Ten Ways to Avoid Gender Bias

By Mark Nichol

How do you write around the outmoded usage of the pronoun he or him when a male is not necessarily the subject of the reference? Here are ten strategies — none ideal in every circumstance — for achieving gender neutrality.

1. Use He or She

Before: “Ask the student whether he is prepared to give a presentation.”
After: “Ask the student whether he or she is prepared to give a presentation.”
This solution is stiffly formal and is awkward in repetition; use sparingly. Using he/she, s/he, or any such alternative (or an invented neutral pronoun like ze) is not advised.

2. Alternate Between He and She

Before: “Ask the student whether he is prepared to give a presentation. If he is ready, tell him that he may begin when he is ready.”
After: “Ask the student whether he is prepared to give a presentation. If she is ready, tell her that she may begin when she is ready.”
This solution works only in the case of two or more references to a hypothetical subject of either gender. In the proximity of the references in the examples, this solution is awkward, but when the references are at some distance from each other, it can be effective in moderation.

3. Omit the Pronoun

Before: “Ask the student whether he is prepared to give a presentation.”
After: “Ask whether the student is prepared to give a presentation.”
This revision does not clearly indicate whether the student or another person is being asked; writers must recognize and respond to such lack of clarity if it affects comprehension.

4. Repeat the Noun in Place of the Pronoun

Before: “Ask the student whether he is prepared to give a presentation.”
After: “Ask the student whether the student is prepared to give a presentation.”
When the noun is repeated in the proximity shown above, the sentence is awkward; in a more complex sentence, the repetition may not seem so obvious.

5. Use a Plural Antecedent for the Pronoun

Before: “Ask the student whether he is prepared to give a presentation.”
After: “Ask the students whether they are prepared to give their presentations.”
Employing a plural noun and a plural pronoun may change the meaning somewhat; writers must be alert as to which other nouns, if any, should be made plural as well.

6. Replace the Pronoun with an Article

Before: “Ask the student to prepare his presentation.”
After: “Ask the student to prepare a presentation.”

7. Revise the Sentence to Use the Pronoun One

Before: “A prepared student is more likely to succeed than if he has not done sufficient research.”
After: “A prepared student is more likely to succeed than an unprepared one.”

8. Revise the Sentence to Use the Pronoun Who

Before: “A student is more likely to succeed if he does sufficient research.”
After: “A student who does sufficient research is more likely to succeed.”

9. Revise the Sentence to the Imperative Mood

Before: “A student must be well prepared for his presentation.”
After: “Be well prepared for the presentation.”

10. Use a Plural Pronoun

Before: “Ask the student whether he is prepared to give a presentation.”
After: “Ask the student whether they are prepared to give a presentation.”
Many writers reject this solution because traditional grammar rules frown on using a plural pronoun when the antecedent is a singular noun. However, the bewildering absence of a gender-neutral plural pronoun in English calls for a radical solution. This one is widely used in informal writing and in conversation, and it’s commonsensical to welcome it in formal writing. That welcome, however, has not yet been forthcoming, and, regrettably, writers should use the plural pronouns them and they in place of singular pronouns with caution.

Some writers reject the notion that one should avoid gender-specific pronouns in universal contexts at all. After all, why change long-standing usage that has only recently been challenged? But these writers, though sensible in the logic of their argument, are culturally insensitive and, ultimately, are on the wrong side of linguistic history. I hope, too, that integration of the singular they and them in any usage will eventually occur.

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39 Responses to “Ten Ways to Avoid Gender Bias”

  • Douglas

    How about the option of always using “she”? Then one can start offsetting the already existing gender bias in the balance of the writing of all time.

  • Jennie

    I already do most of these, but #4 and definitely #10 are personae non gratae on my pages. Why use #10 when the more agreeable (pun intended) #5 is an option?

  • Cathy

    #5 is the only one that makes sense to me. I learned that technique in graduate school.

  • Chuck Hustmyre

    What a bunch of claptrap.

    Does this work in Spanish or other Romance languages? No, of course not. Because in those languages ALL nouns are gender specific. How on earth can we still allow those languages to be spoken and written? Aren’t Spanish women terribly offended by the gender specificity of their language? Wouldn’t they feel better by reducing their language to abstractions?

    Why is English the only language being castrated?

