The Great Pronoun Dilemma

Alt: Doodles hold signs that say, “OK with they!” and “Word of the year!”

Update (January 2020): Since we wrote this post more than 7 years ago, the scrappy underdog singular “they” has made great strides (insert inspirational training montage here). In 2017, the Associated Press and Chicago Manual of Style welcomed “they” into the fold. In 2019, the American Psychological Association gave “they” its blessing. And to really seal the deal, Merriam-Webster named “they” 2019’s Word of the Year.

If you need to follow a style guide that hasn’t gotten the “they” memo, you can find some alternative solutions below — but you can count us as officially officially okay with “they.” Hooray! The great debate is finally over!

Writing about health means writing about people. And people need pronouns. So if you’re a health writer, at some point you’ve probably asked yourself: Which pronoun do I use for a generic individual, like “your doctor” or “the patient”? He? She? He/she? They? Something else entirely?

Despite a long history of “they” as a gender-neutral personal pronoun, many academics and traditionalists still use masculine pronouns (he/his) when writing about a generic someone. But using “he” throughout is outdated, inaccurate, and frankly a little cringey at this point. So what are the other options?

Saying “he or she” all the time is clunky. Writing “s/he” or “(s)he” looks awkward and can trip up readers with limited literacy skills. Rephrasing sentences so they’re plural often works. But if your entire website reads that way, it can sound impersonal and distant.

One solution is to alternate feminine and masculine pronouns — or shake things up with unexpected pronouns. For example, you could sidestep gender stereotypes by saying, “Ask your doctor what she would recommend.” Or, “Make sure your caregiver knows you want him to call 911 if this happens.” This approach is a step in the right direction, but it ignores the needs of gender non-binary people.

The truth is, people already use “they” as a gender-neutral pronoun in everyday speech. Like, “Whenever someone at the office brings me a cookie, I give them a great big smile.” And one of the first rules of writing for health literacy is to write the way your audience speaks. Get where we’re going with this, dear readers? We thought so.

The bottom line: When faced with the pronoun dilemma, the choice is yours. We choose team “they.”

Tweet about it: Hooray! @MerriamWebster named “they” 2019’s Word of the Year! Check out @CommunicateHlth’s thoughts for #HealthLit communicators:


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