Why bother with gender-neutral writing?
by Jean Hollis Weber
This article has been revised and included in Gender-neutral technical writing. It is included here for archive purposes only.
First published in Keyword 2 (2), May 1991, pp. 3-4. (Journal of the Australian Society for Technical Communication (NSW) Inc.)
If you're going to insult your audience, do it deliberately.
There are times when a speaker or writer chooses to insult an audience: in certain forms of comedy, for example. I can't think of any technical communication situations where that would be appropriate.
Technical communication's goal is to convey information to an audience, in a form which that audience can understand and use. Anything that interferes with clear communication should be avoided.
If part of the audience is insulted (or offended, or simply irritated) by the way you express yourself, that reaction will interfere with their reception of your message.
Obviously you can't please everybody all the time, but you can do your best to avoid known problem areas. Humour, for example, can be dangerous. Racial, religious or sexist jokes are definitely out.
But what about language that's 'correct' English, yet objected to by members of the audience? You may think the fuss over he or chairman is silly, but if members of your audience think it's an important issue, you'd best pay attention.
Perhaps you agree that you should avoid masculine words when you're referring to a mixed group, but you think the alternatives are just as bad, if not worse.
I've seen many examples of writing that screams: 'Look at me, I'm trying so hard to be modern and non-sexist!' Readers are quite justified in grinding their teeth in annoyance.
Clearly, the goal in gender-neutral writing should be:
The reader should not notice the writing.
The solution should flow so naturally that it's not noticed, except perhaps by people like me who spot these things and smile in admiration at an elegant solution to a thorny problem.
You may agree with that proposition, but think it's too hard to write elegant gender-neutral documents. After all, you have only so much time, and the first priority is for the document to be complete and correct. You don't have time for frills like elegant writing.
A few years ago, most of us had to learn to change from writing in the passive to writing in the active voice. Many writers still find this doesn't come easily; their early training is hard to overcome. We do learn, however. We struggle at first, and have to pay a lot of attention, and feel we're taking too much time from the 'more important things like technical accuracy. Eventually it starts to come naturally; we don't have to pay a lot of attention to that aspect of our writing any more.
Recently we're all being asked to write in 'plain English', and in short, direct sentences. Again, many of us find this difficult, but we recognise the value to clear communications. (Don't we?) So we learn to write differently.
Similarly, we can learn to write gender-neutral language that no one notices. If you think the whole issue is silly and beneath your dignity, you'll probably find it's very difficult to learn. You'll also probably use a lot of the annoying alternatives, if only to have something to point to and say, 'See, that's just as bad, isn't it?' You'll find books that purport to assist you, but which in fact only point out the obvious, and give those annoying nonsolutions.
If you're keen to improve your writing, however, you'll find gender-neutral writing a creative challenge. You'll delight in rewriting a passage, not just substituting a word. And after a while, you'll wonder what the fuss was all about. Gender-neutral writing isn't difficult when you've learnt how - any more than writing in the active voice was difficult.
I won't say it's always easy, especially when your job is to revise existing material. Sometimes you'll have to rewrite whole sections, but probably less often than you had to rewrite whole sections that were written in tedious passive constructions. I will say that I rarely meet a construction that I can't change into gender-neutral language fairly easily. Out of context, a sentence may seem intractable; in context, it's frequently not a serious problem.'
A word of warning: the Australian Government PubIishing Service Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers (Fourth edition, 1988) has an appalling collection of examples of how to overcome what they term 'sexist language'. Although their examples of phrases to be avoided is quite comprehensive and good, their suggested solutions, although avoiding 'sexism', are tedious, annoying, and often trivial. Read it to learn what not to do!
Another AGPS book, Communicating in Writing by Barbara Walsh (1989), devotes far less space to the subject but gives better advice. Her final word is: 'Sometimes you will have to do considerable rewriting'.
Here are some of my rules:
- Do not use he, his, or him unless the antecedent is obviously male. Do not use they and their as singular pronouns (too many people object to this).
- Bypass the problem of gender whenever possible. Use:
- imperative mood ('Do this.')
- second person (you, your)
- plural nouns and plural pronouns ('Customer engineers should be well trained on the machines they service.')
- Avoid contrived phrases such as he or she, he/she and so on.
- Avoid contrived nouns such as layperson.
- Avoid pronouns completely when you can:
- repeat the noun (sometimes this also makes your meaning clearer)
- use a or the instead
- find another solution
- In examples, use a mixture of male and female names, unless the situation clearly cannot include both sexes (for example, a medical text discussing pregnancy the doctor can be male or female, but the patient is always female - at least for a few more years). You can then refer to John as 'he' and Mary as 'she'. But beware of stereotyping the senior person as the male, and the subordinate as the female. Never use a 'feminised' noun (manageress, for example) when the normal noun (manager) covers both sexes.
- Never say woman doctor, lady lawyer, male nurse, or similar phrases. These phrases tend to be used in talking about individuals, and their sex usually becomes evident from other clues (the person's given name, or the use of a pronoun elsewhere in the discussion, for example); if their sex doesn't become evident from the context, it is clearly irrelevant.
I haven't gone into detail about titles, because it's usually not a major problem in technical writing (jobs tend to have gender-neutral titles: engineer, programmer, analyst, project leader, technician, manager, assistant, scientist; the two exceptions I can think of immediately are salesman and serviceman, which these days are generally called sales representative and service engineer or similar). Other forms of business writing provide ample opportunity to wrestle with the problem of titles, an area with major political overtones.
A footnote about the term gender-neutral. I prefer this term to non-sexist, because sexist is a value judgement, and the whole issue arouses strong emotions in many people. Gender-neutral is a descriptive term.