    Why do I hear people struggling to create words like “gentle-person” in lieu of “lady,” or using “server” and “flight attendant” when they mean “waitress” or “stewardess”? For a while it was even fashionable to not use the word “actress” when giving out awards. Instead, they were referred to as “actors in female roles.”

    A man who serves food on a plane is a steward. A woman performing the same job is a stewardess. Get over it.

    “We’re destroying words — scores of them, hundreds of them every day. We’re cutting the language down to the bone. … It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.” –George Orwell, 1984

  • Stephanie

    Other languages have male, female and NEUTRAL pronouns. In some languages (like English), the male and neutral pronouns are the same. “It” is the only other option and that’s dehumanizing.
    So I disagree about it being on the wrong side of linguistic history to say “he” – but you’re right that it’s a cultural thing. As in, our culture isn’t educated enough to know that “he” isn’t offensive. So the rest of us are forced to change.
    I usually use “they” in professional writing. It seems the least intrusive, though all your suggestions here are smart ones.
    I usually use “he” in personal writing.

  • Cathy Gulden

    My web site may not interest you, since it is a music site.
    My remark has nothing to do with that.

    Using ‘he,’ whenever the gender of the individual is not known is still
    the correct usage. It has absolutely nothing to do with gender bias.
    It is simply correct language. I am a woman and have no difficulty
    with this, and neither should anyone else.

  • Connie Oswald Stofko

    These are all great suggestions, but the best is #10. We desperately need a gender-neutral pronoun in English, and I predict that “they” will be embraced within 10 years. (Of course, I’ve been saying that since 1984. I will continue to say it until one of these days I am proven right!)

    Chuck, I also used to feel that using “he” to mean “he and she” was adequate until I did some work on a college catalog for a nursing school. This was back in the ’80s and the students were almost all female, though by that time there were some male students. What if we had ignored the few male students and used constructions such as “Each student should prepare her presentation”? That was clearly unacceptable. But to use the construction “Each student should prepare his presentation” in a school made up almost exclusively of women was also unacceptable.

    That’s when I realized that it shouldn’t matter if there were more male students or more female students. We shouldn’t marginalize anyone and we really need gender-neutral language.

    Language is powerful. Using “he” to mean “he and she” can have subtle effects, but sometimes the effects aren’t subtle at all. I can remember hearing that women couldn’t do certain jobs because of what those jobs were called. It obvious, I was told, that women couldn’t be “firemen.” But now we have firefighters.

    We’re not destroying words. We’re adding new words.

  • James Weldon

    I must agree with Chuck Hustmyre. Titles such as Fireman, Policeman, and chairman, refer to mankind, not gender. Some push this nonsense too far.

  • Dominic

    These are mostly really ugly, even those that aren’t grammatical, and in any case respond to an imagined non-existent problem.

    The fact is that “he” has not one, but two meanings (just as many words have multiple definitions and uses in English) : one is indeed gender-neutral; the second is exclusively male. As such, when used in a general sense, it can clearly be seen to be gender-neutral: it does the job perfectly as things stand.

  • Matt Gaffney

    The author criticizes those who “reject the notion that one should avoid gender-specific pronouns in universal contexts at all” as “culturally insensitive and [who], ultimately, are on the wrong side of linguistic history.”

    I count myself among those who “reject the notion” of gender-specific nouns not because I’m “culturally insensitive,” but because I believe their creation and promotion are the product of hypersensitive individuals who turn their backs on the rich history of the English language in favor of awkward and silly artificial “cures” for imagined flaws.

    Also, the notion of a “singular they and them” is still more nonsense pointing a pretentious finger at a contrived problem and offering a buffoonish solution.

    The intellectual counterpart to the emperor’s new clothes lives on in what passes for minds among the gender-bias crowd. Of course they’ll win eventually; not because they’re right, but because they continually play the guilt-laden politically-correct card.

  • Bill

    I use all of these except #10. My pet peeve is when a writer or speaker uses “they” when referring to one male or one female.

