Proper use of gender in writing?

I am having a minor problem. I am writing something, and I need a way to refer to the reader or another fictional person whose ssex may vary. How can I do this without offending anyone and avoiding annoyingly complex “he or she” formations all over the place - and keep proper grammar?

Is there such a way?

I post this here since I expect a opinionated debate, rather than a “here is my post and here is the gospel truth” answer. Move if you please, Mods. This problem in English grammar is yet unresolved, but perhaps I can get some advice.

Plus, there is all the potential for the debate on the larger issue. The traditional use of the word “he” may seem vaguely sexist, but its hardly an open declaration of inter-sexual warfare, and I’ll be darned if it wasn’t asy to use and read.

  1. Meticulously avoid all use of the offending pronouns.

  2. If the sex of the character will vary, call him “he” when he’s a male, and call her "she’ when she’s a female.

See how easy that is?

Obviously, many people have adopted the use of the word “they” rather than continue to use “he” or the more cumbersome “s/he” or “he/she”. And people use “their”, instead of “his or hers”.

Unfortunately, this does violate the proper usage of the single vs. plural pronoun. However, it does include persons of both gender. I suppose you have to decide what’s more important to you. It’s your piece.

Personally, I prefer to include everybody. Language evolves. It’s hard to get used to, but it happens.

I also avoid “he or she.”

I’ve tried using the common “they/their” formulation, but it just plain grates on me.

And the practice, apparently approved somewhere, of alternating between indefinite “he’s” and “she’s” is too distracting.

Until someone popularizes “hse” (pronounced “see”) as an alternative to he/she, I will use “he” in the old-fashioned way, and allow the picketing crowds to do what they may.

But I do now use “hirs” for his/hers. How about “hirm” for him/her? (The idea is to find something that sounds enough like either one that the listener plugs in what hse pleases!)

As Scylla patiently explains, there is no problem and there is no reason for debate. That is, there is no problem if you are remembering that the antecedent must come first and a pronoun always refers to the person or animal last mentioned.

Additionally, I think you’ll find that science fictions writers have successfully dealt with morphing characters for decades.

j.c.: Additionally, I think you’ll find that science fictions writers have successfully dealt with morphing characters for decades.

Well, with varying degrees of success: Ursula K. LeGuin wrote The Left Hand of Darkness about a society where people routinely changed their biological gender, and used male pronouns to refer to all of them; but she has since commented that she is not satisfied with the effect (and I must say I found it pretty automatic to think of all these “he” and “him” referents as male by default, even when I consciously tried to remember they morphed). LeGuin wrote a short story “Winter’s King” about the same society where she kept male titles (“king”, etc.) but used female pronouns, IIRC.

However, I think what the OP was talking about in the case of a “fictional person whose sex may vary” was not sci-fi gender morphing, but plain old gender indeterminacy: i.e., the indefinite “one” whose gender is not known. If you don’t know who’s reading your book, you can’t really say “The reader who likes his fiction light and cheerful…” or “The reader who likes her fiction light and cheerful…” without sometimes being inaccurate.

Some writers still follow the old fashion of always using male pronouns in gender-indefinite cases, and many readers find it a little obtrusively old-fashioned or even slightly sexist, but probably nobody really minds very much. Some writers follow the new fashion of always using female pronouns in gender-indefinite cases, and many readers find it a little obtrusively PC, but probably nobody really minds very much.

Some writers try to use either male or female pronouns more or less at random in such cases; some writers use plural pronouns with singular verbs and don’t worry about the grammatical mismatch; some writers use neologisms like “hse” or “hirs”; some writers just scrupulously avoid any constructions that require a singular gender-indefinite pronoun. (The children’s author E. Nesbit, I recall, always used the neuter pronoun: “Everybody put on its own warm clothes…”.)

I don’t really think it matters that much which you choose. But I approve of the current chaotic situation where there are lots of different customs co-existing, because I find that it has the effect of making the semi-conscious “gender reaction” (“why do you say ‘he’?” “why do you say ‘she’?”) easier to ignore. And that’s the whole point of gender-indeterminate pronouns in the first place: they’re supposed to let you think of “a person” without making any subliminal assumptions about his/her/their/its/hirs/one’s gender.

“They” was correct as a singular pronoun of indeterminate gender before certain grammarians decided (incorrectly) that English was a Latinate language and should follow Latinate rules. (cf Shakespeare and other authors prior to the early 19th century.)

I, for one, would rather be incorrect in number but avoid incorrectness in gender. That might be me. But “they” is correct.

I’m giving the OP props for understanding the diff between sex and gender - the character is “another fictional person whose sex may vary” - and I still say Scylla gets a cigar for having the right answer.

“One of the readers who likes fiction light and cheerful”

Also, SisterCoyote, you should change your username to siblingcoyote - right this minute. No, wait, the term sibling covertly supports the idea that blood relatives are some how more significant than other coyotes. That would be cruel to cousincoyotes.

JC -

Re: Your Hijack.

Previously, my handles have included “ngwalme” and “dogsbody.”

However, in the context of the internet, it became frustrating to me, as a person of both female sex and gender, to be consistently identified as male.

Ergo, “Sister” Coyote. That, and there is an intentional religious dimension of “Sister” in use in my name as well.

But thanks for playing.

I’ll just toss out another vote for using “he” to indicate “he or she”. It’s also possible to use “one” in many situations, as in “One must not forget one’s coat when it’s raining”, but the mood implied by that is more akin to the second-person than third-person, and I’m imagining third-person is what you wanted.

I’ve always been a big proponent of grammatical correctness over political correctness, and contrary to what SisterCoyote says, the use of “he” in such situations is not at all “incorrect”, nor is it particularly imprecise, if you form your sentences properly. It’s usually pretty obvious whether a writer means “he” to be, well, “he”, or if he means it to be “he or she”.

I would disagree strongly with the assertion that use of “they” in this situation is correct, anyway. Here’s what has to say on the matter, which pretty well matches my experience in the matter:

So just know that you can use “they” if you want, and people will probably know what you mean, but you’ll be technically incorrect.

That quote above is kinda difficult to parse… lemme try again:


Although Madonna, Boy George, and Debbie Gibson all produced terrible music, each had his own fan club during the eighties.

Fingernails down my mental chalkboard. Grammatically correct, however, if you adopt current rules for using singular pronouns to refer to a member of a group which contains both men and women.

Many writers have used the plural pronoun in such situations, including Shakespeare and Emily Bronte – hardly politically-correct flakes or linguistic lightweights. It’s reasonably common in spoken English for folks to use they, them, or their as gender-neutral third-person singular pronouns.

Right now, that’s considered incorrect usage. But the rules of “proper” English change, and they change to follow how folks use the language (as I am sure thou wilst agree). I sincerely believe that using “they” etc. as gender-neutral pronouns is the best solution, and I encourage folks to use it until the prescriptivists out there throw up their hands in defeat and call it correct.


ElJeffe -

That gets back to my statement about why the original rule was put in place to begin with.

I don’t have my research with me at work (and may no longer have it on my PC at home - this was last semester’s coursework) but when the grammarians decided that “their” was no longer correct there were a number of well-known authors (mostly male, given the time period), who felt that using “he” as the generic was unacceptable, and that they had been left without an acceptable alternative.

Of course, English has a perfectly useful singular non-gender derived pronoun in the word “it,” but somehow people get all bent out of shape if you use that particular word to refer to human beings.

Anyway - YMMV, (and certainly is likely to) but “their” is increasingly being used, if not accepted by grammarians.

What The Master had to say

Thanks, sistercoyote – glad to see the Master got it right.


Madam Coyote:

I certainly agree that “their” is being increasingly used, but I’m something of a grammatical conservative. I recognize that language will change over time, and generally speaking, I think that’s a good thing. However, I’m also of the opinion that such changes should be very slow, and should be adopted as offically sanctioned grammar only reluctantly. The alternative is a language that is overly mutable, to the point where knowing what is considered grammatically correct becomes difficult.

When language is allowed to change too quickly, you wind up with situations where mispronunciations, misspellings, incorrect usage of words, and the like are accepted just because everybody is too damned ignorant to make sure they know how to write and talk. I submit the situation with “nauseous” versus “nauseated” as an example.

Neologisms don’t bother me much, but adopting errors as accepted speech just bugs me. And the best way I know to combat this is just to make any change to the language an uphill battle for those who desire such change. Thus, even though I don’t have too much difficult in theory with the usage of “they” as a singular pronoun, the fact remains that at current, it’s considered improper grammer. As such, I’ll continue to frown upon its usage until the battle to keep it out of the common vernacular becomes futile, at which point I’ll find a new windmill to slay. :slight_smile:

See, THAT’s what I’m talking about, everybody: ElJeffe is the enemy! :wink:


But, ElJeffe, this change is the result (or, perhaps more accurately, the reversal) of a change that was made far too quickly when it was first instituted.*

Please let’s not discuss nauseous vs. nauseated, though, or I may have to vomit. :wink:

*IOW, I’m not arguing with you that it needs to be slow; but it’s been a long time coming already (viz Cecil’s article). :slight_smile:


Hey, don’t make me get all linguistic on your ass.


I see your point. However, it would seem that a rule change made close to 200 years ago, regardless of whether or not it made sense then, should be accepted as proper grammar now. I’m perfectly willing to accept that the reasoning of the linguists back then was lousy, if that;s your claim. But that was a long time ago, and we’ve since accepted those changes. So at this late date it seems that the state of the English language back then is irrelevant - “they” as a singular pronoun today is considered improper grammar. As such, any change back to pre-1800 grammar should be slow and plodding, and impeded by linguistic purists like me. If the change can get past the likes of me and the Linguistic Lords accept the change as proper, then I’ll pat the proponents of such change on the back and give them a hearty “Well done!” I’ll even start using “they” as a singular pronoun, though I’ll do it grumpily.

For the record, I think acceptance of “they” is pretty slow and plodding by the people who actually care about this stuff.

Anyway, I need to actually do some, you know, work now. Cheers!

I think there’s a difference between

  1. wondering whether one is nauseous or nauseated; and
  2. growing up wondering why SHE is never mentioned in any of the books, magazines, or newspaper articles she reads.

It seems to me that it should be okay to “expedite” or approve of making some changes in language because there are valid reasons for doing so.

Why not “Although Madonna, Boy George, and Debbie Gibson all produced terrible music, each had fan clubs during the eighties.”

“His own” is awkward and misleading. Debbie alone had dozens of fan clubs - one or two made up of teenage girls rather than inmates….