In an effort to avoid gender bias (using he to refer to both sexes) and the annoying repetition of him/her, he or she, and the like, some people use they as a singular pronoun when referring to someone whose gender is unknown or irrelevant. For example:
“A writer (singular) needs thick skin if they (plural) want to work with a professional editor (singular) on their (plural) manuscript (singular).” (Makes me cringe just writing that!)
Using the plural pronoun they to refer to a singular antecedent is acceptable in verbal speech or casual notes such as e-mails, but not in professional writing.
The Chicago Manual of Style (the industry-standard reference for US book publishers) allows for the use of he or she (sparingly). It also lists several techniques for achieving gender neutrality while maintaining proper grammar. To illustrate how they work, consider these ways to reword the above sentence:
- Omit the pronoun. (“A writer needs thick skin to work with a professional editor.”)
- Repeat the noun. (“A writer needs thick skin if that writer wants to work with a professional editor.”)
- Use a plural antecedent. (“Writers need thick skin if they want professional editing.”)
- Use an article (a, an, the) instead of a personal pronoun. (“A writer needs thick skin to work with a professional editor on a manuscript.”)
- Use the neutral singular pronoun one. (“A writer who hires a professional editor needs thicker skin than one who doesn’t.”)
- Use the relative pronoun who. (“Thick skin is required of a writer who wants to hire a professional editor.”)
- Use the imperative mood. (“Get a thick skin if you want to hire a professional editor.”)
- Revise the clause. (“Working with a professional editor requires a thick skin.”)
I would add another option to that list:
- Use second-person pronouns. (“You need a thick skin if you want to work with a professional editor on your manuscript.” Or “We writers need thick skins if we want to work with professional editors on our manuscripts.”)
Kathy Ide is a professional freelance editor who speaks at writers’ conferences across the country. She is the author of Proofreading Secrets of Best-Selling Authors (Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas, January 2014). Kathy is also the founder and director of two organizations for editorial freelancers: The Christian PEN: Proofreaders and Editors Network and the Christian Editor Network. Find out more about Kathy on her website.
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