  • thebluebird11

    I find it interesting that the only posters here who seem annoyed by all this are (apparently) male. From the time I was young, the use of “he” to refer to a mixed group has been irksome. What am I, chopped liver? I’m not a HE. I’m not hypersensitive. I’m not a fan of being PC, but why offend or marginalize people for no reason? I’m a fan of calling a spade a spade and being clear. If one is referring to a mixed group, it makes sense to acknowledge that fact so everyone feels included. You would not speak to a mixed group of people at a gathering and say “We men sure enjoy these kinds of gatherings,” if the group consisted of men and women, any more than you would say, “We white people sure enjoy these kinds of gatherings,” if the group consisted of people of mixed ethnic backgrounds. How rude would that be!
    @ChuckHustmyre: Nobody is struggling to create words. And nobody is saying YOU can’t call a man a steward and a woman a stewardess. The phrase “flight attendant” exists for those who prefer to use it. Neither word was created for the sole purpose of being juxtaposed to form a gender-neutral replacement for steward/stewardess; both words were in existence long before Wilbur and Orville got off the ground, and they were called to serve together to encompass both genders. For my part, I could call both “stewards,” just as I have no problem calling Demi Moore an actor. I am not sure I see the need to make the word gender-specific. Someone who acts, is an actor (this is not the same as fireMAN or policeMAN, for which other solutions need to be found). My advice to you? This is an issue that offends, upsets or interests some people; this post discusses ways of making sure that everyone in a group feels valued and included, and proposes numerous solutions to achieve that goal. My advice to you is, get over it.

  • Curtis

    Language seeks economy and efficiency, which is probably what pesters so many people about all the patch-jobs surrounding this issue. Preserving the formal rules gives us three words in place of one, or a clumsy and/or confusing sentence structure.

    My vote is for #10, and I think it will win out. I do like the idea of a new word like “ze,” but I have no hope for it. It has it’s own problems, due to having to bring its family with it (plurals, possessives, etc., with their own new rules to learn), and it practically screams geeky artificiality. And how *do* you turn “ze” into a singular possessive? Quite ungracefully, I’m afraid — “Ze hopped in ze’s new car and drove away.”? Nope. DOA.

    Blame religion for the mess we’re in; all our major deities are male.

    Get used to “they.” It works.

  • Chuck Hustmyre

    I disagree that “nobody is struggling to create words.” I also find it hard to believe that “flight attendant” was around long before airplanes were invented. I can’t image in what context that term could have been used. It seems quite clear to me that “flight attendant” and “server” were coined specifically to gender bend the whole “waiter” and “steward” conundrum.

    I heard a U.S. congressman refer to someone as “… the gentlewoman from… ” Men can be gentlemen; women can be ladies. They may not be, but we have words in case they are. When the sex of a P.R. person is known, why not call him or her a spokesman or spokeswoman? Why the generic “spokesperson.” Why “chairperson.” Is there something wrong with being a chairwoman? Is there something insulting about calling a woman a “lady”?

  • thebluebird11

    @Curtis: “All our major deities are male”?
    In the 3 major religions in existence today (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), the DEITY is neither male nor female, although we do refer to Him (implying that He is male). The 3 major prophets are male (Moses, Jesus, Allah), but at least in Judaism, we had female prophets (prophetesses? Do we really need that word?) as well.

    It seems disrespectful to refer to God as “It.” Maybe we could recruit “Ze” for that purpose, and refer to God as Ze from now on. “…and Ze brought us out of Egypt, from slavery to freedom…”

    In religions that have more than one deity, there is a healthy mix of male and female (Greek and Roman gods and so on). I mean, off the top of my head, you had (in no particular order) Zeus and Hera, Ares (God of War), Athena (Goddess of War), Artemis (Goddess of the Hunt), Cupid and Venus, and so on. So I think that those are well balanced, not weighted in favor or male.

  • Jessica

    @thebluebird11 Nope, it’s not just the men who find this issue annoying. I agree with Chuck and Matt for the most part.

  • bad tim

    i don’t really have an opinion on pronoun use except that i sympathize with those who find singular ‘they’ awkward. but…

    the three major religions are christianity, islam, and hinduism. jews represent a small percentage of the world’s population and many are uncomfortable being lumped together with a pair of religions with vastly different theological concepts from their own.

    the pagan gods you mentioned aren’t as well balanced as you seem to think. established religions are, for the most part, sexist and designed to support the patriarchal structure that spawned them. so, curtis is partly correct.

