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Grammar and Usage

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To He or Not to He

How to Make Your Writing Gender Neutral

When I was growing up, everybody was automatically a he—mathematicians and doctors, shoppers and writers, swimmers and inventors. It was the norm. That’s why a writer in the U. S. Patent & Trademark Office would write:


If the applicant is the inventor, he must explain how and when he first used his invention.


Apparently, the writer at the PTO forgot that women invented the first computer language, Liquid Paper, Scotchgard, the rotary engine, medical syringe, submarine periscope, Kevlar. I’ll stop there.


Being a boy and then a man, I never thought about it. Then I raised (or reared, for the grammatically washed) two daughters, and I realized that throughout my life pronouns had been automatically excluding half the world. Even E. B. White referred to everyone as he. Look at his sentence from The Elements of Style, copyright 1959:


But to write a biography, the writer will need at least a rough scheme; he cannot plunge in blindly and start ticking off fact after fact about his man, lest he miss the forest for the trees and there be no end to his labors.


That sentence says that only men can write and that no woman would ever be interesting enough to warrant a biography. Today, almost everybody agrees we should avoid sexist language, but how do we avoid it without making our writing awkward? Alternating between she and he, as we see in books about babies, still jars our reader. She/he is out, so is s/he, and he or she is no better than the other two.


If we compare The Elements of Style, copyright 1959, to The Elements of Style, copyright 2000, we find that editors have quietly replaced White’s sexist language, using six methods that also keep White’s writing smooth. Were White alive today, I’m sure he would agree with the changes.


The Elements of Style copyright 2000 editors recast White’s sentence above like this:


But to write a biography, you will need at least a rough scheme; you cannot plunge in blindly and start ticking off fact after fact about your subject, lest you miss the forest for the trees and there be no end to your labors.


The British might substitute one and one’s for you and your, but that’s one way to avoid sexist language: #1: USE THE SECOND PERSON, YOU. Here’s another sentence from The Elements of Style 1959 . . .


A deeply troubled person, composing a letter appealing for mercy or for love, had best not attempt to organize his emotions; his prose will have a better chance if he leaves his emotions in disarray . . . .


. . . and how the 2000 version deals with the sexist language:


If you are deeply troubled and are composing a letter appealing for mercy or for love, you had best not attempt to organize your emotions; the prose will have a better chance if the emotions are left in disarray . . . .


In this example, besides substituting your for his, the editors also #2: REPLACE HIS WITH THE ARTICLE THE:


his prose will have/the prose will have




if he leaves his emotions/if the emotions are left


The editors turn another of White’s sentences into a non-sexist statement when they #4: REPEAT THE ACTOR:


Only the writer whose ear is reliable is in a position to use bad grammar deliberately; only he this writer knows for sure when . . . .


Where White uses a singular noun and he/his, the editors #5: MAKE THE NOUN AND ALL RELATED PRONOUNS PLURAL:


The reader needs Readers need time to catch his their breath; he they can’t be expected to compare everything with something else . . . .


If one of those solutions does not solve the problem, do what the editors do frequently in the 2000 version#6: REWORD THE SENTENCE TO ELIMINATE THE NEED FOR A PRONOUN:


The reader will become impatient or confused if he finds upon finding two or more versions of the same word or expression.


I know that a few of you will still insist that he is a perfectly good pronoun to represent both sexes, that over millennia, writers everywhere have accepted it as universal. Don't believe it; the women are just being polite.

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About Gary Kinder

Gary Kinder

WordRake founder Gary Kinder has taught over 1,000 writing programs for AMLAW 100 firms, Fortune 500 companies, and government agencies. He’s also a New York Times bestselling author. As a writing expert and coach, Gary was inspired to create WordRake when he noticed a pattern in writing errors that he thought he could address with technology.

In 2012, Gary and his team of engineers created WordRake editing software to help writers produce clear, concise, and effective prose. It saves time and gives confidence. Writing and editing has never been easier.

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