Friday, February 8, 2008

Avoiding Sexist Language

Probably the most persistent question on sexist language I have been asked is how to deal with sentences like this one:“Everyone returned to their homes.”

Ungrammatical solution: “Everyone” is singular and “their” is plural. Grammatically, they don’t agree. The purist says, “No way.”

The traditional solution, “Everyone returned to his home” is grammatically correct. “Everyone” is singular; “his” is singular. But the sentence is sexist, implying that the whole human race is male. Not acceptable.

Another solution popular in my professional journals is, “ Everyone returned to his or her home.” Awkward. And once you begin the string of “his and her” in following sentences, the language becomes repetitious and ugly.

The best solution is to begin in the plural and to stay there.“ The party goers returned to their homes.” The subject, “party goers,” is plural and “their” is plural. Grammatically, they agree. Besides “party goers” is more precise than “Everyone.” Believe me, it will be easier to switch from the singular subjects, “The student,” and “The child,” to the plural “Students” and “Children” than to have to deal with all the “his and her” phrases that the use of the singular will require.

By the way, one other solution to “Everyone returned to their homes” would be, “Everyone went home.” That solution has the advantage of conciseness.

But if you find yourself starting with the singular and wondering what to do about the awkward use of “his and her,” just change from singular to plural and everything will follow smoothly.

Also by the way, some people have criticized my use of “And” and “But” to begin sentences. English teachers tell you that you can’t do it. Professional writers in the real world do it all the time. I happen to like beginning sentences with “And” and “But,” but I do need to use the practice sparingly or it loses its effect. RayS.

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