[rfc-i] Thread for gender-neutral language in RFCs

Heather Flanagan (RFC Series Editor) rse at rfc-editor.org
Mon Jun 30 14:09:27 PDT 2014

On 6/30/14, 1:59 PM, Brian E Carpenter wrote:
> I think it's a given that RFCs should be gender-neutral, and
> there is a legitimate style guide issue about the most appropriate
> form of words. As far as I can see there are a number of alternatives:
> 1. Disclaimer text stating that the use of the words "he", "him", "his"
> (or "she", "her(s)") refers to persons of either sex.
> 2. Always give the alternatives "he or she", "his or her" etc. (or
> the other way round...)
> 3. "he/she"
> 4. "s/he"
> 5. "(s)he"
> 6. "they" (which can lead to grammatical stupidities).
> 7. My mother was a primary school teacher. She would often
> refer to a child as "it".
> 8. Best, in my view, is avoidance. Always say "The operator"
> or "the programmer" or "the user".

Gender-neutral, and even better, bias-neutral language, should
definitely be a given in RFCs.  What I quoted from the CMOS was just the
start of several sections of recommendations on how to handle this
requirement.  One thing they have recommended against are constructs
that cannot be read aloud, such as "s/he" or "(s)he". 

Here's a summary out of section 5.225.  I've removed the examples from
text, though if anything is unclear, let me know and I can explain further.

5.225 Nine techniques for achieving gender neutrality.
There are many ways to achieve gender-neutral language, but it takes
some thought and often some hard work.  Nine methods are suggested below
because no single method will work for every writer.  And one method
won't neatly resolve ever gender-bias problem.  Some of the--for
example, repeating the noun or using "he or she"--will irritate readers
if overused.  All of them risk changing the intended meaning: though
slight changes in meaning are inevitable, additional rewording may be

1. Omit the pronoun
2. Repeat the noun
3. Use a plural antecedent
4. Use an article instead of a personal pronoun
5. Use the neutral singular pronoun 'one'
6. Use the relative pronoun 'who' (works best when it replaces a
personal pronoun that follows 'if')
7. Use the imperitive mood
8. Use 'he or she' (sparingly)
9. Revise the clause


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