Sex and pronouns

When a child is whining at the dinner table for a gadget or quietly asking for a touchscreen because the toddler is bored, he doesn’t need an Ipad. He needs you.

“Should it be he or she?” the writer asked as we were going over his or her piece.

Good question.

In the distant past — up to the early 1970s — the male pronouns he, him and his were understood to be universal, representing male and female alike (much like man for all of humankind), as in:

He who laughs last laughs best.

Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.

Then the second wave of American feminism came along, and anything with so much as a whiff of sexism about it had to go. We girls who expected to be called women the minute we turned 18 also started demanding he or she instead of assuming one pronoun fit all if it happend to be masculine. (And don’t get me started on coed as a noun.)

 He or she may be nonsexist, but it ‘s also clumsy: Let him or her who is without sin cast the first stone. Look at the way I worded that sentence in the second paragraph: going over his or her piece, in this case to avoid suggesting the writer’s identity. Repetition aggravates the problem:

He or she doesn’t need an iPad. He or she needs you.

How can you make the point cleanly while avoiding sexism?

Often, the easiest fix is to pluralize the whole sentence:

When children are whining at the dinner table . . . they don’t need iPads. They need you.

AP Style suggests another way, when applicable:

Q. Does AP prefer “he or she” or just “she” or “he” when referring to a singular pronoun? For example, If he or she makes $10,000 more, his or her refund is reduced by $2,100. – from Georgia on Sun, Aug 31, 2008

A. Better to avoid two pronouns: If the person makes $10,000 or more, the refund is reduced, etc.

A third possibility: make some examples male, some female. In the children-and-technology piece, the writer led with an anecdote about a little girl, then later switched to boys.

Whichever fix you choose — pluralizing, recasting the sentence, citing examples from both sexes — be sure it doesn’t make the sentence more clumsy than he or she would.  If it does, revert. On no account should you use they with a singular antecedent, as in:

Whatever the sex of the candidate, they deserve serious consideration.


All candidates deserve serious consideration regardless of sex.

Personally, I rather like s/he, but AP Style does not. Don’t use it.

Coda: In a similar attempt to wipe out sexism, the ’70s also brought gender-neutral words like chairperson. (A Doonesbury strip of the period lampooned the fad, depicting a newly elected legislator who introduced himself as a “freshperson Congressperson.”) It is once again safe to  call someone a chairman or chairwoman, as per AP Style, but please, not chair. And  instead of congressperson, try U.S. representative.















Easy fix: pluralize


also things liek chairman


when in doubt, check the stylebook!


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