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Gender neutral pronoun
Is it correct to use “their” instead of “his or her”?

I am writing a software documentation. I have this issue: I am talking about a generic user of the software.
Should I say “his preferences”, “his/her preferences” or “its preferences”?

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marked as duplicate by kiamlaluno, Robusto, F'x, RegDwigнt Jun 8 '11 at 9:03

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

Certainly not "its" when referring to a human being. For the rest of your question, see Gender neutral pronoun and Is it correct to use “their” instead of “his or her”? –  RegDwigнt Oct 14 '10 at 13:56
Thank you. I wonder why I had not seen those topics first. Could you put this as an answer to get rewarded? –  Benoit Oct 14 '10 at 14:09
@RegDwight: I will not be discouraged at all, don't worry. I would like to be able to close it myself though. –  Benoit Oct 14 '10 at 14:19
English already has a singular personal pronoun of indeterminate gender; namely "they". The idea that "they" is incorrect as a singular personal pronoun is a great myth, wrong on every level. motivatedgrammar.wordpress.com/2009/09/10/… –  Marcel Turing Sep 23 at 12:30

4 Answers 4

up vote 4 down vote accepted

The links Reg supplied are good advice, but be aware that gender-neutral language used at length can start to become clunky and unnatural to the ear. One trick I have seen to avoid that problem is to assign genders to particular use cases. In your case, you might refer to a generic user using male pronouns, while an administrator gets female pronouns. Obviously this only works when you have a reasonably good mix of cases or relative importance.

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That's a very good idea… Do you think Alice and bob were created for this purpose? –  Benoit Oct 14 '10 at 14:15
No, Alice and Bob were created because of the first letter of their first name (A, B,...). You can check for the rest of the cast on en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alice_and_Bob#Cast_of_characters –  Fabian Vilers Jul 28 at 11:00

I've written a lot of software documentation and even authored a few style guides.

I would not suggest using his/her throughout the text. In the generic case, refer to the user as "they", which serves as a somewhat suitable gender-neutral pronoun if you use it intermittently. Try to to strike a good mix between "the user" and "they." Using one over the other consistently starts to sound redundant and somewhat forced.

The user enters text and clicks 'done'. They have the option of saving to a file or the network.

Another option you may consider is changing the voice to the second person ("you") in parts of the document (or even the entire text). Talk to them directly. Put them in the use cases.

Enter the text and click 'done'. You can save the text to a file or the network.

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"You" and "they" are definitely the best. Technical writing should be precise but casual. –  Jon Purdy Oct 14 '10 at 17:31

Do not use the passive voice in documentation addressed to the user. Address all instructions to the person who will follow them. The second person is appropriate, and (as this paragraph demonstrates) does not incur excessive use of the informal "you" if one sticks to the imperative tense.

If addressing an administrator who himself has users, refer to the users with male gender as it is the grammatical convention. The problem is easily avoided by referring to them collectively, and using the phrase "the user" often.

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No, it's not the grammatical convention to refer to users with male gender. Please read up on the topic of "othering". Use gender inclusive language. Please. –  Concrete Gannet Mar 25 '11 at 2:09

I've written a lot of technical documentation and have generally been able to write around the gender problem without resorting to "his/her", "hir" (et al), or singular "they". Regardless of what I think of any of these, I know that each of them will annoy some subset of my readers and that that will get in the way of communication.

I try to write to rather than about the user. English doesn't have gender-distinguished "you", so that works. In the rare cases where I need to write about a user in the third person, I use a combination of "the user" and selective non-specificity. For example: "(after you perform some action) the user can select these options from the preferences panel" (the preferences panel, not his preferences panel).

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