Non-binary copywriting: ready for the shift?


A recent article, Beyond ‘he’ and ‘she’: the rise of non-binary pronouns, on, touched on a topic that’s been on my mind for years now: The use of feminine and masculine pronouns in business writing—you know: he, she, him and her.

I’m convinced we English-speakers need a  gender-neutral—or what some call a non-binary—pronoun of our own.

Let me just start by stating the obvious: using “he” as the default in writing is sexist and wrong. I think most of us know that at this point. But what’s the alternative? Some out there have switched from “he” to “she”, but I don’t think that’s an improvement. It’s still gender-biased, exclusionary and often inaccurate.

He and she don’t work as default pronouns.
Here’s an example. Seth Godin used “she” exclusively in The Icarus Deception. (Great book by the way for anyone striving for a differentiated brand in today’s world.) I know why he did it, and I appreciate his decision, but it was cumbersome for me. It made me think too much and at times, unconsciously, it made me feel like he wasn’t speaking to me. (Now I know how women feel being bombarded with he-speak all the time.) Favoring “she” just came off as forced to me. It felt like a political statement, which is fine, but not when it detracts from the message. A fundamental rule of copywriting is if it detracts from the message, don’t do it.

What’s a girl or boy to do?
So what should Seth have done, and what should we be doing in our communications? Well, I think there has to be an alternative that doesn’t favor either gender. Seth could have inserted “he or she” or “him or her” instead. It would have satisfied the PC police out there, but clunky conventions like these are eyesores and speed bumps to readers. Seth could also have switched back and forth to give equal play to “he” and “she”, but that quickly gets confusing—to both the reader and the writer. No good answer there, I guess.

Pick your alternative to he-speak.
Many alternate pronoun structures have been proposed that skirt the gender issue altogether. lists 55 pronoun sets you could substitute for he/him/his/himself and she/her/her/herself. None of them displays a speck of gender bias, but few seem to have any use outside of being a clever exercise. Of all the options, two seem to have the most potential: they/them/their/themself (if you’re willing to use plural pronouns when singular ones are grammatically correct) and ze/zir/zir/zerself (if you’re feeling kind of space age.)

Linguists and journalists favor “they.”
So what chance does a new, non-gender pronoun have of gaining popularity? Dennis Baron, a linguist at the University of Illinois and Sally McConnell-Ginet, a Cornell University linguistics professor think “they” as used in the pronoun set, they/them/their/themself, has a chance of success.

Journalists are recognizing the need for gender-neutral pronouns as well. Just this month, Washington Post copyeditor, Bill Walsh rubber-stamped the use of the “singular they.”

And just to show you how mainstream the singular use of “they” could become: Facebook lets you choose your pronoun. Yup, right in your account preferences you can instruct them to refer to you as either he/him, she/her or they/them.

“They” works for me.
It’s conversational to use the “they” pronoun set. If you listen to yourself speak, I think you’ll find you’re already using “they” as a singular pronoun much of the time. So the only thing left is for you to put it in writing! In my own writing, I alternate the use of “they” pronouns (i.e., they/them/their/themself) with specific nouns (e.g., the customer, the buyer, a machinist, a marketer, a shipper, the company, etc.) for variety. It works for me and most clients are onboard with it.

There are clients who accuse me of pronoun confusion.
The grammatical stretch of using “they” as a singular pronoun in place of “he” or “she” can be too much for some. To be frank, I still have my moments of second-guessing. The whole singular-plural issue can cause me to overthink things at times, because admittedly, it is not grammatically correct (yet). I get it. That’s why I don’t press it with clients. When I encounter resistance, I usually default to “he or she.”

Still have your doubts that “they” can replace “he” and “she”?
Stranger things have happened. Take “you” for example. According to the article, before the 17th Century, “you” was the plural form of second person—in other words, it was used exclusively to refer to numbers of people. The singular form was thee and thou. So at some point back then, people decided that the plural worked well in singular cases, too—and no one has looked back since. Does that change the way thou feel about making “they” your gender-neutral pronoun of choice?

How to use they/them/their/themself as singular pronouns.
Nothing’s perfect, but “they” works—a lot better than “he” and “she”—or “ze” anyway. Curious what “they” looks like in action? Here are a few examples. (Results may vary, avoid any usage exhibiting signs of weirdness.)
• When we switch a shipping agent’s workstation to the A347, they notice immediate timesavings.
• What’s the most important skill for a new manager? Their decision-making ability.
• In the case of a first-time entrepreneur, we provide them with accountability and control.
• The smart copywriter will ask themself why the prospect cares.

What do you think?
Where do you come out on the use of they/them? Take my poll and I’ll post the results right here next week.

Need sensational, gender-nuetral copywriting for your upcoming website, email series or ad campaign? Let’s talk.