English Pronouns and Gender

The Office for Diversity and Inclusion at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, hit the headlines last week after it published internal advice on the use of third-person pronouns to refer to individual transgender*  and genderqueer* students.

The advice divided opinion in the media but does raise an important question for writers and their editors, who do their best to keep bias – including the kinds that are culturally ingrained in us through long historical usage, such as the use of he and she to refer to people who are assigned either male or female sex at birth – out of their writing: which third-person pronouns should we use to refer to transgender and genderqueer people?

Looking through a number of sources (see list below), there seems to be general agreement on the most sensitive and inclusive approach to adopt. If possible, of course, it is preferable to ask the person being referred to to supply the preferred pronoun. This should be an easier task when writing about someone as opposed to speaking about them, as we are likely to have the time to consult either the person or the historical record.

However, there may still be cases where consulting is not possible. In these cases, the consensus appears to be:

  • to refer to a transgender or transsexual woman*, use sheher, and her;
  • to refer to a transgender or transsexual man*, use he, him, and his; and
  • to refer to a genderqueer person, use appropriate editorial techniques to avoid using pronouns (see, e.g. The Chicago Manual of Style, section 5.225).

Finally, writers and editors must remain sensitive not only to their subjects but also to their audience; so, always be at pains to explain the meaning of terms that may otherwise be unfamiliar to the reader.

I welcome comments/corrections/discussion.

* See GLAAD’s Media Reference Guide – Transgender Issues for an explanation of these terms.

Sources list

AP Stylebook

Chicago Manual of Style

Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Discrimination

Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association

Gove’s Rules

In June 2013, while at the Department for Education, stickler for detail the Rt Hon Michael Gove MP provided his staff with a list of ten rules on grammar and clear writing. Now, in one of his first acts in his new appointment as Lord Chancellor, he has provided staff at the Ministry of Justice with a similar list. The combined twenty rules are listed below. Are these the best twenty rules? Has Gove missed anything crucial? Do we agree with everything he rules?

  1. If in doubt, cut it out.
  2. Read it out loud – if it sounds wrong, don’t send it.
  3. In letters, adjectives add little, adverbs even less.
  4. The more the letter reads like a political speech, the less good it is as a letter.
  5. Would your mum understand that word, phrase or sentence? Would mine?
  6. Read the great writers to improve your own prose – George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh, Jane Austen and George Eliot, Matthew Parris and Christopher Hitchens.
  7. Always use concrete words and phrases in preference to abstractions.
  8. Gwynne’s Grammar is a brief guide to the best writing style.
  9. Simon Heffer’s Strictly English is a more comprehensive – and very entertaining – companion volume.
  10. Our written work should be the clearest, most elegant, and most enjoyable to read of any Whitehall department’s because the Department for Education has the best civil servants in Whitehall.
  11. Don’t write “I am sorry to hear”, but “I am sorry to read” instead.
  12. Don’t write “however” at the beginning of a sentence (or any words such as “therefore”, “yet”, “also”, “although”), but put it after the verb: “There are, however, many options”.
  13. Don’t use “doesn’t”, “don’t”, “aren’t”, and so on, but spell out both words.
  14. Take a warm tone and be very gracious in thanking people for their letters.
  15. Use the active voice and the present tense as much as possible: eg, “We are doing this”; “My department provides guidance”; “The evidence shows that…”.
  16. Even if the view is an opposing one, acknowledge the arguments while not yielding on the substance.
  17. Avoid “this” and “it” on their own, trying to write exactly what they are referring to in correspondence.
  18. Don’t be repetitive.
  19. Don’t use anything too pompous.
  20. Don’t write that you “met with” someone (just “met”).

What is acceptable English?

Well, I missed US National Punctuation Day (September 24) but, as you can see from the title, this blog post is neither about punctuation nor about the differences between British and American punctuation styles.

I wanted, instead, to muse (briefly) about what ‘acceptable’ English is. Some people have argued that standard written English is the language of the elite and that it excludes everyone else; others, that it is the result of centuries of linguistic development and is an effective and efficient means of overcoming difficulties in communication between people of different dialects. Whatever the answer (and I don’t think there is an easy one), it does seem (thankfully) that we have a much less prescriptive view now of what is acceptable than we used to.

As a point of departure, let’s look at the Queen’s English. Defined in the Oxford online dictionary as ‘[t]he English language as written and spoken correctly by educated people in Britain’, it is often held up as the gold standard of English, particularly by non-native speakers. But the definition throws up at least a couple of questions:

  1. What does it mean to write and speak British English ‘correctly’? If it means to write and speak the Queen’s English, then we have an unhelpfully circuitous argument. And with reference to spoken English, we are not helped by the fact that HM Queen Elizabeth II’s has, over the years, changed the way in which she speaks.
  2. What is an ‘educated’ person? Traditionally, an ‘education’ was received at school and university by the privileged few. But, thankfully, we live in a time when primary and secondary education are compulsory for all children, and when a university education is open to ever-increasing numbers of people. There must, surely, be a great variety of spoken and written English among the seven and a half million (approximately) children in state-funded primary and secondary schools in the UK, and among the two and a quarter million (approximately) students registered at our higher education institutions. We are also moving towards a conception of ‘education’ that is wider and richer than the education received at school, university and other institutions of education.

Language is at its heart a tool for communication. I would argue, then, that English that is acceptable is, simply, English that is accepted by its audience. It is language that effectively communicates its message. To do this, it need only be as clear, cohesive, coherent and concise (see, for example, Joseph M. Williams’ Style: Toward Clarity and Grace) as its audience requires.

This means, thankfully, that our regional voices need no longer be locked up, to the extent that they have been, ‘…in a box beneath the bed, / the lock rusted shut by hours of elocution’ (from the wonderful West Midlands poet Liz Berry‘s ‘Homing’) and can, at last, be more fully savoured in all their richness.