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Using the singular they is important for all types of writing, but especially for web content. Terms like gender roles, gender identity, and gender expression all relate to using gender-inclusive language and grammar. Here, you’ll learn a bit more about these terms and how they relate to your writing or editing practices.
What These Terms Mean
Gender roles are the behaviors we learn based on our genders, which are often influenced by the society or culture we’re surrounded by. These may be apparent in stereotypes. For example, a traditional woman may be expected to act in a caring or nurturing manner while a man may be expected to act aggressively or stoic. However, what does a person do when they identify as non-binary or gender-nonconforming? What does culture say about how they should act?
Gender identity is how a person perceives their own gender. It is more psychological than physical and may or may not align with what gender the person was assigned at birth.
Gender expression is how a person lives their gender identity, although they do not have to adhere to any particular expression. Pronouns are one way that someone could express their gender identity. Gender expression includes the way a person acts, their mannerisms, their interests, and their appearance.
Gender expression and gender roles may overlap and are often influenced by stereotypes and traditional gender roles. For instance, a person who identifies as a boy may like to play with trucks (a stereotype). This is one way he expresses his gender. He may also dress in stereotypical “boy” colors, such as red or blue.
Being non-binary means that your gender is not man or woman. It is outside the gender binary. It is not a lack of gender. Non-binary people express themselves in various ways, and each non-binary person is unique. For example, some may prefer to express their gender by dressing androgynously, but others may dress more stereotypically masculine or feminine.
Why Use the Singular They
They is a generic third-person pronoun. It is used to describe groups of people or a person whose gender is unknown. For example, you could write “Somebody left their briefcase on the train.” and readers would know that you were referring to one person whose gender you do not know. Since gender identity and expression vary from person to person, the singular they is important to include in your writing for the following reasons.
Using the singular they allows you to be inclusive because it does not assume a person’s gender. Just because a person may look one way does not mean they are a certain gender; therefore, it is more appropriate (and less likely to cause harm) to use they when referring to a person whose gender you do not know.
As web writers, we want to be as respectful and inclusive as possible. We do this by not assigning genders to careers previously perceived as done by a certain gender. For example, the term stewardess is no longer used. Instead, we refer to people who work on planes as flight attendants. Or, we may use they to refer to a doctor because a person of any gender can be a doctor.
Writing “he or she” multiple times in an attempt to be inclusive is unnecessarily wordy. Plus, it excludes all the other genders. Gender is not just being a man or a woman. Some people identify as agender, demigender, non-binary, genderqueer, or gender-nonconforming, among others. If you’re unsure of what someone’s gender is, use they to be inclusive and avoid wordiness.
Avoid Causing Harm
Dysphoria is a state of feeling unhappy, unwell, or uneasy. Gender dysphoria can be much more intense than feeling simply unhappy. It is often deeply psychological and can be triggered by many different things. For example, if a trans man has breasts, he may experience dysphoria because having breasts doesn’t align with his gender identity. He may feel like that part of him is wrong and that it doesn’t belong to his body. This, in turn, causes deep psychological pain.
Being misgendered is often a trigger for dysphoria because using incorrect pronouns contradicts with a person’s gender identity. Doing so may lead to intense negative emotions such as fear, confusion, and guilt. When you know that a person uses pronouns such as she/her or zie/zim and you still choose to use other pronouns, you may be causing that person dysphoria. By using the singular they, you avoid causing someone harm.
How to Use the Singular They
When writing or speaking a person’s pronouns, effort is everything. When you don’t know someone’s gender, using they will save you from an embarrassing situation as well as ensure that you include everyone possible. Most people will appreciate that you’re trying to be inclusive.
The following examples are ways that you can use more gender-inclusive language (sometimes beyond pronouns) to avoid making assumptions about gender. Some of these examples depict situations where gender isn’t paramount to understand a sentence.
- “If George or Sam got the flu, I would have sympathy for them.” → is better than “If George or Sam got the flu, I would have sympathy for him or her.”
- “I called the plumber to fix the pipes. They will be coming soon.” → is better than “I called the plumber to fix the pipes. He or she will be coming soon.”
- “Ron is in jail again. I’m going to call a bondsperson” → is better than “Ron is in jail again. I’m going to call a bondsman.”
- “The new doctor is starting today. I don’t know their name yet.” → is better than “The new doctor is starting today. I don’t know his or her name yet.”
- “There’s another fire up the canyon. The firefighters are up there now.” → is better than “There’s another fire up the canyon. The firemen are up there now.”
- “There was a car crash. A man and a woman are hurt. I hope they’re both okay.” → is better than “There was a car crash. A man and a woman are hurt. I hope he and she are both okay.”
These are just a few examples of how to use the singular they and gender-inclusive language in web writing. Try to apply the singular they and gender-inclusive language in your web writing. Doing so will make your work more concise and more courteous.