Notes from the Editor – April 2016

Using the singular “they” for gender neutrality

English does not have a generic third-person pronoun, unlike, for instance, Turkish. This poses a problem when the person we refer to can be a male or a female. In the past, it was common to use pronouns he, him, and his when referring to persons of either sex. But “he” is no longer accepted as a generic pronoun; on the contrary, it is viewed as sexist because it excludes women and encourages sex-role stereotyping. It has become common to substitute the third-person plural pronouns they, them, their, and themselves.

Using “he or she” and “his or her” is another solution adopted by many. Overusing it, however, creates wordy constructions and this is certainly something we try to avoid.

Let’s look at the example below and see how we can revise the sexist language to make it gender neutral, while eliminating wordiness. As you will see, we can even recast the sentence to avoid using any pronoun.

A good designer chooses her projects carefully.

Acceptable but wordy
A good designer chooses his or her projects carefully.

Better: using the plural
Good designers choose their projects carefully.

Better: recasting the sentence
A good designer chooses projects carefully.


Rules for Writers, Sixth Edition, Diana Hacker, 2009
The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition, 2010
English Style Guide, European Commission Directorate-General for Translation, 2011