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Using Sensitive Language: Sexism And Sentences With They, His, And Her

Previously, we wrote about the importance of using gender-free language in our writing—not only to avoid excluding groups of people, but also to let the reader concentrate on what we’re saying, not how we’re saying it. There are many ways to offend people—whether it’s women, people with health issues, or entire races, and it’s important to be aware of the language we use in our writing to avoid being insensitive. Let’s look at how to avoid sexist language when trying to match pronouns (like, his and her) with plural nouns like they.

Gender Bias and the Singular “They”

If you are talking about a population of people of both sexes, do not alienate one gender by using pronouns that are either male or female. When we know the gender of a group, it’s easy:

The Girl Scouts convened at noon, and each girl had her speech ready.

But if the gender of the group isn’t quite so clear, things get a little tricky. Consider the following variations:

1. When the volunteers showed up, each felt their heart sink at the terrible sight.
2. When the volunteers showed up, each felt his or her heart sink at the terrible sight.
3. When the volunteers showed up, they felt heartsick at the terrible sight.

Sentence #1 is technically incorrect, as “their” is plural yet refers to a singular indefinite pronoun (“each”). This is common in speech, but the written word comes under closer scrutiny, and many grammarians insist that this usage is not only incorrect, but unacceptable. Using the singular “they/their” has, however, become more commonplace in modern literature and is not unheard of in historical literature—and many predict that this practice will one day be considered correct and standard form.

Sentence #2 is correct, but, if overused, this technique becomes tiresome very quickly.

Sentence #3 is also correct and eliminates the gender issue altogether.

If you’re serious about writing with sensitivity, avoid loaded words such as mankind, postman, and fireman, and watch out for occupational stereotypes, such as assuming that all kindergarten teachers are women or all police officers are men.

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Other Sensitive Areas:

Country of Origin and/or Race

It is extremely offensive to make sweeping generalities about an entire race or nationality, so be careful how you describe your characters, and avoid stereotypes of any kind.

Sexual Orientation

A person’s sexual orientation should be brought to attention only if it is a relevant part of your story. If your poem is about the prejudice faced by a gay couple, then certainly their sexual orientation is relevant. Saying “The man who took our order was obviously a homosexual” could be construed as offensive if the man’s sexuality has nothing at all to do with the story.

Religion

This can be a very sensitive area. If you view a particular religion as fanatical or cultlike, refrain from describing it as such. Your readers could be mightily offended—and rightly so.

Knock It Off with the Fat Jokes

Not much else to say. Just don’t participate.

There is an exception to all of this. If you are trying to show what a donkey’s behind your character is, feel free to employ all these methods and offend away—as long as it’s clear your character is the insensitive lunkhead, not you.

Writer’s Relief has been helping writers by proofreading for pronoun agreement since 1994. We help creative writers get published by managing the submission process. To learn if you’re qualified to become a client, please visit our Submission Guidelines.

2 Responses to Using Sensitive Language: Sexism And Sentences With They, His, And Her

  1. “Describing” a character as offensive can sometimes be done by showing not telling. Let the character’s actions or dialogue show it. How others respond to that character helps as well.

  2. Very important – to make sure the reader understands that the character is the offensive one, and that they’re not just reading an incredibly insensitive author.

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