Hi! I’m Kathy Ide. In addition to being a published author, I’m a full-time professional freelance editor. For CAN, I’m blogging about tips for writers based on the manuscripts I edit.
In an effort to avoid gender bias (using he to refer to both sexes) and the annoying repetition of him/her, he or she, and the like, some people use they as a singular pronoun when referring to someone whose gender is unknown or irrelevant. For example:
“A writer (singular) needs thick skin if they (plural) want to work with a professional editor (singular) on their (plural) manuscript (singular).”
Using the plural pronoun they to refer to a singular antecedent is acceptable in verbal speech or casual notes such as e-mails, and it is starting to become popular even in some professional writing contexts. (The new NIV Bible, for example.) However, this makes many readers cringe (especially us grammar purists). To avoid offending a large majority of readers, writers would be wise to at least try to avoid this—except, perhaps, in dialogue for characters who would not speak with impeccable grammar.
The Chicago Manual of Style (the industry-standard reference for US book publishers) allows for the use of he or she (sparingly). It also lists several techniques for achieving gender neutrality while maintaining proper grammar. To illustrate how they work, consider these ways to reword the above sentence:
- Omit the pronoun. (“A writer needs thick skin to work with a professional editor.”)
- Repeat the noun. (“A writer needs thick skin if that writer wants to work with a professional editor.”)
- Use a plural antecedent. (“Writers need thick skin if they want professional editing.”)
- Use an article (a, an, the) instead of a personal pronoun. (“A writer needs thick skin to work with a professional editor on a manuscript.”)
- Use the neutral singular pronoun one. (“A writer who hires a professional editor needs thicker skin than one who doesn’t.”)
- Use the relative pronoun who. (“Thick skin is required of a writer who wants to hire a professional editor.”)
- Use the imperative mood. (“Get a thick skin if you want to hire a professional editor.”)
- Revise the clause. (“Working with a professional editor requires a thick skin.”)
I would add two options to the CMOS list:
- Use second-person pronouns. (“You need a thick skin if you want to work with a professional editor on your” Or “We writers need thick skins if we want to work with professional editors on our manuscripts.”)
- Use male pronouns in some sections of your manuscript and female pronouns in other sections. (Just don’t use both to refer to the same person!)
MaryAnn DiorioMarch 4, 2016 - 08 : 47 : 13
Thank you so much for addressing this issue, Kathy. I, too, am a grammar purist and cringe whenever I see or hear the pronoun “they” used to indicate a singular concept.