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Back in my day, I was taught to use masculine pronouns.

The user chooses a password, and then he types it in the text box.

I'm fine with that. but a male coworker insists on using he/she, which I find needlessly distracting and complicated.

I hate using they and their. I find that too convoluted, and not nearly clear enough when you want to talk about one person doing one thing.

I like "you" but you can't always get away with that. Sometimes you're telling someone about what his users can do.

Interspersing "he" for some things with "she" for others is also distracting, but maybe the closest thing to "fair" that I can come up with.

What is the current thought on this? What's the most acceptable way to go?

(Frankly, I wish I could get away with "it." As in "it puts the lotion on its skin." Creepy, right?)

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I share your dislike of singular they, but it's not wrong. It's been attested in the literature for centuries. –  TRiG Jun 3 '11 at 9:49
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@TRiG There are reasons to dislike it other than believing that it is wrong. Being unambiguous is important, too. When I come across the word they in a sentence such as the example given, I have to take a short break to glance back at the subject to make sure I read and am understanding it correctly. It's not horribly inconvenient, but it does disrupt the flow. In the worst cases, it can be totally ambiguous whether you are talking about one person or multiple subjects. –  Corey Jun 3 '11 at 16:49
    
Many of the people who write and most of the people who read the specs for products worked on by us have English as their second language, and frankly don't care about PC. We just put a standard message at the start of the document which says that gender specific language is used because our writers cant write and our readers dont care. –  Kinjal Dixit Jun 4 '11 at 10:43
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+1 for "it" applies the lotion :-) –  Pete Wilson Jun 5 '11 at 17:19
    
It's very confusing for me, because in my language (well, the same applies to almost all Indo-European languages) every noun has its gender, so user as the noun is masculine, for example, and using anything except 'he' would be grammatical error. –  РСТȢѸФХѾЦЧШЩЪЫЬѢѤЮѦѪѨѬѠѺѮѰѲѴ Jan 12 '13 at 16:51

13 Answers 13

up vote 33 down vote accepted

A few additional options:

  • Introduce a named person (perhaps fictional), and use that person's name. "Terry wants to create an account. She chooses a password and types it into the text box. No, wait, Terry is a man. I think. Damn, that's a lousy example. Pat wants to create an account. Um, I mean Chris. No, wait. Maybe Dale. Er..."
  • Use the imperative mood, with an implied you (as I'm doing in most of these examples). "Choose a password and type it into the text box."
  • Drop the pronoun whenever you can: "The user chooses a password and types it into the text box." This can make the remaining pronouns less troublesome. In some cases you'll have to recast the sentence to make this work.
  • Use passive voice, and don't refer to the actor at all. Yeah, I know you've been warned against this. But sometimes it can be used with good effect, in a natural-sounding way. (Heh.)

[Edited to add:]

Here are some additional tips from Val Drummond's Elements of Nonsexist Usage. Chapter 4 is all about pronouns.

  • Make the subject plural. Then use plural pronouns.
  • Replace gender-specific possessive pronouns with "the." Instead of "When the user types his password..." try "When the user types the password."
  • Use the word "one." I personally hate this. It usually reads like a desperate attempt to claim objectivity, or add plausible deniability ("Oh... I meant people in general should pick up their socks, not you specifically, sweetie"), or some other such nonsense. Not that I have an attitude about this, mind one.
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"The user puts the lotion in the basket or the user gets the firehose." –  Neil Fein Jun 3 '11 at 5:48
    
+1 If your audience is the person who'll be using your product, "you" is fine (or imperative and omit the pronoun): type your user name, click the Submit button, etc. It is only if your audience is doing work on behalf of a third party that you run into problems (e.g. you're writing for a sys admin and need to talk about what the end users will do), but you can usually write around that. –  Monica Cellio Jun 3 '11 at 15:33
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Alice, Bob, and Eve are archetypal characters. Even if your readers are not aware of the the characters, introduce them in a footnote or appendix - your readers will appreciate you when they come across the characters in other material. –  Erik Westermann Jun 7 '11 at 16:24
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There are no requirements here, no demands. Each suggestion invites you to consider an alternative way to say what you want to say. If an alternative would obfuscate, or otherwise interfere with what you're trying to accomplish, drop it from consideration. I find that considering a variety of ways to cast a sentence often helps me to clarify what I'm trying to say. –  Dale Emery Jun 14 '11 at 5:03
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Hmmm now I have the idea, the Alice and Bob were invented because English is half-genderised (it has grammatical gender, but nouns don't have a gender etc.) –  РСТȢѸФХѾЦЧШЩЪЫЬѢѤЮѦѪѨѬѠѺѮѰѲѴ Jan 12 '13 at 16:49

Very few use he/she. In academia, there is currently a movement toward using the feminine pronoun at all times. That said, it is far more common (and less remarkable) to alternate pronouns as you suggested. As long as you stick with the same pronoun per example you'll be technically correct, although it is increasingly un-PC to use only male pronouns. Until we get a gender neutral (and animate) pronoun, that's as well as I can do.

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I suggest alternating gender per chapter (or section, or whatever divisions your document is broken into). Chapter 1 has all female pronouns, Chapter 2 has all male, and so on. –  Lauren Ipsum Jun 3 '11 at 11:55
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I propose "zhe" as the gender neutral animate pronoun! Ok... I literally just thought of it, looked it up and was very surprised to find that this exact spelling has been proposed before (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gender-neutral_pronoun#Modern_solutions). –  JYelton Jun 3 '11 at 15:57
    
Your answer inspired me to ask this question — english.stackexchange.com/q/28508/9546 — since you mention the movement, can you offer an explanation for it? –  Júlio Santos Jun 4 '11 at 10:16

They/their can be used in a singular context

The user chooses a password, and then they type the password in to the text box

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They/their is used by some writers in a singular context, but it's grammatically incorrect, and I would be very irritated to see it in any documentation I was reading, proofing, approving, or learning from. English doesn't have a gender-neutral third-person pronoun, but "themself" is not the answer. –  Lauren Ipsum Jun 3 '11 at 11:53
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according to the Oxford dictionary its perfectly fine, and was in use back in the 16th century oxforddictionaries.com/page/heshethey/he-or-she-versus-they also see, crossmyt.com/hc/linghebr/sgtheirl.html –  Chris Chilvers Jun 3 '11 at 12:31
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@Lauren Ipsum: What is your source for saying it's grammatically incorrect to use they/their in a singular context? Thanks! –  blunders Jun 3 '11 at 20:16
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@blunders: It's a basic rule of grammar in any language I've ever heard of: singular subject, singular verb; plural subject, plural verb. I acknowledge the Oxford link but just because people have been doing it wrong for four hundred years doesn't make it right. :) It's a prescriptive rule (a rule which tells people how to use the language, rather than describing how they use it), but it's still the rule. I would never under any circumstances allow that construction to go to print if I were the editor/proofreader. –  Lauren Ipsum Jun 3 '11 at 23:31
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@Lauren. "just because people have been doing it wrong for four hundred years doesn't make it right". Well, yes, actually, it does. If you don't define the rules of English from the way it's used by native speakers, how do you define them? –  TRiG Aug 5 '11 at 0:38

For technical writing, there are really only three rules.

Rule 1) Write short sentences that are easily understood. Rule 2) Punctuate correctly and avoid semicolons; they make sentences longer, are almost always unnecessary and can be potentially confusing to the reader. Rule 3) There are no other rules.

That said...

The third-person singular pronouns in English take four classes of gender: masculine, feminine, neuter, and indeterminate. The indeterminate happens to share the same form as the masculine. This happens all the time in English, where a single form of a word performs more than one duty. Heck, the second-person (indeterminate gender) English pronoun shares the same form for singular and plural!

"He cut the wood." Is that past or present tense? You only know if you add context. Was the worker male or female? You only know if you add context.

"The wood was hard so he worked hard to cut it."

Here we know that cut is past-tense because the context is past-tense (worked). We also see the adjective "hard" and the adverb "hard" share the same form and yet convey distinctly different meanings. The adjective describes tensile strength and the adverb describes intensity and effort. If we had followed regular usage and had added -ly to the adjective, the meaning would have changed dramatically. Same forms, different meanings. Of course, we still don't know the gender of the worker because the pronoun "he" is indeterminate (rather than neuter) in the absence of context. If gender is important, then add that content into the sentence. Otherwise, leave it alone.

Write clearly. Everything else is just noise.

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The easiest rewrite is to change the sentence itself to use a plural noun. I find myself doing this a lot.

 The user chooses a password, and then he types it in the text box.

to

 Users choose a password, and then they type it in the text box. 

Reference: Handbook of Technical Writing. Brusaw, Alred, Oliu.

The phrase "he or she" is OK IMHO if used sparingly. While "they" as a singular pronoun may work, enough people dislike it that I wouldn't go that route.

