Gender-Neutral Language Tips: How to Avoid Biased Writing, Without Sounding Awkward

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A phrase like “a good policeman knows his duty” unnecessarily excludes women. While it might be excessive to read history as if every general use of “man” is overtly sexist, today’s culture calls for alternatives.

Using “police officer” instead of “policeman” is easy, but replacing every “his” with “his or her” will sound tedious in a longer document. Pluralizing is often a good solution (“good police officers know their duty”), as is rephrasing to avoid the problem altogether (“a duty-minded police officer serves the community”).
gender-neutral


 

 

Examples and Quick Fixes
Revising to avoid sexist language will help make your message more accessible to readers who might otherwise feel excluded. But when you revise, avoid the easy edits that introduce stylistic clunkers such as “his/her” and “s/he,” or the questionable grammar of a mixed version such as “one should wash their hands every day” (“one” is singular, but “their” is plural).
Gender-specific Gender-neutral Comment
Dear Sir, Dear Sir or Madam, Okay, so “Dear Sir or Madam” avoids the problem of exclusivity, but it’s stuffy and awkward. If an internet search doesn’t turn up the person’s actual name, try “Dear Admissions Committee,” or just “Admissions Committee Members”.
policeman police officer The same goes for salesman, businessman, etc. Note that in some contexts, calling Sally Jones “a successful businesswoman” or referring to “Congresswoman Mary Smith” is perfectly acceptable. Still, such terms may subtly reinforce the idea that it is unusual for a woman to have that job.
gunman shooter The term loses a bit of specificity when “gun” is removed, and in fact journalists do regularly use “gunman” — presumably after a legal official has identified a suspect as male. When the gender of the person with the gun is unknown, writing a story about a “shooter” is better than referring to “the gunman or gunwoman” over and over.

Avoid Stylistic Clunkers (and even worse mistakes)

1) Over-correction of Historical Phrases

“Every man for himself.”
I can imagine using this image deliberately, because I wished to evoke an image from a bygone era (abandoning ship, giving up the battle). To change the phrase, then, would divorce it from its historical context. To many, of course, that’s precisely the point of advocating gender-neutral language; if we change the way we speak, we will change the way we think, so that we don’t perpetuate the imbalanced cultural view that shaped our language. Still…

Every man or woman for himself or herself
Every man/woman for him/her self
The above examples are quick fixes that avoid sexist language, but the result is stylistically awkward.
Everyone for him- or herself.
Correct, but still a bit awkward, though.
Everyone for yourselves.
If you really needed to shout this while on board a sinking ship, the people around you would probably forgive the slight awkwardness.

The best solution is probably to avoid the cliché altogether.

“No man is an island.”

Nobody is an island.
None of us are islands.
Both of the revisions above are efficient ways of removing the gender-specific language, but the original is actually a quotation from Meditation XVII by John Donne, better known as “Send Not To Know for Whom the Bell Tolls: It Tolls for Thee.” If you rewrite Donne’s observation, you may end up sounding ignorant and silly to a person who knows the source of the quote.(If you simply avoid clichés, you won’t have to deal with this issue.)
“No man is an island, but with his great girth stretched out on his inflatable raft, Bill sure looked like one.” When used carefully, this phrase might still have value. In the above sequence, the quote applies only to Bill.

2) Over-correction of Official Titles

“Ben S. Bernanke, Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System”

Ben S. Bernanke, Chairperson of the Board of Governors…
Ben S. Bernanke, Chair of the Board of Governors…
The word “Chairman” is part of Mr. Bernanke’s title.You can’t go around changing other people’s official titles just because you don’t like the phrasing — it would be inaccurate to call Bernanke “Chairperson of the Board”.You are, of course, free to refer to Bernanke according to his official title (“Mr. Chairman”) but refer in general terms to “being the chair” rather than “being the chairman”.
Ben S. Bernanke, who chairs the Board of Governors…
The chair is Ben S. Bernanke.

 

3) Grammatical Whimsy

The following experimental and activist techniques remain too awkward for general use, though I do find it fascinating when one of these terms takes root.

Womyn (alternative spelling avoids using “man”)
I think s/he is standing outside of his/her house.
A writer should sharpen her pencils daily. A reader should keep his eyes open.
Whenever I encounter these forms, I keep imagining all the more elegant, less obnoxious alternatives, but I also enjoy the creativity. (In recent years, I have noticed this tendency being mocked by people who use “s/h/it” instead of “she/he/it”.) Is all this politically correct nonsense, or a usefully creative response to a social problem?More widely accepted strategies for avoiding sexist language include pluralizing (“Writers should sharpen their pencils”) or alternating the gender of the people in your examples.

