoun. 

 The other case where I've relied on gender pronouns is in a dialog between two inidividuals, for example a student and teacher, where again pronouns are useful and so an author assignes one to be male and the other to be female, simply to contrast between the two of them in the narrative.  In this case gender neutrality is pernicious because it serves to mask the differences between the two.  and something is needed to provide adequate contrast. 

I don't believe that doing either of these is "sexist" in the least.  And I believe that we are confusing the imperative to respect individuals, irrespective of their gender, an imperative I endorse, with these proscriptions on language, which fail if not in intent then certainly on lacking creativity in considering appropriate usage. 

#4
lethe9@gmail.com Jan 4, 2007 12:03 pm
That particular rule gives me fits when I am teaching freshman writing. A simple generic he (or she) is so much better than the he/she or they (used as a singular) that the kids seem to be learning in high school now.
#5
tevi.abrams-slep@oberlin.edu Jan 12, 2007 2:07 pm
It's not that you're identifying the university as unique, but that you're identifying it as one, as a whole. An 'outsider' reading two memoranda where one mentions all the "email on the Internet," while the other mentions all the "e-mail on the internet" may be aware of the difference, and on a not-very-conscious level, wonder how good the university is if the departments can't even agree on the same spelling of "e-mail."
#6
wukul@gmx.de May 14, 2008 1:39 am
Oddly enough, I don't think the University of Illinois has actually lynched anyone in ever so long. Free SMS
#7
jsteinfe@illinois.edu Jun 24, 2008 3:48 pm

Creative Services again thanks Prof. Baron for pointing out the error in the Writing Style Guide in the early days of its re-release on Jan. 2, 2007. This error was corrected as soon as it came to our attention via his post to this blog. A link to the Web of Language also was added to the Writing Style Guide.

#8
mjlee@hawaii.edu Jul 14, 2008 5:57 pm
larvan@uiuc.edu wrote:

Dennis

That was a good post to read and I agree in all respects save one. You bent over backwards to be fair, and I interpret your comments aboug gender-neutral language in this light, but I believe there are cases where gender specific language is not only appropriate, it is necessary. The first case where it is a must is when a particular individual has already been mentioned by name and then subsequent references to the indivual occur, where in those subsequent references a pronoun is most apt. The particular individual has a gender, and so that gender should be used in this case to select the appropriate pronoun.

The other case where I've relied on gender pronouns is in a dialog between two inidividuals, for example a student and teacher, where again pronouns are useful and so an author assignes one to be male and the other to be female, simply to contrast between the two of them in the narrative. In this case gender neutrality is pernicious because it serves to mask the differences between the two. and something is needed to provide adequate contrast.

I don't believe that doing either of these is "sexist" in the least. And I believe that we are confusing the imperative to respect individuals, irrespective of their gender, an imperative I endorse, with these proscriptions on language, which fail if not in intent then certainly on lacking creativity in considering appropriate usage.

I have to disagree with the purportedly innocuous senarios where gendered pronouns are "necessary." While I understand the reason for using gendered pronouns in both of these cases, I think these situations are problematic when it comes to gender and sexist language. 

In the first senario, where a "particular individual has a gender, and so that gender should be used [...] to select the appropriate pronoun," I think there would be many who would disagree that everyone's gender is so easily classified into only 1 of (only) 2 categories.  I am not well versed in this area, so I will defer to someone more familiar with GLBT issues.

In the second senario, where different genders are assigned to a teacher and a student in dialog, I agree that assigning different genders for clarity in a narrative is a good strategy.  However, I believe it can be sexist if the teacher (or person of authority) is more often assigned a masculine gender and the student (or subordinate person) is more often assigned a feminine gender.  (Or even vice versa.)  And while "gender neutrality is pernicious because it serves to mask the differences between the two," I think it's dangerous to associate the differences between the stereotypes of masculine and feminine with differences in levels of authority. 

Perhaps I am erring on the side of (liberal) caution here, but I still meet a lot of people who assume doctors are men and nurses are women and mothers are primarily responsible for parenting and housework and fathers are breadwinners. 

 

#9
norrad@gmail.com Jul 19, 2008 1:31 am

My only thought on this is why? The male pronoun does not lead to gender discrimination. If that were so, then why not ban the female pronoun and have every piece of writing refer to asexual beings...

Sometimes administrations can do some really stupid things.

Regards,

Darron (www.runtslife.com)

#10
seamstress@web.de Aug 5, 2008 5:31 pm

Somebody please tell me what is sexist about calling a male a male (or referring to him using a masculine pronoun)! When speaking of men/males use masculine pronouns, for women/females feminine ones. Only when speaking of persons/groups of mixed or unknown gender you need  to resort to gender-neutral constructions such as "they" or "he or she" rather than masculinizing the group or person.

The intention of gender-neutral language is not the abolition of gender but of gender bias!

Sabine

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