Gender-Neutral Pronouns: Some Possibilities Other Than “They” or “Their”

Years ago, I remember talking with a friend (Sheila Oliver — WP With Sheila) who was (and still is) deep into technology, creating web sites. I admired her ability to keep up with it, because technology moves so quickly, and I also remember mentioning something about being happy to work with a topic that hardly ever changes — American grammar — because I didn’t have to wonder if I was on top of the latest trends and information.

But English usage is changing faster than I would have expected. Lately, a topic that has risen to the top of many lists of “How should we do that?” is using gender-neutral pronouns, especially “they,” when we don’t know the gender of the sentence’s subject. This usually occurs when we’re writing instructional guidelines, telling workers how to do their job. We can’t automatically know who will be doing it, so we need a way to write without making false assumptions.

In my “Brush Up on Your Business Writing” workshops, I have always given the following guidelines to help others see different ways to write without using he/she, he or she, or s/he, all of which call attention to themselves and interfere with a reader’s ability to read smoothly.

Maybe one or more of these will help you as well.

1. Rewrite using a noun only, not a pronoun.

NO: When an analyst writes a report, he should . . .
YES: When writing a report, an analyst should . . .

2. Repeat the noun — if it’s a short one.

NO: When an analyst writes a report, he should . . .
YES: When an analyst writes a report, the analyst should . . .

3. Use a relative pronoun.

NO: An analyst in Iowa earns less than he would in New York.
YES: An analyst in Iowa earns less than one in New York does.

4. Phrase the words as a directive.

NO: An analyst should write all her reports in plain language.
YES: Write your reports in plain language.

5. Use plurals whenever possible.

NO: When an analyst writes a report, he should . . .
YES: When analysts write reports, they should . . .

Now, the plural pronoun “they” is allowed to take the place of he/she, at least in English. When can we use it? Should we use it? Who says we can?

My thought is that we should try really hard NOT to use it when the subject is singular; they is a plural pronoun and it is supposed to reflect back to a plural subject. I would rather write so that I don’t have to use any pronoun when I don’t know the gender of the sentence’s subject.

Now if I DO know the gender, I use he or she as necessary. For more on that, click here.

My goal is to make sure that we writers are seen as smart by our readers. In business writing, which includes blog posts, we should be doing our best to keep our writing smooth and not clunky.


Susan Rooks
Susan Rooks
With nearly 30 years’ experience as an international workshop leader, Susan Rooks is uniquely positioned to help people master the communication skills they need to succeed. In 1995, Susan formed Grammar Goddess Communication, creating and leading workshops in three main areas – American grammar, business writing, and interpersonal skills – to help business pros enhance their communication skills. She also leads one-hour LinkedIn workshops (Master the LinkedIn Profile Basics) via Zoom to help business pros anywhere maximize their LinkedIn experience, offering it to Chambers of Commerce and other civic organizations free of charge. As an editor, Susan has worked on business blogs, award-winning children’s books, best-selling business books, website content, and even corporate annual reports (with clients from half a dozen countries), ensuring that all material is professionally presented. In April 2022, Susan became the Managing Editor of the Florida Specifier, a bi-monthly trade publication covering Florida’s diverse environmental industry. And although the focus is on Florida’s issues, many of these same challenges are found elsewhere around the world, so the readership isn’t limited to just Floridians or those interested in that state. But in all these endeavors, Susan’s only goal is to help everyone look and sound as smart as they are.

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