On (the gender of) my hypothetical reader
In my writings, I virtually always refer to my hypothetical reader as “he”. The reasons for doing so were actually very well explained by none other than Richard Dawkins, in his great book The Blind Watchmaker.1 If I am ever asked about this writing habit, I wanted to have some place to point my inquirers to, and thus I reproduce the relevant passage, from that book’s preface:
I am distressed to find that some women friends (fortunately not many) treat the use of the impersonal masculine pronoun as if it showed intention to exclude them. If there were any excluding to be done (happily there isn’t) I think I would sooner exclude men, but when I once tentatively tried referring to my abstract reader as ‘she’, a feminist denounced me for patronizing condescension: I ought to say ‘he-or-she’, and ‘his-or-her’. That is easy to do if you don’t care about language, but then if you don’t care about language you don’t deserve readers of either sex. Here, I have returned to the normal conventions of English pronouns. I may refer to the ‘reader’ as ‘he’, but I no more think of my readers as specifically male than a French speaker thinks of a table as female. As a matter of fact I believe I do, more often than not, think of my readers as female, but that is my personal affair and I’d hate to think that such considerations impinged on how I use my native language.2
My native language is actually Portuguese, where a similar convention also exists. In my view, Dawkins’ reasoning applies to both languages, and so I will continue refering to my hypothetical reader as “he”—even though I would also ‘sooner exclude men’!
Penguin Books, 1991. This was before his self-appointment as atheist-in-chief, back when he still wrote interesting things, instead of the fundamentalist anti-religious blabber that seems to be all he cares about these days…↩︎
Dawkins, Blind Watchmaker, p. xvi.↩︎