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Technical Writing and the Pronoun Problem
Briefly
Nowadays, many people object to gender-specific pronouns (he, she, her, him, his, hers, himself, herself) in business and technical writing. In this article we survey the many strategies for avoiding them, and recommend using third person pronouns (they, them, their, themselves)
as singular pronouns in most cases where a pronoun is unavoidable. Frowned on by some traditionalists, this useage nevertheless has a long pedigree, and everyday examples abound.

Classic Examples

"Each of them should. . .
make themself ready,"

- William Caxton, ca. 1460

"God send everyone their heart's desire,"
- William Shakespeare

"If a person is born of a gloomy temper. . . they cannot help it."
- Lord Chesterfield, 1759

"Nobody prevents you, do they?"
- William Makepeace Thackeray

". . . everyone shall delight us, and we them."
- Walt Whitman

"It's enough to drive anyone out of their senses."
- George Bernard Shaw

Everyday Examples

They each nodded their head in agreement.

If someone asks about the "Help Wanted" sign while I'm out, have them fill out an application.

Anyone using the pool when the lifeguard is off duty does so at their own risk.

Did you see who sat in seat 4C? They left their hat behind.

I don't know whose x-ray this is, but they're going to need root canal surgery.

    Strategies for avoiding gender-specific pronouns
    Regardless of what you may have been taught in grammar school, the use of masculine third-person pronouns (he/ him/ his/ himself) as generic pronouns is no longer acceptable to many people in business communication. Whatever your own intentions may be, some readers will regard this usage as insulting, insensitive, or at the very least, distracting.

    By "generic pronouns" I mean the pronouns we use when the gender of the person referred to is unknown or undefined, a common occurence in technical writing. The problem is that most people exclusively visualize a male "agent" when they encounter the masculine pronouns in print, even when they are clearly meant to be taken generically. In technical writing, you usually want your readers to visualize themselves as the agent.

    Since the purpose of business and technical communication is to convey information with clarity and precision, anything that distracts the reader's attention away from your topic must be looked upon as a problem to be solved. In this article I survey some of the strategies for avoiding "the pronoun problem" that have been suggested over the past few years. The focus here is on the practical; none of these strategies depart from English grammar as it is commonly used today. You can avoid the pronoun problem without being "a linguistic pioneer."

    Consider this passage from a machine shop "policies and procedures" manual:

      "The widget stamping machine (WSM) operator is responsible for keeping his machine calibrated. If he detects a calibration change of greater than .05%, he must notify his supervisor immediately. The supervisor will inspect the WSM, and inform the operator whether he can continue using the machine. "

    Ouch! Among its problems, this paragraph contains many examples of gender-specific pronouns. Let's see what can be done with it.

    Use compound pronouns
    Lately, some writers have been using compound pronouns like "he or she" or "s/he."

      "The widget stamping machine (WSM) operator is responsible for keeping his or her machine calibrated. If the operator detects a calibration change of greater than .05%, he or she must notify the supervisor immediately. The supervisor will inspect the WSM, and inform the operator whether he or she can continue using the machine."

      ""The widget stamping machine (WSM) operator is responsible for keeping his/her machine calibrated. If the operator detects a calibration change of greater than .05%, s/he must notify the supervisor immediately. The supervisor will inspect the WSM, and inform the operator whether s/he can continue using the machine."

    While this certainly solves the problem for the writer, many readers will find this kind of writing confusing and awkward. Try reading these paragraphs aloud to see why. How do you pronounce "s/he?" The occasional compound pronoun may get you out of a rhetorical bind, but if we are concerned with clear communication, we have not yet found a complete solution to our problem.

    Alternate masculine and feminine pronouns
    A related strategy is to alternate using masculine and feminine generic pronouns in succeeding paragraphs, sections, or chapters. For example, always use he/him/his in odd numbered chapters, and always use she/her/hers in even numbered chapters. This strategy does promote balance and has sometimes been used to good effect in textbooks, but it doesn't solve the real problem of distracting the reader. Half the time you are asking your male readers to identify with a female agent, and the other half, asking female readers to identify with a male agent.

    Even worse, the amount of background "housekeeping" required to ensure that you've applied this strategy consistently is a lot of work, and invites errors when you are doing high volume writing on tight schedules. For this reason alone, I don't recommend using it in the context of technical and business writing.

    Use the dreaded passive voice
    Some writers evade the problem by using the passive voice. Despite the name, few topics arouse more passion among writers than passive voice. The bane of scientific writing, passive voice can be acceptable in technical and business writing when used sparingly, but attempting to eliminate all gender-specific pronouns by using the passive voice can result in some rather tortured prose:

      "Widget stamping machine (WSM) calibration is the responsibility of the operator. If a calibration change of greater than .05% is detected, the supervisor must be notified. After the machine is inspected, the operator will be informed whether it can continue to be used."

    I don't know about you, but reading this paragraph makes me tired. I want to ask the writer, "are you talking to me?"

    Be specific
    One strategy that doesn't always occur to writers is to mention specific people by name. Suppose the supervisor is Dr. X, will always be Dr. X, and you know it and your audience knows it. Why not say so?

