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This Month's Grammar Rule: Use the Right Pronoun

In the quest to be gender neutral in business writing, or maybe just because it’s easier, writers often misuse pronouns. The most common misuse over the years has been use of “they,” which clearly refers to more than one party, for singular verbs and meanings.

Here’s an example: Before a writer sends an email, “they” should run the program’s spell-checker.

Of course, an easy fix for this sentence is to change the original subject and verb to the plural form, assuming that does not change the sentence’s meaning:

Before writers send emails, they should run the program’s spell-checker.

Although the use of “they” has become more accepted, and can hold if you’re in a real pinch, your writing will be more professional if you overcome the tendency to mix singular subjects with plural pronouns.

Why Stay Neutral

Why is it so bad to use just “his” or just “her” in writing? For one, people can read into context. Let’s say you have used “he” and “his” throughout an article on getting along with others at work. And when you reach a part about emotions, you switch to “she.” People might take the pronoun switch as a veiled slight or stereotype.

Another reason to remain neutral is simple courtesy. That courtesy works for gender diversity and for practical reasons. Many names provide little clues as to a person’s gender. Instead of guessing or offending, it makes more sense to remain neutral, and this might be one of those times when you have to resort to “they” even though you’re referring to only one person (but see our tips below for work-arounds).

Most of all, neutrality is safer. If you have strong feelings for or against an issue, that’s your right. But when writing for business and representing your organization, caution and professionalism rule.

Gender-neutral Approaches that Work

Until style guides and convention clearly state “they” is acceptable no matter the subject and verb, it seems smart to avoid misuse of the pronoun when possible. Here are some ways around the grammar gotcha’:

  • First, change the subject to plural as in the example above. Unless you are referring specifically to a named person, you can make a sentence plural, especially for subjects that apply to a group at large.

  • Write in the second person when appropriate. Although formal business writing often avoids second-person wording (you, your…), there are plenty of instances when it can work. You can easily remain gender neutral when giving instructions or responding directly to someone.

  • Replace a pronoun with an article or drop the pronoun altogether. Instead of “Madison lost her phone on her vacation,” try, “Madison lost a phone while on vacation.” Use articles such as “the” or “a/an.”

  • When necessary, use “he or she,” or “him and her.” This is much better than alternating between the two (he in one sentence and her in the next). You might think it’s balanced, but it confuses readers. Just use the combination pronouns as sparingly as possible, relying on other tips above.

Learn more about use of pronouns and other tips to improve your business writing. Visit Business Writing That Counts! online or call and ask us about our services at 425-485-3221.

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