Political correctness leads to poor grammar

How to avoid the awkward ‘he or she.’

How to avoid the awkward ‘he or she’

You see them all the time: messages that, while grammatically incorrect, are still intelligible. This includes sentences where antecedents and their pronouns don’t agree. Usually, you can figure out what the writer is trying to say, but that doesn’t excuse the error.

Take a look at this sentence:

  • If the user already has an existing version of MS Word on their PC, they will need to uninstall it before installing the update.

You need to keep an eye out to make sure that you’re not flip-flopping from singular to plural and back again in your writing. Pick one, and stick with it.

The singular version of the example might then read: “If the user already has an existing version of MS Word on his or her PC, he or she (or the user, or said user) must uninstall it before installing the update.” The plural version would go something like this: “If the users already have an existing version of MS Word on their PCs, they must uninstall it before installing the update.”

The jumping from singular to plural and back again is a problem that, although it always existed, became exacerbated during the wave of political correctness that reared its head in the late 1970s. Popular thinking of the day promoted the use of he or she in lieu of the then-commonly used he to refer to an unspecified person. In exchange for such inclusion, we got confusion, and constructing certain simple sentences became a complicated and clunky business that continues to this day.

The smart writer will avoid being sucked into the he or she vortex by using the plural they or the singular albeit stilted one, or by switching from third person to the more personal second person. I’ve also seen writers use either one or the other as a generic, instead of both.

Consider these alternate versions to the original example:

To read the full story, log in.
Become a Ragan Insider member to read this article and all other archived content.
Sign up today

Already a member? Log in here.
Learn more about Ragan Insider.