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His, Hers, Theirs, Yours–Gender-Neutral Language

I was going through some old materials I have used to teach business writing classes, and I came across a good example I haven’t thought about for a while. It’s from the book The Inner Skier:

“The Inner Skier chooses to confront and overcome fear. As a result, he improves not only his skiing, but also the quality of his life.”

Although I read it from cover to cover, The Inner Skier did not improve my skiing. Could it have been that the book’s masculine pronouns did not inspire me?

When I was growing up, it was the norm to use masculine pronouns to represent everyone. But these days such gender-based language gets in the way like a tree limb across a snowy trail.

You can replace those masculine pronouns five ways.

1. Change the pronoun from the singular he to the plural they (usually the easiest and the best choice).

Inner Skiers choose to confront and overcome fear. As a result, they improve not only their skiing, but also the quality of their lives.

2. Use you (a good choice, but it makes the tone more direct and familiar).

As an Inner Skier, you choose to confront and overcome fear. As a result, you improve not only your skiing, but also the quality of your life.

3. Use one (sounds formal–and plodding when there is more than one one).

As an Inner Skier, one chooses to confront and overcome fear. As a result, one improves not only one’s skiing, but also the quality of one’s life.

4. Revise the text. (My version below sounds too abstract.)

The Inner Skier chooses to confront and overcome fear, improving both skiing ability and quality of life.

5. Use his or her (typically very cumbersome, especially when the hes and shes pile up).

The Inner Skier chooses to confront and overcome fear. As a result, he or she improves not only his or her skiing, but also the quality of his or her life.

The Inner Skier was published in a new edition in 1997, and I probably read the old one. So I won’t blame the book for my skiing (in)ability. I simply choose not to confront and overcome my fear of breaking a leg–no matter which pronoun is used to describe it.

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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.

6 comments on “His, Hers, Theirs, Yours–Gender-Neutral Language”

  • I don’t think The Inner Skier improved my skiing either although it did inspire me to ski more, which did improve my abilities.

    I like the second-person “you”, precisely because it is direct and familiar. I want to feel I’m part of the learning.

  • The problem with using “they” is that so often the writer mixes singular and plural. I find it much less irritating to read “he” consistently. I was trained as a child to accept that as the neutral default, so I’ve never taken it as a personal slight to my female identity as a reader.

  • i work in amale dominated workplace and dislike ‘Dear Gents’ as a start to an email, particualryl if I am in cc or it is forwrded to me. Equally I dont like ‘girls’ in verbal reference to our HR Business Partners who happen to be female. Gents seems to be acceptable in soem terms for men.

    It just annoys me and I am on line looking for a reference to let my ‘male’ colleague know he is old fashioned and can find nothing.

    I dont want to be emotive – just want to correct him

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