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

JerzWritingGrammar and Syntax >

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”).




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 [Specific Name or Title] 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…

Bad Example Every man or woman for himself or herself
Bad Example Every man/woman for him/her self
The above examples are quick fixes that avoid sexist language, but the result is stylistically awkward.
Iffy Example Everyone for him- or herself.
Correct, but still a bit awkward, though.
Good Example 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.”

Bad Example Nobody is an island.
Bad Example 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. 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.)
Good Example 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

“Stanley Fischer, Vice Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System”

Bad Example Stanley Fischer,  Vice Chairperson of the Board of Governors…
Bad Example Stanley Fischer, Vice Chair of the Board of Governors…
The word “Chairman” is part of Mr. Fischer’s title.Y ou 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 “Vice Chairperson of the Board”.

You are, of course, free to refer to Bernanke according to his official title (“Mr. Vice Chairman”) but refer in general terms to “being the vice chair.”

Good Example Stanley Fischer, who serves as vice chair, …
Good Example Janet L. Yellen, Chair of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.
On the organization’s official website, Fischer is listed as “Vice Chairman” but his boss, Janet L. Yellen, is listed as “Chair.”

I might prefer the parallel nature of “chairman/chairwoman” or the simplicity of “chair,” but my wishes don’t determine what other people’s job titles are.

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.

Bad Example Womyn (alternative spelling avoids using “man”)
Bad Example  I think s/he is standing outside of his/her house.
Iffy Example 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.”

Though the 1960s Star Trek TV show was famously progressive for putting a black female officer on the bridge, its opening narration used the word “man” to mean “a person.” How can we improve this?

Bad Example …to boldly go where no man or woman has gone before.
Iffy Example …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.
Bad Example 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.
Good Example 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

Iffy Example stewardess (dated); waitress (iffy); actress (still current)
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.

The term “stewardess” is out of date; a female server who is waiting on you probably won’t correct you if you call her “waitress,” and the term “actress” is still current (although MTV’s award of “Best Actor” to Emma Watson in 2017 is an innovation that may catch on).

Bad Example 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.
Bad Example  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.
Bad Example  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.
Good Example 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 actually 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.” Words and Women, Casey Miller and Kate Swift, pp. 23-34.

Dennis G. Jerz
Fall, 1998 — originally posted
04 Nov 2002 — updated
15 July 2004 — minor edits
07 Jan 2011 — moderate edits and updates
08 Jun 2017 — fixed broken links; added MTV “Best Actor” example and updated Federal Reserve Board names; updated graphic.

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