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He/She or They? A Better Way

A friend told me yesterday about a survey she completed at work. It was an evaluation of a colleague, using a process called 360 degree feedback. The survey included 42 questions.

My friend was asked to evaluate one person, a man. However, all 42 questions included the pronoun they.

Example: Overall, they are a good team leader.

Because my friend is a careful reader and writer, the 42 grammatically incorrect theys irritated her and slowed her down. After all, she was evaluating him–not them.

Survey writers no doubt struggle with the pronoun gender issue and how to best construct questions. When I was growing up, the automatic choice would have been he and his. Nowadays that choice would be unthinkable, at least in many cultures and organizations.

The pronoun they is an awkward choice. They is plural, but the assessment focuses on one individual (a singular subject). There must be a better way, especially in a work environment that prides itself on good communication.

I believe the best, simplest option would be to create two assessments, one that uses she and her and another with he, him, and his. When someone received a request to complete an assessment, that person would simply choose the male or female version of the assessment.

However, if two versions, male and female, are unworkable, here are other suggestions to eliminate the offending they:

  • Use “he or she”: Overall, he or she is a good team leader. This approach works well but can become cumbersome with more complex sentences that also include “his or her.”
  • Use “he/she”: Overall, he/she is a good team leader.
    Like the version above, this one works fine with simple sentences but is less effective with complex items.
  • Use “this individual”: Overall, this individual is a good team leader.
    This approach works well because it can be followed by a “his or her”: This individual handles his or her supervisory responsibilities well.
  • Use “this person”: Overall, this person is a good team leader.
    “This person” works the same as “this individual.”
  • Use a job title along with “his/her.” The title might be manager, associate, sales rep or something else that suits the situation: Overall, the manager fulfills his/her responsibilities to the team.
  • Use a blank: Overall, ________ is a good team leader.

Do you have guidelines or best practices for handling the gender issue in surveys and other documents? Please share them.


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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

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