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I would prefer dropping the pronoun from the first example, as in The user chooses a password, then types it in the text box. –  JYelton Jun 3 '11 at 15:59
    
I agree. But, that's what I had to work with in the original example :-). –  bryanjonker Jun 3 '11 at 21:28
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But this suggests that all of the users collectively choose a single password and type it into the text box once. –  Will Vousden Jun 4 '11 at 9:10
    
"They type their respective passwords into the text box." –  Lauren Ipsum Jun 9 '11 at 14:47

I can't say this has ever been a significant issue for me in twenty years of technical writing. You are rarely if ever writing about the user, but are generally writing to them.

In some situations, you might end up writing to one user about another user—for example, when your audience consists of system administrators or developers, who will be concerned about users of their systems or applications. But even here, the need to use third-person singular pronouns comes up less frequently than you might think. For example:

User:  Class representing a user account on the system.

       FIELDS
       name          The user's full name
       mail          The user's mail address
       password      The user's password
       groups        List of groups to which the user belongs
       permissions   List of permissions available to the user
       expiry        Date on which the user's account expired or will expire
       admins        List of users who may edit or delete the account

       METHODS
       register()    Registers a new user account in the system directory
       update()      Writes a modified user account in the system directory
       delete()      Permanently deletes a user account from the system directory

The only pronoun used in that snippet of API documentation, which is about a user class, is "who." It is not at all necessary to write it like this:

User:  Class representing a user account on the system.

       FIELDS
       name          His or her full name
       mail          His or her mail address

... etc.

In fact, saying "the user" each time is arguably better because it allows the reader to skim for the information they're interested in without having to keep track of possible antecedents for pronouns. The phrase "the user" in a computer manual is like "said" in fiction: mostly invisible, and almost always far less intrusive than attempts to avoid it.

In my experience, the issue simply comes up infrequently enough that the well-worn workarounds suffice. I typically just use "he or she," or else recast the sentence to be plural and use "they," or rewrite the sentence in some other way that usually is even clearer.

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Gender-Neutral Pronouns.

ze.

Hir.

See "Invented pronouns" & summary chart on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gender-neutral_pronoun

& defeat gender conventions working 9-5. :)

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welcome. It would be helpful if you would flesh out your answer with citations from the article rather than simply providing a link. –  justkt Jun 3 '11 at 15:23

Just use singular "they". People who bleat on about it being somehow gramatically incorrect need to educate themselves, either by doing a modicum of research, or just looking up the word in a dictionay.

@spence one of the problems I've encountered in the UK is that many people have been mis-educated to be indoctrinated with this rubbish that

  • "they" is only plural
  • it's OK to use gender exclusive language

and it's hard to turn around 12 years of defective schooling.

I note the irony in Lauren Ipsum's comment above "just because people have been doing it wrong for four hundred years doesn't make it right" Sorry old bean, grammar and syntax of language evolve over time; since "they" has been used as a singular pronoun over hundreds of years, then it has become part of our language and, ipso facto, correct.

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They is plural. "They were at fault" means something entirely different than "He was at fault." ("They was at fault," is idiomatic and bad grammar, but still plural.) –  patrick Jun 6 '11 at 15:58
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@patrick: Sure. Just like "you" is plural, and was misappropriated first as a formal singular, later as the standard singular. Singular "they" is entirely correct and acceptable, and has been for centuries, despite the tiresome protests of poorly-educated prescriptivists. –  C. A. McCann Feb 13 '13 at 17:26

Funny, no one has mentioned the MS Manual of Style for Technical Publications ...

Avoid the generic masculine pronoun. Use the instead of his, or rewrite material in the second person (you) or in the plural. If necessary, use a plural pronoun such as they or their with an indefinite singular antecedent, such as everyone, or with multiple antecedents of different or unknown genders, such John and Chris. Use his or her for the singular possessive case if you can do so infrequently and if nothing else works. - MSTP v3, page 107
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I can only speak from my own experience in Australia but we have been taught to use "They" wherever applicable. It is the appropriate word in the English language to use instead of he/she. Indeed the use of "he" or "she" would be considered discriminatory in publications from the government and is very rarely seen now.

However it is definitely true that documents name the person and then use a gender pronoun specific to the named person: "Tony wants to sign up for a license. He goes to the front counter and fills out the XYZ form."

One of my teachers once said to me that every word in the English language is there for a reason, if it's the appropriate one to use then you should use it.

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I suggest using singular "they".

If you don't like that, include in your preface "mention of one gender implies all other genders" (which covers non-binary gender), and alternate between using "he" and "she" (but for the same subject).

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In IT books, I frequently see he being used in one chapter and she in the next.

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The whole thing is way too much trouble so I just gave up: I always use she/her. But I try also to find a way to get rid of extra pronouns: "The user chooses a password and then he types it in the text box." Which is more economical anyway.

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