Plain language: The tricky aspects of gender-neutral language

Caryn Gootkin suggests alternatives to gender-specific pronouns that will make your writing more accurate, less offensive and plainer.

The principles of plain language suggest that we should use gender-neutral language to avoid offending half our audience.

Historically, this was dealt with by using masculine words and pronouns to refer to mankind or where the gender of the subject was unclear or variable. Think of Thomas Jefferson’s ‘All men are created equal’ and John Donne’s ‘No man is an island’.

Let’s look at the good books

The word ‘man’ originally carried this dual meaning – it could refer to a male human being or to humankind in general. In Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language, 1755, ‘man’ has 14 different meanings, including

  1. Human being
  2. Not a woman
  3. Not a boy
  4. A servant
  5. Used like the French on – as one or anyone
  6. Individual
  7. Not a beast
  8. A moveable piece in chess or draughts

Today, Oxford Dictionaries Online defines ‘man’ in some of these ways, but the ‘human being’ explanation has been moved near the bottom of the list. Collins Dictionary online goes a step further and lists “a human being regardless of sex or age” as archaic.

Stating the problem

Stan Carey, a respected Irish writer and editor, wrote on the Macmillan Dictionary blog: “Using masculine pronouns by default is now rightly considered to be chauvinist.” Most people no longer consider man to be synonymous with people or human being; there is a growing understanding of the link between the language we use and the reality of the society we live in.

So, if Jefferson or Donne were writing today, they would probably use the words ‘people’ and ‘person’ in place of ‘men’ and ‘man’. At least we hope they would use this relatively easy replacement tool to make their pithy statements appropriate to all human beings.

But, if we try and paraphrase the line from Donne’s poem, we get stuck.

‘No man can exist on his own.’ This statement is only correct if you intend to refer to males only.

‘No woman can exist on her own.’ This statement is only correct if you intend to refer to females only.

If we wish to broaden the meaning to incude all of humankind, we need to replace the noun with a gender neutral noun, such as person.

‘No person can exist on __ own.’

We’ve hit a problem. English has no gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun. We have ‘he’, ‘she’ and ‘it’ and their possessive counterparts ‘his’, ‘her’ and ‘its’. But, ‘he’ and ‘him’ are masculine, ‘she’ and ‘hers’ are feminine and ‘it’ and ‘its’ refer only to objects or animals. We have no pronoun that can be used to refer to either male or female. This gap becomes a gaping hole when trying to write inclusively by using non-sexist or gender-neutral language.


Some tips on how to write without gender-specific pronouns

I set out below various ways to implement this in your writing. You must decide which is best suited to your context. What sounds appropriate in one sentence may sound totally awkward in another.

1.     Cut ‘his’ or ‘her’ out.

Instead of writing ‘A police officer must use her discretion’, write ‘A police officer must use discretion’. (Note, too, the use of the gender neutral ‘police officer’ instead of ‘policewoman’.)

2.     Change the sentence from third person to second person.

Rewrite ‘An applicant must bring his license’ as ‘Bring your licence to apply’. This also obeys the plain language principle of addressing your reader directly.

3.     Make the subject of the sentence plural

Try ‘Lawyers must complete their articles’ rather than ‘A lawyer must complete his articles.’

4.     Use ‘their’ as a singular pronoun

You could also write the sentence above as ‘A lawyer must complete their articles.’ This is the most controversial of all the options. While writers and speakers have been using this tool for years, many prefer to keep ‘their’ as a plural pronoun.

Mignon Fogarty, Grammar Girl, advocates the use of they, them and their as singular pronouns but acknowledges that there are those who disagree with her. For a humorous take on this, check out this cartoon.

5.     Use ‘a’ or ‘an’ instead of ‘his’ or ‘her’

Another way to rewrite the sentence in 2 is as ‘Applicants must bring a driver’s license’. Although note that this option may lead to ambiguity in that people may interpret this as requiring them to bring anybody’s driver’s license, not necessarily their own.

6.     Switch to passive

Regular readers of this column will know that I hate using the passive other than in certain circumstances (read my column on active verbs here), but in the interests of balance I present you all the options.

If the context allows it without becoming contrived or contorted, you could rewrite the above sentence as ‘A driver’s license is required’. But if you needed to add the words ‘by an applicant’ I would suggest you rather used tip 4, ‘Applicants must bring their driver’s license’.

7.     Switch between he and she

This is my least favourite alternative. It is considered acceptable in longer works, for examples parenting books that refer to the baby in chapter 1 as a he and in chapter 2 as a she. I find it confusing and artificial. If you choose to do this, please don’t alternate between sentences.

8.     Repeat the noun

This is another tool to use only if all the other options make your sentence awkward or ambiguous. You could write ‘Once an applicant has passed the eye test, he must pay the fee’ as ‘Once an applicant has passed the eye test, the applicant must pay the fee’.

9.     Use a relative clause

Another, more eloquent, way of rewriting the above sentence is as: ‘An applicant who has passed the eye test must pay the fee.’ This tool is useful when a sentence contains two clauses.

10.  ‘His or her’ and ‘he or she’

If all these options fail or sound contrived in your context, use ‘his or her’, as in ‘An applicant must bring his or her license. ‘

Never write it as his/her or s/he as this looks clumsy and distracts the reader.