Using (and Avoiding) Gender-Assumptive Language

As though anyone cares what I think, here’s what my current guidelines are for mostly avoiding gender-assumptive wording in writing, presenting and general conversation.

This is what gets me by, and no one has yelled at me for incorrect usage for some years now. Your mileage may vary, you are free to disagree. In comments. Discuss all these.

Avoid neutral voice

  • This is not a solution to the problem. It sounds weird, and distant.
  • But don’t go crazy with it. I have had editors who insisted the lack of a direct object means this title is neutral, made me change to “You should avoid the neutral voice.” That’s nuts. This story is voiced fine, individual titles, bullets, phrases can have assumed object.

Avoid personal pronouns

  • Problem: In writing, any solution to picking one, or switching, becomes perilous or confusing.
  • Problem: Typical storytelling examples are bad, can be confusing or can appear too gender normative for some audiences. Avoid jack-had-three-apples sorts of examples.
  • Solution: Use names whenever possible. People come with labels, and if you know them, you can use them.
  • Solution: Rewrite to use need personal pronouns. E.g. change “When Jack said that, he meant…” but “Jack meant that…” I can usually clean up and shorten my phrasing as a bonus.
  • Solution: Use other titles and labels. In most cases we have have many more. “The project manager said to be here at 2.” “This speaker is awesome.” And we always have one label. “That person at the end of the table.”
  • Solution: Refer to general human behaviors as such. “People always like to touch the center of the screen.”
  • Solution: Involve the audience, or reader by addressing them personally. This also works well to engage them with the topic. “When you go to click…”

Avoid use of they as an individual personal pronoun

  • Problem: it is ambiguous. “Oh, you are having twins,” confusion whether I mean that group or one person in the group, etc.
  • Problem: Trans people (e.g. teens in my house) have stated their specific objection to this wording. Reasoning is they is the plural; this is not a grammar pedant issue, but has been equated to using it for gender-ambiguous situations. People are individuals so use individual labels or words.

Normal advice is to ask people what they want to be called. This is terrible advice in my experience:

  • Often, we’re referring to someone we cannot talk to, or need to talk about them before we talk to them.
  • Many people are offended by such topics, assume you should know, etc.
  • Many people do not want to talk about it in public. I have yet to see anyone‘s first question after a keynote speaker at a conference be “what is your personal pronoun?”
  • And it is a fraught subject, so the several times I have discussed it with people it goes on for a long time.