4) Star Trek and Gendered Language

“…to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

The opening credits of the original 1960s Star Trek used the word “man” to mean “a person.”  The show was famous for putting a black female officer on the bridge. How can we improve this?

…to boldly go where no man or woman has gone before.
…to boldly go where no one has gone before.
The above revision (from the 1980s series, Star Trek: The Next Generation) solves the gender problem, but introduces a new wrinkle — one that really only matters in the specialized world of science fiction, but which makes an interesting case study.

  • The word “man,” while seeming to exclude women, was intended to carry the specific idea of “humanity” or “people from the planet Earth.” (Aside from Mr. Spock, the Enterprise had a human crew.)
  • The mission of the original Enterprise included the phrase, “to seek out new life, and new civilizations.”
  • If the Enterprise explores “where no one has gone before,” then how could it find “new life, and new civilizations”? While human beings (“man”) might not have been there before, obviously the new life and new civilizations are already there.
..to boldly go where no humanoid, android, robot, intelligent gaseous cloud being, non-corporeal energy entity, holographic projection, or psychokinetic thought-pattern reflection has gone before.
Okay, that solves the technical problem, but it would hardly be a stirring monologue.
…to boldly go where we have never gone before.
Nobody from Star Trek ever asked me but, I’d prefer this version, which aims to retain the epic, stately language of the original, it’s more personal than “no one,” and it avoids terms that might exclude the non-human crew members. (Here’s hoping some future iteration of Star Trek will use this version.)

Special Terms that Refer to Women

stewardess; waitress; actress
While the airline industry uses the term “flight attendant,” and the restaurant industry prefers “server,” Hollywood still refers to “best supporting actress.” New professions are not creating feminine forms; there are no “reportresses” or “computer programresses,” but the terms for older professional categories are still in flux.
woman pilot, woman photographer
Because it is not common to refer to a “man pilot” or “man photographer,” these terms imply that a pilot or photographer is usually male. Even if that were statistically the case, this usage is biased.
female pilot, lady photographer
The clinical tone of “female” would probably be acceptable in a scientific study. The word “lady” carries an elitist tone, which would not be appropriate if you were simply talking about a photographer who happens to be a woman. Further, the term “lady photographer” might also refer to a person who photographs ladies.
women pilots, women photographers
A related problem is the formation of plurals of the “woman [noun]” variety, which are commonly given as “women [noun]s”.  For example, we often read of “women doctors” or “women athletes.”  The English language simply does notform plurals this way.One girl genius. Two girl geniuses.
One woman pilot. Two woman pilots.
pilot, photographer
If the person’s gender is important to the point you are making, go ahead and mention it in a different sentence. If Sally Jones is flying my plane, she’s the pilot Sally Jones. Calling her the woman pilot Sally Jones, or the lady pilot Sally Jones, or the female pilot Sally Jones calls a lot of attention to her gender. I can tell by the name that she’s female.If you are writing about someone with name your aren’t sure your reader will be able to place as male or female, just throw in a pronoun: “Sitting in the pilot’s seat, Afaf Hadad adjusted her headset.”  “The winning photographer, Chris Jones, impressed the judges with her creativity.”

Many English speakers feel that we need new ways to handle the thorny issue of gender.  Our culture has changed faster than our language.

No matter what I say, people will still go on talking about “women lawyers” and “women supreme court justices.” And while I may wince a little — deep inside — when I hear someone say “Whoever it was left their car running,” A far more important, more lasting point is that when push comes to shove, grammar changes to meet the needs of its users.

Perhaps the current fuss over gender in language has something to do with the fact that English has been without the concept of grammatical gender for centuries now, so we think of gender personally, not grammatically.  In Latin, the word for manliness was feminine in gender; in German, the word Mann means “a person, or a human male,” but man [lowercase] means “one” or “you.”

I am very careful to avoid sexist errors on the one hand, and grammar errors (like those mentioned above) on the other.  Still, writing this web page actually forced me to become a bit more of a traditionalist, since I noticed how easy it is to avoid sexist mistakes without introducing grammatical or stylistic ones.

