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Gender-neutral language – what it is and why you need to use it

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Die Diskussion um die sprachliche Gleichbehandlung von Frauen und Männern wird seit Jahren nicht mehr nur von Feministinnen geführt, sondern in einer breiten Öffentlichkeit. Secretary Today zeigt Ihnen, wie Sie sich auf Englisch geschlechtergerecht und verständlich ausdrücken.
When I was growing up, it was the norm to use a masculine pronoun (he, him, his) to represent everyone. For example, “Every good boss should be nice to his secretary.” But this masculine-based language is no longer acceptable.
There are five ways you can make a sentence like “Every good boss should be nice to his secretary,” gender neutral. Here they are, with my recommendation on which is best in modern, professional business English.

What to do

Example

Comment

Change the singular to plural

All good bosses should be nice to their secretaries.

This is an easy choice that usually works well.

Use you

As a good boss, you should be nice to your secretary.

This is nice, but only works when you can use the direct approach.

Use one

As a good boss, one should be nice to one’s secretary.

This is very formal and plodding.

Use his or her

Every good boss should be nice to his or her secretary.

This is easy to use, but if you have to keep repeating it in a long text, it gets very cumbersome.

Use their

Every good boss should be nice to their secretary.

As you can read below, thissolution is controversial, but it’s the one we use in Secretary Today.

Why their can be used as a singular pronoun

Their used to be common as a singular pronoun. Jane Austen uses it: “If we knew anybody we would join them directly.” (Northanger Abbey). So does Thackeray: “A person can’t help their birth.” (Vanity Fair). Then it went out of fashion. But, many modern writers have started using it again as it is a great way of avoiding he/her. It is also the way I write in Secretary Today. After all, we have a lot of male readers! Look at these examples to see how it works:

  • Will whoever left their car parked outside the office please move it?
  • If anyone phones while I’m out, tell them I’m not there and ask them what they want.

Please aim to be gender-neutral in your language, especially when you deal with Americans. In the USA, it is an absolute must. If you or your boss get it wrong, you’ll soon be labeled as sexist!
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