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.


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.

Getting to the top of the content governance mountain

Establishing and maintaining content governance can feel like an uphill struggle. Especially in large organisations with a devolved publishing model.

I recently attended a content governance webinar where Liam King shared five truths about web content:

  1. Your content is degrading from the moment it is published
  2. We don€™t truly value our content
  3. We design sites that will never be sustainable
  4. Content governance just ain€™t exciting
  5. Love for content dangerously fluctuates

If you weren€™t nodding in agreement as you read these, please get in touch and share your secret to success€¦

Before you can tackle the problem you need to find the cause. Liam King recommends using the five whys problem solving method.

Once you know the root of the problem it€™s time to start tackling it. Here€™s how we€™re trying to climb the content governance mountain at Newcastle.

Content governance in higher education

We€™re currently working on a programme to bring all the University€™s external websites into the 21st century. It€™s called Go Mobile.  It is an opportunity not only to improve the site design and systems we use to publish websites, but also to improve the content and set up governance processes for that content.

Ownership and accountability

Before any site gets to begin the Go Mobile process we€™re making sure there€™s a named editor for us to work with. They will have ownership of the site€™s content and be accountable for its quality.

There€™s a lot of work to do with our editors to make sure they have the skills to create and maintain quality content. We€™ve developed a new approach to training web editors to help them succeed.

Training our editors

A significant amount of our training focuses on planning web content. We walk through the content lifecycle and introduce resources to help at each stage. These include templates for editorial calendars, and tools like Hemingway (to improve readability) and Siteimprove (to check for misspellings and broken links).

Throughout our training we reinforce the standards set out in our style guides and review examples of good and bad content.

Standards and style guides

We€™ve always had a content style guide that outlines standards and best practice. But I can probably count on my fingers the number of people who regularly consult it when creating or editing content.

Through Go Mobile we€™re trying to make it as easy as possible for our editors to put our content standards into practice. We€™re embedding standards where possible in the content management system. We€™ve also created a demo site that puts the standards into context of the new content types available to editors.

Content quality reviews

For every site that gets the Go Mobile treatment we€™re taking a snapshot of the content quality before any work gets done. This includes information from Google Analytics, Siteimprove and readability scores for every page. As part of the go live process we repeat the snapshot to check for improvements.

The quality assurance process doesn€™t end there. There€™s a plan to review every site after six months to make sure quality is being maintained. We€™re not at that stage yet, with the first sites only going live in August. If you want an idea of how these reviews might work, read up on the Government Digital Service€™s €˜spot checks€™.


Content governance processes and policies are redundant if you don€™t have people with the right skills to implement them. Part of our challenge is getting editors to think differently about their role and their content.

We€™re still in the early days of setting this up but so far all signs are looking good. Check back with me in 6-9 months to see how the first batch of Go Mobile sites have done in their content quality reviews!

How do you manage content governance in your organisation? Share your experiences in the comments.

How to Add Analytics Data Into a Content Audit Spreadsheet

An early step in our website development process is to conduct a content audit. In this we take an inventory of all the pages on the site and collect information such as:

  • it€™s level in the site structure
  • whether it€™s linked from the menu
  • when it was last updated
  • it€™s overall content quality (measured against our content standards)
  • if it links to any assets

We then make an assessment of each page, and recommend whether it should be retained, improved or deleted.

This helps us to restructure sites and identify where content improvements are needed.

The volume of information and work that needs doing following the audit can be overwhelming. So we want to help our editors to identify the pages they need to focus on first. One way to do this is show which are the most viewed pages on their websites.

It€™s easy to get this data from Google Analytics, but how can we combine that into our audit spreadsheet? It€™s not possible to just copy and paste the analytics data as there€™s not a value for every page in the audit.

The answer is the VLOOKUP function in Excel (or Google Sheets if you prefer). This will compare the two spreadsheets and fill the values from the analytics data only in the rows of the audit spreadsheet where there€™s a match between unique identifiers, in our case URLs.

If you can forgive the cheesy music, this video shows how VLOOKUP works. Take a few minutes to watch and then follow the step by step instructions below (they assume a basic knowledge of Excel).

Preparing the data

You€™ve got two spreadsheets. One containing your site audit and the other with your analytics data. I like to begin by copying my analytics data (as there€™s usually not too much of it) into a new worksheet in my audit spreadsheet.

Now let€™s look for the information that€™s common to both. In both the audit and our analytics data there is a column containing URLs. We€™ll use this to match up the data.

First of all you need to make sure both sheets use the same URL format €“ you may need to add or remove http:// for example.

Next you need to make sure the columns containing the URLs are sorted the same way, let€™s use A-Z.

Configuring the formula

In your audit sheet select the first empty cell in the column you want to import data into. Go to the Formulas tab and select €˜Insert Function€™. Select the category €˜Lookup & Reference€™ and choose VLOOKUP from the function list.

A dialogue box will open for you to enter the €˜Function Arguments€™. And here€™s what you need to enter:

  • Lookup_value €“ select the first cell containing content in the URL column of your audit worksheet
  • Table_array €“ select all the cells containing data in your analytics worksheet (you need to add a dollar $ sign before each column and cell, so A1 becomes $A$1, this will lock the reference when you copy the formula later)
  • Col_index_num €“ enter the column number you want to import data from, A= 1, B = 2 etc)
  • Range_lookup €“ enter false so that the function looks for an exact match between URLs

Your filled dialogue box should look something like this:

Function Arguments dialogue box for VLOOKUP function in Excel

Click OK to close the dialogue box. You should see that the original cell you highlighted now has a value in it. This could appear as #NA if the first URL in the list isn€™t one of your most visited pages.

Copy the formula to all the other cells in the analytics column of your audit sheet (this will only work if you added the $ sign to the table array). Now to view your most visited pages within your audit spreadsheet you just need to sort or filter by this column.


Obviously, you can use this process for combining any two sets of data in a spreadsheet.

I was so pleased when I discovered how to do this €“ I love to solve a problem.

I€™d be interested to hear from you in the comments if you found this post useful or if you€™re using analytics data in any other way in combination with site audits.