Friday, July 8, 2011

Grammar Friday - Gender Specific Language

 The American Heritage Book of English Usage says :
As a general rule, it is good to remember that you should only refer to a person by category when it is relevant or necessary to the discussion at hand. That is, you should ordinarily view people as individuals and not mention their racial, ethnic, or other status, unless it is important to your larger purpose in communicating.
There are simple ways to replace gender specific language with gender neutral language (many of these are becoming widely used):
  • chairman … chair
  • manned … staffed
  • fireman … firefighter
  • policeman … police officer
  • stewardess … flight attendant
  • mailman … mail carrier
 Perhaps one of the biggest issues for writers is clarity. Since gender specific language might jar some readers out of the reading flow, we want to be careful.

Some ways that people try to get around it is to use words like they or their to replace he or she. Anybody see the potential grammar problem?

It's when the writer doesn't continue the change to make everything match.

For example, this is gender specific:

If a patient is late in arriving, he must pay a late fee.

Try using one of these gender neutral sentences instead:

Any patient who is late in enrolling must pay an additional fee.

Patients who are late in arriving must pay an additional fee.

If a patient is late in arriving, he or she must pay an additional fee.


If a patient is late in arriving, they must pay an additional fee.

The problem with the last one is patient is singular but they is plural. The writer didn't continue the change to make everything match. It's like adorable Dobby's disharmonized socks.


It's easy to fix by changing patient to patients.

There are some obvious areas where writers shouldn't be guided by this modern trend. The language in historical fiction should represent the culture at the time the book is set.

SciFi and Fantasy writers can pretty much do anything they want, since they're world building anyway. Right? I love it when SciFi or Fantasy authors cleverly create words, expletives, etc. that are a reflection of their world/culture.

Can you think of any other genres that can ignore this particular grammar rule? Do you have ways that you're politically correct when you write to avoid "jarring" your readers?


  1. Ah this is really helpful!
    I'm only sixteen, but I do well in school and know loads of authors, and I always said things like "they did this" to prevent gender bothers! But now I realise.
    Thanks for this. :)

  2. This is a great post, but it made my brain hurt. I will pay closer attention to that when I'm writing. Talking, though? That's a whole other ballgame...


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