Writing An Essay: Avoiding Sexist Pronouns

In the English language there are no gender-neutral pronouns that exist in a singular form. In formal speech words like "its" can only be used to describe objects not people. Instead when we refer to people we must use his or hers. These words are gender specific. This can make it difficult to make direct references to individuals if you do not know their gender especially in formal writing such as essays. Although, this is not a very common problem, understanding how to use sexist pronouns in your writing is important. Below we have included a few pointers that can help student writers better navigate these instances.

  • It is appropriate to use the male pronoun as gender-neutral if the gender is unknown
  • For example: The baby likes to hold his blanket when he sleeps.

  • If you are referring to any individual whose gender is unknown then you can also use he/she (He or She) (His or Her)
  • For example: Before they leave the classroom the student must hand in his or her essay.

  • When it makes more sense, substitute a non sexist pronoun such as "they" or "their"
  • For example: They put their hands in the air like they just didn't care.

  • Try to rephrase the statement so that there is no need for a gender-based pronoun
  • For example: The student went and asked the librarian for his or her recommendation for a good book


    The student went to ask the librarian for a good book recommendation

  • Avoid the sexist pronoun completely by repeating the original noun
  • For example: The patients in the waiting room were asked to leave each patient's name on a piece of paper.

  • Use Plural Words Instead
  • For example: The teacher requested that students did not speak until they raised their hands

Understanding how to use gender pronouns takes a bit of practice. The best way to master this writing technique is to avoid using sexist pronouns whenever you can. If the occasion does arise that you must use a gender pronoun follow the suggestions that we have listed above.

Keep in mind that essays are typically more formal so using expressions like his/her (his or hers) Her or She, is better then using "he" or "she" "his" or "her" exclusively. If in doubt try to reword the sentence so that it makes sense, without using any sex pronouns at all.

Posted by November 23rd, 2016