He, She, or What?

English is a weird language. It has thousands of words, but we still can’t describe everything accurately.

One of the gaps in the English language has to do with gender. Even though English isn’t as gender-specific as Spanish, for example, it does have gender-specific pronouns, such as “he,” “she,” “him,” and “her.”

Years ago, when a singular noun was used in a sentence, it was referred to as “he” or “him,” as shown in the following sentence:

The professor welcomed the students, and he passed out the syllabus.

With the feminist movement, women began to enter traditionally male-dominated fields, and they demanded to be treated equally in language. So the professor in this sentence could be a woman. In modern society, the sentence would be:

The professor welcomed the students, and he or she passed out the syllabus.

The problem is that there is no way to acknowledge both men and women without a sentence sounding awkward or clunky. The only options writers have are “he or she,” “he/she,” “s/he,” “she or he,” or possibly “she/he.” In proper grammar “they” cannot refer to one single person, and “it” can only refer to objects.

Sweden has faced a similar problem, and they created a third person pronoun that could refer to both men and women: “hen.” This is a combination of “han” (“he”) and “hon” (“she”). Although the main purpose of “hen” is to encompass people who identify as neither male nor female, it could also function as a replacement for the awkward “he/she,” or in this case “han/hon.”

Since language constantly changes, this could be a viable option for English. “He or she” could be replaced by just one word that would refer to both genders. Perhaps the gender-neutral pronouns from Middle English (“zhe” and “thon”) could be brought back, or something entirely new could be created. It would take a while to catch on, but writers would be grateful for another pronoun option.

To view the full article on Sweden’s gender-neutral pronoun: Sweden’s Gender-neutral Pronoun

The Goal of Writing

When you’re faced with a pile of assignment sheets and a list of ever-nearing due dates, it’s often a temptation to try to use the biggest words possible in order to reach the page limit. At other times, you may try to use academic-sounding words to make a professor think you know what you’re talking about when you have not done enough research. But the truth, as strange as it may seem, is that having an academic tone is not the most important thing in college writing.

Your most important goal should always be clarity.

Consider the following two sentences.

Students who are enrolled in classes at the university level constantly strive to obtain a most valuable document.

College students work hard to earn a diploma.

The first sentence, although it may sound more poetic, uses a lot of excess words that can cause a reader to misunderstand the message. Often, when readers are confronted with a long phrase, they give up trying to decipher the meaning and instead focus on getting all the words read. It’s usually best to let a reader know what you want to say without making them weed through a lot of frustratingly long phrases.

The first sentence may also cause some confusion. What exactly is this “most valuable document”? While you do not want to underestimate your readers, be sure to clarify what you are referring to if something could potentially be interpreted more than one way.

When you’re wading through a pile of research papers and websites, trying desperately to complete a writing assignment, remember to focus on conveying your ideas clearly even if that means sacrificing academic language. Don’t hide your main points in a pile of flowery or confusing words. You have great ideas, so show them off.