raganwald
Saturday, January 12, 2008
  Off-Topic: Why did he say she?
Someone raised the question of whether it was appropriate to use the pronoun “she” in a recent anecdote about envelopes. The question included some irrelevant anti-diversity ranting, but the part that was worth consideration questioned whether the generic personal pronoun should be “he” or “she.”

The rule in English is clear: if the person is of unknown gender, use he. For example:

The rule is that when a writer makes a statement about an unknown person, he should use “he.” He should not use “she” unless he is making a statement about a person who is female.

Therefore, if I am writing about an unknown person and I use the word “he,” I am not asserting that the person is male. It isn’t even the masculine pronoun in this context.

However, that has nothing to do with the anecdote. The reason why it has nothing to do with the anecdote is that the anecdote was not about an unknown person. It was about a fictitious person who was female.

Once upon a time there was an author who was trying to decide which pronoun to use. She was told that when she was making a statement about an unknown person, she should use “he.” She was told that she should not use “she” unless she was making a statement about a person who was female.

In this example, I am not talking about an unknown author, I am asking you to consider one specific fictitious author whom I have decided is female. There is no debate about that: I am entitled to write about women, Canadians, Scots, and anyone else I fancy.

There is a question as to whether the manager’s gender is relevant. Including details like this helps you see in your mind’s eye the person I saw when I wrote it. It is not obvious whether this improves the anecdote or whether the anecdote would be better if the gender was omitted.

But I think it is an appropriate use of the word “she,” and I stand by its use in the anecdote.

Update: The difference between a specific pronoun and a generic pronoun is clear when you contrast the story about a fictitious manager with this sentence from Whatever happened to code reviews?:

If someone writes code in that language, they are absolved from all responsibility for its style. And so is their manager: the programmer’s code compiled, it is demonstrably free of bad style, what can we demand of their manager other than to see to it that they use the language?

In that post, I used they are instead of he is, and perhaps this is wrong, but this is unmistakably generic: I am not making a statement about some programmer, I am making a statement about all programmers who use a certain type of programming language. This is very different.

Elsewhere, Kate Rhodes bought up the point that choosing to depict women in programming stories encourages women to enter the profession. This may be true, but I confess it is not why I do it from time to time. In actual fact, I know a number of very capable women who manage software development, so when I sometimes choose to write about a fictitious man and I sometimes choose to write about a fictitious woman, I am simply reflecting my own experience.

If your experience does not resemble mine, that is good: what is the point of reading if not to discover new things?
 

Comments on “Off-Topic: Why did he say she?:
You could always take Spivak's route, e.g., http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spivak_pronoun
 
When I read that anecdoate, it came across -- as it usually does -- as metaphorical and not referencing an actual person, and so the 'she' reads as gender-correcting. I don't know if you subscribe to the 'balance your he and she' rule, but it does read that way. I happen to think this rule is appropriate.

There's a few synthetic suggestions for gender-neutral pronouns, and as always they never quite stick, but the next generation might be adopting 'yo':
http://www.bignewsday.com/story.asp?code=BZ345203T&news=yo_being_used_as_gender-neutral_pronoun
 
How about actually citing your quotations?

Using "they" instead of either "he" or "she" is a good solution.
 
You could always take Spivak's route, e.g., http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spivak_pronoun

When I read that anecdote, it came across -- as it usually does -- as metaphorical and not referencing an actual person, and so the 'she' reads as gender-correcting.

As mentioned, if you assume it is generic, you are mistaken. The story is often told about a specific person like Billy Martin (although in the version I heard, Bill is the former manager, not the protagonist).

If I had said “Billy is brought into manage the Yankees’ doomed season” you wouldn’t have considered it a generic story, would you? It is an apocryphal story about a definite character.

This is indeed very different from a generic story. It is like the difference between a constant and a variable.

I think the generic pronoun is appropriate for a different kind of post, such as Whatever happened to code reviews?: If someone writes code in that language, they are absolved from all responsibility for its style. And so is their manager: the programmer’s code compiled, it is demonstrably free of bad style, what can we demand of their manager other than to see to it that they use the language?

This statement is not an anecdote, it is an formal way of making a statement about all programmers who use a certain type of programming language.
 
Actually, using 'they' as a generic program is not that incorrect. See this Language Log post.

Also, on the issue of whether or not "he" isgeneric, I recently had posed to me a great little thought experiment. Read this sentence: "He went to the store."

Now tell me what the subject of the sentence looked like. Even knowing the "trick" of the experiment in advance, my first imagining is of a man. As the person who posed this experiment to me put it, the day that someone describes a woman is the day that I believe "he" is gender neutral (for that person).
 
Reg, you have to remember that what we read doesn't always convey what is known to the writer, with only the written word to guide us, we may have a different understanding of the written words.

