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

I am writing 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”?


4 Answers 4


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.

  • 4
    That's a very good idea… Do you think Alice and bob were created for this purpose?
    – Benoit
    Commented Oct 14, 2010 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 Commented Jul 28, 2014 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.

  • 2
    "You" and "they" are definitely the best. Technical writing should be precise but casual.
    – Jon Purdy
    Commented Oct 14, 2010 at 17:31
  • "you" and "they" might sound more polite but that sentence doesn't sound really precise (to me).
    – JinSnow
    Commented May 4, 2015 at 7:52

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).


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.

  • 2
    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. Commented Mar 25, 2011 at 2:09

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