Tuesday, July 03, 2007

No gurls allowed

Essentially, the Department of Agriculture watches the price of cheddar cheese, whey, butter and nonfat dry milk and then determines the least a farmer can receive for his milk.

OK. As a rule, guys don't get to become Duchess of York. Girls don't get to be pope. Given those and a few other exceptions, though, news language should generally not imply that any particular profession is restricted by gender. As in "the least a farmer can receive for his milk."

I'm trying to figure out the minimum number of courses in which a Missourian writer (and at least one editor) should have heard that message delivered (sometimes politely, sometimes less so). It's rather a lot. Ideally, he or she also heard that there are lots of cures, most of which don't involve slapping "his or her" into every story that crosses his or her screen until he or she goes mad with the sheer neutrality of it all and follows his or her own star into real estate.

The example at hand looks every bit as natural with "farmers can receive for their milk." In this case (not in all), you can simply lose the pronoun: "... a farmer can receive for milk." In other cases, you can substitute an article ("any child wearing a team T-shirt" rather than "his team T-shirt").* It's easy, but getting the right one is challenging enough to be good practice.

Gender-exclusive language isn't "grammatically" wrong. It's socially inappropriate, which is quite enough for the thoughtful practitioner. People who want to play in the pros need to show that they know those boundaries.

* Some writers (Allan Bell is a good example) also alternate single-sex pronouns for balance. It works in some cases. In this one, though, the writer (or editor) forgot that the same person can't get both pronouns:

For example, a fairly experienced journalist may have internalized his regulative ideal so well that she acts excellently with little reflection.


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