Avoid sexism in indefinite pronouns

Indefinite pronouns – words like each, anyone, everything, no one, somebody – often prove controversial because for a good number of readers they can potentially be sexist.

For example, if you write Everyone should cast his vote next Tuesday, some women will take offense because they were excluded (and some men will take offense because you excluded women).

For centuries, this has not been a problem for writers. In a male-dominated society, most times only men (or at least primarily men) would perform the actions referred to in a sentence with an indefinite pronoun. That obviously has changed.

To solve this problem, some writers now opt to include both genders by using constructions like he or she, him or her, his/hers, and him/herself. These usually come off as awkward, throwing off the sentence’s cadence. Other writers create new gender-neutral words such as s/he, but this looks odd, almost like a typo. Yet others alternate between the genders, so that one sentence uses he, the next she, and so on. This can create confusion among readers who expect to see one gender, however.

Another option is to rewrite the sentence so that the pronoun must be plural – they, them, their. This is a good solution that usually works – the above example of Everyone should cast his vote next Tuesday would become All people should cast their vote next Tuesday. Still, this approach often that means revising the rest of the passage so that all of the antecedents and pronouns in it will be plural, even though a gender-specific pronoun makes more sense in other sentences.

The best solution and the one used by most professional writers, however, is to revise the sentence so that no pronoun is needed. For example, Everyone should cast his vote next Tuesday could become Everyone should cast a vote next Tuesday. Even better, get rid of the antecedent so that no pronoun is required, as in Cast a vote next Tuesday! That approach often delivers a punchier sentence.