Gender-neutral language

Choosing Gender-Neutral Language

Most students are aware of this issue, but if they just use “his/her” repeatedly then they are not making their writing highly readable. Also, writing a sentence such as “Someone should lend their voice to this problem” is still grammatically unacceptable because “someone” is singular and “their” is plural. Here's how to attack the problem:

  • be more specific or creative about word choice (writing “humans” rather than “man”).
  • use plural nouns rather than singular ones when appropriate (“scientists” rather than “a scientist”), or by avoiding gender-specific pronouns (“the author” rather than “he”).
  • write “he or she” (not “he/she”) when it is not awkward or overly repetitive to do so.
  • change some words to other parts of speech, thereby avoiding gender-specific pronouns (“walking” might work better than “he walked” as long as the grammar of the revision is sound).
  • alternate between using “he” and “she”, especially in longer pieces.

With these tactics in mind, look at the following example:

The consumer himself has the power to reduce fuel costs: If he sets his residential thermostat two degrees higher in the summer and two degrees lower in the winter, he saves energy.

In a revised version of this sentence, the gender-specific language of the original is avoided:

Consumers have the power to reduce fuel costs: By setting their residential thermostats two degrees higher in the summer and two degrees lower in the winter, they save energy.

Standard English usage is that the masculine form (“he” or “his”) refers to either gender in writing, but only rely on this when you have to. However, don't go too far - like “personhole cover” “personkind” “s/he”; instead, exercise your options as a writer wisely.

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SMILE Technical writing by Marion Kelt, GCU, Vince Ricci, CIEE, Joe Schall, PennState University and Glynis Perkin, Loughborough University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International LicenseDetails on our credits page.