Links on Gender-neutral Language

  • What are Editors For?
    “There may be a need for an intelligent guide through the sex/race/ethnicity/disability/etc. minefields of current English usage. Unfortunately, it’s not Guidelines for Bias-Free Writing (Indiana University Press, $15.00 cloth, $5.95 paper), by Marilyn Schwartz and the Task Force on Bias-Free Language of the Association of American University Presses. The task force is a committee of nineteen women and two men; I’ll call them collectively the Bias Persons.” — Dennis Dutton
  • Gender-Free Pronoun FAQ
    The author advocates the invention of new words such as “ey” instead of “he/she”.  I think ey raises some good questions, even if ey doesn’t answer them all.
  • Several websites recommend using “Ms” “for all women when the parallel Mr. is applicable,” though the different documents vary in the degree to which they acknowledge that some women might actually prefer “Miss” or “Mrs.” (I’m not sure whom to credit for the quote, so the link goes to a Google search.)

Discussion: “Gender-neutral” vs. “Non-sexist”

I chose “Gender-neutral Language” as the title for this web page.  Another option was “Non-gender-specific Language“, which I rejected as being too long (one often sees it written “Non-gender Specific Language”, but all three words form a single, hyphenated term modifying the word “language”).

I could have titled my site “Gender-fair Language” or “Non-sexist Language,” terms used on some of the web pages I listed above, but I felt those were emotionally loaded titles, since the implication is that you are unfair or sexist unless you write in a certain way.  Of course, to many people, that’s precisely the point!

Is it the job of the writing teacher (or grammar handbook author) to effect social change by advocating a certain way of writing? Can language ever actualy be apolitical?

Discussion: Does Gender-specific Language Affect our Thinking?

In 1972… some three hundred college students were asked to select from magazines and newspapers a variety of pictures that would appropriately illustrate the different chapters of a sociology textbook being prepared for publication. Half the students were assigned chapter headings like “Social Man”, “Industrial Man”, and “Political Man”. The other half was given different but corresponding headings like “Society”, “Industrial Life”, and “Political Behavior”. Analysis of the pictures selected revealed that in the minds of students of both sexes use of the word man evoked, to a statistically significant degree, images of males only — filtering out recognition of women’s participation in these major areas of life — whereas the corresponding headings without man evoked images of both males and females…. The authors concluded, “This is rather convincing evidence that when you use the word man generically, people do tend to think male, and tend not to think female” ([Miller et al. 1980, pages 19-20], quoted by Spertus; emphasis added).

Dennis G. Jerz
Fall, 1998 — originally posted
04 Nov 2002 — updated
15 July 2004 — minor edits
07 Jan 2011 — moderate edits and updates
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33 thoughts on “Gender-Neutral Language Tips: How to Avoid Biased Writing, Without Sounding Awkward

  1. (Janile Evans posted the following comment on an older version of this page. –DGJ)

    Definitely the issue among men and women are constantly debated since there are already a lot of jobs which were basically only for men in the past but are now work of the women in today’s time as well. The nouns that we use to describe something can be oppressive to other people and may anger them. Therefore the use of neutral words are a must in every conversation.

  2. ‘A phrase like “a good policeman knows his duty” unnecessarily excludes women.’

    No it doesn’t. The word “man” and suffix “-man” are gender-neutral, referring to all members of our species, both male and female.

    If you really want to be gender-neutral, refer to females as “men”, and refer to males as “wermen”.

    • Etymology, go ahead and apply for a job using language like you suggest. Or write advertising copy, or write a letter to the editor. Let us know how that works out for you.

    • I don’t think anyone would actually refer to a specific female police officer as a “policeman”. In conversation would you point to a woman and say “Yes, that policeman standing over there.”? I doubt it. You would likely say “police officer” or “officer”. I don’t think a 5 year old girl understands that “the word “man” and suffix “-man” are gender-neutral, referring to all members of our species, both male and female.” Certain words like “policeman” can create gender stereotypes in the mind of a child. There’s no need to put these stereotypes in young minds. Men are also affected by gender in language, for example, there’s no need to say “male nurse John Smith” and point out that he is doing a stereotypically female job.

  3. Etymology is right. This trying to gender neutralize everything in the English language is rubbish; much to do about nothing. Instead of conducting a manhunt for the gunman, we now need to conduct a womanhunt for the gunwoman, should the perpetrator be a she? I understand this writer’s point of using alternatives, but then we’re simply shelving real (and useful) words that are part of our language and tradition. C’mon now! The last time I checked, even the word “woman” ended with m-a-n. What should we do about that?

    • Greg, thanks for your comment. We can “search for the shooting suspect” and avoid the specific problem you mention. (“Womention”?) My section on “every man for himself” addresses the question of traditiion.

