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Grammar Repair Shop: Avoid gender bias with clever writing

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in Workplace Communication

Problem: Years ago, most business writers used male pronouns to refer to people of undefined or mixed genders. Female pronouns appeared only in definite references to women or in relation to roles they traditionally held, such as secretary.

Write that way today and you'll be labeled "sexist."

When you don't know the gender, writing "he or she," "him or her" and "his or her" every time quickly becomes cumbersome. Alterna-tives such as "he/she" and "s/he" are just as jarring to readers.

Even alternating references through-out a document doesn't provide a perfect solution. Example: If the "he" references tend to refer to someone in authority and "she" references fall on subordinate references, someone will cry "foul."

And writing "they" or "their" for a singular reference is grammatically wrong.

Solution: When practical, use plural nouns to avoid having to choose a personal pronoun.

Replace "A trial lawyer must focus his remarks to the jury" with "Trial lawyers must focus their remarks to the jury."

Replace "An admin pro knows that she keeps the office on track" with "Admin pros know that they keep the office on track."

Or, rewrite the sentence to avoid using any pronoun. Example: An admin must earn her boss's trust.
An admin must earn the boss's trust.
Peeved by a common error? Puzzled by perplexing grammar rules? Send us an e-mail at with the subject "Grammar." Or call us at (703) 905-4850.

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