Her as a gender neutral possessive determiner?

Discussion in 'English Only' started by Couch Tomato, Feb 1, 2013.

  1. Couch Tomato

    Couch Tomato Senior Member

    Russian & Dutch
    That Sheldon must learn social appropriateness, and sometimes painfully so, makes him appear childlike. This occasions many laughs, but it also serves as a vivid example of Wittgenstein’s objection to Augustine’s view of language acquisition. It seems children cannot acquire an understanding of their mother tongue the way Augustine claims, because the mind of a child is a tabula rasa, a blank slate. This slate will be written on by the experiences a person has during her lifetime.
    (The Big Bang Theory and Philosophy: Rock, Paper, Scissors, Aristotle, Locke – Edited by Dean A. Kowalski)

    Does anyone know why the author used 'her'? It seems to me that 'their' would make more sense as we don't know the sex of this person.

    What do you think?

    Thank you in advance.
  2. entangledbank

    entangledbank Senior Member

    English - South-East England
    Some academics use generic 'she' precisely to counteract the traditional sexist use of 'he'. It's common enough in social fields, and in economics for example they may use 'she' for a producer and 'he' for a consumer to reverse the expectations of power, but it's not used outside textbooks and writing influenced by them.
  3. boozer Senior Member

    I thought the purpose of this whole anti-sexist 'movement' was not to reverse the expectations of power but to create expectations of equality. :D (ETB, your answer is excellent, as always, and you are right, mine is just a general observation)
  4. suzi br

    suzi br Senior Member

    English / England
    Sometimes us anti-sexists like to reverse the usual just to draw attention to how hidden the assumption of a male focus has been.

    When answering in here I sometime use female pronouns for that reason.
  5. boozer Senior Member

    Even then, I have never seen producer being referred to as 'he' while customer as 'she' and I have read quite a few economics books. :)

    My traditional "sexist" :) mentality has always used 'he' in both cases. Both the empowered and the underprivileged have always been "men" for me. Reversing this trend, albeit puzzling for me and my likes at the beginning, would reasonably have amounted to both empowered and underprivileged turning "female". What ETB describes, however, goes well beyond a reasonable reversal. :D
  6. JustKate

    JustKate Moderate Mod

    Some of us, Couch Tomato, still really, really, really dislike using their as a singular gender-neutral pronoun. And I mean we dislike it a lot. So what I do, and I am not alone, is use a variety of techniques to avoid it. I sometimes use the gender-neutral he; I sometimes use the gender-neutral she; I sometimes mix it up and use both in a single document; and when I want to avoid the whole thing, I quite often write in the plural.

    Sometimes the gender-neutral she doesn't work because it can draw too much attention to itself. (Less often, but it still happens from time to time, the gender-neutral he does, too - for example, when it's being used to refer to a group of individuals who are primarily female.) But I don't think she draws attention to itself here, so I think this is fine. I'm not surprised that others disagree, but that's how it seems to me.
  7. Keith Bradford

    Keith Bradford Senior Member

    Brittany, NW France
    English (Midlands UK)
    JustKate, I find your logic hard to take. You don't want your writing to be sex-biased; I heartily agree! But you reject the 500-year-old usage of "their" (the only gender-neutral possessive in our language) in favour of the sex-specific "her".

    And why? Because you "dislike it".

  8. JustKate

    JustKate Moderate Mod

    Keith, in the first place, just because something is well-established doesn't automatically make it good. But more importantly, I don't really want to debate it here and cause this thread to make an unplanned detour. Couch Tomato wanted to know why the author used her here instead of their, and I'm pretty sure the writer's reason is the same as mine. Clearly the writer has the same problem with their that I do. Wouldn't you agree that this is the case?
    Last edited: Feb 1, 2013
  9. Keith Bradford

    Keith Bradford Senior Member

    Brittany, NW France
    English (Midlands UK)
    Who knows? I could think of less complimentary explanations, but I shan't speculate. I simply agree with Couch Tomato that 'their' would make more sense as we don't know the sex of this person.
  10. Parla Senior Member

    New York City
    English - US
    Changing "a person" to "people" would have permitted a use of "their" that would have satisfied everyone, including Kate. ;)
  11. JustKate

    JustKate Moderate Mod

    Yes, it certainly would, and that's how I'd probably do it. I don't have a big problem with either her or his in this case, for that matter, because in context it would be clear that all either one would mean is "an individual." But plural is usually the best approach, if it works in context.