      "The widget stamping machine (WSM) operator is responsible for keeping his machine calibrated. If he detects a calibration change of greater than .05%, he must notify Dr. X immediately. Dr. X will inspect the WSM, and inform the operator whether he can continue using the machine."

    This strategy may not work in a manual with a long "shelf life, "but in day-to-day communications it is clearer to write "Dr. Petersen," "Ms. Kochanski," or "Mr. Chen," than "the supervising engineer."

    Eliminate pronouns
    Recasting the sentence to avoid using pronouns altogether sometimes helps, depending on how many times they occur. But you can't simply "cut and paste:"

      "The widget stamping machine (WSM) operator is responsible for keeping the operator's machine calibrated. If the operator detects a calibration change of greater than .05%, the operator must notify the operator's supervisor immediately. The supervisor will inspect the WSM, and inform the operator whether the operator can continue using the machine."

    Hmm. Kind of repetitive. What if just we eliminate the possessives, thus:

      "The widget stamping machine (WSM) operator is responsible for keeping the machine calibrated. If the operator detects a calibration change of greater than .05%, he must notify the supervisor immediately. The supervisor will inspect the WSM, and inform the operator whether he can continue using the machine."

    Now we're getting somewhere! And we can probably assume that once Dr. X determines whether the machine is useable, she'll inform the operator. How about this:

      "The widget stamping machine (WSM) operator is responsible for keeping the machine calibrated. If the operator detects a calibration change of greater than .05%, he must notify the supervisor immediately. The supervisor will inspect the WSM, and determine whether he can continue using the machine."

    Now let's combine some of the strategies we've looked at so far:

      "The widget stamping machine (WSM) operator is responsible for keeping the machine calibrated. If its calibration changes by more than .05%, the operator must notify the supervisor immediately. He or she will inspect the WSM, and determine whether it can continue to be used."

    Not bad. Direct, concise, with just one wholly appropriate compound, and a bit of passive voice in the last sentence. Notice how much less distracting the compound pronoun "he or she" appears when it is applied to someone other than the main agent, the WSM operator. Try reading this one aloud – it works.

    Use second person pronouns
    The strategies outlined above make sense if you are writing something like XYZ Company Policies and Workrules Handbook. But when you are writing for an audience that is expected to do something, why not write as if you were standing at their side, talking to them? Using the second person pronouns (you, your, yours, yourself) works well in instructional or procedural materials. If our sample paragraph was meant to appear in the Widget Stamping Machine User's Guide, I'd recommend recasting like this:

      "As the widget stamping machine (WSM) operator, you are responsible for keeping your machine calibrated. If you detect a calibration change of greater than .05%, notify your supervisor immediately. He or she will inspect the machine, and determine whether you can continue to use it."

    This paragraph also passes the "read aloud test." Any WSM operator will know what to do, and again, the single compound "he or she" is not so awkward as to be a distraction.

    Use third person pronouns
    The main reason generic "he" persists, despite its distracting semantic properties, is that it is so easy to apply. Sometimes you simply must use pronouns if your meaning is to be understood clearly. When the gender of the agent is unknown or undefined, I recommend using the third-person plural pronouns (they/ them/ their/ themselves) as generic singular pronouns. This usage is regaining favor in recent years, and offers a single strategy that eliminates the need to coin new forms (s/he) or passivize active sentences.

    Here is one way our sample paragraph might be recast using third-person pronouns:

      "Each widget stamping machine (WSM) operator is responsible for keeping their machine calibrated. If they detect a calibration change of greater than .05%, they must notify their supervisor immediately. The supervisor will inspect the machine and determine whether they can continue to use it."

    I say that this strategy is re-gaining favor, for while it may sound a bit strange to those of us who were trained in "traditional" prescriptive grammar, this usage has a long pedigree, predating both the era of "political correctness" and the era of "grammatical correctness" by some centuries. Influential and educated writers in English through the ages have used this strategy, from William Caxton, the first person to print books in the English language, through Walt Whitman in the 19th and George Bernard Shaw in the 20th century.

    Refer to the sidebar for historical and literary examples, and examples taken from every day speech.

    Language changes
    It is not true that pronouns never change; they just change very slowly. The second person pronouns you/ your/ yours once were used only in the plural, with /thee/ thy/ thine being reserved for the singular. Except in a small number of instances (you-all, youse) the same pronouns are now used for both singular and plural in English.

    All this is to say that the objections to generic "they" seem no stronger than the objections to generic " he. " The question is whether you will annoy those who are sticklers for "traditional" grammar, or offend those who think that the engineer/ technician /machinist /physician /nurse /patient you are writing about might as easily be a woman as a man. In the long run, generic " they" will probably become accepted by the majority of English speakers, without causing a major upheaval in the English language.

    Take the time to avoid gender-specific language in your business and technical writing. Given the consequences of being misunderstood, it is well worth the extra effort. The strategies outlined here are simple, commonplace, and time-tested. Remember, anything that distracts the reader, detracts from your message.

    1997 Scott Herron
    Portions adapted from The Handbook of Non-Sexist Writing, by Casey Miller and Kate Swift.

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