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God: He, she or it?

In his otherwise excellent Currency Wars (Portfolio, £19.99), James Rickards describes an elaborate financial war game organised by the Pentagon. At the game's commencement, I stumbled over this line: "Each player could participate as much or as little as she liked."

The "she" in that sentence was befuddling. Of the multiple war-game participants the author had mentioned beforehand — military, intelligence, think-tank, and Wall Street experts, all assembled to contemplate fiscal Armageddon — not one was a woman.

Rickards was deferring to a grammatical fad, one adopted throughout his text. Because English lacks a gender-neutral, third-person singular pronoun other than the inanimate "it", convention has historically dictated that when the sex of a pronoun could be either male or female the default choice is "he". Given that some contemporary women find this custom objectionable, a subset of writers will now systematically choose "she" instead. Fascinatingly, the majority of the authors I've encountered who prefer a default female pronoun in the singular are men. 

I realise these guys are trying to please, but I am not pleased. I find the fad grating.

True, the most graceful and commonplace solution to a politically polarising "he" is to construct sentences in the plural. Thus Rickards could have recast that line to read, "Players could participate as much or as little as they liked," while retaining the same meaning. Whenever possible, I opt for the plural myself. Alternatively, you can cast generalisations in the second person, although "you do this" and "you do that" will tend to lend prose a conversational character. The more formal-sounding first-person plural can also provide an escape from this grammatical minefield. But once in a while we get ourselves into a grammatical jam, and we have to choose between "he" and "she".

In that case, the male default of yore is at least justified by convention, and hardly a crime on a par with wife-beating or female genital mutilation. The wordier inclusion of both pronouns is still quiet and even-handed: "Each player could participate as much as he or she liked." Anything but plain "she".

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Hugh Beaumont
November 27th, 2013
8:11 PM
Re the "Our Father", are you suggesting we abandon the synecdoche?

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