The Great Pronoun Dilemma

Doodles at a rally holding signs that say "Okay with They!"

Update (Sep. 2016): Since we wrote this post more than 3 years ago, the scrappy underdog singular “they” has made great strides (insert inspirational training montage here). The Washington Post now uses it, and it was the American Dialect Society’s 2015 Word of the Year. If you need to follow a more traditional style guide, our advice below still stands — but you can count us as officially okay with “they.”

Writing about health means writing about people. And people need pronouns. So if you’re a health writer, at some point you’ve probably asked yourself: Which pronoun do I use for a generic individual, like “your doctor” or “the patient”? He? She? He/she? They? Something else entirely?

Despite more than 150 years of trying, English grammar folks can’t agree on a gender-neutral personal pronoun. What we can agree on is that we need one. Most academics (and all traditionalists) still use masculine pronouns (he/his) when writing about a generic someone. But using “he” throughout is outdated and inaccurate. So what are the other options?

Saying “he or she” all the time is clunky. Writing “s/he” or “(s)he” looks awkward and can trip up readers with limited literacy skills. Rephrasing sentences so they’re plural works — sometimes. You could say, “People taking this medicine need to talk with their doctors before starting to exercise.” But what if your entire website reads that way? It starts to sound impersonal and distant.

People already use “they” as a gender-neutral pronoun in everyday speech. “Whenever someone at the office brings me frozen yogurt, I give them a great big smile.” But this is grammatically inaccurate, since “they” or “them” is plural (according to most sources). It frustrates grammar aficionados when we do that. We like this option, but until the official style guides adopt it, we’ll behave.

The best solution we’ve found is to use feminine and masculine pronouns alternately throughout a material. We also shake things up with unexpected pronouns. For example, we might sidestep gender stereotypes by saying, “Ask your doctor what she would recommend.” Or, “Make sure your caregiver knows you want him to call 911 if this happens.”

The bottom line: When faced with the pronoun dilemma, the choice is yours. Some folks (like us) are okay with the singular “they” — but there are other options, too.