Thursday, December 01, 2005

Linguistic Contortions

I thought I had seen everything when it came to ways of resolving the problem of gender-specific pronouns in English. But on the way back from Wisconsin yesterday, I read a copy of David Brin's Sundiver (otherwise an interesting story) and was proved wrong.

Usually the problems you run into with English revolve around the pronoun he: its use in a gender-ambiguous context is disputed and there are various ways of avoiding it. The word man has similar problems, although it's a lot easier to find acceptable gender-neutral replacements. But in this story, Brin actually used man in situations where the person indicated was known to be female! This leads to such eye-popping lines as:
He took her arm and introduced her to Fagin and Jacob.

Sophonts, this is Helene deSilva, Confederacy Commandant here on Mercury, and my right-hand man. ...
And if that doesn't strike you as odd, here's my personal favorite:
Occasionally a man, male or female, would lean forward and peer at some detail on a screen, ...
Ow! I had to read that sentence three times before I was sure I hadn't mistaken the words.

13 Comments:

At 9:35 PM, Anonymous Kelly Clowers said...

I guess it sounds weird, but it seem like it is just short for "human". ...and my right-hand human [person]. Occasionally a human, male or female,...

 
At 7:24 AM, Blogger dburrows said...

Yes, it's clear that "man" in those sentences was intended to refer to any member of the human race. But it strikes me as an extremely strange idiom; as I noted, I think the reason is that I'm only used to seeing "man" used this way when the gender of the person to whom it refers is unknown.

 
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