He said, she said

A client recently questioned me about the wisdom of using “he” for the default pronoun in the FAQ copy for her website.

Her concerns: Would it come across as sexist? Would it make women readers feel left out?

My response was that, sadly, the English language doesn’t have a handy gender-neutral pronoun at its disposal (and no, “their” is not an appropriate option — don’t get me started). So it’s become a standard and accepted practice to simply use “him” or “he” or “his” to refer, generally, to all mankind. (Womankind? Humankind?) And most people don’t bat an eye because they’re so used to seeing it that way in print.

Oh, and by the way, it’s grammatically correct.

But, said she, it still makes me uncomfortable. Can’t I just alternate pronouns?

I said sure, you can do anything you want. It’s your site. Heck, you could even use the dreaded “s/he” construction. But there’s a caveat. Using unconventional style and grammar, like the ol’ he/she switcheroo, can make your writing look inconsistent, amateurish, or self-conscious. Your copy also gets harder to read, because the reader gets distracted each time he (or she) runs into one of those awkward constructions.

My advice to her? Learn to live with “he.”

In the end, she chose to alternate pronouns. Fair enough. After all, clients may pay me for my opinions, but they don’t have to heed them. Even when I’m right.

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