    But to draaaaaag myself back on topic, the answer to Couch Tomato's question is that the reason the writer didn't use the gender-neutral singular their is because the writer is, for whatever reason, among those who prefer not to use their as a singular pronoun. Another alternative is described by Suzi br - that she was used deliberately just to challenge readers' assumptions.
    Last edited: Feb 1, 2013
  12. Biffo Senior Member

    English - England
    There is a perfectly good gender-neutral pronoun in English. Unfortunately it has gone out of fashion. It would solve all these problems. What is it? Answer: 'one'


    • an indefinite person regarded as typical of every person: one can't say any more than that
    • any indefinite person: used as the subject of a sentence to form an alternative grammatical construction to that of the passive voice: one can catch fine trout in this stream
    • archaic an unspecified person: one came to him

    Returning to the question, I agree with JustKate's reasoning about why it was used.
  13. litkck New Member

    I looked up the author of that excerpt and it happens to be Janelle Pötzsch, http://www.ruhr-uni-bochum.de/wtundwg/angehoerige/poetzsch/poetzsch.html, apparently German, or at least teaching philosophy in Germany.
    Did you know that in German, as well as in French, Spanish, Italian etc... the word "person" is feminine, independently from the gender of the individual.
    This might sound simplistic, but as a French native speaker, I would have also, and quite spontaneously, written as Ms. Pötzsch did: "the experiences a person has during her lifetime"
    (By the the way the word "individual" happens to be masculine in French, Spanish, Italian and neutral in German.
    I didn't further investigate the etymology to track the reasons behind this or that.)
    Last edited: Feb 1, 2013
  14. Sparky Malarky

    Sparky Malarky Moderator

    English - US
    Two possiblities come to mind:
    1. Maybe the author wanted to make it extra clear that the pronoun referred to a person and not to Sheldon.
    2. It's possible that this is a typo.

    I do not mean to disagree with any of the other theories presented here. I find them all valid. I'm just presenting two more.
  15. Couch Tomato

    Couch Tomato Senior Member

    Russian & Dutch
    Thank you for your answers.
  16. JuanEscritor

    JuanEscritor Senior Member

    English - AmE
    Just the fact that the subject around which the entire discussion revolves is male makes me hate the use of her; the moment I saw it I was confused—weren't we talking about Sheldon? Isn't he a he? What does this her refer to, then?

    I definitely dislike her in this situation and would opt for their as first choice, his as second, and his/her as third. Her doesn't make the list.

  17. suzi br

    suzi br Senior Member

    English / England
    This her refers to A PERSON, not to Sheldon. It extends the discussion to the generic subject of the general topic of how children learn language.
  18. JustKate

    JustKate Moderate Mod

    I can understand disliking her because it could be considered unusual and therefore distracting. I disagree with that position, but I do understand it. But I completely disagree that her is even slightly confusing. Whatever pronoun is used there (including their, which as everybody knows by now, I don't care for at all), it would be clear that it refers to person, not Sheldon - who by the time this reference occurs, hasn't been mentioned for three full sentences. Anyone who's written a sentence that uses a vague pronoun referring to somebody who hasn't been mentioned for three sentences has much bigger problems to worry about than which pronoun to use.
    Last edited: Feb 4, 2013
  19. suzi br

    suzi br Senior Member

    English / England
    Just noticing that in another thread posted by Coach Tomato and featuring Sheldon we are told this is a comic text.

    I wonder if the writer has chosen this pronoun here for some "play" on academic style?
  20. lucas-sp Senior Member

    English - Californian
    But it wouldn't be either unusual or distracting for works in the humanities (either journals, edited volumes, or books). "She/her" as gender-neutral singular pronouns are quite common in this field. As an academic editor, I cannot accept "them/their" as a gender-neutral pronoun, so that really isn't an option here.

    Furthermore, this isn't a question about the author. (Well, it might be in this case, but we can return to that.) Individual authors don't have control over this; the editors and copyeditors of the publication will have a style guide and will make sure that the author's text conforms to it. Even the editors don't get to "choose" whether to use "he or she/his or her," "she/her," "they/their," or to alternate he and she across a publication. (For instance, authors and editors don't get to "choose" what citation style they want to use. This is the same kind of thing.)

    This is really just a feature of academic style. I don't think we can boil it down to author's preferences or faults (translation error) because this is a question about house style; it certainly isn't a typo; it very certainly is not strange, unusual, or bizarre.

    (Also, a note to the OP: Don't read those ... and Philosophy books. They're terribly put-together, and the writing in them is all done by total idiots.)
  21. JustKate

    JustKate Moderate Mod

    I don't consider it either unusual or distracting either. I was trying to be diplomatic.:)

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