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.

39 Responses to “Ten Ways to Avoid Gender Bias”

  • 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.

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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…..

  • 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

  • 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.

Leave a comment: