Navigating language and gender

How writers can avoid sexist language and navigate changing norms.

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Norms around gender and language are rapidly changing in several respects:

  1. The plural pronouns “they” and “their” are increasingly used to refer to singular antecedents.

  2. The masculine pronouns “he” and “his” are no longer considered acceptable stand-ins for persons of unknown gender.

  3. Traditionally masculine words such as “actor” can now encompass people of either gender, and words such as “congressman” are being revised to gender-neutral forms such as “congressperson.”

These changes are discussed below.

The pronouns “they” and “their”

The most notable recent change is that the pronouns “they” and “their” are increasingly being applied to individuals rather than groups. Traditional grammarians may find that use jarring, but it can arguably no longer be considered an error.

Most notably, the plural pronouns “they” and “their” are increasingly being applied to individuals rather than groups. Traditional grammarians may find that use jarring, but it can arguably no longer be considered an error.

For example, consider the following two sentences:

  • No one knows when they will be asked to attend.” [“No one” is singular, and “they” is plural, so this sentence violates traditional grammar rules. The traditional rule would call for he or she instead of they. However, as community notions of gender have broadened beyond the idea of a man/woman binary, this traditional rule is probably on its way out.]

  • “A good lawyer always communicates with their clients.” [“A good lawyer” is singular, but “their” is plural. However, the gender of the abstract good lawyer is unknown, and there are more options than “he” or “she,” so “their” is arguably at least as acceptable as “his or hers.”]

Writers have some discretion as to how to navigate these changing norms. It is still acceptable to use “he or she” or “his or her” instead of “they” or “their” to refer to singular antecedents of unknown gender.

The simplest option when discussing an indefinite subject is usually to pluralize that subject, making the plural pronouns “them” and “their” indisputably available:

  • “Good lawyers always communicate with their clients.”

There are two other options to consider. One convenient but debatable solution is to use feminine singular reference pronouns, inverting the traditional rule that a singular masculine pronoun can represent a person of either gender:

  • “One of the firm’s partners may call you into her office.”

Another solution is to repeat the antecedent instead of using a pronoun. This can sound clumsy and should be used sparingly, but it is a good choice in contexts such as contracts in which ambiguity must be avoided:

  • “If a student has a question, the student should send an email.”

Finally, some sentences can be rewritten to avoid the need for a reference pronoun. For example, the sentence above could be rewritten as:

  • “Any student with a question should send an email.”

Note that writers should avoid devices such as “he/she,” “his/her,” and “s/he.”

Masculine pronouns

Though the appropriate use of the plural reference pronouns “they” and “their” is in flux, other matters of gender and language have been settled in favor of change. Most notably, it is no longer acceptable to use masculine terms such as “man,” “men,” “he,” “him,” or “his” to stand in for people of all genders. The following sentence, therefore, is erroneous:

  • “A good lawyer always communicates with his clients.”

Sexist words

Writers should also watch for words with built-in sexism. Words like “chairman” and “congressman” have readily available gender-neutral substitutes, and words like “actor” and “waiter” are no longer considered to apply exclusively to men:

  • actress —> actor

  • waitress —> waiter

  • chairman —> chair

  • congressman —> representative

  • freshman —> first-year

  • weatherman —> meteorologist


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    Ryan McCarl (LinkedIn | Twitter | Blog) teaches Advanced Legal Writing at the UCLA School of Law and is a partner at the law firm Rushing McCarl.