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.

Advice for first time bloggers

Last week I ran some training for first time bloggers. To give some personal insight I thought a lot about my own blogging practice and how I got started. And here’s the result.

In the beginning…

I started blogging before I was even aware of what a blog was. I was a teenager, working out who I was and what I wanted to do with my life. I created an account on diary-x and started writing. I’ve never thought about it before, but this means I’ve been blogging in some form for around 15 years. I’m comfortable doing it. I’ve developed a voice that I’m happy with. And yet I still get nervous every time I publish a post. I wouldn’t have it any other way – it means I care about what I’m writing and making it the best I can for the people who are going to read it.

I can’t tell you the number of blogs I’ve had over the years. I’ve always had at least one on the go, but more likely two; one personal and one professional. When I’ve set them up they’ve all had a clear purpose. Some I’ve set up and then handed on. Others were written for a specific event.

Deciding what to write about

There’s an easy answer to the question of what you’re going to write about – anything. Yes, really. As long as you’ve got a clear idea of the goal of your blog and the overarching theme, within that you can write about any topic. You don’t need to be an expert. In fact I think it helps if you’re not. What I’ve observed from interactions with the readers of my blog is that they’re looking to learn from the experiences of others in a similar position to them.

I’ve got the best response to posts where I’ve shared what I’m learning or what I’ve tried. The most popular post on my blog is about writing handover notes. I wrote it when I was looking for tips on how to write a good handover document and couldn’t find anything useful. It gets as many daily views (around 40) as it did the day it was published over a year ago. Why? It shares my experience, offers practical tips and covers a topic that isn’t written about much.

The act of writing

Once you know what the topic of your post is going to be, get the initial ideas out of your head. Put them down on paper or in a digital notepad, whatever works best for you. You might find it helpful to give yourself a time limit – I usually begin posts in my lunch breaks which gives me a deadline for getting something down. Don’t edit as you go along. You’ll end up with a rough draft or perhaps just a list of disconnected thoughts. The important thing is that it’s a start.

Now you can edit. I find it’s best to leave the draft for a while, when I come back to it with fresh eyes it’s usually obvious where to go next.

I find it’s easier to write outside of the blog environment. Only once I’ve got what I’d consider to be the final draft do I copy this to my blog editor. At this point I preview it to see how it looks in the template and give it a final proof. Once the final tweaks are made it’s finally time to publish.

Conclusion

And there you have it, my advice for getting started with blogging. I’ve summarised that stream of consciousness into a few key takeaways:

  • write about your experiences and share what you learn
  • give practical advice
  • choose topics where there’s a gap in existing writing
  • once you’ve got a topic, just get some ideas onto the page – don’t worry about order or style
  • give your draft some space and then begin to edit after a few hours

Do you have any top tips for beginner bloggers? Share them in the comments.

Reading about writing

This week I have read a lot about writing as I’m working on updating our house styles and guidance on writing for the web. With this post I simply want to collect together everything I’ve read.

A couple of classics
Orwell, G. (1946) ‘Politics and the English Language’. Horizon, April 1946. Reprinted with permission by The Orwell Prize.

(And also available from Penguin for a mere £0.99, with free postage in the UK) 

Along with Orwell’s six rules for writing this essay includes the following, which I am seriously considering including in our style guide:

A scrupulous writer in every sentence that he writes will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

Strunk, W. and White, E.B. (2000) The Elements of Style with revisions, an introduction and a chapter on writing by E.B. White [foreword by Roger Angell]. 4th, International edition. New York: Pearson International.

I borrowed this from the library, but I think it’s something that should become a permanent feature on my desk.

A modern twist
Murphy, C. and Persson, N. (2013) The Craft of Words. Part One: Macrocopy. Penarth: Five Simple Steps.

This is a really clear and engaging little book. Its design is crisp and best of all the ebook only costs a couple of quid.

I’ve decided to use the introduction to chapter 4, Language is a lubricant, as my writing mantra:

Established norms of written communication €“ such as spelling, grammar, punctuation and capitalisation €“ all exist to aid understanding and to ease the process of communication. In short: it is polite to write well.

Style guides
As I’ve researched style guides I’ve added the ones I like to a collection on Bundlr.

There’s also some interesting research assessing GOV.UK’s content principles by the Centre for Information Design Research at the University of Reading.

And there you have it. Happy reading and writing everyone.