I was alway get confused when I read something like this:

"Because the attacker controls her end on the SSL tunnel, she can send anything she likes to the server..."

My instant reaction is to go back some paragraphs to check if I lost any reference to "the attacker" being female. Needless to say, most times there is no reference. I've seen phrases written like this everywhere, from newspapers and books to blogs.

So if I want to refer to a previous gender-neutral noun, should I always use a feminine pronoun? Is this a gramatical rule? Or does this belong in the realm of style?

  • 4
    If the phrase was 'the attacker controls his end' would you turn back to confirm the attacker is male? Until recently the male gender would be used without thought; the use of she/her is likely a deliberate attempt to redress this. I would say it's certainly style rather than rule. The gender-neutral alternatives - 'controls their end', 'they can send' often sound clunky or even misleading. – Stuart Allen Jun 5 '13 at 23:17
  • I think whoever wrote that line succeeded. Why assume the attacker is male? Why shouldn't we be talking about a hypothetical female hacker? And most of all — why should it confuse you? Are your gender biases challenged? I wouldn't bat an eye if the pronoun used was their/they, and it doesn't sound clunky to my ear, although some would disagree. – ghoppe Jun 5 '13 at 23:36
  • PS. The title of this question is misleading. "She" is emphatically not referring to just a noun. It is referring to a hypothetical person — the hacker. In this case, it is wholly appropriate to use a gendered pronoun, even if the gender of the attacker is not explicit. – ghoppe Jun 5 '13 at 23:39
  • 2
    @ghoppe, re 'their/they': it could be misconstrued as plural where singular is intended. That's my only gripe. – Stuart Allen Jun 5 '13 at 23:45
  • It confuses me because I learned that English words are gender-neutral. If I had to write something like that, I also wouldn't know what pronoun to use. So when I read it, I'm confused. – BeetleTheNeato Jun 5 '13 at 23:46

This belongs in the realm of style. If the people in examples are always male, then that tends to create a sense that we are excluding half the human race. When I need to use examples in any written communication or documentation, I use "she" in some examples and "he" in others. Always consistently, of course; the same example person does not shift between being a "he" and "she".

Traditionally, English used male pronouns in hypothetical examples about imaginary people. "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." Using female examples is a modern way of eliminating sex bias from writing.

In writing from fifty or more years ago, you will not easily find these feminine examples. The male bias in the language used in the media decades ago is almost shocking.

For instance, take a look at page 8A in the advertizing section of the March 1940 Popular Mechanics. We find this:

In fact probably most of the men who study law today have no idea of taking the bar examination or becoming lawyers---they want law training to give the mastery of men and situations in business. You know that: (1) the man with legal training is a leader---not a follower [ ... ] (4) Many executive places are filled by men who have studied law. [...]

The words man and men appear in almost every sentence. The copywriter is devoid of any notion that women could study law or hold executive positions.

  • I find it interesting that choosing a pronoun can become a social issue in English and "create a sense that we are excluding half the human race." It's something difficult for me to grasp, though. My first language is Portuguese and every word has a gender, so you just choose the pronoun that's adequate. It's a gramatical issue in Portuguese, not a style one. That's also why I'm confused, I tend to intepret the problem as a gramatical one. There's a similar problem with some nouns in Portuguese that instead of being gender-neutral are in fact double gendered... but I digress. – BeetleTheNeato Jun 5 '13 at 23:57
  • 1
    @BeetleTheNeato, you may be a little confused here. The nouns in the passage ('attacker', 'SSL tunnel', 'server') are gender-neutral and are not modified or affected by the choice of male or female for the hypothetical attacker. Surely in Portuguese you would have the same issue of having to choose a gender when writing, say, a technical manual or user guide? – Stuart Allen Jun 6 '13 at 0:12
  • @Snubian Not really. Most nouns in Portuguese don't leave you any options. The word carries its gender onward. For example, "server" would translate to "servidor" which is a masculine noun, so you must you masculine pronouns to refer it (or you incur in a grammatical error). – BeetleTheNeato Jun 6 '13 at 0:21
  • 1
    @BeetleTheNeato we so the same thing in english with s/he. But this becomes tiresome. It's simpler for the writer to imagine a gender and then be consistent. – ghoppe Jun 6 '13 at 0:25
  • 1
    In Slovak, there is a word for for individual ("osoba") which is feminine. It's a very impersonal word used when the speaker distances herself from the subject, like in news reports. There is also "človek", which means "human being". That word is male. "osoba si sadla ku stolu" (The individual (she) sat at the table). "človek si sadol ku stolu" (The person (he) sat at the table). You cannot say "osoba si sadol ..."; it is laughably ungrammatical. The verb's third person past tense has a gender which has to match the subject. – Kaz Jun 6 '13 at 0:35

Let me sidestep the busy discussion on the ethics of male, female, and gender-neutral pronouns to observe that in documentation about a conversation between two people, e.g., a network transmission, it is extremely convenient to cast one as female and one as male. That way, ordinary English pronouns (he, she, etc.) can be used unambiguously.

At least at one time, articles on encryption and key exchange used Alice and Bob as the primary actors. Unfortunately homo sapiens lacks a third sex for the eavesdropper (often Charlie).

  • That's very interesting! And "Charlie" is a very smart choice since it's both a common name for men and women. That's really cool. – BeetleTheNeato Jun 6 '13 at 1:23
  • 3
    I thought the eavesdropper in that scenario was usually referred to as "Eve". – matthew Jun 6 '13 at 2:18
  • Perhaps it would work for the cryptologists if they supposed Charlie to be a sentient robot (or "soul-less bionic clone", whatever floats their boat! :). Then Alice, Bob, Charlie could be she, he, it. – FumbleFingers Jun 6 '13 at 3:05
  • @matthew: The link in my answer has a full list of common names, including Eve, but also Charlie and Chuck. – Andrew Lazarus Jun 6 '13 at 7:26

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.