Pronouns and Technical Writing

When is “They” the right way to go?

Eris Maurer
Oct 2, 2017 · 2 min read

Regardless of how you feel about the gender binary, these changes are coming even in the legal realm. No, no. Forget about that equivocation: people will not have the same gender as a writer’s imagined audience. If you choose a single gender pronoun, whatever pronoun you choose will be wrong, almost regardless of circumstance.

You can either be a decent human being and accept that or not.

The morality of gendered pronouns is not up for debate here. The audience of your documentation will notice if you exclude them. If you include all parts of your audience, including them will not bother anyone except those looking to be offended.

And those who are looking to be offended at the inclusion of others are likely not reading documentation, are they?

What is up for debate here is what pronouns to use. What is the best way to connect with the audience? What is the best way to connect so they can read your work and get their thing done?

In case you haven’t noticed, dear reader, I’ve been doing it the whole time.

As has been widely pointed out, “they” as a gender-indeterminate pronoun has been used for centuries in English. Its use for gender neutral individuals is not new, either, even if the idea of gender neutral people is new to most speakers/writers.

If you have a style guide, consider updating it for this. It is a far more elegant solution than:

  • he/she
  • s/he
  • he or she/his or hers
  • he and she alternating.

As technical writers we want to be out of the way; we want to let people do their work. Insisting on obfuscating instructions with constructs like the above only raises the questions a reader has. Our documents exist to provide answers, not raise them.

Answers are why readers come to us, why they trust us, and why we write. Do not remove that sense of trust.

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