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?