  • Rafael

    A simpler, less contentious solution might be for men to use he and women to use she. Those who prefer not to subtly self-identify can choose from the ten above.

  • thebluebird11

    @ bad tim: Not to go off-topic into a whole theological thing, but I’m Jewish, and I am not uncomfortable, and do not feel “lumped in,” and do not feel that Christianity and Islam are that vastly different from Judaism, which preceded them, and from which they borrowed many concepts.
    Yes, established religions are sexist (male clergy, some of the laws and so on). However, the “MAJOR DEITIES” (to quote Curtis) are really non-gendered. Again, the religions I mentioned believe in ONE deity, and “it” has no gender. Other religions that have MORE than one deity, have males and females in what I perceive as a fair balance, even as I mentioned having male and female gods of war, which is sort of surprising, in that they didn’t shy away from having female gods who presided over functions similar to their male counterparts. In other words, they didn’t have male gods of war and skill and hunting, and relegate the females to be gods of, like, basket-weaving.

  • Richard Dietzel

    Attempts at humor around the issue of gender neutrality are not new. Back in the Seventies I read a short satirical piece in “Analog” magazine. It was set up as a memo directed to employees of a company or government entity I don’t remember which. It stated the problem of gender neutrality and said that rather than use “she, he or it” the new approved version would be “s/h/it”. Thirty plus years have passed and I still remember that single page, chip on the shoulder, piece.

  • Nelida K.

    I knew this would be a tricky subject, that’s why I left to read this post once I had dealt with most of my mail-load. I seem to remember that we had a rather heated, hefty, lively and long-lived debate on this very site a couple of years back on the question of whether it was acceptable to use the term “mankind” or not.

    I seem to harbor in myself many of the foregoing alleged negative features in a person: I am a woman, I am Jewish, and my native language is Spanish, to boot. Not only is it my native language, but it is the one I speak every day, as I live and work in a Latin American (Southern Cone) country. I wished to state these facts in advance to deflect any contrary arguments based on the above. And, as a translator, I have to deal from a linguist’s point of view with gender bias both in English and in Spanish, so my burden is doubly heavy. Depending upon my skill, my translated texts may be awkward or fluent, cumbersome or lithe.

    What I do, is deal with the problem according to the type of text. If it is a contract, and I am translating into English, I have no qualms in resorting to the occasional he/she and using the possessive their. In Spanish this is trickier, I shy away from using the pronoun and go for nouns where possible. But Spanish is a different proposition altogether, because we have the “masculino genérico o gramatical” – since most nouns end with a masculine “o” or a feminine “a” gender marker – which has been understood to include both genders. This is widely and heatedly being disputed by Spanish-speaking grammarians. In practice, what I do, is not go overboard but use a different noun-word or turn the sentence around whenever possible. It would be very long to go into detail regarding the state of the issue in Spanish, so I will not.
    But let me return to English, since this is what we are dealing with now. Solution #5 offers no difficulty and of course I use it whenever possible. But #10 should not be shunned, it is a growing trend and the singular “they” I think that is here to stay.

    And to close this unintendedly long comment, language is a very powerful tool, and one that has perpetuated the ingrained concept of male superiority. It has been programmed into our brains since aeons ago and we have come to accept it as natural. That is why women have to face so much struggle in coming into their own in politics, in the marketplace, and in society generally. The masculine pronoun does not include as a matter of fact both sexes of the species and should not be presumed that it does. The Declaration of the Rights of Man of the French Revolution, did not include the rights of men and women, it was just men.
    Women have accomplished a gigantic step forward and language should reflect it, so that it becomes natural for the generations that will follow ours. Language should not be trifled with, and I believe that it is enriched and enhanced by trying to solve the problem of gender bias, not diminished by it. Until it is a problem no more.

    Last, but not least: @Mark: Should it not be “imperative mode”? (instead of “mood”?)

