Gender neutrality and the multiple-personality third-person pronoun?

Subject: Gender neutrality and the multiple-personality third-person pronoun?
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: TECHWR-L <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>, "H. Christopher Christner" <cchris -at- toptechwriter -dot- us>
Date: Sat, 07 Jan 2006 09:46:53 -0500

H. Christopher Christner reports: <<"Police hope the person who fired the shot will turn themselves in to authorities." Do police think the shooter has multiple personalities?>>

Apparently, since they start with the assumption that there's one shooter and end with plural selves. The simplest (not the best) solution is "themself". Me, I'd have written "Police hope that whoever fired the shot will surrender to authorities". That's a standard idiomatic phrase in English in this context, and moreover, it avoids the awkwardness that often comes with phrasal verbs. "What do you mean 'they'll turn themselves into authorities'. Authorities on what, sociopathic behavior? Seems like there's no 'turning into' required."

Since this is a list about technical communication, it's worth noting that phrasal verbs are often more idiomatic than more direct equivalents, and pose a particular problem to readers who aren't familiar with the idiom. They're thus best avoided. Journalism, of course, plays by different rules.

<<Just for kicks, I checked Google for articles that include the terms "the person who" and "turn themselves in" and got nearly 700 hits. That's a lot of writers who don't care about being clearly understood>>

Oddly enough, using "themself" instead turns up even fewer hits. Not sure whether this is a good thing (i.e., they used more direct wording) or a bad thing.

<<Rewriting the sentence (the usual workaround) isn't easy in this case. At least I can't come up with one that doesn't have "himself", "herself" or "him or herself" in it.>>

Sure it is. See above. <g> There, the answer is to focus on the action and choose an appropriate verb.

<<Clear communications demand generic gender-neutral pronouns!>>

Not really. Most cases you can achieve this goal by remembering that you're not trying to describe the user, and thus don't need to use a pronoun. Focusing on the situation rather than replacing the person with a pronoun works just fine; in technical communication, that means focus on the task rather than the user. If you need to focus on the user, go with imperative voice (for instructions or commands) and plural accord (since you're talking about all users, not just one person).

As a general rule, if you find yourself struggling to write something in our field using gender-netural pronouns, it's a strong hint that you're focusing on the wrong thing.

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Geoff Hart ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca
(try geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com if you don't get a reply)
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Gender neutrality and the multiple-personality third-person pronoun: From: H. Christopher Christner

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