The debate over gendered pronouns popped up in computer-science-land over a couple of commits for node.js. There are serious problems with the male-dominated culture in CS (and video games, for that matter), and this blog post by the corporate maintainers of node.js was really the wrong reaction on a couple of points.
First, a small diversion. People want good software. Part of good software is good documentation. Part of good documentation is not alienating your readers. Gender-neutral phrasing is a great way to accomplish that. But bad grammar is bad. The original text:
Read errors are reported only if nsent==0, otherwise we return nsent. The user needs to know that some data has already been sent, to stop him from sending it twice
That’s already bad, and nearly incomprehensible. The proposed “fix” was to say “them” instead of him. That doesn’t fix it, it muddies the sentence further because of using “them” incorrectly. Commenter JimPanic proposed a better fix on the pull request:
Read errors are reported only if
nsent == 0, otherwise
nsentis being returned to help avoid sending data twice
Even that’s not perfect, but it’s on the right track. In technical documentation like this, why even introduce personhood, since it’s a computer running the software anyway?
Anyway, on to the reaction by Bryan at Joyent. It sums up as “If this guy were an employee, we would fire him. In fact, he probably makes terrible technical decisions anyway.” The post makes it sound like such behavior (of rejecting gender-neutral grammar) in complete isolation would trigger this. This really trivializes both the problem and the solution.
And like anything, take the opportunity to teach instead of just blowing off those you don’t like or agree with. That’s how you make things better.
Sure, make an effort to have crisp, professional documentation. And by all means make it better where you find issues. Avoid alienating readers with gendered pronouns — they’ve read strangely even when I was in grade school. But you don’t have to make it worse by a) bending grammar rules and then b) patting yourself on the back on how evolved you are while you let other issues linger.
More in The Clumsy Pattern.