  • thebluebird11

    @Nelida: Thank you for your insightful comments. And I do stand corrected, because where I have used the words male/female, I should have used masculine/feminine. This issue is common to most other languages, where nouns have gender and then adjectives and numbers have to agree. So it is in French, and in Hebrew too. For example, in Hebrew, why is “hand” feminine but “nose” masculine? (OK, there is an explanation for that, and that is that any body part of which there is only ONE, is masculine, but if there are 2 or more, it is feminine. That is the explanation, but what is the reason? Who knows). It doesn’t reflect on men and women; these are just gendered nouns. Esperanto has no gender; all nouns end in O, all adjectives end in A. To make it plural, you add a J at the end of BOTH words. Example: Bona hundo (good dog), bonaj hundoj (good dogs). The way they differentiate specifically for a female is to insert “-in” right before the ending O (hundino=female dog). Wonderful language, more people should learn to speak it. I could go on with some other things, but they would be too off-topic, so…back to work here!

  • Nelida K.

    @thebluebird11. Thank YOU, for the info about Esperanto. Now, with the proliferation of all these para-human species that Hollywood has popularized, there is a veritable invasion of artificial languages (Klingon, etc.) but none seem so logical and at the same time simple as Esperanto.
    As far as the concept of male/female v. masculine/feminine, (conceived as adjectives for the sake of comparison), it is a common enough confusion: one alludes to the sex, the other to the (grammatical) gender.
    Why some nouns are feminine and other masculine, escapes me. One of the stumbling blocks Germans encounter in speaking Spanish, is that they usually err in the grammatical gender: for instance das Messer (knife) takes a neutral article, die Gabel (fork) takes a feminine, while der Loeffl (spoon) takes a masculine. In Spanish, which has no neutral grammatical gender, spoon is feminine, fork and knife are masculine. Nose (die Nase) on the other hand if feminine, as is hand (die Hand), but leg (das Bein) is neutral. So there you go, I guess it depends on the language and their perception of the surrounding world. Back to work, now.

  • Jon

    @Richard – thank you for stirring that memory.

  • thebluebird11

    @Nelida: Well now that is confusing! I notice that Filipinos (and by that I mean men AND women LOL) tend to confuse gender in English, saying “he” when they are referring to a woman and “she” when referring to a man. I don’t speak Tagalog so I don’t know if this is something that is rooted in that language. I have to sort of laugh because in Hebrew, “hoo” is “he” and “he” is “she” LOLOL Reminds me of that old Abbott and Costello “Who’s On First” routine!

  • Dorci

    I struggle with this all the time so I appreciate the options. Who says we have to choose one way and stick with it? The great thing about writing is that each piece is a puzzle to solve. No two pieces look alike, but they all fit to form the right picture.

  • Paul Oshinsky

    Someone commented that god (I do not capitalize that word because I am not a believer) is neutral, neither masculine nor feminine. But does it not say in the bible (same reason for noncapitalization) that god created man in his own image? If that is so, then Adam is the image of god and he is masculine. What more proof can there be that god is not neutral, neither in language nor in any other context.

    Another thing: why are we so worried about this subject of he/she? These 2 words have lasted centuries and no one ever griped about it until recently. We have condo vigilantes who do nothing but go around and look for people who they believe are breaking the rules and then go and report them to management. There are many other kinds of vigilantes, and language vigilantes are among the worst. They are hypersensitive and just look for something to gripe about.

    Rule #3 is ridiculous. If you know the gender of the person you are speaking about, then use that pronoun. “Ask the student whether he is prepared to give a presentation” is perfectly fine if the student is a male. If it is a female, then “Ask the student whether she is prepared to give a presentation” is the form to use. If you are asking about plurals, then “Ask the students whether they are prepared to give a presentation” is the way to go. So what is the problem? There really is no problem except for the language vigilantes, and you know we must avoid them at all costs.

  • Warsaw Will

    #1 gets very tedious if has to be repeated. #2 is horrible – it just jumps off the page at you, and is really annoying. #5 – This is exactly why we have pronouns: to avoid repetition.

    #10 – singular “they”, is by far the easiest and most natural option. Looked at historically, it’s not really radical: it has been used for centuries, including by writers such as Shakespeare, Jane Austen and Byron. It was only when a certain Anne Fisher (1719-78) thought that “he” should replace “they” as a gender-free pronoun, and some influential style guides followed suit, that the problems began.

    There seems to be rather more opposition to singular “they” in the States than in Britain, where it is used in official documents like passport application forms. We also teach it (to foreign learners) as the standard pronoun to follow “anybody, somebody” etc. Now that even AP apparently accept it, isn’t it time to go with the flow, and accept the solution that many of us already use without even thinking?

