Savvy Use of Pronouns: Is Gender Neutrality Possible?

By Anne M. Smith, Esq.

We all use pronouns, and we know they substitute for nouns.  Although the English language provides pronoun options for masculine nouns (he, him), for feminine nouns (she, her), and for non-human nouns (it), there is no choice for gender-neutral singular nouns (the nurse, an athlete).  While most of us learned in elementary school that masculine pronouns (he, his, him) should be used as the “default” in situations where the person or thing to which you’re referring could be either male or female, that usage is now considered unacceptable, and often offensive.  Even worse is assuming the gender of the noun, e.g. nurses are women, or attorneys are men.

Some authors have suggested the use of strange substitutions, such as “zhe” or “zher” to replace “he” or “she.”  Sweden has officially added the gender-neutral pronoun “hen” to its National Encyclopedia (http://www.ne.se/om/encyklopedi).  Americans have never settled on an acceptable gender-neutral pronoun, but here are some suggestions to help neutralize your writing:

1. Use “they”
This option is currently much debated by grammar experts, but most agree that it works well in several kinds of situations. Keep in mind that “they” is traditionally used only to refer to a plural noun.

Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were both American presidents during the 20th century.  They were also both Democrats.”

To use “they” to refer to a singular noun has traditionally been taught as incorrect grammar.  Many Americans use “they” in conjunction with a singular noun while speaking, but find it awkward when reading or writing it.

“When an attorney attends a court hearing, they stand to address the court.”

Purists consider this bad grammar, but use of “they” and “their” have been used for centuries as gender-neutral pronouns by good writers from Chaucer onward.   Another alternative, using the neutral term “one,” as in “one’s money,” is proper, but has a stilted sound to American ears, and may seem awkward.

2. Use he or she or he/she
Another option the gender-savvy writer can use to deal with situations where a pronoun needs to refer to a person whose gender isn’t known, include both pronoun options as “he or she” or “he/she.”   Using this form opens another can of worms, however.  Should it be he/she or she/he?

“Each attorney in our firm is encouraged to donate time to a charity.  He or she may select the cause of his/her choice.”

3. Alternate genders and pronouns
You may also choose to alternate gendered pronouns.  Changing from masculine to feminine pronouns in the same paragraph may cause some reader confusion, and may be distracting.  I’ve heard the use of alternating feminine and masculine pronouns described as “whiplash grammar.”

4. Eliminate the pronoun altogether
You could also simply eliminate the pronoun.  “Attorney Smith formerly taught writing and literature at Highlands High School.  This teacher and lawyer also served as the mock trial coach for the school.”

An easy fix is to remember that if the original noun can be made plural, the pronoun can also be made plural.  “When attorneys succeed, they can thank their mentors.” 

Don’t forget about the odd or unexpected words.  Although “man” may have originally been intended to mean “adult human,” it is now more acceptable to remove the masculine connotation.   Use “humanity” rather than “mankind,” and “synthetic” rather than “man-made,” for example.

These suggestions may seem feminist or radical to some, but using traditional masculine pronouns often appears gender-biased.  Along the same lines, using strictly feminine pronouns can be interpreted as sexist or patronizing.  By keeping pronouns neutral with regard to gender, we focus the reader on what we are saying, rather than the words we are using.

Anne Smith practices in the Real Estate Default Group of Weltman, Weinberg & Reis Co., LPA, focused on foreclosure services in the states of Ohio and Kentucky. She is based in the Cincinnati office. Anne can be reached at 513.333.4012 and ansmith@weltman.com.

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