Sexist Language and Bad Grammar


Once upon a time, in the world of writing, using the word “he” was a perfectly acceptable way to name an unknown person. For example, few, if any, readers would blink at “If a person wants to write well, he will need to use good grammar.” Now, many readers argue that this is sexist writing because it only refers to male writers. After all, some would argue, women write, too.

We could revise this sentence to read, “If a person wants to write well, she…,” but this would have the same problem. The language is still sexist. To remove this gender bias in writing, some writers may revise this sentence to read, “If a person wants to write well, they…” The gender bias is gone, but now the sentence has incorrect grammar. Can you spot the grammatical problem?

“A person” refers to one person, but “they” is a plural pronoun referring to more than one person. To prevent this problem, a writer (with good grammar) may write, “If a person wants to write well, he or she will need to use good grammar.” Even worse, the writer may write “he/she” or “s/he.” Yuck. This is awkward to read, especially when reading aloud. The writer could also revise the sentence to read, “If a person wants to write well, the person…,” but this is cumbersome to read.

A better way to remove sexist language requires more fundamental changes to the sentence. For example, the sentence could be revised to read, “If people want to write well, they need to use good grammar.” We have made the subject plural so that we may correctly use the plural pronoun “they.” As you can see, this sentence no longer suffers from gender bias or poor grammar.

However, we have an even better idea.

One of our central guidelines at Precise Edit is to remember that writing is meant to be read. This seems like such a simple idea, but, really, this concept provides guidance for much of what we do. Based on this concept, we might revise the sentence to read, “If you want to write well, you need to use good grammar.” This revision speaks directly to the reader, but sometimes doing so is not appropriate, such as when a more objective tone is desired. Also, some readers may find this new version of the sentence to be a bit cumbersome as well.

“Ok,” you may be asking, “how should the sentence be revised?” We’re glad you asked. Our preferred revision is: “Good writers use good grammar.

Let’s look at what we did. First, we removed the sexist language. Second, we corrected any grammar problems. Third, we considered the reader, and fourth, we applied the correct tone. The result is writing that is clear, direct, and unbiased. Who could argue with that?


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1 Comment

Filed under Editing, Writing

One response to “Sexist Language and Bad Grammar

  1. This has always been a problem for me! I stumbled onto this article after the Grammar Hulk retweeted your Solving The Singular They post. Thanks so much!

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