  • Dorci

    Here’s the deal: yes, the Bible does refer to God, and obviously the Son of God (Who is God) with male pronouns. He chose to come in human form as a man. That doesn’t mean man is better than woman. Yet in His Spirit form, He is neither and both. God is Who He is. Our idea of Him does not change Him. God does not have to conform to our idea of Him. Our understanding of Him must conform to Who He is.

    Why is it that we believe one gender (our own) to be superior over another and because of that argue for the use of that gender’s pronoun? Why is society so hung up on including both genders (or even choosing she over he) in our writing? Why is it so important to include both genders instead of accepting one to use when the gender is not specified or unknown? Why do we think that because the pronoun he is used then he must be better? I’ll tell you why. Pride. Political correctness in life and now in our writing comes from pride. It’s why people from almost every nationality have argued that Jesus must look like them, their color, their religion, etc., etc., Or even that God must be a woman. Why do we think that because the male gender has been chosen as the default pronoun that that automatically means the male gender is better? It doesn’t. It’s simply a choice so that our writing isn’t awkward for the reader. We really need to get over ourselves and get on to much more important matters.

    Now, with all that said, I still believe options in writing are good. And that each situation is different and our writing and the pronouns used in it should simply be appropriate. So what if someone uses he. Or she. We need to quit being so critical of others and just read. And write.

  • Dale A. Wood

    “But these writers, though sensible in the logic of their argument, are culturally insensitive…”
    What an arrantly insulting statement !! Ugh.

    In case you do not know what “arrantly” means, it is an adverb that means “in a particularly bad way”.

  • Dale A. Wood

    @Warsaw Will.
    In my country, most of us detest being called “the States”. That one is insulting, too, but it is your usual way. You might as well call us “the Colonies”.

    There are plenty of countries that consists of states besides the United States of America:
    The United States of Mexico, Brazil**, Australia, and so forth.
    **Formerly named the United States of Brazil, but in Portuguese, of course.

    You also neglect to mention the English that is spoken in Canada, which is very close to American English. They are much, much closer together than British English and Canadian English are. This is a salient fact has several simple explantations.
    I call the language that is spoken in in most of Canada and the United States “North American English”. As for the squabbles between the French Canadians and the English Canadians, we do not get involved because we love both of them like brothers – sisters, too.

    Furthermore, the United States received more immigrants from German-speaking countries, states, and kingdoms than anywhere else – including Great Britain. German has had a strong influence on American English over the centuries, especially in its grammar, and especially in pronouns:
    I, me, he, she, and it are definitely singular, and
    We, our, they, and them are definitely plural,
    and don’t you forget it.
    I strongly perceive that the British make up their language as they go along, in whatever way strikes them, but we have a stronger perception that a language needs rules. I have observed the latter among Canadians, South Africans (influenced by Dutch), and Aussies, too.
    These words are definitely singular, and they do possess plurals, so why mess around with them?
    {commonwealth, class, crew, family, force, government, group, set, staff, team, the United States}.
    Do not say or write any of these {the class are, the crew are, the family are, the air force are, the government are, the group are, the navy are, the set are, the staff are, or the team are} I even heard a British man say “The U.S. are” on TV. (“off with his head” – from “Alice in Wonderland”)
    Personally, I have heard Canadians and South Africans say “is” in all of the above cases.

    Remember that languages, like mathematics, have rules, and rules have to be followed. You don’t get to say things just because they “sound nice”, just like 2 + 3 is not 6.
    D.A.W.

  • thebluebird11

    @Warsaw Will: I am fine with being called “The States.” When I visited England and Scotland, if someone asked, I told them I was from The States (as if they could not already guess from my accent LOL). We have like, how many millions of people here? Not every one is so prickly, and one person cannot speak for all of us to convey our opinions and preferences. A Brit accent is the best in the world…I’m jealous LOL

  • Nissan Ratzlav-Katz

    Try this experiment (I have): Ask someone you know who speaks a native language with gender-specific nouns and adjectives to imagine a table (for example) as an animated cartoon character. Then ask them if the character they imagined is male or female. Then ask them if the object in their native tongue is masculine or feminine. You’ll have probably near 100% agreement (between the answers – not agreement to take part in your ridiculous experiments…..).

    @Paul Oshinsky – I don’t believe Tom Sawyer is real, but I still capitalize his name…..

