Here’s a word puzzle for you: which pronoun (he or she) would you use to describe a person who has had a sex change? I ask this because I recently read a news article about a female teacher who underwent such an procedure. The teacher now considers himself?/herself? as a man. (Oy – I’m already running into trouble here.) However, the school (a religious one) still views this person as a woman. The author of the article used the title Mr. and the pronoun he when referring to the teacher. Is this correct?
You see the catch-22 here. By using the word he, the writer accepted the position of the teacher, and tacitly recognized the teacher as a man. But if the writer had used the female pronoun, he would have been considered disrespectful toward the teacher. What’s a poor writer to do?
One solution is to create a new type of hybrid pronoun, something like s/he. Not only is this awkward, it has the side effect of offending both points of view. The solution lies the basic principle of technical communication: Know thy audience.
You see, this entire he/she debacle is not the problem: it’s a symptom of a much larger problem: trying to write the same information for two different audiences, in a vain effort not to offend either. The two audiences are secular and religious.
Secular Vs. Religious
Let’s assume that most people who read non-religious newspapers are secular. So we can safely take the liberal, secular position and assume that whatever someone calls themselves, they are that person. This relates to another aspect of information development.
In documentation, we sometimes have to describe different types of users: basic, intermediate, advanced, and so on. Many software applications will only allow certain functions or screens to be accessed by certain user types. For example, an Administrator will have access to certain modules that a Worker (a regular user) would not.
Who defines these roles? Well, ideally, the person who is working in that role would have to agree, at least on a general level, to that description. Heaven forbid we have a regular user calling themselves an Administrator. That is, the person filling the role helps define the role and needs to agree to the role they are assigned to.
Back to the story – the teacher views himself/herself as a man, and is legally recognized as a man in our secular legal system. So from the secular perspective he is a man. Therefore, the newspaper would be right to use he.
Now, if you are a deeply religious reader, you:
a) don’t read secular newspapers
b) do read secular newspapers, with the understanding that they might “offend” you
c) read only religious newspapers
So if I was writing about this person for a religious magazine, I would use she, because that word reflects the religious viewpoint. Just as secular writers should not be forced into the religious viewpoint, religious writers should not be forced into the secular one.
That is the essence of documentation: writing with your audience in mind.
And you could easily single-source both articles in FrameMaker. God bless Adobe! (Oops…)