You have to be careful these days with gender references in the form of personal pronouns. This is especially true when you’re writing about a fictitious person such as a “computer user,” “client,” “member,” and so on. None of these terms indicate the gender of the person. Yet gender references are necessary to avoid this:
The average computer user is not fully familiar with the computer user’s computer, and this can cause the computer user problems when things happen that the computer user doesn’t understand.
Pre-PC, you wrote that sentence this way:
The average computer user is not fully familiar with his computer, and this can cause him problems when things happen that he doesn’t understand.
The gender references in the sentence above are grammatically and stylistically correct, but it’s considered bad taste in some circles to assume the gender of a non-existent person, especially if the gender you assume is the male gender. If you’re talking about a real person, say the actor Al Pacino, of course you can use “he” in future references after Al has been identified.
Watch out for crippled gender references
As people try to navigate the once-straightforward but now twisted tightrope of gender references, you’re seeing more and more of this:
The average computer user is not fully familiar with their computer, and this can cause them problems when things happen that they don’t understand.
It hurts me even to read that after I wrote it. But obviously this kind of slaughter didn’t hurt the person from the National Association of Realtors (NAR) who wrote this:
“The typical buyer who did not use the internet during their home search spent only four weeks searching and visited four homes, compared to those who did use the internet and searched for 10 weeks and visited 10 homes.” [Emphasis mine.]
That is the peak of PC illiteracy. No semi-literate writer would ever do it (at least knowingly), but it gets done a lot by the borderline-illiterate masses, including one person we know of at NAR. The opening of that sentence could have been written:
The typical buyer who did not use the internet during his home search spent only four weeks searching and visited . . .
Typical buyers who did not use the internet during their home search spent only four weeks searching and visited . . .
Back to my example, if you have a single computer user, you can’t use plural personal pronouns to refer to that user. One user, singular pronouns. User/him, user/her. Those are your only options if you want to maintain the singularity of the computer user.
“Didn’t need no welfare state . . . “Those Were the Days,” All in the Family theme song, parenthetical inclusion mine
Everybody pulled his weight . . .
Gee, our old LaSalle ran great . . .
Those were the [grammatically correct, non-PC] days”
“Didn’t need no welfare state . . .
“Those Were the Days,” All in the Family theme song, parenthetical inclusion mine
How to get around the singular/plural issue
In PC America and much of the rest of the world, eventually we’re going to have to stop using singular fictitious people and make them all plural. Technically, there’s nothing wrong with doing this. It’s just that in some cases in marketing writing (and many other types of writing), it feels more natural to refer to a single person than to a group. But group works. Like this:
Average computer users aren’t fully familiar with their computers, and this can cause them problems when things happen that they don’t understand. (Note that you need to pluralize certain nouns.)
That was easy, and the problem is solved. You never had to reveal the gender of the user.
Another way around it is to use both male and female gender references, if what you’re writing has places for them. An example:
The average computer user isn’t fully familiar with his computer, and this can cause him problems when things happen that he doesn’t understand.
Then in a later paragraph:
What about the computer user whose computer starts doing weird things? She has to call tech support. Unfortunately, she can’t really speak tech language, so she ends up more confused than she was in the first place.
My example sentences and paragraph aren’t the best ever written in the history of personkind, but you understand the point. If it’s important to use singular references, you’ll keep the PC police off your back if you balance it out between male and female. If you don’t mind groups, you can use safe plural personal pronouns, and everybody will be happy. And that’s the primary goal in our society—that everybody always be happy and never have their feelings hurt.
NOTE: In “Editing Practice,” I said in several places that it’s not necessary to use the word “the” before general nouns. That is, there’s no need to write, “the forest rangers Julie Clayton and her boyfriend, Don Powell.” When referring to actors and other artists, it’s common practice to include the “the”: the actor Al Pacino, the novelist Ernest Hemingway, the sculptor Michelangelo, etc.