  • Warsaw Will

    @thebluebitd11 – thanks for that support. I was only repeating what I often hear Americans say when referring to their country and didn’t realise I’d said anything controversial.

    @D.A.W – language is patently not like maths. Mathematical rules are constant over time and from place to place. Language rules, on the other hand, vary over time, and geographically. As regards group nouns and agreement, we simply have a different way of looking at things in Britain than North Americans do, that’s all. At the risk of repeating myself, it’s called notional agreement and is well understood by linguists and writers on grammar.

    “Do not write or say … the government are” – Well, sorry, but I will continue to say the government are, the class are etc, when I’m thinking of them as a group of individuals, because that’s the standard (i.e. the rule) in my branch of the English family.

  • Bea

    To Paul and others about the gender of God: In Christianity, we have the Trinity, commonly referred to as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (or Ghost.) What if the Holy Spirit is the Mother? wouldn’t it make sense? Many (most?) Christians believe that the three persons of the Godhead are equally Divine, so if that hypothesis is true, there you have the feminine aspect of God in Christianity. I’ve heard, though have not tried to corroborate, that the original pronoun used in the Greek for the Holy Spirit is a female one.

    Please note: I am absolutely not trying nor intending to begin any doctrinal disputes here; just tossing this out for your consideration.

  • Mary Hodges

    I can accept most of these strategies for avoiding the generic “he” – if you really want to, except for ♯2. I remember reading a book on babycare which followed this strange system and ended up with a sentences like “If your baby cries she may be hungry so feed him.”
    Personally I don’t mind the use of the generic “he” to include “she”. I also happily accept “mankind” to mean “all human beings” and will use “he” as a pronoun when I don’t know the gender of the person referred to. It must be my age!

  • venqax

    I must agree STRONGLY with Chuck Hustmyre, Stephanie, and Cathy Gulden, and I’d have to add, respectfully of course, that I think the whole subject is beneath the dignity of this Venerable site. Leave it to totalitarian dictators and Orwellian novels to prescribe language to serve political agendas. Language belongs to the people, not to political or social activists. It evolves organically, not according to ukases from the Central Orgburo on Politically Correct Language. Unless, of course, you are at a university in which case you are accustomed to the free exchange of ideas being verboten.

    As said, English already has gender neutral pronouns and they are he, him, and his. Sometimes you can use “one”. That’s it. Any of the “suggestions” above are simply improper observations of the rules of the language and affectations (alternating he and she), unequivocally wrong (a singular they), just plain clumsy, or not uses of the language at all (Ze? You’re kidding, right?). It has been so from time immemorial, to use the legalese.

    If anyone finds it offensive, I suggest that they have problems that need addressing far more urgently than their linguistic afflictions do.
    To identify this as a problem, let alone one worthy of attention, given the present state of English is in a word harmful.

  • frazer

    I’m glad someone brought up Orwell, because I was thinking of his “Politics and the English Language” essay as I read this post and comments. I agree with the person who said that the language we use influences how we think, as well as reflects it. Yes, the controversy over whether “he” should be used for both males and females when the person’s gender is unknown is relatively recent, as is feminism. But I think recognizing that women have been discriminated against for centuries is a good thing, and to the extent that our language reflects (and subconsciously may perpetuate) this discrimination, it is also good to recognize and attempt to address this. I was interested to learn that the use of “they” for a single gender-neutral personal pronoun is not, in fact, a new idea. I think it’s the best solution, and, for traditionalists, even has distinguished antecedents!

  • Naya

    I honestly don’t understand why some people are so upset by the rejection of “gender-specific” pronouns. I omit them or use gender-neutral ones to maintain a sort of ambiguity in my writing. As a reader, I enjoy vague physical descriptions because they seem to better illuminate the character’s personality, thus, telling the story more effectively. Often with literature, almost entirely in fiction, too much time is spent on things that can downplay the theme and plot. Unless, the story is mainly about gender, sex, or race relations, you don’t have to mention them. Same with any other physical traits, if they don’t help the story, they detract from it. It’s writing, leave some things to the readers’ imaginations. That’s what draws people in, the way you can lose yourself, picturing the scenes as if they were a movie. Creating that escape, allowing that freedom, is what separates the good from the great.

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