"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.
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