      I gave a red X to the term “womyn,” classifying it as a whimsical over-reaction. But anyone is free to ignore my advice, or post a web page that gives different advice.

  4. Can you post more examples. We have an exam on effective word choice…..and i dont know what to use.
    eg. All men can contribute….blah blah blah

    *I dont know what word to replace “men”…..Lol i use humanity, person, people and human:P…..*

    • This page demonstrates that sometimes, the solution involves rewriting, rather than simple word substitution. Any of the words you suggest would avoid the sexism, but “all men can” could also be “everyone can.”

  5. Thanks, Dennis. Of course my point here is not to criticize your article. It is well intentioned and well thought out. I simply don’t see any usefulness in gender-neutrality, as a whole. “Man” can be, and is, used as the definition for the adult (human) male, but is not exclusive to that definition, especially in the case of a prefix or suffix. A chairman is defined as a presiding officer, and is not gender-specific. Manslaughter is the killing of another human being, not a man or woman, specifically, so using such words in speech or text is not biased. While the availability of synonyms in our language is a wonderful thing, I disagree with the forced use of them for the sake of sensitivity, because in reality, there is nothing to be sensitive about.

  6. Bias Free language: Rewrite each of the following to eliminate bias:

    A. Bader needs a wheelchair but he doesn’t let his handicap affect his job performance.

    B. Pilot Abdullah must have the ability to stay calm under pressure and then he must be trained to cope with any problem that arises.

    C. Candidate Fatima married and the mother of a teenager will attend the debate.

    D. Senior citizen Sultan is still an active salesman of this company

      • Have to agree with you there.
        All douchebaggery aside (is that sexist, too?), the problem in NOT the language, but rather its USE and PERCEPTION. I’m not going to change the way I speak and write because someone decided that they’re going to read bias and hatred into my words as if I’m some sort of misogynistic bigot.
        Anyone who happens to hear what I say or read what I write has the freedom to be as intolerant and offended as they like, but I seriously doubt that I will ever care.
        Instead, I will continue to enjoy the differences of myself and others, as that is what defines humanity; I will not condone the blatant suppression of our humanity under the banner of ‘equality’.

  7. Also, your comment, “When used carefully, this phrase might still have value,” regarding Donne’s quote is much worse in my eyes than the threat of accidentally being perceived as a woman-hater. You’re implying that this line has no value as is, and must be written in a gender-neutral format before it holds any worth, which is completely absurd.
    I’m trying only to attack the idea of gender-neutral speech, but when I read something as cavalier as that, I perceive it as ignorance – and I’m sure we’re on the same side of the fence regarding that subject.

    • I would not encourage or expect people to interpret my line that way. On another page I used he word “lame” to mean “boring, ineffective,” and someone suggested the word was insensitive. I thought about it, and figured the word “boring” works just as well, so I changed it.

      I’m not sure the risk of most people interpreting my line the way you did is all that great, but thanks for your feedback.

  8. Very well said, Ed. It is my opinion that gender-neutrality is merely lowering one’s level of writing or speaking to that of one whose understanding of the language is less than adequate. And it is, as well, simply caving to the overbearing wave of political “correctness” that has washed over us in the past decade or so. It is ceding to the pressure of whiners, and is a passive form of censorship.

    What is one to do in a foreign land, with a language in which gender-neutrality is an impossibility, such as Spanish or French? I don’t believe such places have an issue with people being offended by their own language, and then trying to reinvent it.

    • Insulting people who disagree with you by calling them “whiners” hurts your argument more than it could ever help it. Your assumption that it is impossible to make Spanish or French gender neutral or that no one is offended by the use of gender in those languages is wrong.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gender-neutrality_in_Spanish_and_Portuguese

      “As in other Romance languages, it is traditional to use the masculine form of nouns and pronouns when referring to both males and females. Advocates of gender neutral languages modification consider this to be sexist and favor new ways of writing and speaking. Two methods have begun to come into use. One of them, seen most often in Spain and Mexico, is to use the at-sign (@) or the anarchist circled A (Ⓐ) to replace -o or -a, especially in radical political writing (¡Ciudadan@s!), but use of the slash (/) as in (el/la candidato/a) is more common. The ligature æ can be used in the same way (escritoræs for writers of both sexes, although escritores/as is more common). Opponents of such language modification feel that they are degrading to the language. Many also raise the question of how these new words are to be pronounced. See also Alternative political spellings.

