Pronouns and Non-Specific Genders

Have you ever wondered how you should reference a non-specific gender when writing? What pronoun should be used?

We all know that for eons, the masculine pronoun was used when faced with these questions. It was the accepted unspoken rule.

If a writer needed to use a pronoun for a non-specific gender, he would use “he.” No one gave it a second thought. But, times have changed . . . is this strategy still acceptable?

Of late, it seems many writers are unsure of the correct pronoun to use. Many of us, including me, use a number of different pronouns when faced with this situation. As an example, let me backtrack a bit first and explain how I use to tackle this dilemma.

My Old Strategy of Referencing a Non-Specific Gender

When I wrote a sentence, and realized I was referencing a non-specific genre, I’d write “he/she,” “he and she,” or “he or she.” More often I would revise the sentence to avoid having to be in this situation. But, I was never sure if what I was doing was correct.

For example, I might write the following: When a child suffers with allergies, he/she should be seen by his/her doctor.

Trying not to fall into the old masculine pronoun strategy or having a clunky looking sentence, I would try to use both genders or eliminate the problem.

To eliminate the problem, I'd change the sentence to: When children suffer with allergies, they should be seen by their doctor.

While this works well, sometimes you need to reference “a child,” or “an adult.” Not all sentences can be fixed by changed the noun to plural. Working through these problems took time and thought.

But the days of guessing are gone . . . we now have a clear cut strategy to use.

The New Protocol for Referencing a Non-Specific Gender

We have finally progressed beyond the old standard protocol of tackling this situation with a masculine pronoun.

Now, using either the feminine or masculine pronoun is allowed and even encouraged. It’s actually fine to use whatever you want, even “he/she.” But, again we want to avoid the clunky looking sentence.

According to a post in Writer’s Digest, Questions and Quandaries, using either “he” or “she” throughout an article or post is perfectly acceptable. Another method is to alternate between “he” and “she” within the same article or post. I guess we can now be called equal opportunity pronoun gender writers.


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Anonymous said...

Hi Karen, thanks for your post. We are equal opportunity pronoun gender writers. That would certainly get peoples attention if they ask what you do for a living. : )

Karen Cioffi said...

Suzanne, that would be funny! :)

Karen Cioffi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Vivian Zabel said...

I've been one for years and didn't know what I was. Wow.

Karen Cioffi said...

Vivian, I always had a problem with this topic. Now I'm one too! :)

Donna McDine said...

Karen...great topic. Thanks for sharing your insights!

Unknown said...

Thanks for the clarifications you sited, Karen.

Karen Cioffi said...

Donna and Kathy,

Thanks for stopping by!

Karen Cioffi said...

Donna and Kathy,

Thanks for stopping by!

dana e donovan said...

Thanks Karen. Now when one posts a comment, he can speak her mind and she won't sound like he doesn't know what she is talking about. Only kidding. Great info. Thanks again!

Margaret Fieland said...

Karen, a lot of writers (including me) use "they" even in the singular -- even though it's incorrect -- to avoid this problem ..:

if a child needs to go to the doctor, they...

Janet Ann Collins said...

Whew! What a relief to know the Powers That Be have finally resolved the problem. Thanks for sharing the information.

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

Thanks for clearing up this dilemma for me!

Kristi's Book Nook said...

Thanks for the information. I have trouble with this often.

Cheryl said...

Great article, Karen. I've done this for years in my articles. I figured I better not tick off readers by relying on the masculine pronoun too much.


Karen Cioffi said...

Dana, you're funny. LOL

Peggy, I've done that, but always went back and changed the structure of the sentence to fit the they.

Jane and Kristi, I know the info helped me and wanted to share - glad it helped you too.

Cheryl, isn't if funny that this simple little detail in our writing can cause us to waste time and bother us enough to even think about it. :)

Thanks All for stopping by!

Suzanne Lieurance said...

Hi, Karen,

I try to do what you usually do - change the sentence, if possible, so I don't need a gender specific pronoun. However, I also use "he" and "she" throughout an article or other manuscript, without going crazy trying to switch back and forth.

Nice article! I'm sure many writers have questions about this topic.

T. Forehand said...

Great information for those of us challenged with the he/she use of pronouns. I will use this to improve my own writing. thanks for sharing.

Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

Excellent article, Karen. I'd like to run it later on my Any chance of that?

PS: If I feel is must use he/she, I usually go the Chicago Style Book route and say "he or she." The slashes, as you say, are distracting and clunky.

Liana said...

Thanks for the information Karen! I use They or use the plural-my students have always been confused by this.

Karen Cioffi said...

Suzanne, Terri, Carolyn, and Liana, thanks for stopping by. This topic seems to be one of interest to many.

And, Carolyn, of course you can run it at thefrugaleditior.blogspot.