Re: His/Her v. Their

Subject: Re: His/Her v. Their
From: Lauren <lauren -at- writeco -dot- net>
To: techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com
Date: Sat, 27 Oct 2012 13:45:15 -0700

I woke up with a little bit of insomnia last night with my mind racing about a host of things. I needed to think about something to wind myself back down to sleep. I could have thought about fluffy bunnies in a field, what I may do to enjoy the beautiful weather, what new things I could train my dogs, or any other benign, peaceful thing. But what did my mind settle on? The use of pronouns in reference to a third party actor.

Becca Price raised an issue of writing procedures for a third party and asked how to avoid the “his or her” pronoun reference. Leonard Porello presented a challenge with several examples of the use of a pronoun in reference to a third party actor and people on the list provided many examples of rewrites that produced effective sentences, yet many of these rewrites may not be effective if applied to a real world technical writing example with specific requirements. Permit me to illustrate my point with the “secretary” example and its rewrites in order.

A secretary should keep his temper in check.

1. A secretary should remain calm.
2. Secretaries must not show anger.
3. Secretaries should keep their tempers in check.
4. Secretaries: keep tempers in check.
5. A secretary’s temper should be kept in check.
6. A secretary should keep the secretary’s temper in check.
7. A secretary should keep their temper in check.
8. A secretary should keep his or her temper in check.
9. A secretary should keep his/her temper in check.

The example does not provide context, scope, or requirements. Without the context for why we need a third party reference in an instruction or why the instruction is specific to temper, we must assume that all points in the instruction are relevant. This is a simple rule of technical writing; do not assume that something lacks importance simply because it is not important to you. Under this rule, 1-6 fail as rewrites, while 7-9 succeed but raise style issues.

1. Fails because it changes the instruction, the context, and the scope
of the instruction.
2. Fails for the same reasons as number 1 and because it changed the
obligation from “should” to “must.” “Must” imposes obligation and
indicates a necessity to act, while “should” implies obligation but
not absolute necessity.
3. Could fail or succeed depending on the context. If the context, as
in the original post, was for a instruction that referred to a
single third party actor, then it fails. If the instruction was a
general comment about the third party actor, then it succeeds.
4. Fails because it deletes the personal relationship between the
audience and the third party.
5. This is from a suggestion of avoiding gender with passive voice and
it does not address what the secretary must do.
6. Fails for awkwardness and is taken from the suggestion to use actor
labels instead of pronouns.

I think this discussion would be more effective with some context and a real world type of example. The context in the secretary example may have been overly simple. We are all effective at rewriting a specific sentence, but I think the challenge was to provide an example of rewriting a specific sentence while retaining scope, context, and purpose of the instruction.

Let the context be an instruction for an administrative assistant conducting a new hire orientation. The admin is the audience and the new employee is the third party. The secretary example could work, but it is not the most effective at raising various business rules that we can easily recognize and accept as requirements, so here is a new example.

The new employee must never share her password.

We can see in this example that the instruction speaks directly to an action between the admin and the new hire, although we may not have all of the details that raised the need for the action, so we must assume that there are business requirements for the particular instruction.

1. Change the context as in 1. The new employee should protect the
2. Change the context as in 2. New employees must keep passwords secure.
3. New employees must not share their passwords.
4. New employees: never share passwords.
5. The new employee’s password must never be shared.
6. The new employee must never share the new employee’s password.
7. The new employee must never share their password.
8. The new employee must never share his or her password.
9. The new employee must never share his/her password.

The original instruction may be awkward for some people and illustrates the conundrum raised by Becca.

There are many reasons for saying “must never share,” like in the issues of secrets, intellectual property, and access codes, so changing the context of an instruction as in 1 and 2, could defeat the business requirements for using “must never share.”

Pluralizing the entire instruction as in 3 changes the specific third party to a group, so it broadens the scope, and may not effectively convey the importance for the admin to convey the security rules to the specific new employee.

Number 4 simply deletes the relationship between the admin and the new employee. The business may want warmer people in its employ.

Passive voice works very well, although it raises a question of whether the new employee’s password can be shared with the new employee.

Labeling actors in this case is awkward.

7-9 are effective but they raise style issues. 7 is awkward and 9 makes a new word with the slash. 8 is likely the most effective but it does not avoid gender.

It may be possible to rewrite the instruction to avoid the need for a pronoun, but a technical writer does not usually have the latitude to make certain changes that risk changing the scope, purpose, or context of the instruction. Two examples follow.

* Instruct the new employee to never share the passwords.
* The new employee must never share passwords.

The first broadens the purpose and possibly context of the instruction, while the second broadens the scope. Both rewrites are effective and either may be acceptable by the business, but neither is a direct rewrite of the original instruction.

Business needs must be considered in technical writing. While we can rewrite an instruction to avoid gender, we may also inadvertently rewrite the instruction to avoid the interpersonal relationship between the actors and the business, or we may change the instruction. Business needs include requirements for procedures, but they also include requirements for interpersonal relations and empathy. All parts of context must be considered for effective technical writing.

Near as I can tell, I sometimes think way too much...

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His/Her v. Their: From: Becca

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