Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Gender Neutral Writing

I've thought about writing this post for a while. I have so much keeping me busy with my business that it leaves me very little time to write just about anything else (including keeping up with my own blogs). It's a good problem to have, amirite?

Many will think that this is a post that supports Caitlyn Jenner and the LGBT movement. I suppose to some degree that's true simply because I am an advocate for equal rights. However, that's not what this post is at all. It's a post about the one thing that I advocated when I taught Legal Research and Writing I and II more than anything else: gender neutral writing. In fact, aside from what I said in this paragraph, I won't be mentioning Jenner's decision. I will mention the movement one more time.

Gender neutral writing is more than something that is inclusionary for those in the LGBT community. It's good for everyone in the community. First, I'll tell you why. Then, I'll give you some examples on how to change your writing.

Gendered writing (writing he / she or specifically referring to someone as a he / she) is considered an archaic form of writing even in the legal community. Yes, there are still some hold outs on making the switch. However, it is not taught in legal writing textbooks for lawyers or paralegals that are currently receiving their education. The legal field is always slow to catch up on updated writing styles. I mean, really...have you read a contract? Most are still filled with unnecessary words. As an editor, I cringe when I read certain words. When I see gendered writing, I change it.

Gender neutral writing is more inclusive for the entire world. Think about all of the gender neutral names that you know: Pat, Ashley, Kelly, Leslie, Don / Dawn (if you hear it, you don't necessarily know the difference unless you listen for clues), Lynn, Terry, etc. I'm sure I could continue. If you've ever been mistaken for someone that you aren't, then you know that it can be funny for some people or it can be downright rude or offensive (even if the other person didn't mean anything negative by it). When I was a little girl, my mother kept my hair chopped off. This was back in the 80s, by the way. My hair was and still is baby fine. It gets easily tangled. My 14 year old lives with this horror. Instead of dealing with knots and such, my mother simply kept my hair chopped off to my scalp. This was done until fourth or fifth grade. Then, I adopted more masculine hairstyles for which my parents made fun of me. I didn't think I was a boy by any means. It's simply that I had been mistaken for a boy and constantly heard, "Is that a little boy or a little girl?" and the subsequent shock when they found out I was a girl. Now, my hair is down just past my shoulders. It's been longer in the past. I just can't seem to get it to keep growing. That's really neither here nor there. The point being that unless you actually know someone, then you really don't know which gender pronoun should be used.

If you don't know that Pat Smith is, indeed, a married woman, then your writing should not say "she" or "Mrs." If you don't know that Lynn Jones is, indeed, a man, then your writing should not say "he." Gender neutral writing isn't a matter of sexuality. It's a matter of knowledge or the lack thereof. This applies to any sexuality. This applies to any national origin.

Speaking of national origin, you might find that gender neutral writing makes dealing with names that you are not familiar with much easier. There are some names that we know are generally (keyword) given to men and women in different cultures. However, there are also times when you come across a name that you just won't know the gender unless you meet the person. So, writing in this manner will be quite helpful.

Think about it: it's the same reason why we say 'police officer' instead of 'policeman.' The second word is not inclusive of women who also act in a law enforcement capacity. It provides inclusion and cohesion as a unit instead of differentiating a policeman from a police woman. Instead, we use officer.

Here's how you do it:

The recipient will receive a three day, two night vacation. He will also receive airfare.

As you can see, the problem with this sentence is the use of "he." Unless it's rigged or one of the criteria to enter is being male, there's no way to know for sure that the winner will be a man. Instead, you should write:

The recipient will receive a three day, two night vacation. They will also receive airfare.

I know it will seem a bit awkward for you at first to use "they" or "their" and the corresponding verb "is / are / have / has /had." I promise that you will get used to it. I know that for some it creates an internal dialogue problem because you're talking about a singular winner, in this instance, and you are using a plural version. However, when we are able to include more readers, we are closer to writing a successful piece.