Pronoun Problems: "He/She," "He or She," or Just Plain "He"?

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Q: Is there a special rule regarding which pronoun to use when talking about a non-specific gender ("he/she," "he or she," "he") or is it completely the writer’s choice? —Jarrett Z.

A: For years, the masculine pronouns (he, his, him) graced most literary work when referring to a non-specific gender. It was an unspoken rule that was sexist and one-sided, but it stood in place for a long time. Being the equal-opportunity pronoun nation that we are today, that rule has changed—or, more precisely, completely disappeared.

Both male and female pro-nouns are acceptable to use when the sex isn’t specified. Therefore it’s OK to write “he/she,” “he or she” or declare one gender to use throughout an article. Many writers will stick with their own biological genes—men tend to use the pronoun “he” while women generally use “she.” Both ways are perfectly fine. The preference lies in the hands of the writer.

Many magazines, including the one you’re reading, take a different approach. Writing “his or her” or “his/her” can start to look clunky, and No. 1 on the Writer’s Digest 10 Commandments list states: “Thou shalt avoid clunkiness at all costs.” Our rule is to alternate pro-nouns: If we say “he” in one paragraph referencing a non-specified gender, the next time an example comes up in the article we’ll use “she.” And so on. Switching back and forth is easy to do, gets rid of the clutter and keeps readers from calling you unwanted names.

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