By Susan Carter
Use of the generic ‘he’ is an example of a writing choice with the potential to irritate readers. A recent writing tips post asked whether it is erroneous to use ‘they’ in the singular—and surveyed what readers thought.
Now, a singular ‘they’ is how I choose to avoid the generic ‘he.’ I’m amongst those who see a generic ‘he’ as implicitly sexist. So I might write ‘A thesis writer who focusses only on content and not the thesis framework risks difficulty during examination. They may find that they have a hefty revision ahead.’ A majority of the posts’ respondents agreed with my choice about ‘they’ for gender bias avoidance, but not all.
I can tell you why I choose ‘they’ as the best avoidance option. ‘He or she’ or ‘s/he’ seem a tad clunky to me, and too evidently self-conscious. Sometimes I don’t want to pluralise the whole sentence as a way out (‘thesis writers…they’) because I want to conjure up that single figure at the computer.
If I have a quotation with a generic ‘he’, which I regard as sexist, I sometimes add ‘[sic]’ in the case of fairly recent writers (in which case I feel their choice is made knowingly—and it’s one I don’t agree with). I usually don’t if they wrote more than fifty years ago, happy to factor in relativism.
I’m also willing to restate all that in good formal academic prose if a gun was at my head–or if I was submitting a doctoral thesis to a critical reader, something similar.
All this raises the question of how students and academics handle writing’s negotiation around choice. There are two—or at least two—issues: theory and style.
Thesis writers sometimes need to have the theoretical baggage of specific words pointed out to them. And I do mean spelt right out, not just by suggesting a change without the reason. Often it is only when someone tells us that we realise we are in a mine-field. Theoretical-word understanding grows throughout the research learning process.
I have quirks of my own, more stylistic than theoretical. I can’t see why we are returning to ‘whilst’, with its musing poetic tone from the 18th century or earlier, in favour of ‘while,’ which is cleanly invisible. (Another writing tips author muses similarly on this one too.) I’ve seen ’whilst’ in hard science writing, and suspect that it’s seen to be more formal. I find ‘utilise’ similarly stuffy. The good little ‘use’ is more, well, useful, and in a fresh humble way.
How should supervisors and academic developers handle students who choose words differently from them?
Sometimes doctoral students choose to do stylistic things differently from their supervisors or advisors because they are different people with different values and tastes. I have seen students grappling with the fact that they know other academics work the way that they want to, but their supervisor leans in a different direction. Leans insistently.
I suggest if the choice has theoretical implications, the student might produce writing explaining their choice in good epistemological academic language. It can give them a firmer platform to diplomatically suggest that they have a different but also valid take on the point in question. Or finding it hard to write this might persuade them they are wrong.
Putting the explanations for choice in the introduction is an excellent practice: persuasion aimed at a supervisor usually holds good for an examiner. It’s a formal demonstration of disciplinary and interdisciplinary savvy. It pre-empts examiner irritation, since most academics have preferences.
In all instances, people who I respect for their other values make word choices I wouldn’t, and I go on respecting them. Even the crustiest of us maybe need to concede that academia has room for more than people who are exactly like us. When it is stylistic, then both sides, supervisors and students, need to pick their battles carefully, willing to concede if appropriate.
What do you think? Are there others who are interested in doctoral writing’s stylistic and theoretical preferences but feel differently and want to make a case? Other learning advisors with advice?