This was originally posted on the Minnesota State Bar Association’s blog.
My most stunning and irrevocable gender reference occurred when I tried to make a friend after getting settled in my college dorm room. I strolled into the adjoining room, introduced myself to Deb, the occupant, then, in an effort to make conversation, glanced at a picture on her bulletin board, pointed and said, “Is that your Mom? She looks like you.” To which the Deb replied, “No, it is a picture of my Dad.”
Oops. No calling that back. But in writing, it is much easier to avoid such gaffes.
Take two minutes and learn ways to employ gender-neutral language or, in the negative, to eliminate sexist language. Whatever the label, the problem is easy to spot. You are typing along and you refer to he, him, his, she, her, hers or alternating between them because the subject is reliably neither.
Example: An attorney must keep a record of his continuing education credits.
The worst solution is to overdo it with a slash-i-fi-cation–always strikes me that the writer is trying too hard. Also the his/her causes a blip in the flow of the text. The reader stumbles.
An attorney must keep a record of his/her continuing education credits.
A similar but different bad solution is to alternate back and forth–too much effort and downright confusing for the reader.
An attorney must keep a record of his continuing education credits. In Minnesota, an attorney needs to file her record with the licensing agency.
Another bad solution–to go stuffy.
One must keep a record of one’s continuing education credits.
Somewhat better, same idea, but can be a little chummy.
You must keep a record of your continuing education credits.
Okay, enough with the bad solutions. Here are some good easy ones:
Pluralize–works in the vast majority of situations.
Attorneys must keep a record of their continuing education credits.
Delete the offending pronoun entirely.
An attorney must review the work of his paralegal.
Instead: An attorney must review the work of a paralegal.
Before a law school graduate can practice law, he must pass the bar examination.
Instead: Before a law school graduate can practice law, the graduate must pass the bar examination.
Enough of this, you get the idea. I will step off my soapbox soon but first let me add a few last ideas while on the topic of unnecessary reference to gender…
Watch out for sexist expressions.
a manly effort
Strive for gender-neutral terms.
Use parallel construction.
husband and wife
not man and wife
Avoid unnecessary gender references.
not competent woman attorney
The world is full of those who are insensitive and those who are too sensitive. Avoid being the former and failing to assume your reader is the latter. Gender-neutral writing is easy, make it a habit, make friends. Remember Deb, the dorm room occupant, never became my friend. Oh, how I wish I said, “Is that your parent?”