Last modified on 27 October 2012, at 22:33

Saylor.org's English Composition/Gender-Sensitive Language

Compared to many other languages, English is relatively "ungendered". That is, for the most part nouns in English are not considered 'masculine' or 'feminine' and articles and pronouns do not vary a great deal as they do in other languages. The only truly gender-sensitive issues that occur in the English language concern the use of pronouns for people of a specific gender (men, women, boys, girls, fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, etc.) What this means, of course, is that the pronoun to a masculine noun like 'man' or 'boy' is going to be 'he' or 'him'. The pronoun to a feminine noun like 'woman' or 'girl' is going to be 'she' or 'her'. Unlike many other languages, the pronoun for a noun that doesn't have a specifically designated gender is simply 'it' or 'they' (if plural). The table is 'it'. The phone is 'it'. The cup of coffee is 'it'.

While all this seems straightforward, there is a common mistake often made in writing involving gender-sensitive writing. Say you're writing about a classroom of students and you write "The teacher told each student to present their book report..." Perfectly acceptable? Technically, no. The correct sentence would read "The teacher told each students to present his/her book report..." Why is this so? The use of 'their' indicates the possessive of the plural 'they'. However, the inclusion of 'each student' is not plural. 'Each student' is an individual. Because the class is comprised of both male and female individuals we can't just use the singular "his" or "her" without the inclusion of the other. It's a messy construction, but it's technically correct.