January 30

S/He, She/He, His/Her


Yes, this is me – face palming in my own office.

I know the problem is that no one knows whether to use only “he,” (dead white man’s tradition), only “she” (maybe a little too cutting edge), or some bizarre s/he, her/his combinations. I’ll tell you right now that slashes in the middle of words dramatically reduce readability, so I nix that option right off the bat.

If you’re looking for a nice, happy medium, I recommend going back and forth between “he” and “she.” Then, the question is, how frequently? And how to keep track?

Well, in this post I’ll bring you backstage into my process, with color-coded screenshots and all. Then, I’d like to ask your opinion about a tricky situation that I encountered in editing a recent paper. Sometimes, when we choose to use “she” or “he,” we may unknowingly perpetuate stereotypes. If your paper talked about violent criminals and serial killers, would you feel comfortable using “she?”

How often should I switch between “she” and “he?”

Switching between “he” and “she” is becoming a more common convention, but there is no standard rate of toggling. I’ve seen papers change pronouns every sentence, some every paragraph, and some every chapter. The whole point of toggling is that the reader should essentially lose sight of whether it’s a male or female pronoun. I find change pronounces every sentence to be distracting, since the reader is always taking notice of the pronoun. If you’re writing a book length manuscript, toggling every chapter may work just fine, but what if you’re writing a paper?

I recommend toggling between “he” and “she” roughly every paragraph or two. I provide myself a little wiggle room, since sometimes two short paragraphs are conceptually linked together.

How do I keep track of when I’m using “he” or “she?”

I have to admit, toggling between pronouns is pretty annoying when proofreading because you’re not only looking for the usual grammar, you’re also looking to make sure that the sentence and paragraph maintains the proper gender of the pronoun. If you don’t have a system, you’ll end up having to do an entire proofreading sweep, only looking for pronoun consistency, and that’s a waste of time.

I’ve started using a color-coded system when I’m first editing the paper. I change the font color of the paragraph to red if the pronouns should all be female, and the font color to blue if the pronouns should all be male. I know this completely relies stereotypes (red/pink for girls, blue for boys), but, hey, it’s a convenient, time-saving code because the color associations have been so thoroughly drilled into my socialized brain. You can use whatever colors you like.

But color coding the paragraphs super helpful for two reasons.

  1.  When you’re editing and proofreading, you’d be surprised at how quickly you can forget what gender pronoun you should be using, even just from the last sentence.
  2. When you zoom out on the document, you can very quickly see whether you’ve used the male/female pronouns in roughly a 50/50 split.

Here’s what it looks like:


You can see that I don’t switch between “she” and “he” exactly every paragraph. This part of the paper had four short sections, each with 1-2 paragraphs, so I toggled pronouns between sections, rather than strict paragraphs. You have to go with what feels right in the paper.

To focus on only the red and blue pattern (like in the screenshot above), be sure to select the “Review” tab and select “Final.”

Final Review

This will hide all of the tracked changes and comments. When I’m doing my final proofread, I usually change to this Final Review screen anyway. In this mode, I can proofread as normal and keep track of which pronoun I’m supposed to be using without second guessing myself. Before I finish, I select all the text and change the font color back to black.

What about when using a female pronoun just feels wrong?

I was using this toggling process in a paper recently, when I ran into a situation in which I was actually uncomfortable randomly switching between male and female pronouns.

Based on the pattern I had established in the paper, it was time to switch from “he” back to “she,” when I reached these sentences:

“…what moves the ego-antipathetic is the desire to make the other suffer, even if this could bring harmful consequences to herself. In this case, the driven to hurt the other is so strong that she can also bring damages to herself, as this antipathetic inclination is more powerful than her own instinct of self-preservation. This is probably the most socially problematic kind of ego, as it spans a large variety of psychological pathologies, with serial killer as the most extreme example.”

Criminology was one of my focuses in grad school, and I just could not get over the blatant fact that serial killers are far, far more likely to be male than female. (Please, don’t tell me about the Hannah and the other random female character on the Dexter TV show. I love that show, but it’s fiction, you know.) I felt that leaving the female pronoun in would feel jarring to the reader and distract from the point that the paragraph was trying to make.

I ended up switching the pronouns to the male gender, but I still felt a bit squeamish with the decision, like I was perpetuating a stereotype (statistically valid, but still a stereotype).

What would you have done?

Would you have stuck to a more true 50/50 split and described serial killers with a “she?” Or would you have thrown off the balance and switched to “he?”

And, more generally, how do you approach the gendered pronoun conundrum?

Leave a comment, and let me know!


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