Gender-neutral Technical Writing

Editor’s Note: The following piece by Jean Hollis Weber is part of our collection of “classics”–articles that stand the test of time no matter how many technologies come and go.

In recurring discussions on the TECHWR-L list, many technical writers argue that they write in “correct English” and are not going to change their style just to suit the political-correctness police. “I won’t use ‘they’ as a singular pronoun because it’s not grammatically correct” and “Using contrived phrases such as ‘s/he’ is just too awkward” are arguments I’ve heard frequently in the debate. But using “incorrect English” or contrived phrases is neither the goal nor the outcome of gender-neutral writing.

Gender-neutral writing uses language that does not stereotype either sex nor appear to be referring to only one sex when that is not the writer’s intention. In this article, you’ll see why gender-neutral writing is important for technical writers to use, what gender-neutral writing is not, and how you can use gender-neutral writing in the documents you develop.

 

Why Should Technical Writers Care?

Why should technical writers care about gender-neutral writing? The answer is simple: Technical communication’s goal is to convey information to an audience, in a form that the audience can understand and use. We should avoid, if possible, anything that interferes with clear communication. If part of our audience is insulted (or offended, irritated, confused, or misled) or stumbles over the way we express ourselves, that reaction will interfere with the reception and understanding of our message.

Additionally, using gender-neutral technical writing can help ease the document development process by avoiding issues that others on your team may raise. For example, some reviewers on your team may think that gender-neutral writing is an important issue, an opinion that distracts them from doing their real reviewing job. Instead of arguing that language is our job, not the reviewers’ business, we could save ourselves a lot of hassle by avoiding potential problem areas. Or perhaps an editor may alert you to such issues, which may result in needing to rewrite passages late in the document development process.

If you dislike the whole idea of gender-neutral technical writing, you may find yourself using a lot of annoying alternatives (e.g., repeated use of the phrase “he or she”). However, you can produce writing that is gender-neutral but that is not awkward and does not mangle or revise the English language.

You may think gender-neutral technical writing is a good idea but of low priority. After all, you have only so much time, and your first priority is for the document to be complete and correct. I won’t argue with that, but I know that with a bit of practice, you won’t need to think about gender-neutral writing; it will just come naturally and won’t take any longer than writing in any other style. Consider this: Many people had to pay a lot of attention before they learned to write naturally in active voice and plain English, but I hope we appreciate their value to clear communication.

If you’re keen to improve your writing, you’ll find gender-neutral writing a creative challenge. I won’t say it’s always easy, especially when your job is to revise existing material. I will say that I rarely meet a construction that I can’t change into gender-neutral language. Out of context, a sentence may seem intractable; in context, it’s frequently not a serious problem.

A word of warning: Some of the books (usually for business writers) that purport to cover gender-neutral writing include appalling collections of examples. Although their examples of phrases to be avoided is often quite comprehensive and good, their suggested solutions are frequently tedious, annoying, and trivial.

 

What Not to Do

If you’ve been thinking that you have to break grammar rules to produce gender-neutral technical writing, you may be surprised at what not to do:

  • Do not use “he” as a generic pronoun; use it only to refer to men and boys.
  • Do not use “she” as a generic pronoun; use it only to refer to women and girls.
  • Do not use “they” as a singular pronoun unless you are confident that your audience won’t mind. This usage is gaining in popularity and acceptance, but a lot of people dislike it or stumble over it.
  • Avoid phrases such as “he or she” and “he/she” or made-up words like “s/he.”
  • Do not use a feminized noun (e.g., manageress) when the normal noun (manager) covers both sexes.

 

What to Do

With what not to do in mind, here are some techniques you can use:

Bypass the problem of gender whenever possible. For example, in technical writing you are often writing procedures and instructional material, and you are usually speaking directly to the reader, so you can use:

  • Imperative mood (Do this.).
  • Second person (you) instead of third person (he, the user).
  • First person plural (we), as used, for example, in parts of this article.

Use plural nouns and plural pronouns. Avoid problems with using singular nouns and pronouns by using plural ones, like this:

  • No: To log in, the user must enter his login name and password.
  • Yes: (In a user document) To log in, enter your login name and password.
  • Yes: (In other documents) To log in, users must enter their login names and passwords.

Avoid pronouns completely when you can. Instead, try these techniques:

Repeat the noun (sometimes this also makes your meaning clearer):

  • No: Technical documentation exists for the reader. You are writing it for him, not for your ego.
  • Yes: Technical documentation exists for the reader. You are writing it for the reader, not for your ego.

Use “a” or “the” instead:

  • No:  The writer should know his reader well.
  • Yes: The writer should know the reader well.

 

Rewrite the sentence or passage. In some cases, you may need to rephrase the sentence, like this:

  • No:  Each user has his own login name and password.
  • No:  Each user has their own login name and password.
  • Yes:  Each user has a personal login name and password.

In other cases, you may need to rewrite an entire passage, like this:

  • No: The successful applicant will use his skills to contribute to the commission’s work in remote areas. He will be posted to various locations during his two-year appointment. His removal costs will be paid, and he will be entitled to one return airfare each six months to the capital city of his choice.
  • Yes: (If a report, before the person is selected) The successful applicant’s skills will contribute to the commission’s work in remote areas. The person will be posted to various locations during a two-year appointment. Entitlements include removal costs and one return airfare each six months to the capital city of the person’s choice.
  • Yes: (If a recruitment advertisement) As the successful applicant, you will use your skills to contribute to the commission’s work in remote areas. You will be posted to various locations during your two-year appointment. Your removal costs will be paid, and you will be entitled to one return airfare each six months to the capital city of your choice.

Use a mixture of male and female names and scenarios in examples, unless the situation clearly cannot include both sexes (e.g., in a medical text discussing pregnancy, the doctor can be male or female, but the patient is always female). You can then refer to John as “he” and Mary as “she.” Similarly, beware of stereotyping the senior person as the male and the subordinate person as the female, but don’t use reverse stereotyping for everyone either.

Use generally-accepted titles.  Job titles are usually not a major problem in technical writing; for example, jobs in the IT (Information Technology) industry tend to have gender-neutral titles (as in, engineer, programmer, analyst, project leader, technician, manager, assistant, sales representative, and service engineer). However, keep in mind that your audience may be working in any field, so use titles that are generally accepted in your audience’s industry, just as you would use other industry-specific terms.

Use other strategies, as necessary.  Finally, although the techniques mentioned here will help you develop and revise documents to be gender-neutral in the vast majority of cases, you may need to explore other resources and techniques. Some technical communications may need to distinguish between the reader of the document (“you”) and someone else. For example, a specifications document might be written for programmers but be about the activities of end users. In these situations, you may need to use other writing strategies or examples, specific to the type of document you’re developing.

Conclusion

Using gender-neutral writing does not mean that you use awkward constructions or non-standard English; instead, it simply means using language that does not stereotype either gender or refer to only one gender when that is not the writer’s intention. By making a few minor changes to ensure your technical writing is gender-neutral, you can avoid distracting your audience and contribute to clearer communication. In the process of doing so, you may also find that you avoid potential problems during the document development process. The techniques and examples offered in this article provide a good starting point for using gender-neutral writing in the documents you develop.

Jean Hollis Weber is a technical editing consultant based in Australia. She has over 25 years of editing experience in scientific, engineering, computing, and other high-tech fields. Jean maintains the Technical Editors' Eyrie Web site, at http://www.jeanweber.com

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