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A Tonic for Ramshackle Wordsmiths
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Copyright Melanie Spiller 2011. Do not copy without permission.
Gender-Free Language

Are you in a quandary about political correctness? Do you feel silly when faced with he, she, it, they, or even s/he? Writing without gender doesn’t have to be uncomfortable, and perhaps you don’t have to be as diligent about gender-free language as you feared.

 

It used to be that the default type of person to which you could refer in your writing was a he. Then the Women’s Movement happened in the 60s, and it was considered hateful to default to he, so the tide went the other way with swarms of she buzzing around everywhere.

 

The truth is, in today’s written language, there aren’t very many situations in which you might only find members of one gender or another. Some people are very uptight about the whole situation and edit it out as best they can, defaulting to their own gender or the opposite when they can’t edit it out. Some people and a lot of corporations solve the problem by writing to “you.” Other people feel that the women’s situation here in the early twenty-first century is fairly stable, and don’t have a problem defaulting to he, rather than getting all tangled up in editing it out.

 

Let’s play with it a little bit, and see how you feel about it.

 

     The user slowly tore the edge off the paper.

     He slowly tore the edge off the paper.

     She slowly tore the edge off the paper.

     They slowly tore the edges off the papers.

 

The first and last of the set are gender free. Is there anything awkward about these sentences? I don’t think so. But they are certainly more distant from their subjects than the middle two. Let’s look at a harder set.

 

     The student took a bus on her field trip.

     The student took a bus on his field trip.

     The student took a bus on the field trip.

     The student took a bus on a field trip.

 

As you can see, gender is easily edited out. It doesn’t make much difference to the meaning, unless the gender of the student is important.

 

Let’s get two or more people in the sentence and see what happens.

 

     The instructor told him to open the files.

     The instructor told us to open the files.

     The instructor told the class to open the files.

     The instructor told the student to open the files.

 

As you can see, only the first sentence involves gender. The rest are neutral; maybe you noticed how easy it is to insert “the” or “a” and a nice noun into a sentence to get past this little hurdle.

 

     The authorization level is based on what the user has entered as ________ password.

 

What would you do here, one of my readers asks? There’s the old standby of “his,” there’s the new-fangled his/her, there’s the deeply waffling and grammatically wrong “their,” and there’s the nice simple “a.” My choice is the latter, because it doesn’t call attention to anything. Or you could try another way or three:

 

     The authorization level is based on the user’s password.

     The authorization level is based on the user’s password choice.

     The authorization level is based on your password.

 

Gender doesn’t need to be a big issue. Just be consistent within the piece and most likely, no one will notice anything about gender at all.

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