For all of the writers out there, we promise this won’t be painful. We’re not in a position to dictate what you write and how you say it. We just want to shine some light on topics that affect writing. Language constantly evolves so it’s really up to us, the writers, to keep current, set an example, and create a place where readers can feel comfortable and included.
To the chagrin or relief of many, rules-based writing is still definitely a thing in many regards, though those rules, like language, change. If you study the history of the English language, you’ll see that scholars made up grammar rules to appease the growing literate population throughout Europe who were craving some order to their writing, not because the scholars themselves necessarily wanted to. Because they probably had the foresight to see how confusing and at times random rules can be for dynamic languages.
The major style guides have become our de facto resource of what is preferred, if you will. If you follow AP on their social media platforms, you’ll find updates to their “rules” (ending a sentence in a preposition is okay now, so we won’t have to do the preposition dance akin to the famous, “This is the type of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put,” that has been attributed/debunked as a Churchillism). It seems that social media has “allowed” us to push the limits of language where we now verb nouns (how to president), consistently shorten words (legit), and fully embrace acronyms btw. This post represents the first time I’ve written out “because” in a very long time and quite honestly, that’s a few milliseconds I’ll never get back.
LET’S TALK ABOUT PRONOUNS!
Depending on when you started to write for a wide audience, the words you choose have probably changed, specifically, pronouns. Writing puts us in a silo of sorts, and what we see and hear outside of that bubble isn’t always incorporated into our work. But when it does, it can inform an important issue like inclusion. While we won’t get into the societal and scientific views on gender, there’s really no harm in modifying the words we use to demonstrate that we understand the consequences of gendered language.
Fortunately, the English language doesn’t have gendered nouns that we have to worry about (like un chapeau or une abeille in French), however, it doesn’t have a gender-neutral pronoun either, but not for a lack of trying. Since the 1800s writers have been creating pronouns that are more gender neutral like “thon” for example and a few even made it into the dictionary but later fell out of favor. So people have naturally defaulted to “he/him/his,” “one/ones,” and/or “they/them/their.” Of the three, clearly the variation of “he” is no longer acceptable as an umbrella term for a person of unknown gender or as a default for certain professions. “They/them/their” has become a workable substitute. Merriam Webster actually added it as a singular pronoun in 2019 though there are inherent issues of it being plural. Take the following statement for example: “I hired them for the project, and they are on board.” To which the response might be, “I asked you to hire one person. How many did you hire?” In this case, it might be best to use “person” or identify them by their title, “I hired the designer for the project, and they are on board.” Though still not perfect, it’s inclusive, and the point is: The more you use it, the quicker it becomes a habit.
In addition to using “they/them/their” you have the option of using a set of gender-neutral pronouns of which there are a few. You may have seen a variety or two in articles or college style guides. The purpose is to either combine or replace letters in traditional “he/she” pronouns. For everyone who remembers learning English or has learned a foreign language in high school, one of the first things you do is conjugate verbs, so this would entail a similar process of memorization. To give you an idea of what these look like, here is a revised set.
He/She > Sie or Zie
Him/Her > Hir or Zir
His/Hers > Hirs, Zirs
Himself/Herself > Hirself, Zirself
Clearly, the incorporation of gender-neutral pronouns will represent a shift in how you communicate, so conversations must be had about how and when they will be used in your organization. Otherwise, you may have a very confused audience. Also, if you decide to adopt a specific set of gender-neutral language, be sure to do your homework, especially when it comes to other cultures. In an apparent rush to inclusivity, some media outlets have been using “Latinx” as a gender-neutral term, yet some native speakers prefer for it not to be used for a variety of reasons. And, yes, there will always be controversies surrounding neologisms, but inquiry will move the needle further than indifference.
LET’S DIAGRAM SENTENCES!
Kidding. Here’s the thing, your organization may not be ready to start exclusively using gender-neutral pronouns in force right away and it may never fully make the move. But building an inclusive culture means recognizing that these differences exist and doing what you can to honor that. The changes we should be making are minor yet their impact is huge. Just as we strive to make our digital properties accessible to people with disabilities we should also recognize that our audience is made of many different genders, and we should strive to make our writing inclusive.