Suggestions for Writing with Gender-Neutral Pronouns


          A writer who wants to avoid gender bias can adopt "gender-neutral language" (sometimes called "gender-inclusive language" or "nonsexist language").  Some people object to gender-neutral language on the ground that it leads to awkward phrasing.  But that need not happen.

         One cause of gender bias is the use of supposedly generic masculine pronouns.  These occur in general statements where the sex of the referent is unidentified or unknown.  Suppose the writer's first draft includes this gender-biased statement: "A lawyer should frame his argument in persuasive language."  Use of the supposedly generic "his" is jarring now that many lawyers are women.  But there are numerous graceful ways to revise the sentence for inclusiveness, as the following examples illustrate.

            1.  Make the noun plural so a plural pronoun fits.  "Lawyers should frame their arguments in persuasive language."

            Comment: Note that in formal writing, it is not correct to use a plural pronoun to refer to a singular noun.  So both the noun and the pronoun must be changed here.

            2.  Use paired pronouns.  "A lawyer should frame his or her arguments in persuasive language."

            3.  Reframe the sentence to eliminate the pronoun.  "A lawyer's argument should be framed in persuasive language.

            Comment:  This version changes the sentence to the passive voice, which makes it more wordy and less direct.  Many stylists urge writers to use the active voice for most sentences.

            4.  Alternate pronouns.  "A lawyer should frame his argument in persuasive language.  This may convince the judge to write her decision in his favor." 

            In choosing among the above options, a writer should consider the context.  A primary goal should be to avoid making the reader stumble over cumbersome phrasing.  Alternatives 2 - 4 can become annoying if they are repeated too often in close proximity, so they should be used carefully. 

            These are common suggestions for eliminating biased pronouns.  Later I'll discuss some less common tactics.

                                                          --The Word Aficionado