Appropriate Pronoun Usage
This handout will cover some of the major issues with appropriate language use: levels of language formality, deceitful language and euphemisms, slang and idiomatic expressions; using group-specific jargon; and biased/stereotypical language.
Contributors:Dana Lynn Driscoll, Allen Brizee
Last Edited: 2013-02-25 10:01:39
Because English has no generic singular—or common-sex—pronoun, we have used HE, HIS, and HIM in such expressions as "the student needs HIS pencil." When we constantly personify "the judge," "the critic," "the executive," "the author," and so forth, as male by using the pronoun HE, we are subtly conditioning ourselves against the idea of a female judge, critic, executive, or author. There are several alternative approaches for ending the exclusion of women that results from the pervasive use of masculine pronouns.
Recast into the plural
- Original: Give each student his paper as soon as he is finished.
- Alternative: Give students their papers as soon as they are finished.
Reword to eliminate gender problems.
- Original: The average student is worried about his grade.
- Alternative: The average student is worried about grades.
Replace the masculine pronoun with ONE, YOU, or (sparingly) HE OR SHE, as appropriate.
- Original: If the student was satisfied with his performance on the pretest, he took the post-test.
- Alternative: A student who was satisfied with her or his performance on the pretest took the post-test.
Alternate male and female examples and expressions. (Be careful not to confuse the reader.)
- Original: Let each student participate. Has he had a chance to talk? Could he feel left out?
- Alternative: Let each student participate. Has she had a chance to talk? Could he feel left out?
Using the masculine pronouns to refer to an indefinite pronoun (everybody, everyone, anybody, anyone) also has the effect of excluding women. In all but strictly formal uses, plural pronouns have become acceptable substitutes for the masculine singular.
- Original: Anyone who wants to go to the game should bring his money tomorrow.
- Alternative: Anyone who wants to go to the game should bring their money tomorrow.
An alternative to this is merely changing the sentence. English is very flexible, so there is little reason to "write yourself into a corner":
- Original: Anyone who wants to go to the game should bring his money.
- Alternative: People who want to go to the game should bring their money.