Once you remove all names from the story, it is no longer about a person; there are other ways to talk about people without naming them, pseudonyms for one, or starting with "true story". Then there's the sharp contrast with the story and the footnote: "This story is often told about baseball manager Billy Martin." That footnote and the title frame it as a parable.

"This story is often told about" is a device we use to indicate the story about Billy Martin is apocryphal: there are different versions of the same story, most of which are told about Billy Martin, but the true origin is unknown. It doesn't, though, convey your story is apocryphal. Rather, it looks like you are taking this apocryphal story, removing the famous persona, planting it in a context that is more familiar to your reader, and repeating it again. The footnote is so structured as to indicate you've kept he moral intact through this transformation.

To me it reads like a parable.
 
To me it reads like a parable.

I have read parables about Turtles, Foxes, Men, Women, Geese, sons that flew too close to the Sun, and more.

For example, the story of Icarus is explicit in telling us he was Daedelus' first son. Are we to assume that they could have been Mother and Daughter?

If it is appropriate to tell a parable about a Father, a Son, a Fox, or anything else, I think it is appropriate to tell a parable about a woman software development manager.
 
"I think it is appropriate to tell a parable about a woman software development manager."

I'm not criticizing that decision, just pointing what part was lost on me the reader, and why I think that happened.

If the story used a pseudonym, I would pick up that it's a parable starring a woman software development manager. Much like the story of Daedelus and Icarus use proper names and work to create the impression those people existed. (Animals are the subject of fables, but even a fable would talk about 'The Fox', not 'a fox', not 'it')

If the story uses strictly 'she', not once mentioning a name, and further juxtaposed against a footnote using a real name of a known person, I'm going to assume it's gender non-specific. That's because we made much progress since 'he' became the gender non-specific pronoun in the English language.

It's fairly common for writers to follow the 'balance your he and she' rule, which you'll see quite often in professional technical writing; some people go as far as to favor 'she' for gender non-specific.

One reason I like your blog is because you take a gender inclusive view of the software industry, but then it just means you're probably using (s)he as gender non-specific.

All I'm saying is, a pseudonym would carry better.
 
Hum. I live in a world s/he discussions are a little old fashioned.

If you (generic you, applied to all the people reading 1) the story then 2) this comment) live in a world where reading a parable starring a "she" lights up your gender meter, then you might want to check your calander.

It isn't 1982 anymore.
 




<< Home
Reg Braithwaite


Recent Writing
Homoiconic Technical Writing / raganwald.posterous.com

Books
What I‘ve Learned From Failure / Kestrels, Quirky Birds, and Hopeless Egocentricity

Share
rewrite_rails / andand / unfold.rb / string_to_proc.rb / dsl_and_let.rb / comprehension.rb / lazy_lists.rb

Beauty
IS-STRICTLY-EQUIVALENT-TO-A / Spaghetti-Western Coding / Golf is a good program spoiled / Programming conventions as signals / Not all functions should be object methods

The Not So Big Software Design / Writing programs for people to read / Why Why Functional Programming Matters Matters / But Y would I want to do a thing like this?

Work
The single most important thing you must do to improve your programming career / The Naïve Approach to Hiring People / No Disrespect / Take control of your interview / Three tips for getting a job through a recruiter / My favourite interview question

Management
Exception Handling in Software Development / What if powerful languages and idioms only work for small teams? / Bricks / Which theory fits the evidence? / Still failing, still learning / What I’ve learned from failure

Notation
The unary ampersand in Ruby / (1..100).inject(&:+) / The challenge of teaching yourself a programming language / The significance of the meta-circular interpreter / Block-Structured Javascript / Haskell, Ruby and Infinity / Closures and Higher-Order Functions

Opinion
Why Apple is more expensive than Amazon / Why we are the biggest obstacles to our own growth / Is software the documentation of business process mistakes? / We have lost control of the apparatus / What I’ve Learned From Sales I, II, III

Whimsey
The Narcissism of Small Code Differences / Billy Martin’s Technique for Managing his Manager / Three stories about The Tao / Programming Language Stories / Why You Need a Degree to Work For BigCo

History
06/04 / 07/04 / 08/04 / 09/04 / 10/04 / 11/04 / 12/04 / 01/05 / 02/05 / 03/05 / 04/05 / 06/05 / 07/05 / 08/05 / 09/05 / 10/05 / 11/05 / 01/06 / 02/06 / 03/06 / 04/06 / 05/06 / 06/06 / 07/06 / 08/06 / 09/06 / 10/06 / 11/06 / 12/06 / 01/07 / 02/07 / 03/07 / 04/07 / 05/07 / 06/07 / 07/07 / 08/07 / 09/07 / 10/07 / 11/07 / 12/07 / 01/08 / 02/08 / 03/08 / 04/08 / 05/08 / 06/08 / 07/08 /