10 ways to avoid gender bias in writing

The last thing a communicator wants to do is offend a reader or customer. Here are some tips to appease both the guys and gals in your audience.

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.

A version of this article first appeared on DailyWritingTips.

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