Gender-Neutral Language



Anyone who writes these days eventually confronts the issue of gender-neutral language. The trickiest aspect of using gender-neutral language is pronoun/antecedent agreement. The antecedent is simply the word or words a pronoun refers to.

Look at these sentences:

 John loves his dog. (The singular masculine pronoun his refers to its antecedent, the singular masculine noun John.)

Jane loves her cat. (The singular feminine pronoun her refers to its antecedent, the singular feminine noun Jane.)

Jane and John love their pets. (The plural genderless pronoun their refers to its plural antecedent, the two nouns John and Jane.)

Wal-Mart loves its employees. (The singular neuter pronoun its refers to its antecedent, the singular neuter noun Wal-Mart.)

These grammatically correct sentences follow the rule that pronouns must agree with their antecedents in number (singular or plural) and when possible, in gender (feminine, masculine, or neuter). Plural pronouns and the pronoun you/your, whether singular or plural, don’t show gender.

Now look at these sentences:

A doctor has to care for his patients

A student should remember to do his homework.

Somebody left his car lights on.

In each sentence, the singular masculine pronoun his agrees in number with its singular antecedent, but what about gender?

All doctors, students and persons are not masculine.

This use of the masculine pronoun was long the accepted practice, but more enlightened attitudes toward women and concerns about gender equality have rendered the usage widely unacceptable. What to do?

You have five options:

  1. You can follow the old practice and use the masculine pronoun. This option is fine if you write only in your diary.
  2. You can use both pronouns: A doctor must care for his or her patients. Using both pronouns can get clumsy if you have to do it very often in a single document.
  3. You can make the antecedent plural, eliminating the need for gender-specific pronouns: Doctors must care for their patients. This option doesn’t work for the third sentence because the indefinite pronoun somebody can’t be made plural.
  4. You can omit the pronoun: A doctor has to care for patients. This option alters the original meaning slightly.
  5. You can ignore agreement in number and use the plural pronoun their. A doctor has to care for their patients. This option is common in spoken English, especially when a singular indefinite pronoun is the antecedent: Somebody left their car lights on. Although using their to refer to a single antecedent is still widely considered an error in formal English, it has its proponents. If you choose this option, many will assume you are making an unconscious error.

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