Go Gender-Neutral

Strive for neutrality, or at least balance.

As Richard Wydick suggests in his excellent Plain English for Lawyers, ‘many readers, both women and men, will be distracted and perhaps offended if you use masculine terms to refer to people who are not necessarily male.’

Wydick also notes that it’s equally distracting to use ‘clumsy efforts to avoid masculine terms’, or to use only feminine terms to redress imbalance (and the latter has a sort of law-school ring to it, which may not be what you’re aiming for). And we can safely leave the androgynous new coinages xe and hir to graduate students in gender studies.

Ways to go gender-neutral:

  • use both masculine and feminine: each client will have to consider his or her own circumstances
  • omit the pronoun altogether: the client will need to make the decision (or a client) instead of the client will need to make his own decision
  • use ‘you’ instead of ‘he’ or ‘she’: as a consumer, you’ll need to make your own choice rather than each consumer must decide for himself
  • use ‘it’ instead of ‘he’ or ‘she’ (this may often work, if many of your clients are not natural persons): the banks’ customer will have to decide for itself not the bank’s customer will  have to decide for himself or herself
  • use the plural: bank customers will have to decide for themselves
  • repeat the noun: a client will have to decide whether this is appropriate for that client’s particular circumstances rather than  …for her circumstances
  • alternate between masculine and feminine: this can look awkward and artificial, however, and you can mess up where a pronoun should actually be gendered, thereby giving someone an accidental sex change
  • use the passive voice: not recommended, as it weakens the impact of your writing
  • terminology: chair not chairman, representative not spokesman (although fisherfolk sounds silly, and fishers not much better – nor would I recommend referring to the four horsepersons of the Apocalypse)

Ways not to:

  • he/she or his/her: ugly (don’t even get me started on (s)he)
  • their or themselves: fine if your antecedent is plural (clients will need to assess their needs themselves) but NEVER if it’s singular (a client will need to assess their needs is wrong, wrong, wrong; say its needs or his or her needs)

Next tip: ice, ise, ize

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)


  1. The singular “they” is commonly used, commonly used, commonly used; it may be inelegant, inelegant, inelegant… but you can’t go so far as to say it is wrong.


  2. Cizan Suliman

    Thanks Neil, these are great tips!

  3. Even better is gender-free legal writing. See:

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