Of singular importance: The singular ‘they’ and other gender-neutral writing

June 3, 2021 | Graham May

Language evolves to fit social needs. With growing public demand for gender equality and recognition of diverse gender identities, there is an increasing practical and ethical argument for gender-neutral writing. Gender-neutral writing, which avoids categorizing the subject as either male or female, is more respectful and can reduce the risk of errors. This article present some benefits of, and strategies for, gender-neutral writing, giving particular attention to the guidelines released by the Government of Canada.

The Department of Justice of Canada provides a series of guidelines (the “Federal Guidelines”) to encourage and instruct the use of gender-neutral language, among other linguistic advice. This resource is available in the legislative drafting series, “Legistics”, available at this link: Legistics – Gender-neutral Language. We anticipate that the trend to gender-neutral language will continue in the future, and therefore suggest an opportunity for those dealing with all levels of government to adjust their writing accordingly.

The Federal Guidelines range from simple to complex. Often, gender-neutral language can be achieved by simply phrasing a sentence a different way: for example, by repeating the noun that is the subject of the sentence, such as “the applicant” or “the Minister”. In this way, one can avoid the use of “he or she”, which is sometimes awkward and excludes non-binary individuals who do not identify as male or female.

Where possession is clear, one may also replace a possessive pronoun (e.g. “her report”) with a definite article (“the report”). This also reduces the risk of errors in writing, especially when making use of precedents, where gendered language must be amended to each new document’s context. Such simpler, more accurate drafting may reduce time and costs. Similarly, the Federal Guidelines recommend selecting gender-neutral nouns, such as “server” rather than “waitress” and “police officer” rather than “policeman.”

The singular “they” is a powerful gender-neutral writing tool. The Federal Guidelines encourage using “they” to refer to singular, indefinite nouns (e.g. “anyone”; “the taxpayer”). This can avoid heavy repetition of nouns, but requires that the subject of the sentence is clear. “They” is also the pronoun of choice for many non-binary individuals who identify as neither “she” nor “he” (although this is not addressed in the Federal Guidelines). When speaking about such individuals, “they” is a more respectful and accurate singular definite pronoun and more elegant than endlessly repeating the person’s name.

The singular “they” carries some risk of ambiguity and opens stimulating new grammatical questions (for example: is it “themselves” or “themself”? The Federal Guidelines recommend the former, but notes that the latter was standard until the 16th century and may be increasing in popularity today). Authors will have to stay alive to the risk of misunderstanding, balancing it against the benefits of respect, efficiency, and accuracy.

Such linguistic transitions are hardly new to English. Increased adoption of the singular “they” in the 21st century is analogous to the spread of the singular “you” in the 17th century. Before that time, the second person singular pronoun was often “thou” or “thee”, especially in informal communications (much like the “tu” form in modern French and Spanish).

Most importantly, gender-neutral language respects people’s gender identities and affirms their human rights. Inclusive writing is consistent with the Canadian Human Rights Act, which was amended in 2017 to prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity or expression. It is also consistent with the mandates of many readers, not only individuals who identify as transgender or non-binary, but also organizations and individual allies who wish to affirm the rights of LGBT+ people.

Language is always changing to meet the needs of the people who use it. The Federal Guidelines provide a valuable resource to make writing more in line with growing social and governmental expectations for gender-neutral communication. We anticipate that this trend will only increase. Gender-neutral language can make our writing more accurate, efficient, and respectful.


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