Writing for Business and Pleasure
Copyright by Stephen Wilbers
www.wilbers.com

Sample Column: Avoiding sexist language

First published by the Minneapolis Star Tribune: March 15, 1996

Avoid using exclusive language that offends

by Stephen Wilbers

Which of the following sentences do you find least objectionable?

A. A good manager knows his strengths and weaknesses.

B. A good manager knows her strengths and weaknesses.

C. A good manager knows his or her strengths and weaknesses.

D. A good manager knows their strengths and weaknesses.

E. Good managers know their strengths and weaknesses.

My guess is you chose A. Once thought to be sexist, the masculine pronoun is now generally accepted as a natural, practical way to refer to both genders. Ask any feminist and he’ll tell you so.

I’m kidding, of course.

And now that I’ve got your attention, my real guess is you chose E. By making both the noun managers and the pronoun their plural, you avoid a number of problems: the exclusive use of the masculine pronoun his, the exclusive use of the feminine pronoun hers, the inclusive but awkward his or her, and the distracting shift from the singular manager to the plural their. Converting nouns and pronouns from the singular to the plural is perhaps the most graceful way to write inclusively.

Here are some other practical methods of avoiding sexist language:

Replace the masculine pronoun with an article (a, an, or the): Change “The accused has a right to confront his accuser” to “The accused has a right to confront the accuser.”

Use the second person: Change “If a new associate works hard, he might make partner” to “If you work hard, you might make partner.”

Eliminate the masculine pronoun: Change “Ask any feminist and he’ll tell you so” to “Any feminist will tell you so.”

As a last resort, use the inclusive but awkward he or she: Change “Because the CEO is key to an organization’s success, he must work long hours” to “Because the CEO is key to an organization’s success, he or she must work long hours.”

As for coordinate constructions such as she/he and his/hers, I recommend you avoid them. Like American TV (the great experiment that failed), they once seemed like a good idea, but in practice they didn’t work out.

But what about sentence D: “A good manager knows their strengths and weaknesses”? More and more writers are mixing singular nouns and plural pronouns, and according Casey Miller and Kate Swift in The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing, they are doing so on good authority.

For centuries, many writers (including Shakespeare) commonly used they to refer to both plural and singular nouns. The third edition of the American Heritage Dictionary offers this comment: “Third person plural forms, such as their, have a good deal to recommend them: they are admirably brief and entirely colloquial and may be the only sensible choice in informal style.”

The dictionary goes on to point out, however, that “this solution ignores a persistent intuition that expressions such as everyone and each student should in fact be treated as grammatically singular,” and it recommends that “writers who are concerned about avoiding both grammatical and social problems are best advised to use coordinate forms such as his or her.” It concludes: “The entire question is unlikely to be resolved in the near future.”

Well, I say, let’s declare the singular they perfectly acceptable when used in the indefinite sense and be done with it. If either John or Jane wants to see me, tell them to come right in. I’m ready to see them. I’m eager to see them. I’m tired of seeing him or her.

Although John or Jane will have to wait a long time for my receptionist to finish their lunch, everyone has a right to their opinion. And I for one am ready to hear it.


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