Pronouns in technical writing.

When doing technical writing, or for that matter most forms of writing , we need to be able to refer to people without always identifying their gender.  The most common reason, at least in my writing, is that I am often speaking of some indeterminate person whose gender simply does not matter.  In my technical writing, I often speak of some generic DBA and what the best approach they could take to solving a problem is.  In my legal writing, I often speak of some generic person whose gender is irrelevant.  Often, the best approach is to recast the sentence in the plural, but when that is awkward or undesirably, I prefer the singular “they”.

While still somewhat controversial, and possibly not an ideal solution, the singular “they” seems the best answer to English’s lack of a good singular pronoun for people that is not gender specific.  It has been in use for quite a while, and its usage is becoming more accepted.  The Washington post recently allowed the singular they, although in somewhat limited circumstances, in a memo.  Merriam-Webster.com hosts a video discussing using “their” as a singular possessive pronoun.

There are several other options that could be used instead of the singular “they”.  “He or she” is commonly used in many places.  In one article I recently published, the article editor and I discussed whether to use “he or she” or “they” before we finally settled on “they.”  While somewhat a matter of taste, I find “he or she” to be unnecessarily long and wordy.  It becomes tiresome, especially when used several times in an article.  I think things like “s/he” and “he/she” are worse.  They are awkward when reading and not directly pronounceable.

An author could simply use one of “he” or “she” as a pronoun referring to a generic person without any implications for their gender.  There is in fact some indications, according to Wikipedia, that it is a long tradition for “he” to be used generically without specific reference to males.  But that has its own complications.  Aside from not being inclusive on its face, it could lead the reader to think the author is specifically referring to one gender or the other.

Perhaps the best solution would be to introduce a new word in English.  Attempts have been made to do this with proposals for “zhe”, “thon”, and “co”, but none of those have been widely adopted or accepted.  Unless English standardizes on a new addition, I think the singular “they” is the best choice for a gender neutral pronoun when the sentence cannot be gracefully rewritten to avoid the pronoun entirely.

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One thought on “Pronouns in technical writing.

  1. Definitely a problem. For me, my public writing are my blogs and game design. I design card games, and to design a game you kind of need rules to show people how to play. Mostly I can use ‘you’, sometimes ‘they’, to refer to the players. For my blog, I use ‘you’ almost exclusively.

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