Guest Post: Jamie Rice On Gender, Grammar, and Rhetoric



Jamie Rice ’16, English Literature.

English is a magnificent language because it appears to lack gendered nouns. Unlike

French or Spanish, English speakers never have an awkward moment where they have to stop themselves and think, “Wait, is lamp female or male?” In that sense, English is gender neutral. But that does not mean that the issue of sexism in writing is not present. For example, a study published in 1996 asked readers to assess the quality of two essays in which the author’s gender is never specified. These students were interviewed and asked what gender the author was. Two thirds of the respondents offered a gender, and about half of their gender guesses were incorrect. In contrast to the neutrality in these papers, people feel like writing voices are gendered even if there is no actual evidence. They had a feeling, and the only reason these students even felt qualified to answer the question was because of said feeling.

In addition, despite the glowing gender neutrality of the English language, there are still people who use it in sexist ways. This is a problem to the extent that the purdue owl has an entire page of their website, typically utilized for guidelines revolving around citation and grammar, that tells readers how to avoid using stereotypes and gender bias in their writing. One example of an improper usage is “Although she was blonde, Mary was still intelligent.” The page goes to show numerous examples of words that appropriate to use in the place of “man.” My favorite part of the page is when they specify that instead of referring to someone as a “male nurse” or a “woman doctor,” these professions should be used without the gender modifier–I find the fact that anyone would write male or female in front of a word fascinating just because of how wordy it is.

Furthermore, even in my personal experience writing essays, I have encountered multiple instances where someone assumed the gender, typically as male, when citing for a scholarly article. It’s been such a problem that I have had professors explicitly state that they should never assume gender because most people cited a female scholar, with a stereotypically female name, as a male because they only memorized her last name and assumed she was a he. The gendered nature of English as a language becomes even more pronounced when we attempt to correct for this issue. For example, let’s write a sentence. We don’t know who started the fire, but he or she will be held responsible. Okay. Now imagine instead of writing that you wrote this. We don’t know who started the fire, but she or he will be held responsible. That is a very political change. That sentence reads like a subversion of patriarchal tendencies in language, rightly so, because of the switch. “He,” the normally preferenced pronoun, is demoted to second status. Overall, both of these configurations are problematic. Not only do they preference one gender over the other, they preference the gender binary, in general.

Basically, even though it is very easy when looking at the differences between English and other romance languages to call the former gender-neutral, that is not the case in practice. And despite small victories like the acceptance of “‘they” as a singular pronoun to be used in the place of “he or she,” there is still a long way to go within culture itself before grammar and language will reflect what could become a society that promotes lived gender equality.


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