Writing Inoffensively in an Identity Sensitive World

Dawn Bevier

Tips on reworking your writing to avoid accidental insult or bias


Image by Gerd Altman on Pixabay

In a world where one’s identity is extremely important and where an innocently given label or pronoun can cause insult or even seem discriminatory, writers should be careful about the words they use.

Gone are many of the older formalized rules on pronoun usage.

For example, in the past, it was not only acceptable but also considered good form to use the word “he” to formally represent both genders in a singular context.

For example, look at this sentence:

“If a student tries hard, he can successfully overcome the challenges of an academic subject area.”

Today, a writer could be labeled gender insensitive when such a construction is used.

Notice, for instance, that people often use preferred pronouns when listing their bios on social media and the like. They want their personal identity to be understood and embraced, and so good writers should be sensitive to these facts.

So, how can a you avoid unintentionally offending with the usage of pronouns?

Here are a few ways:

1. If You Are Referring to a Singular Person of Unknown Gender, You May Use the Term “He or She” and “His or Her”

Take the sentence used above. I could instead say:

“If a student tries hard, he or she can successfully overcome the challenges of an academic subject area.”

Be aware that although this technique works, when used frequently, it can sound laborious.

2. You Can Use Words Such as “One”

Here’s another possible transformation of the original sentence above:

“If one tries hard as a student, one can overcome the challenges of an academic subject area.”

3. If Applicable, You Can Change the Point of View to the Second Person “You”

If the topic lends itself to a direct address of the reader, a writer may instead use the second person “you.”

However, one must also be careful with this pronoun.

Most formal or academic writing doesn’t allow for this change of point of view.

Also, writing that uses this pronoun could possibly offend the reader and seem accusatory in some situations. For example, if you’re writing a self-help article and you say something to the effect of, “You need to change your attitude,” then the reader may feel singled out, even if that was not the writer’s intention.

However, if the topic has a positive or motivational slant, then “you” can work well. For instance, if my topic was geared towards motivating students to overcome academic challenges, then I could say the following:

“With hard work, you can successfully overcome the challenges of any academic subject matter.”

4. Use the Singular “They”

For many years, this usage was considered unacceptable in formal writing as it implied a discrepancy in pronoun number.

Take the following sentence:

“If a student tries hard, they can successfully overcome the challenges of an academic subject area.”

“A student” is singular, denoting “one,” and “they” is plural, denoting more than one.

However, as the issue of gender-neutral writing becomes more important, this usage is becoming more acceptable.

But, once again, beware. Some more academic publications still rebuff this method.

5. Reword the Sentence to Avoid the Need for Pronoun Specifics

Example: “If the student trues hard, overcoming subject area challenges is achievable.”

6. Eliminate the Singular if Possible and Use the Plural Form

This is perhaps the easiest method to employ. Simply change the singular form of the noun to a plural. Don’t, for instance, say “a person.” Say “people” instead. In this way, you can use the all-inclusive “they.”

Example: “If students try hard, they can successfully overcome the challenges of an academic subject area.”

The Bottom Line:

In a culturally diverse society, a writer must exercise extreme caution in the use of his or her words. To avoid this truth could be inflammatory and could cost readership and respect.

Write carefully, my friends.

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Sanford, NC

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