10 tips for gender-neutral writing
Even with the best intentions, it can be hard to avoid biased writing. Without a singular gender-neutral pronoun, there’s a gaping hole in the English lexicon—and bias easily sneaks through. Thankfully, there are creative ways of getting around the pronoun problem altogether.
The pronoun problem
Try filling in the blank with this classic idiom: "To each ___ own." You want to avoid gender bias, but the dictionary has only given you two singular pronouns to choose from: he or she. Without a gender-neutral pronoun, even the most conscientious writer can find, um, herself in a bind.
There are two types of words that get you into trouble: generic nouns and singular indefinite pronouns.
Generic nouns, like person or firefighter, don't specify a gender. That's great—except when you have to find a pronouns for them.
The traditional (and sexist) approach is to use masculine pronouns by default. (A firefighter must get his rest in case he is called to duty.) Even worse: reserving feminine pronouns for nouns like nanny, which are historically associated with female gender roles.
Singular indefinite pronouns
Indefinite pronouns, like everybody, function like nouns. They are "indefinite" because they don't point to a particular person, place, or thing. Indefinite pronouns can be plural (both) or singular (everybody).
Singular indefinite pronouns are tricky. They sound plural and imply plurality, but they take singular pronouns. (Everyone wants his fifteen minutes of fame.)
Some culprits to watch out for: another, anybody, anyone, each, either, everybody, everyone, nobody, no one, somebody, and someone.
The so-called solutions
The practice of using masculine pronouns by default is dying out, but what is taught instead? Stylistic clunkers (he or she), slashed constructions (he/she and s/he), and the confusing practice of alternating he and she.
Thankfully, there are more creative alternatives. Here's a list of tips for avoiding gendered pronouns altogether.
1. Omit the gender-specific pronoun.
This is the ideal solution—it precludes the need for rewriting and eliminates excess words.
Everyone wants his fifteen minutes of fame.× Everyone wants fifteen minutes of fame.√
A doctor wants his patients to be healthy.× A doctor wants patients to be healthy.√
2. Swap the gender-specific pronoun for an article.
This is another quick fix, and it maintains the rhythm and tone of the sentence.
An editor should always consult her style guide. × An editor should always consult a style guide. √
3. Write in the first-person plural.
When using the pronoun everyone to mean all people, you can switch to first-person plural and use we all instead. A word of caution: blanket statements like these can sound presumptuous and should be used sparingly.
Everyone wishes he would win the lottery.× We all wish we would win the lottery.√
Everyone has his pet peeves.× We all have our pet peeves.√
4. Write in the third-person plural.
Many sentences can easily be recast in the plural.
A model should make sure she gets her proper nutrition.× Models should make sure they get their proper nutrition.√
5. Write in the second-person.
Unless your writing is legal or academic, writing in the second-person is a great way to engage with your audience. So go ahead and address your reader directly!
A careful editor consults her style guide.× As a careful editor, you should consult a style guide.√
A professional editor upholds her client’s voice.× As a professional editor, you should uphold your client’s voice.√
6. Use the imperative mood.
This technique should only be used when giving a command or instruction.
A chef must wear a hairnet while he is handling food.×
Wear a hair net while handling food.√
7. Rewrite the sentence in the passive voice.
Writers should normally avoid the yawn-inducing passive voice, but in this instance it serves a purpose.
A good psychiatrist listens to his patients.× Listening to patients is an important part of being a psychiatrist.√
This can be taken a step further by removing any reference to people:
Every candidate must file his nomination papers by September 11.× September 11 is the deadline for filing nomination papers.√
8. Use the relative pronoun who.
This option works best when dealing with a construction where the noun is preceded by if.
Clients presume that if an editor sends emails with grammatical errors, he is equally careless in his work.× Clients presume that editors who send emails with grammatical errors are equally careless in their work.√
9. Repeat the noun.
This method should only be used if there is no alternative. After all, the whole point of using pronouns is to avoid such repetition.
An editor should always query the author about significant changes; otherwise, she could accidentally introduce errors.× An editor should always query the author about significant changes; otherwise, the editor could accidentally introduce errors.√
10. Replace the gender-specific pronoun with one.
This technique should be reserved for formal or literary writing; otherwise, one can risk sounding like one has a pickle up one’s a—.
A nurse in the United States is likely to earn more than she is in Canada.× A nurse in the United States is likely to earn more than one in Canada.√
No one should sacrifice family life for his career.× One should not sacrifice family life for one's career.√
The singular they
Once in a while you will encounter a sentence that insists upon a singular pronoun. For example: To each his own. In this case, go ahead and use the pronoun they in a singular fashion. They is traditionally plural, but more and more people are starting to use it as a gender-neutral alternative to he and she.
You can avoid gender bias without sacrificing style
Gender-neutral writing doesn't have to be stiff and awkward. The structure of your sentence will dictate the techniques you can use, but there are plenty of options to keep you covered. Experiment with different approaches, and use what works best for you.
After all, to each their own.