Choosing the best word is difficult enough for student writers when the choices are clearly right and wrong, so choices that involve subtlety and complexity can be extremely challenging. To add to this issue, English-speaking culture has become particularly sensitive to word choices dealing with sex and gender, and this creates great difficulty for students trying to figure out the best and most effective ways to express ideas. The following advice is necessarily subtle and complex, but it can help guide you through this difficult territory.
The traditional grammar rule regarding pronouns is to make them agree in number, and in uncertain contexts to rely on the masculine pronoun. This means that plural pronouns should be used for plural antecedents, and singular for singular.
Traditionally Correct: Some professors (plur.) write their (plur.) own textbooks.
Traditionally Incorrect: A professor (sing.) can write their (plur.) own textbook.
Traditionally Correct: A professor (sing.) can write his (sing.) own textbook.
Traditionally Incorrect: Anyone (sing.) can read the statistics for themselves (plur.).
Traditionally Correct: Anyone (sing.) can read the statistics for himself (sing.).
But as illustrated in these examples, this traditional rule can cause confusion with common-sex words, such as professor, and common-sex general words, such as anyone. The use of the singular masculine pronoun (he, him, his, himself) suggests that the general professor or anyone being referenced excludes women, which would be at least misleading, and more likely just plain wrong.
Added to this problem is the political attack on such pronoun usage as being essentially sexist. In recent years, other gender-focused attacks have been leveled against traditional pronoun usage as well, but the underlying problems, principles, and solutions remain the same despite the specific accusation.
The main underlying problem is that the English language has no common-sex singular personal pronouns. We have only he, she, and it (and their declensions: him, her, his, hers, its, himself, herself, itself).
Do your personal political views determine how you should proceed? No, not if your aim is good writing. As Bryan Garner notes, “If you start with the pragmatic premise that you want to avoid misleading or distracting a significant percentage of your readers, then you’ll almost certainly conclude that it’s best to avoid sexist language. Regardless of your political persuasion, that conclusion seems inevitable—if you’re a pragmatist” (821).
Those principles—that good writers should neither mislead their readers nor create distractions for them—nullifies the awkward, clumsy, and unorthodox attempts to use devices to address the problem such as he/she, s/he, xe (xem/xyrs), and so forth.
And while we do see both pedants and activists choose to write badly to support their causes, a good writer is ever the pragmatist, and the key pragmatic principle here is that you can always write around the problem.
Both the pedant and the activist want to know what you would choose if rewriting the sentence were not an option, but that’s merely a theoretical or ideological question. You always have the option of rewriting.
Bryan Garner provides a handy list of some common methods (822):
A. “Delete the pronoun reference altogether”
Original: Each student should read the assignment as soon as it is made available to him.
Revision (delete to him): Each student should read the assignment as soon as it is made available.
B. “Change the pronoun to an article, such as a or the”
Original: Somebody left his coffee mug in the classroom.
Revision (change his to a): Somebody left a coffee mug in the classroom.
C. “Pluralize, so that he becomes they”
Original: A student should support his point with explanations and evidence.
Revision: Students should support their points with explanations and evidence.
D. “Use the relative pronoun who, especially when the generic he follows an if”
Original: If a student does not read the literature, he cannot expect to pass the final exam.
Revision: A student who does not read the literature cannot expect to pass the final exam.
E. “Repeat the noun instead of using a pronoun, especially when the two are separated by several words”
Original: The professor will provide individual commentary on essays that is intended to guide improvement in writing. More specifically, he will note strengths and weaknesses in clarity, coherence, completeness, and correctness.
Revision (change he to the professor): The professor will provide individual commentary on essays that is intended to guide improvement in writing. More specifically, the professor will note strengths and weaknesses in clarity, coherence, completeness, and correctness.
What about the option of using a plural pronoun (such as they) for a singular antecedent that is general (such as student or someone)? Although this option is traditionally incorrect, it has been used in English writing for centuries—the Oxford English Dictionary cites the year 1375 as the earliest example—and it is becoming even more widely accepted now. Indeed, few readers will notice the shift from singular to plural, and might even be distracted by the traditionally correct option.
Traditionally Correct: Someone in the theater needs to put his phone on silent.
Widely Acceptable: Someone in the theater needs to put their phone on silent.
Traditionally Correct: When a parent (sing.) chooses adoption, he or she (sing.) faces many new challenges.
Widely Acceptable: When a parent (sing.) chooses adoption, they (plur.) face many new challenges.
Of course, these examples could have been rewritten instead via Garner’s advice above.
But note that this widely acceptable use of a plural pronoun for a singular antecedent applies only to one scenario: when that antecedent is general or unknown. Here are just a few examples:
- A student
- A firefighter
- The owner
But there is no established pattern in English (written or spoken) of using a plural pronoun for a singular antecedent that is known or specific, such as my sister, or Gregory, or Chewbacca, etc. Instead, this option simply causes confusion and distraction for readers and would be used intentionally only as a contrivance for activism, not for good writing.
Incorrect: My mother left their coffee in the room.
Correct: My mother left her coffee in the room.
Incorrect: Robert fell down the steps, but they will be fine.
Correct: Robert fell down the steps, but he will be fine.
This does not address scenarios in which specific individuals request to be addressed by non-standard pronouns. Avoid misleading or distracting your reader as you let context be your guide in those cases.
The Word and Suffix Man
As Jacques Barzun explains more fully, the word man has traditionally meant human being (82-3). This means people regardless of sex, as seen even in 1611 in Genesis: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them” (King James Version Gen. 1.27). And man meant human being even at its etymological roots in Sanskrit, manu (Barzun 82-3). So there is nothing technically wrong with having a female or otherwise-gendered chairman or fireman or policeman or mailman.
But not all readers are this aware of how the language works, so when this option is likely to distract or mislead (which is more and more often), Bryan Garner advises the more effective and efficient option: drop the suffix -man altogether, and use the more specific identifier where available. So you can instead refer to the department chair, firefighter, police officer, or mail carrier (Garner 823).
Other Forms of Sexist Word Choices
Sex-specific terms are very rarely needed or have more common alternatives, so words such as authoress, waitress, stewardess, etc., can simply be author, server, flight attendant, and so forth (Garner 823).
If you are dealing with a subject or source that requires the distinction of, for instance, the Academy Award Winner for Best Supporting Actress, or Jane Austen’s heroines, or the goddesses of Greek mythology, you can use such widely accepted terms without fear of sounding sexist. Again, context and clarity are the best guides.
During your revising and editing stages, watch closely for unnecessary distinctions of sex, which can distract and mislead. Referring to a “female surgeon” or a “woman governor” has no place in a discussion that is actually about surgeons and governors rather than the sex or gender of them.
And on this note, the typical pattern is to use female as an adjective and woman/women as a noun. Although there are exceptions that context usually clarifies, one would not “interview a female about the issue” but instead “interview a woman,” and one might specifically seek the opinion of a “female doctor” rather than a “woman doctor.”
Barzun, Jacques. Dawn to Decadence. HarperCollins, 2000, 82-83.
Garner, Bryan. Garner’s Modern English Usage. Oxford UP, fourth ed., 2016.
King James Version. BibleGateway (website).
“They.” Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford UP, third ed., 2013.