Gender neutrality seems like a tough nut in English. "One" seems very helpful, but since it's pretty difficult to phrase a right question regarding its usage because of the countless possible uses of this word, finding a concise set of rules can get tough. The answers I managed to find though, varied; hence my two questions.

  1. Is it common both in American English and British English to use the form "one" as a gender-neutral pronoun? Or perhaps it would sound odd in one of the dialects?

  2. If I'm willing to stay gender-neutral, should I stick to using singular "they", "their", etc. or is it best to either use generic he or rephrase the whole sentence? I've always used this form as follows:

    One should be aware of their surroundings.

But one of the sources stated it's a bit confusing, and I'd be better off saying:

One should be aware of one's surroundings.

It seems to me that repeating "one" bears the same issue as "he or she" form - it sounds pretty awkward and cumbersome.

On the other hand, replacing one's with, for instance, his, seems to comprise the whole idea of gender neutrality.

And, leaving off "one", do you think there's anything wrong at all in utterances like:

A reporter is not always allowed to give away their sources.

Everyone is advised to return to their seats.

  • Personally, I think using one can give a sentence a "philosophical" feel – which works fine in some cases but might read awkwardly in others. Moreover, one might also avoid the gender problem by switching to the second person; e.g.: You should always be aware of your surroundings. – J.R. Mar 21 '15 at 11:00
  • If you are uncomfortable with gender neutrality in English, don't worry, I am too. (Native speaker) This fable pretty accurately sums up my thoughts on trying to be politically correct. Write "he" and you are chauvinistic. Write "he/she" and you are trying too hard to be politically correct. Write "they" and your grammar is wrong. – James Mar 22 '15 at 0:33
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    @DJMcMayhem No, using they is grammatically correct. – tchrist Apr 17 '15 at 9:45
  • @tchrist I know it is, but some people think it isn't. – James Apr 17 '15 at 20:11

When I wish to maintain gender neutrality I use two methods.
1) Passive voice. Instead of saying "He can use the software freely" I prefer "The software can be freely used"
2) Use a generic/neutral term to describe the person when possible. Instead of saying "He can customize the look of the software" I would say "The user can customize the look of the software."

Maybe the examples are not very representative but I hope that they are sufficient. The passive voice method sounds a bit formal so I prefer to find appropriate neutral terms to describe what I need.

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  • Still, escaping from using some problematic forms isn't always the right way. Paraphrasing your example, don't you think "The user can customize the look of the software in case they don't like it" is more preferable in terms of gender neutrality than the still vague "If the user doesn't like the look of the software... (they? he?) can customize it."? – Bebop B. Mar 21 '15 at 12:05
  • I agree that escaping, as you say, isn't always the right way. I guess it depends on the context of what you are trying to say/write. In my case, I use the suggested forms in formal or technical documents where my target is exactly to be vague and "detached". Isn't gender neutrality a form of vagueness? Still, I see your point which is valid. But context is very important in determining the most appropriate form. I don't know of any particular rule of applying gender neutrality. – Vag Mar 21 '15 at 15:52
  • @BebopB. "If the user doesn't like the look of the software, it can be customized." A mix of the two methods. – Linkyu Mar 21 '15 at 20:01
  • You're right, you could say that, but still it's relying solely on rephrasing your sentence. Fluency cannot be aquired by avoiding troublesome forms; one has to be able to tackle them. – Bebop B. Mar 21 '15 at 21:29

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