Tuesday, August 23, 2005

M-Holes, P-Holes and A-Holes: On the Gender of Words

As a technical writer in the 1990s, I learned that it is possible (though it takes extra effort) to write entire books without ever denoting gender. "You" and "the reader" suffice when the writer needs to refer directly to a person. In a pinch, gendered pronouns can be alternated, so "she" has equal time with "he."

But no amount of tiptoeing around pronouns helps when the English noun itself has a built-in gender-word. Draftsman must become drafter, chairman yields to chair. It's all actors and waiters and hosts now.

For a while, politically-correct constructs were the way to go. As we wrote and spoke, we appended "-person," lest we offend the women who filled Chairs or drew maps. We slashed pronouns with abandon, creating awful s/he and him/her awkwardness. Some writers became so traumatized as to abandon pronoun number agreement entirely, leading to such giggle-producing effects as "As soon as the student has finished the exam, they will have to leave the room." What, all of them?

Then there's "manhole." This word has prompted major disputes across the English-speaking world. City planners and plat-drafters might prefer to leave the name intact, so they know what the little "MH" symbols on their maps mean. But that "man" in the manhole has to go!

"Person-hole" would be gender-neutral, but in addition to its dismal lack of grace, it might also be shortened to P-hole. That's just nasty! And "access hole," another proposed term, has an even viler shorthand.

That's why cities as large as London and New York, and as small as Golden, Colorado, have gratefully accepted the designation "maintenance hatch." It has the advantage of leaving their city plats intact, and it shortens to M-hatch. No more holes, man or other.

Ah, the wisdom of Soloman! Oops, "Soloperson."


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