This week: His, Hers, and TheirsEdited by: Max Griffin 🏳️🌈
More Newsletters By This Editor
1. About this Newsletter
2. A Word from our Sponsor
3. Letter from the Editor
4. Editor's Picks
5. A Word from Writing.Com
6. Ask & Answer
7. Removal instructions
Most of the time, it's a good idea to name your characters and give them some memorable attributes. However, sometimes you want to keep the identity or even the gender of your character a secret. This happens, for example, in mysteries where you want show the crime as it happens, but the purpose of the plot is to figure which character is the criminal. In these cases, even knowing the gender of the perpetrator is a clue best kept hidden. But those pesky personal pronouns then become a problem. You know, the ones that reveal gender: he, she, and associated variants. One solution is the "singular they."
I recently read an excellent opening chapter of a thriller. One thing about the chapter got me to thinking, though. The author wanted to keep the gender of their spy secret, so what pronoun should they use? They tried things like, “The spy adjusted its parachute as it glided toward the target,” but I found that confusing. Was the spy automated, a drone perhaps, or some other inanimate object? We don’t usually call people “it,” so it took me a while to figure out what was going on.
This led my question:
What are some strategies for an author who doesn’t want to reveal the gender of one of their characters?
One answer is built into the question: use the singular they.
In our question--and in the opening paragraph above--the gender of the noun “author” is unknown. Some languages have a special pronoun for when this happens, but not English. The only gender-neutral personal pronoun in English is “it,” which generally doesn’t refer to people. One solution is to use the gender-neutral "they," even though the antecedent, "author," is singular. This is the "singular they."
This approach is preferable to using "it" because "it" doesn't usually refer to a person. For example, if you replaced “their” with “its” in the above question, it’s confusing. Readers would look for an inanimate object as the antecedent, and there isn’t one. They would eventually figure out what you meant, but that little stumble would take them away from the here-and-now in a story.
People use the “singular they” in conversation all the time. There’s historical evidence of its use for at least the last six hundred years. In fact, the Chicago Manual Of Style now allows its use in informal writing (see CMS paragraph 5.48). Many authors strive for an informal, conversational style when writing fiction, so the “singular they” is a natural choice. Certainly, it’s better than the cumbersome “he or she,” which the CMS deprecates in any case.
A related question has to do with gender-neutral pronouns in general. Style guides used to recommend the use of the male pronoun when the gender was unknown. Some still do. But most now recommend using gender-neutral language, which gave rise to the execrable "s/he" in the 1970s. Paragraph 5.255 of the CMS lists several better strategies for gender-neutral language. The most useful is simple: rephrase to avoid the pronoun altogether.
For example, we might have rephrased our initial question as follows, “What are some writing techniques to avoid revealing the gender of a character?” That’s every bit as good as the original question, and avoids the problem altogether.
Another is to repeat the noun instead of using a pronoun. Repeating words and phrases isn’t such a good idea in fiction, though, since it tends to make our prose seem monotone. Another strategy is to just change “an author” in the original question to “authors.” Now the antecedent is plural and the use of “their” is grammatically correct.
More generally, we might be asking
What are some strategies to achieve gender-neutral prose?
When I was growing up in the 1950s, all doctors were assumed to be men, so the use of "he" when talking about physicians at least seemed to reflect cultural reality. Today, 47% of all new MDs in the US are female, and other professions are likewise more diverse. The old presumptions about gender are no longer accurate. Recently, the “he or she” alternative has also been deprecated in many style guides not only because it’s awkward, but also because it doesn’t reflect alternative, nonbinary gender identities. It only makes sense that our language should adapt to evolving social norms and customs.
Of course, in fiction the words on the page have a purpose. If your first-person narrator is an unrepentant sexist, for example, then using sexist language would serve the fictional purpose of revealing that character trait.
More generally, however, the growing acceptance of the “singular they” in writing is evidence of the evolution of culture and language. People use it all the time. If your editor says change it, well, the editor is paying for your copy, so by all means change it. Otherwise, I think the meaning is clear, and most readers won’t even notice. It’s common in everyday conversation. It makes your prose feel natural rather than forced. And, it doesn’t assume the default gender is male.
This is my first "For Authors" newsletter. The StoryMaster has trusted me with a slot as one of the permanent editors for the next year. I hope that my newsletters will be useful, or at least diverting. If you have a topic you'd like me to write about or a story you'd like me to feature, please drop me a note.
Submit an item for consideration in this newsletter!
Have an opinion on what you've read here today? Then send the Editor feedback! Find an item that you think would be perfect for showcasing here? Submit it for consideration in the newsletter!
Don't forget to support our sponsor!
What are some other strategies for gender-neutral prose?
To stop receiving this newsletter, click here for your newsletter subscription list. Simply uncheck the box next to any newsletter(s) you wish to cancel and then click to "Submit Changes". You can edit your subscriptions at any time.