>> Gender matters

Gender matters

By Judge Mark P. Painter

Of course, gender matters in a lot of contexts – but here we will talk about writing. The English language has no singular gender-neutral personal pronouns, which creates problems.

Years ago, everyone used he and him generically. These pronouns were said to encompass everyone. But they don’t – they leave out half or more of the audience.

Fixing gender-specific language

Though it’s important to refrain from gender-specific language, it’s also important not to seem as if you are trying too hard. I have seen articles where the author uses she and her for the first half, then switches to he and him midway. That’s jarring. And annoying.

Just as bad is s/he or using his or hers repeatedly. So what to do?

Let’s look at these examples:

A good lawyer must effectively communicate with his clients.

Here are two suggestions for a fix:

  • Good lawyers must effectively communicate with their clients.
  • A good lawyer must effectively communicate with clients.

Another example:

  • A defendant should not be forced to sacrifice his or her constitutional right to a fair trial solely because of her status as a celebrity.

Two suggestions for a fix:

  • A defendant should not be forced to sacrifice the constitutional right to a fair trial because of celebrity status.
  • Defendants should not be forced to sacrifice their constitutional rights because of celebrity status.


  • He who prepares more thoroughly for a trial has a better chance of winning.


  • One who prepares more thoroughly for a trial has a better chance of winning.

  • Preparing more thoroughly for trial increases your chance of winning.

(While one is undoubtedly correct, it may seem stuffy to Americans. A good rule: If you can get away with wearing an ascot, you may use one.)


  • A good lawyer takes her job very seriously.


  • A good lawyer takes the job seriously.

  • Good lawyers take their job seriously.

(The very doesn’t add anything, so it was cut.)

All the “fixes” turn out better than the original, and they don’t raise the reader’s suspicion that you are trying too hard to be gender neutral. Any time the reader has to pause and think about your style of writing, rather than about what you are trying to communicate, you lose the reader’s attention to your point.

Gender-specific language can be fixed by (1) omitting the pronoun; (2) substituting an article; (3) substituting the second person – you, your – when appropriate; or (4) changing to plural. Not all fixes work for every instance, but plural will almost always work.

Another easy fix is to use the gender-neutral form of many words: chair not chairman, or worse chairperson; police officer rather than policeman; firefighter rather than fireman. I think we have mostly mastered these, but the old forms still crop up occasionally.


I usually show the readability scores for the column. Statistics for this column: 15 words per sentence, 10% passive voice, and grade level 8.5.


Mark Painter has served as a judge on the Ohio First District Court of Appeals for 12 years, after 13 years on the Hamilton County Municipal Court. Judge Painter is the author of 360 nationally published decisions, 115 legal articles, and six books, including The Legal Writer: 40 Rules for the Art of Legal Writing, which is available from http://books.lawyersweekly.com. Judge Painter has given dozens of seminars on legal writing. Contact him through his website, www.judgepainter.org.