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
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
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
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.
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