He, S/he, He or She, or They?

Last week, I drafted a trial brief that referred to a judge as “he.” The judge is a she. So is the judge I was writing. Thank goodness I check my pronouns for gender before my briefs go out.

Strunk & White, The Elements of StyleBut what if gender is indeterminate? Teachers taught me to use “he” to mean he and she. The venerable Strunk and White calls this a simple, practical convention rooted in the beginnings of the English language. And if Strunk and White says it, and my teachers taught it, it must be right. Right?

My grade-school schooling was a while back. Other than Strunk and White, major style guides now condemn using “he” generically. William Zinsser was also much more steeped in tradition than me when he changed his views on this. In On Writing Well, Zinsser explained that his readers nudged him toward more gender-neutral language. He cut 300-400 male pronouns from his book with no harm done.

How do you do that?

Switch to plural nouns

Zinsser largely used plural nouns to make the switch, allowing him to use the pronoun “they.” He noted, however, that plurals often weaken writing because they are less specific than the singular, less easy to visualize.

Use “he or she”

Using “he or she” is easier. Yet a leading legal style guide warns that the phrase usually sounds stilted and becomes obnoxious if used in excess. The Redbook § 12.5(n).

Say “they”

The brave may consider replacing “he” with “they.” The Oxford English Dictionaries use “they” as a singular or indeterminate pronoun, and it and Fowler’s Modern English Usage cite examples from Austen, Dickens, and Shakespeare.

In The Elements of Legal Style, Garner calls this usage “inevitable” and praises it as a solution to a problem that has plagued the language for centuries. But he also cautions that judges may think us less credible if we use “they” this way. We are not Shakespeare.

Alternate he and she

Alternating “he” with “she” is another way to be more gender neutral. The State Legislature blesses this approach: “All words in an act or joint resolution importing the masculine gender shall apply to females also and words to the feminine gender shall apply to males.” S.C. Code Ann. § 2-7-30(A). But this risks whiplash. And Richard Wydick noted that we may wind up performing a sex change operation on somebody in the middle of a paragraph.

Rewrite the sentence

Other ways to avoid masculine pronouns includes avoiding personal pronouns altogether (repeat the antecedent noun or use the passive voice); neutering the terms (use “one,” “someone,” or “person”); or replacing personal pronouns with an article (the, a, or this).

Create words  

Then there is “s/he,” “zir,” “thon” and other proposals that never made it into a lexicon. Efforts to create new, gender-neutral pronouns date back 150 years. None has succeeded.


What do you do? Do you say “he,” “he or she,” or avoid personal pronouns altogether? Please leave a reply or reach me here.



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