Is Your Nurse a She, a He, or a They?

"What’s in a name?. . . "/Jack Dorsey, via Flickr

"What's in a name? . . . "/Jack Dorsey, via Flickr

A writer must always remember to cross his eyes and dot his tees, unless, of course, he happens to be a she.

One of the style conundrums that have plagued the AJN editorial staff over the years is what to do with personal pronouns (he, she, her, him, his, hers), especially when we’re referring to nurses. When we’re writing about the nurse in general, the generic nurse, as it were, do we use “she” or “he”? Arguments have been made for both.

She. Here’s the biggest and most reasonable argument for using “she”: 90% or more of American nurses are women.

He. There was grumbling about this argument from many, including some on the editorial staff: the 10% (or fewer) of nurses who are men will feel excluded if every generic AJN nurse is a she—and it’s hard enough to attract men to this profession as it is. Why alienate them further?

She. Others countergrumbled that women have been excluded from The Conversation for centuries by writers who automatically, if unjustly, used “he” when a person’s sex wasn’t specified (to misparaphrase Romeo and Juliet, that which we call a pronoun, by any other name would not smell as sweet). Let’s give women their due.

And the winner is? What we ultimately decided to do in the journal is to use both—but we put the “she” (or the “her”) first. We acknowledge both sexes and the disproportionately large number of women in the profession. Here’s an example: “A nurse should always remember to wash her or his hands after leaving a patient’s room.”

Awkward…This construction can get unwieldy, to say the least: “At this hospital, a nurse who is caught not washing her or his hands when leaving a patient’s room can lose her or his job before she or he gives report.”

We try to avoid unwieldiness by switching to the plural and avoiding pronouns whenever possible; there are ways. “At this hospital, nurses caught not washing their hands when leaving a patient’s room can lose their jobs before they give report.”

And even though JK Rowling used “their” as a generic singular pronoun throughout the Harry Potter series, we won’t go that route—at least not while I work here.

What do you do? The “she or he” thing hasn’t sat well with all. In fact, some on the staff have a tough time adhering to this little style point—perhaps a result of faulty memory, perhaps in subtle protest. What I’d like to know is how nurses out there in the world—men and women alike (women and men alike, I ought to say)—handle this slightly thorny issue. Does it even come up? Do you men feel ignored when nurses are lumped together as “she”? Do you women ever use the generic “he” when talking about nurses? How do those of you who write think about this?

—The Word Curmudgeon (Doug Brandt, AJN associate editor) provides occasional and crusty contemplations for the writing nurse, from a copyeditor’s perspective.
Bookmark and Share

2016-11-21T13:26:45+00:00 June 18th, 2009|career|4 Comments
Senior editor/social media strategy, American Journal of Nursing, and editor of AJN Off the Charts.


  1. Daniel Wu June 23, 2009 at 6:02 am

    The problem, as I mentioned before, is really embedded in the English language itself as we don’t have a generic s/he, him/her, his/her. There are really no decent work around for it at the present moment that I know of. They all seem to be somewhat awkward or clumsy at one point or another.

    Probably the least awkward is to use the plural form of the pronoun whenever possible. So ““At this hospital, a nurse who is caught not washing her or his hands when leaving a patient’s room can lose her or his job before she or he gives report.” will become “At this hospital, nurses who are caught not washing their hands when leaving a pt’s rm can lose their job before they give report”.

    As for the possibility of it reflecting the gender of the author, one needs to put some kind of “intro” in the journal itself to have an explanation to the effect that the journal is doing it for “communication economy” purposes. Sort of what you see in some articles or books where the author states ahead of time why s/he uses a certain pronoun reference style.

    One thing to be aware of is that we have to look at our primary message we are trying to communicate and our primary audience in our articles. For example, are we also trying to make some kind of political statement when selecting a certain pronouns usage style? If we are, then by all means use whatever style we want to use to communicate the political message. If we are not, then “ideally” we should use whatever pronoun reference style that our audience is use to (even if it goes against our own political view) b/c we don’t want our audience get distracted from our main message in the article.

    On a more personal level, I care more about the actual quality of the articles than the “correct” pronoun usage.

    Maybe another point, the pronoun references we adapt do tell something about us, about our values, about our struggles. However it goes both ways, our reactions to pronoun references that is different than what we deemed “correct” also tells a lot about our values, our attitudes, and what kind of person we are (e.g. whether we are tolerant, judgmental, graceful, lay-back, … etc) .

    As for alienating men in nursing… the thing is that men in nursing are in some sense are a very self selecting group. They have to overcome lots of psycho-social obstacles to become a nurse in a mostly female world. In my personal opinion, the personal pronoun obstacle is really a drop in the bucket with regard to other psycho-social obstacles. Now, I do appreciate the gesture of trying to be inclusive of men also in the struggle of finding some form of acceptable pronoun usage without being overly awkward.

  2. WysWoods June 22, 2009 at 11:43 am

    I am a nurse and in the spirit of nursing, I write like I feel. Most of time, I am so busy looking for information, I see answers and not the provider’s gender. I thank you for your input on the solution and not the problem.

  3. Doug Brandt June 18, 2009 at 3:34 pm

    The solution suggested above, to change to “he” or “she” according to the sex of the writer, is a very interesting one. We didn’t consider that in our discussions on this topic. Such usage might be lost on the readers–although perhaps the solution we came up with is lost on readers, too (which is kind of why I brought this up).

    And I totally agree that a publication’s use of nonsexist language doesn’t necessarily say anything about whether a writer is sexist. In fact, our style probably says more about the leanings of editorial staff at AJN than it does about our writers.

    Very interesting points. Thank you.

  4. Daniel Wu June 18, 2009 at 2:45 pm

    I generally use s/he. As for “her” “his” I generally use his/her. I personally do not have any problem with nursing journals using “she” and “her” as generic given 90% of the workforce is female. Now having said that, I also do not have problem using “he” or “her” in other trade publication where males are the dominate work force.

    Another possible solution is that we use “she”/”her” if the writer is female and “he”/”his” if the author is male. I mean there are languages where there are gender specific syntax (male has certain syntax and female has certain syntax). In this case, then most nursing articles will use “she”/”her” as generic as most writers are females.

    The thing is that the problem is in the English language itself. Just b/c we are writing in a nonsexist manner, it does not mean we are not sexist. For example, Chinese is a very gender neutral language and it is not sexist as in English. But it does not mean that the Chinese culture is not sexist, it just get expressed in other ways. The point is this, how we use he/she thing is not going to tell me if the author is really sexist or not, it may tell me something about the generation of the author is from and maybe the author’s political persuation… but whether the author is sexist, it will be the content.

Comments are moderated before approval, but always welcome.

%d bloggers like this: