Using Gender-Fair or
Neutral Language

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A generation or so ago, English language usage standards used to tell us to use "man," "he," etc., when speaking about any unspecified individual. This standard has changed for several reasons:

Thus, in order to make our writing as accurate and fair as possible, it is necessary to use gender-fair or neutral language in two general areas: in the use of the terms "man" or "men" in nouns, and in the use of personal pronouns such as "he." The problem is that the English language is flawed - we don't have a pronoun that means "a person of either sex." obvious solution -- replacing each "he" with "he or she," or alternating between the two, can be as awkward as it is obvious. In addition, this solution may not be acceptable in technical or scientific writing, where a high value is placed on accurate and unambiguous information.

The most common attempt to solve this problem is a mistake that almost everyone makes in spoken language: putting a plural pronoun (they, them, their, theirs) after a singular noun or pronoun.

PROBLEM: A person should not ignore their friends' personal troubles.
PROBLEM: It is the duty of every driver to carry their driver's license at all times.

Typically, however, the problem is caused by the use of an indefinite pronoun, which refers to a nonspecific person (anybody, anyone, each, either, everybody, everyone neither, nobody, none, no one, somebody, someone). These sound plural but should be treated as singular.

PROBLEM: Anyone can achieve these goals if they work hard and have some faith.
PROBLEM: No one can come in if they don't know the password.


  1. Use Neutral Expressions Rather than Gender-Specific Ones in Phrases and Occupations

    These are just a few examples; a little creative thought on your part can usually solve this problem.

    In American English you should also avoid using old feminine forms of noun such as "poetess" and "bachelorette": just drop the feminine endings. Be aware, however, that British English still uses many of these (a female British store manager is actually referred to as a "manageress").

  2. Use Plural Nouns and Pronouns Instead of Singular, Gender-Specific Forms

    Just remember that sometimes the meaning of the sentence will not allow you to use a plural.

  3. Reword to Avoid Gender Problems Entirely


  1. Use First Person ("I") or Second Person ("You")

    You can easily see one problem with this solution: it changes the meaning of the sentence somewhat, which could be significant in context. Other, less obvious, problems, are that overuse of the words "you" or "I" in a paper can sound accusatory or self-centered, respectively, and the mixed use of first, second, and third person in a paper can be confusing to a reader.

  2. Use Passive Voice

    You can see that this sounds pretty awkward. Reword to avoid this problem instead.

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    Copyright 1998 ©Margaret Oakes
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