March 07, 2007

Gendered generics

Sunday's New York Times Book Review (3/4/07) had two pieces with singular generic pronouns in them.  In each case, the reviewer was a woman, the author of the book was a woman, and the subject of the book was a woman.  But the reviews made two different choices of anaphors for a singular indefinite antecedent.

Here's Elsa Dixler reviewing Gail Levin's book on Judy Chicago (p. 22; anaphoric pronouns are bold-faced):

Every artist "becomes" herself as she matures, but for Judith Sylvia Cohen [Judy Chicago], the process was political as well as artistic.

The choice of feminine pronouns puts things from a woman's perspective, and possibly conveys some identification with the artist.  It's not surprising in this context, and I might not have taken note of it if I hadn't read, a few pages before:

The real pleasure of reading a memoir lies not in the consumption of confessions, but in watching a writer grapple with the reality that shaped him.

This is the beginning of Danielle Trussoni's review of Heather Byer's memoir Sweet (p. 17).  It uses the masculine pronoun, which some writers (but only, apparently, since Lindley Murray in 1795) insist is the only "correct" singular generic, but is famous for suggesting masculine referents rather than referents of either sex.  I found it especially jarring in this context. 

would have worked for me.  In this case, I'd be happy with "singular" them (but themselves... they would be grotesque in Dixler's sentence).  I could, I suppose, tolerate him or her (but himself or herself... he or she would be impossibly awkward in Dixler's sentence).  Re-working the whole thing into the plural -- "The real pleasure of reading memoirs lies not in the consumption of confessions, but in watching writers grapple with the reality that shaped them" -- strikes me as something of an improvement, since it is so clearly generalizing, while Trussoni's singular version invites you to focus on the particular writer under discussion.  (Dixler's sentence could be similarly re-worked -- "All artists 'become' themselves as they mature..." -- though here I rather like the focus on this particular artist.)

It's not hard to construct examples where the masculine pronoun suggests a masculine referent very strongly, for instance:

Someone is knocking at the door, but I can't tell who it is.  He's knocking very loudly.

Someone is an indefinite with specific reference, and anaphoric he appears to identify this person as male.  In the NYTBR examples, the generic pronouns are anaphoric to a NP with non-specific (in fact, universal) reference, and the gender-identification effect is less strong.  But not absent; a masculine generic pronoun is likely to be somewhat misleading.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at March 7, 2007 06:09 PM