English isn't the worst language when it comes to epicene syntax, but it's still pretty clunky. The problem goes like this: I have an anonymous exemplar in my text. What gender do I make him or her?

Some authors simply collapse everything to their preferred pronoun and apologize for it, like Brooks in The Design of Design. Others alternate, like myself, typically. But then I get to thinking: Are both genders represented evenly among the protagonists and the antagonists? The powerful and weak likewise? The competents as well as the bumblers? Am I reinforcing stereotypes or am conspicuously soft-shoeing around them?

Seriously. This kind of thing bothers me. I don't like the idea of having to choose between awkward grammatical constructs and alienating over half the population of the planet from my work by being too insentive—or worse—by trying too hard.

My first thought was naturally job-biased. Create personas with names like Pat, Chris and Robin with reader-controlled gender switches that change the pronouns in the content accordingly—an innovative application of hypertext.

Yeah, okay, that smacks of effort. It might be cool to explore at some point, but to do it right means a hell of a lot of infrastructure. Plus it only really works on computers. I mused briefly about generating identical copies of the document in question save for the pronouns. I got a suggestion for the constructed pronoun per, but then I'd be stuck explaining it all the time, and it would look more dorky than the problem I'm trying to solve. It's kind of like the Long Now five-digit year: agree with it in principle, but can't bring myself to use it. Besides, I prefer to keep my made-up words for uses that are at least a little bit tongue-in-cheek.

Then I remembered the time my colleague at the IA institute, Dan, asked me to program a random number generator to select the recipients of the organization's grant program. Cheekily, I replied with this:

So here's my idea for the pronoun problem. For every exemplar, flip a coin. Then, aggregate the results of the coin tosses into an appendix with a reference to the region in the text where the pronoun can be found. Do an initial flip to decide which gender is heads and which is tails. Super easy and works with all textual media. Nothing like a little randomness for a morally-absolving solution to a pernicious problem of style.