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An easy way out of a pronoun trap

I’ve written about this pet hate before, but here goes again.

I came across it the other day from one of my favourite writers, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and say he probably did it deliberately. However, it still grates.

What is it? Specifying a gender where it isn’t necessary.

The phrase in question was this:

“When the CEO says she’s looking for marketing help…”

Now, why is that bad? It’s because the use of ‘she’ surprises the reader, and makes them stop and think …but about something irrelevant to the sentence.

There’s no reason why the CEO shouldn’t be a ‘she’. That’s not the point.

If the article had been written in 1963, or probably even in 1993, the phrase would almost certainly have been: “When the CEO says he’s looking for marketing help…” and few readers would have paused for even a split second. Nowadays, we’ve moved on. Rightly, we’re more aware of pronouns. But just substituting ‘she’ just creates a different problem. It gets around an outdated convention, but by doing something unconventional, it breaks the flow of the sentence.

One way of tackling this is to use the phrase ‘he or she’. That gets the author out of the trap. But it also sounds horrible.

“When the CEO says he or she is looking for marketing help…”

Now, if there wasn’t an obvious solution, I wouldn’t be writing this. But there is. The English language doesn’t discriminate between genders in the plural. The pronoun ‘they’ can be used freely. If a sentence is referring to a generalised, unspecified subject, it can refer to more than one of them. And here’s how to solve the problem:

“When CEOs say they are looking for marketing help…”

Going back to the original writer of this sentence, I suspect he is quite aware of this approach, and is just making a point. He’s probably hoping it’ll make the reader think about the issue. But even so, it didn’t work for me.