Most of us remember the basic explanation for what pronouns are from elementary school: pronouns are words used to take the place of nouns. We learn that pronouns are I, you, he, she, it, that, them, they, and those–there are others, but these are the ones we tend to start with. What we aren’t taught is how powerful those pronouns can be.
In fact, because pronouns are explained as words that take the place of other words this immediately lays the ground work for passive-aggressive speech. Now we can talk about things in a vague way that we may understand while not really being specific enough for other people to catch on.
Pronouns seem innocuous, but they are very powerful. Their power lies in their subtle nature to influence how we relate to what is being said. Much of the time this is unintentional, but they can also be used intentionally to minimize, make impersonal, or ostracize. This becomes a sensitive issue when dealing specifically with gender.
Be warned, my feminism is about to show all up in here.
I’m not 100% cool with the idea that the word man can be used to refer to a male or all of humanity, but I get it. I can read the great philosophers as they refer to man and human nature, but they start to lose me with the pronoun he. I struggle to identify enough with the word man in reference to human nature, but by using the word he you’ve just ostracized me from the equation. I’d like to think–as I am told–that this is unitentional, and that I’m just being oversensitive.
However, there are places where women are talked about, and there is clearly an awareness that though men and women share many qualities of human nature there are some qualities exhibited more strongly in one gender verses the other. Whether these are pronounced due to nature verse nurture is not what I take issue with (in this post). What I take issue with is the pronoun use and when I’m supposed to assume I’m being included verses excluded from the discussion.
When we are writing about an individual of uncertain gender we are taught that he is the appropriate default pronoun. If we write she it is immediately assumed we are only talking about a female. In an effort to update, modernize, and show progressive enlightenment I have seen places where an effort is made to include both genders by alternating between the pronouns she and he because there is still this aversion against using the words they, them, or their when referring to a single individual–though many writers toss that rule anyway.
I am personally fond of the pronoun one when referring singularly to anyone who is reading something that is meant for anyone who would read it and the person who doesn’t bother. There is also the very personal you, but then it may be too personal for the one reading who prefers to think of themselves (see, I just tossed the rule right there) as the exception. But if a writer uses no pronouns then there might not be any connection by the reader to the material, which makes for dry reading.
So, what do we write when we mean anyone? I don’t really have a solid answer for this one. What I do know is that pronouns do have power. When I see the word he I think of a male, when I see the word she I think of a female. When we try to look past this our subconscious registers the gender denotation. Even when we are told that there is no gender exclusion we perceive it. Just try to switch it in those cases where it isn’t supposed to matter and see what happens.
If you don’t believe me take any generic text (especially those talking about human nature), and change all the default male pronouns to female to see how it reads. Does the meaning change for you? Are you able to connect with it in the same way?
*Photo: Lighter by MiiiSH, obtained through Flickr.