Monday, August 20, 2007

Writing Using an Unspecified Gender: Defining the Problem

Let’s start with a sample sentence so that we know what this discussion covers.

“Each employee must provide HR with his or her form by Tuesday at noon.”
“Each employee must provide HR with their form by Tuesday at noon.”
“Each employee must provide HR with his/her form by Tuesday at noon.”
“Each employee must provide HR with his form by Tuesday at noon.”

An individual sentence allows room for any of these constructions. However, imagine writing an entire page of instructions for that memo. You would write one sentence after another to a mixed audience. How do you choose which pronoun(s) to use?

Do you just pick a gender and apply it throughout? Alternate among the above methods? Use the plural pronouns they and their? Employ the dreaded s/he? The grammatically correct way to write such documents no longer agrees with the politically correct way. Worse, the latter comes across as awkward and smarmy more than concerned with gender equality.

I’ve only defined the problem and this post’s length matches a normal one. I had intended to address this issue in a single post but now see that it will have to be a series. I will do posts on Thursday, August 23rd and Sunday, August 28th about the various options and arguments for and against them. I’m projecting two more parts but a third follow-up may be required if enough information presents itself. I’ll let you know here.




What if you write it as plural (All employees must provide HR with their forms by Tuesday) instead of singular?



A plural is one potential repair, though it can change the tone of what's being written. Some circumstances also are difficult to pluralize, though I can't think of an example off the top of my head.

At least, that's my experience, as age-limited as it is.



In cases like this, if possible, I try to actually address the content in second person.

As in, "Employees, please provide HR with your form by Tuesday at noon."

The reason being, the second person lends a bit of immediacy in cases of instructions-- and because of that, does seem to catch the attention a bit better.

Just my two cents, anyway! :-)



Using the second person is an excellent work-around. Unfortnately, many businesses find this to be too casual for their purposes. Sure, they end up sounding stilted and supercilious, but better that than too friendly! ;)



"Too casual" probably isn't the issue for businesses, or at least not the only issue. As a former attorney, I'd squawk at a company that wanted to write something like an employee handbook in the second person because "you" doesn't clearly define to whom that particular item applies. Terminology like "Each employee" and "All full-time employees" may be critical to a construction that's clear enough to be legally binding.

Can't wait for the follow-up posts on this issue; one workaround in particular makes my brain explode.