Sexless Writing

Here we go again … trashing more time-honored rules of grammar that may have made sense in your grandparents’ workplaces … but probably not in yours any more. Hope you’re having as much fun as I am getting back at your high school English teachers who beat those rules into you … often with a yard stick. I know I am. So, please allow me one of my favorite WordPower rants – sexist language.

Inaccurate & Insensitive

For generations, this sentence would have been considered perfectly acceptable and appropriate in the workplace, typically in employee handbooks or procedure manuals:

        ‘The employee should report for work at the beginning of his assigned shift.’

Over thirty years ago, the inequity of that kind of phrase so bothered the leaders of the Women’s Movement, that they got people to do something about it. After all, not all employees were male then and the inference was both inaccurate and insensitive.

Accurate, Sensitive … But Clumsy

Remember that Political Correctness started out simply as trying to be more accurate and courteous. So, we evolved to:

        ‘The employee should report for work at the beginning of his or her assigned shift.’

That easily took care of both the gender inequity and lack of sensitivity. But, the result was clumsy. While ‘her or she’ or ‘his or her’ work for the eye in written communication, they get annoying when we hear them spoken a lot. Especially when the speaker forgets and has to correct himself or herself. A more concise variation became:

        ‘The employee should report for work at the beginning of his/her assigned shift.’

While saving the writer four keystrokes, the result looks even clumsier. And how do you say that? Do you verbalize the backward slash? Doesn’t ‘ … he slash she’ sound goofy? And if you were in the government or military, that would probably be ‘ he stroke she’, which sounds even goofier. And wait … there’s more. Have you ever seen this alternative ‘ … s(he) …’ ? I have. Now, talk about goofy! Looks like a math equation.

Less Clumsy, but Grammatically incorrect

So, over time, business people tried a less clumsy but clearly grammatically incorrect version:

        ‘The employee should report for work at the beginning of their assigned shift.’

Now, you already know how much I enjoy breaking outmoded grammar rules. But inconsistency between the noun (employee – singular) and its pronoun (their – plural) isn’t one of them. That is clearly incorrect and makes the writer/speaker look ignorant. So, what did we gain with this version? Not much.

So Simple

The contemporary workplace solution is so simple and obvious; I wonder why it took so long to catch on:

        The employees should report for work at the beginning of their assigned shift.’

Here we have grammatical accuracy – noun and pronoun in agreement – and no sexist reference. Singular pronouns have a gender connection – ‘his, her, he, she’, but plural pronouns like ‘theirs’ don’t.

Plus, doesn’t it sound odd to use a singular noun ‘employee’ to represent a group? It’s not like we hadn’t invented the plural noun yet. Where did that practice come from? That would make sense if you only had one employee, but then why would you need to write something down for him or her? Same goes for ‘the customer’. If we only have one, we’re in trouble anyway.

Even Better

If you accept the concept that workplace communication should sound like real people talking to real people, whether in writing or in speaking, then this alternative is even better:

You should report for work at the beginning of your assigned shift.’

The second person reference – ‘you’ – is more personal, conversational and engaging than the third person reference – ‘he, she, they’ – and it sounds much better when spoken. What an improvement over the original sexist phrase or the clumsy alternatives, methinks.

Thanks for letting me vent my frustration and passion in the same article. And, I hope it helped you project your values about genderless and personal language into your routine workplace writing and presenting.