Posted by: Jack Henry | May 25, 2017

Editor’s Corner: More about Gender-Neutral Terminology

Yesterday, I wrote about gender-neutral titles (police officer, insurance agent, etc.), and I heard from a lot of you—thank you all for your thoughtful responses! Today, I want to discuss ways to avoid being gender specific with your pronouns.

We all know that we should avoid using the pronoun he to refer to everyone. But how do you do that gracefully? I’ve seen writers switch back and forth between he and she from paragraph to paragraph (not so graceful, really). I’ve also seen people use a hybrid like s/he (kind of odd and clunky). Most commonly, people use the term he or she. All three of those options are awkward, though. They draw attention to the phrasing rather than the message. Good writing should never do that.

An easy way to fix this is to use plural forms. For example, use the plural form students rather than the student so that you can use the pronoun they or their (rather than he or she) on the second reference.

From this: The student must register two weeks before he or she starts the course.

To this: Students must register two weeks before they start the course.

When you must speak about a singular individual, try replacing the pronoun (he or she) with an article (the or an). For example, you can say the student instead of he or she.

From this: The prerequisite must be met before he or she can register.

To this: The prerequisite must be met before the student can register.

Of course, you can also rephrase the sentence to avoid using he or she.

From this: If the student has not met the prerequisite, he or she cannot enroll in the course.

To this: Students who have not met the prerequisite will not be able to enroll in the course.

And one more thing, there is a big push from many circles to use they instead of he or she. For example, “The student should be told on the first day of class that they need to have met the prerequisite.” Although many people don’t like it, they has been usedto refer to singular nouns since the 1300s—it’s called “the singular they.” In the past few years, I’ve read a number of articles from grammarians who argue that it’s time to make the single they standard usage.

Don’t shoot the messenger.

On a lighter note, I recently had a very happy he or she incident. I found out my son and daughter-in-law are having a he baby in August.

Donna Bradley Burcher | Senior Technical Editor | Symitar®

8985 Balboa Ave. | San Diego, CA 92123 | Ph. 619.278.0432 | Ext: 765432

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