dburrows/ blog/ entry/ from-blogspot/ Linguistic Contortions

I thought I had seen everything when it came to ways of resolving the problem of gender-specific pronouns in English. But on the way back from Wisconsin yesterday, I read a copy of David Brin's Sundiver (otherwise an interesting story) and was proved wrong.

Usually the problems you run into with English revolve around the pronoun he: its use in a gender-ambiguous context is disputed and there are various ways of avoiding it. The word man has similar problems, although it's a lot easier to find acceptable gender-neutral replacements. But in this story, Brin actually used man in situations where the person indicated was known to be female! This leads to such eye-popping lines as:

He took her arm and introduced her to Fagin and Jacob.

Sophonts, this is Helene deSilva, Confederacy Commandant here on Mercury, and my right-hand man. ...

And if that doesn't strike you as odd, here's my personal favorite:
Occasionally a man, male or female, would lean forward and peer at some detail on a screen, ...
Ow! I had to read that sentence three times before I was sure I hadn't mistaken the words.

Comment by Kelly Clowers at 9:35 PM:

I guess it sounds weird, but it seem like it is just short for "human". ...and my right-hand human [person]. Occasionally a human, male or female,...

Comment by dburrows at 7:24 AM:

Yes, it's clear that "man" in those sentences was intended to refer to any member of the human race. But it strikes me as an extremely strange idiom; as I noted, I think the reason is that I'm only used to seeing "man" used this way when the gender of the person to whom it refers is unknown.