He, She, or They? Making Marketing Content Gender-Neutral

The public transition of Caitlyn Jenner and the popularity of the Amazon show “Transparent” have given words like “transgender” and “cisgender” a higher profile. At the same time, journalists and other content developers struggle with gender sensitivity in their writing—including dodging the “he or she” construction, using the “they” pronoun to represent a single individual, and using Mx. instead of Mr. or Ms. when honorifics are needed.

How does this affect marketing writing, you ask? For bylined articles, blog posts, and website copy, you can’t go wrong if you follow the lead of respected media outlets. They will move cautiously before making changes that affect long-held rules of style and grammar. They won’t be early adopters of style changes that you might see in more advocacy-oriented media outlets—a good thing, since we need time and testing to figure out how language and usage is evolving.

For example, many of us have struggled to properly align pronouns when using a “he/she” construction, like this: “When a customer arrives at your e-commerce storefront, he can choose a product category, and he can customize his selection.” You’re stuck with choosing a sex for the hypothetical person (go with the patriarchal “he” or the inclusive “she”?), or using both pronouns and repeating “he or she,” or worse: “he/she” and “his/her.” AWKWARD.

To get around the choice, my solution has always been to use plural nouns and pronouns from the get-go: “When customers arrive at your e-commerce storefront, they can choose a product category.” Far less awkward. Today, another option is gaining traction—mixing up singular and plural pronouns: “When a customer arrives at your e-commerce storefront, they can choose a product category.” To the letter of the law, this seems like a mistake, but a) it’s become common usage in conversation, and b) news outlets like The Washington Post are adopting this style guideline.

Another challenge: People who view themselves as genderfluid—that is, as a combination of both male and female genders, or neither gender—requesting to be called “they” on second reference. Yes, at first glance, this can be confusing, especially for writers and editors. When I’ve read articles that refer to a person as “they,” I’ve backtracked in the text to figure out where the rest of the “they” people were. Now that I’m more familiar with the reference, it doesn’t pop out so much.

Major media outlets like the Times and the Post are still wrestling with this issue. In some cases, they’ll use “they” when an interviewee requests it, but will make a note about the choice so that readers aren’t confused. Until the use of the “singular they” pronoun becomes commonplace, adding such a note to a blog or bylined article may be good practice: “Smith has requested that we use the ‘they’ pronoun.” Even better, especially for a short piece of writing, simply use the person’s last name on every second reference and avoid pronouns altogether, as the Times did in this article about the University of Vermont recognizing a third gender.

As for honorifics, the Times drew a lot of attention in November 2015 by using the gender-neutral “Mx.” instead of Ms. or Mr. in an article quoting a bookstore worker who did not want to be assigned a gender. For marketing writers, the fix here is easy: Don’t use honorifics except for medical, military, or law enforcement titles—like Dr. or Captain. Using Mr. or Ms. on second reference is unnecessary these days, and the Times and The Wall Street Journal are among the few holdouts still sticking to them.

Making writing gender-neutral is a rapidly shifting process, as Times editor Philip B. Corbett explained in a column about the Mx. reference: “We should decide what works best in each case—keeping in mind our responsibilities to readers and to those we write about—while language conventions evolve to keep up.” When developing marketing content, be sensitive to how people want to represent themselves, read GLAAD’s guidelines for reporting on transgender issues, and check this blog and other style guides in a year to see how all of these suggestions have changed—because they will.

By Chris Kent