Yesterday I commented on a rulebook that told writers to avoid male pronouns in order to produce nonsexist writing. While its certainly sound advice to avoid sexist language in many kinds of writing, that advice can be easily inverted and misread as a ban on sex-specific language.
There are plenty of places where we have to use gender-specific language. Unfortunately one of the problems with style guides is that they don’t take into account the complexities of actual writing situations.
Their rules are based on the premise that we can produce just-add-water prose by following a few simple instructions. It doesn't work. The goal of the better style guides, the comprehensive ones, is to achieve uniform usage when referring to the kinds of things that writers who consult them regularly write about. The Chicago Manual of Style is mainly for academics and other professional writers and publishers. The AP Style Book is for journalists. Each treats common issues that come up for the particular field. Ways to cite sources. The official names of countries and dignitaries. Each book is several hundred pages long, and they’re frequently updated to cover new trends and developments. They’re pretty extensive, but as with travel guides, there are still situations that come up in writers’ lives that aren’t covered in the style guide.
But the stripped-down style guides, while popular, are better for propping up uneven table legs than for creating balanced prose. The best-selling Elements of Style shrinks its advice down to aphorisms: be simple, be direct, use short sentences, favor the active voice. Problem is, that sort of thing may be fine if you’re writing a shopping list, but it won’t do for creating a complex and nuanced argument, a novel, or even a blog. Plus Strunk and White don’t follow their own advice, so why should we? Similarly, the 9-page list of rules for writers at my university can't cover what everyone at a university is writing about: the academics, tech writers, administrators, bloggers, publicists each have their own concerns and requirements. All such a guide can hope to do is tell people the official titles of departments and programs, and the legally-correct way to refer to the u. itself, plus how to spell the trustees' names.
To get back to the point I started with, that guide – like most guides today – recommends that writers avoid sexist language. The danger is that some people will conclude from such a categorical statement that any sex reference is bad, which is certainly not the case. It's very easy for people to misconstrue the rules. Here's an example:
There has never been a "rule" in English that says,
Don't end a sentence with a preposition.
An 18th century commentator noticed that some sentences ending in prepositions were a little awkward, and advised writers to keep their eye on that sort of thing. In other words, it might not be a good idea to write a very long sentence where the preposition at the end is separated from its verb by so many words that the reader gets confused.
But someone misread that very sensible, context-sensitive advice, and decided that the rule was, "Never put the preposition at the end." And like an urban legend, the simplified rule took on a life of its own. Only yesterday a perfectly well-meaning reader chided a friend of mine for ending a sentence with a preposition. The fact that there was no other way to write the sentence, that it was short and perfectly clear, was irrelevant. Instead, she made a knee-jerk application of a "rule" that was incorrect to begin with. Instead of clarifying an awkward sentence, her rule would have produced one.
So common is it for us to misconstrue what we've been told that a colleague of mine who was asking students what other teachers had told them about writing got this "rule" from a student:
Never begin a sentence with a preposition.
So here's my bottom line, my rule, or anti-rule, if you will, of usage: There is no handbook rule that trumps the feedback writers get from their own eyes and ears. Of course there’s a problem with that rule too. The unreflective writer will transform it to read:
If I think it’s good, so will you.