Gender neutral pronouns: on grammar and inclusivity

Crayons showing a spectrum of colours

When I started my current job I was given the responsibility of updating the University’s editorial style guide. One of the first things I did was to add a point about pronouns. Our guide now recommends the use of the gender-neutral pronouns them, they and theirs.

Inclusivity

Gender is more complex than the existing options we have to define ourselves: male or female.

I wrote a blog post recently on my experiences as someone who considers their gender to be non-binary. It surprised me how many people who read it hadn’t considered that people like me exist. Or how it affects us to live in a world that is set up to support gender binaries.

The binary pronouns, he and she, don€™t allow for people who identify as being non-binary.

I spend too much of my time having people make assumptions about my gender. It is always a challenging and uncomfortable experience. I don’t want to feel that way when I’m reading a website, newspaper or book either.

Writing style

What pronouns do you use when you don’t know the gender of the subject of your sentence? He/she. S/he. His/her.

Let€™s see these in some example sentences:

If you take any medication, tell your dentist before he/she starts your treatment.

Your gift card recipient can choose which department s/he spends it in.

The successful candidate can choose his/her start date.

Urgh. These sentences are a mouthful. Try reading them aloud and you’ll see.

What about this for comparison?

If you take any medication, tell your dentist before they start your treatment.

Your gift card recipient can choose which department they spend it in.

The successful candidate can choose their start date.

Better? Of course it is.

Some people think using a plural pronoun, like they, to refer to an individual is bad grammar. I’d counter these arguments with evidence of a long literary tradition of using they after a singular noun. Read this blog post from the OED if you need convincing.

The use of the singular they is also being adopted by publishers and newspapers. At the end of 2015 the Washington Post added singular they to their style guide. And the American Dialect Society voted singular they as their word of the year in 2015.

Do you write? Try using gender neutral pronouns and see how it improves your work.