      Some politicians have begun to avoid perceived sexism in their speeches; the Mexican president Vicente Fox Quesada, for example, was famous for repeating gendered nouns in their masculine and feminine versions (ciudadanos y ciudadanas). This way of speaking is subject to parodies where new words with the opposite ending are created for the sole purpose of contrasting with the gendered word traditionally used for the common case (like *felizas and *especialistos in *felices y felizas or *las y los especialistas y especialistos).”

  9. Greg, your comment avoids gender bias (using “one”), and it avoids awkwardness. Avoiding gender exclusive language does not necessarily lower the level of communication.

    All languages do evolve, and this very debate is evidence of that evolution. Wikipedia has a decent overview of “gender neutrality in languages with grammatical gender,” if you are curious, but they mainly focus on the formation of nouns (e.g. docteur vs doctoresse in French). Languages in which all nouns include grammatical gender face a different set of problems, and this page does not attempt to address them.

    Like it or not, an unbiased observation of English as used in the professional world shows that English is moving gradually towards gender neutrality, and calling people names (whiner, politically correct) won’t change that.

    The French have an official body that passes laws regarding language, but English evolves simply as influential writers and speakers and communities use English. This page is here in order to encourage people who are already making that shift to avoid doing collateral damage along the way.

  10. What other terms could you use to call a person who is named as a fellow or in a fellowship program

    • I would just use “fellow.” The root word is not inherently male.

      According to my dictionary, the word comes from the Old English for “business partner,” and the root words are associated with “fee” (as in money) and “lay” (as in setting down). Yes, one of the definitions of the noun “fellow” is “male person,” but you can call a woman a fellow conspirator, so why not a fellow academic?

    • Several years ago, the then-leader (male) of the California State Senate erroneously contended that “fellow” in this context was a gender-specific term (despite efforts of everyone else to inform him otherwise) & required the Senate Fellowship program to change its name to the Senate Associates Program (while the State Assembly, Executive & Judicial Programs maintained the word “Fellow”). The biggest howl of protest came from the female alums who greatly preferred to be called “fellows” rather than “associates”. When his term was up, the name was changed back in what seemed like seconds.

  11. I´m an Spanish speaker. Actually, there are many discusions about sexism in Spanish language. As Melissa says “it is traditional to use the masculine form of nouns and pronouns when referring to both males and females”. But unfortunately, there is an overreaction and a tendency to turn some neutral words into its feminine form. The final “ente” is NEUTRAL. “ente” means “entity”. So “presidente” means “a person who presides something”. It´s true that historically men had the leading role in society. But changing “presidente” to “presidente/presidenta” has no sense. It should be presidento/presidenta, in any case. But then again, why giving “ente” the idea of any gender or sex, when it is neutral?. We have to change our sexist ideas. Particullarly, with this kind of example, we see that the sexist idea is in our society, not the language (I´m talking about this particular case. I know Spanish is full of sexist forms, but this is not the case. Why adding a problem that doesn’t exist but in our sexist idea that a president should be a man?) A lot of people believe a “presidente” is a man, I don´t know why we still believe this. In this case, we should change OUR mind and not the language.
    In formal texts you can´t use “@” yet, maybe in the future language will evolve to that, but for the time being trying to be neutral in Spanish is quite diffcult and it leads to horribly long boring texts “los alumnos y alumnas en las aulas(…)por la docente o el docente” instead of “los alumnos en las aulas(…)por el docente”. Imagine this king of things throughout a text, it´s unnecessary (for me, of course) and it is boring to read. I don’t think this kind of use will last, as there´s a tandency to economize in language. Maybe the use of “@” would be a more practical idea.

  12. Many of you people are very politically correct.. This is NOT a compliment. PC destroys the freedom of opinion and castrates critical awareness.

    So i think that paying too much attention to PC language is a sign of weakness within our societies.. Sorry …

    And all this from a woman…

    • How so? The reason that internet language is politically correct is BECAUSE we are more critically aware, because you come into contact with a lot more cultures, different kinds of people, etc. Freedom of opinion is also much stronger on the internet than outside of it, where most people don’t even get to tell their opinion to a wide audience.
      ——————
      Also I wanted to add that the word ‘man’ was originally gender-neutral, denoting the entire human race. The words ‘wer’ and ‘wyf’ denoted gender (werewolf meaning manwolf in old english).

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  15. **Everyone for themselves.
    Yourselves is so painfully awkward there in my opinion. Sorry about that, it was hurting me.

  16. I like how it used my eyeball picture that I use on forums. I don’t know how that happened, but I think it’s neat :D

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