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Writing Guide with Handbook

20.8 Spotlight on … Pronouns in Context

Writing Guide with Handbook20.8 Spotlight on … Pronouns in Context

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Recognize and avoid gender bias in writing and general language use.
  • Apply conventions of usage and current terminology to writing, including gender-neutral pronouns when applicable.

By now, you have a working knowledge of what pronouns are and how to use them. This section focuses on more nuanced uses of pronouns and their place in the contemporary world—an emerging field of interest as people work to develop language that best captures their multiple identities.

Eliminating Gender Bias

It is important to remember that many thoughtful and powerful English-language works from the past took masculine words for granted. English use of words such as man, men, he, him, and his was, one would hope, meant to include both men and women. Consider Thomas Jefferson’s “All men are created equal” and Thomas Paine’s “These are the times that try men’s souls.” The contemporary equivalent of those words might be “All people are created equal” and “These are the times that try our souls,” which are two of several possible fixes for such gender exclusivity. When you read historic texts, recognize that the rules were different then, and the writers are no more at fault than the culture in which they lived. Contemporary writing, however, should reflect inclusivity, which in turn reflects the culture in which you live today. (See Spotlight on… Bias in Language and Research for more about language bias.)

As you edit to avoid gender-biased language, you will notice that English does not have an agreed-upon gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun to match the gender-neutral third-person plural pronouns (they, their, them). Writers and speakers use he (him, his) for men and she (her, hers) for women. In the sentence “Everybody has his own opinion,” the indefinite pronoun everybody needs a singular pronoun to refer to it. Although it is grammatically correct to say, “Everybody has his own opinion,” the sentence excludes women. But until recently, it was considered grammatically questionable to write, “Everybody has their own opinion,” although their is gender neutral. When editing, be alert to such constructions, and consider these ways to use or fix them:

  • Make the sentence plural: “People have their own opinions.”
  • Include both pronouns (This solution excludes people who do not fall within a gender binary.): “Everybody has his or her own opinion.”
  • Eliminate the pronoun: “Everybody has an opinion.”
  • Alternate masculine and feminine pronouns throughout your sentences or paragraphs, using she in one paragraph and he in the next. Be careful, though; to avoid confusing readers, you might change them in each section or chapter.

Most writers have used all of these solutions at one time or another. As always, use the strategy that makes for the clearest, most graceful writing.

Additionally, it has become more common and generally accepted to use they, their, and them as singular pronouns. However, depending on the context, using a plural pronoun to refer to a single individual can be confusing to readers when its antecedent is unclear.

Pronouns for Nonbinary and Transgender People

You cannot always know how individuals identify themselves, nor can you assume their gender is either male or female. The best approach with people you don’t know is simply to ask which pronouns they prefer and to respect their choice. Some people identify themselves with the pronouns they/them/theirs, and this preference is generally acceptable politically, socially, and grammatically. Other gender-neutral pronouns exist as well, such as ze/hir/hirs, but they are used less often. If you are unsure, an option is simply to use the person’s name.

If an individual has a specific identity and prefers a masculine, feminine, or gender-neutral pronoun, there are ways they can inform people of it. (Notice the use here of they as a singular pronoun.) For example, if one identifies as female, that person can include the pronouns she/her as part of their email signature: “Jane Doe (she/her).” Similarly, a person who identifies as nonbinary can include the preferred pronouns they/them/their in their signature.

Write about Pronouns

Take a moment and write about how pronoun use impacts you. Also, write about how people understand each other through pronouns, while being mindful of the differences between people. Think carefully about perspectives on gender, and be sure to respect other points of view and interpretations of pronoun use. Finally, explain how pronoun use is an important component of identity.

As an additional exercise, review your portfolio and (re)consider your use of pronouns. Your development as a writer and enhanced understanding of pronouns will provide new insight into their use. Where might you have made other decisions about pronouns, and what impact might they have had? Consider including these insights in your reflective essay.

Avoid Discriminatory Language

Above all, your writing should not hurt people or exclude any group from humanity. As you edit, ensure that your language does not discriminate against categories of people based on gender, race, ethnicity, social class, or sexual orientation—or anything else.

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