Saturday, December 26, 2015


This really should not be too difficult, but it is.

I once applied for a job, talked on the phone to the department head, whose first name was Ira and who had a deep masculine sounding voice. I thought I was talking to a man. When I went to meet Ira the first time, I met a secretary in the elevator. I said I was looking for Ira ————’s office. “Do you know where his office is?”
 The secretary corrected me. “I’ll show you where Her office is.” I did get the job, but I was embarrassed when I talked to that secretary. If I had written Ira a letter or sent an email and used the wrong pronoun, I would have been even more embarrassed.

Those situations are hard to completely avoid.

Pronouns are tricky little things. We used to always use the masculine pronoun “he" for a singular generic, unidentified judge, doctor, factory worker or teenager. That was simple. Then along came the women’s libbers who said that is sexist. A judge, doctor, factory worker or teenager could be a she.

I always found the “he or she” construction awkward, though many textbooks suggest using it. Some people started using “they,” which is incorrect because it is plural. A singular judge, doctor, factory worker or teenager is one person and not a “they.” But this is a common mistake.

A good rule is to use ‘he” sometimes, and to use “she” other times. Switch back and forth. Be consistent, but fair. If I am writing a paragraph or an essay about how a judge might rule on cases, and I have not identified a specific judge, I might use “she.” I will use this pronoun exclusively for that one unidentified judge throughout the essay.

Tomorrow I will be writing about a doctor, and use “he.”

So long as the pronoun “she” is used as often or almost as often as “he,” no one will complain.

You can make it even easier, by making the nouns plural, judges, doctors, factory workers and teenagers. Then you can use “they.” It is also easy to be talking about one specific person: Judge Mary Jones or Dr.Sandra Smith.