Person or persons of unspecified gender

As marketers, we have to be sharp with our use of language, so I like to throw in some quick tips on writing style occasionally. Today is one of those days.

One thing which often makes factual prose awkward is when you need to refer to a person of an unspecified gender, but the English language only offers you gender-specific personal pronouns. So you might write: “if your reader comes across an awkward phrase, he will have his enjoyment spoiled”. But of course the reader might not be a “he”, so many writers reach for the clumsy “he or she” version: “if your reader comes across an awkward phrase, he or she will have his or her enjoyment spoiled”.

Not great.

Other writers, especially where the gender might historically have defaulted to male, delight in subverting things on purpose: “When your boss sees this, she will be very happy”. That’s fine, but it makes the reader stop and think about a different issue to the one being covered. We need something better.

The solution is very straightforward, but not used nearly often enough. It comes from the fact that the English language only demands gender-specificity in singular pronouns. In the plural, we just use the non-gender-specific “they”, “them” and “their”. So just move everything into the plural whenever possible (and it usually is possible). The result? Use phrases like “If your readers aren’t given any awkward phrases, they won’t have their enjoyment spoiled” and “When your bosses see this, they will be very happy”.

That’s better.

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