Gender-Neutral Language in Writing

From our: Writing Skills library.

The use of gender-neutral language may seem unnecessary to some writers.  However, the consistent use of masculine pronouns provides an impression that women are excluded from the group to which the writer is referring.

While some may respond that the masculine pronouns “he” and “his” refer to men and women both, the impression that matters is that of the reader and not the writer. Because many readers read masculine pronouns to refer only to men, the writer, albeit inadvertently, may have created the wrong impression.

In professional writing, it is now considered good practice to write in gender-neutral terms.


Honorifics are titles prefixing a person's name, for example Miss, Ms, Mr, Sir, Mrs, Dr and Lord.

Do not assume to know which honorific a woman prefers on the basis of her marital status.  Unless her preference is known, then use “Ms” until instructed otherwise.  Likewise, do not assume that a doctor (for example Dr J. Smith) or someone with a gender-ambiguous name (for example Pat or Alex) is necessarily male.

Common Gender-specific Job Titles and Gender-neutral Alternatives

  • Chairman: Chair or Chairperson
  • Postman or Mailman: Post or mail worker
  • Stewardess: Flight attendant
  • Actress: Actor
  • Policeman: Police or law-enforcement officer

Gender-Neutral Pronouns

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of adopting gender-neutral language is in the use of pronouns. 

Proposed alternatives to the generic "he" include "he or she" (or alternatively "she or he"), "s/he", or the use of "they" in the singular.  However, each of these alternatives has met with objections and no single gender-neutral writing style has emerged.   

Some argue that phrases such as “he or she” and “s/he” are awkward and unnecessary. Similarly, some traditionalists have argued that to use “they” in the singular is a grammatical error although there is a counter argument that "they", "their", and "them" have long been grammatically acceptable as gender-neutral singular pronouns in English.

However, these gender-neutral alternatives are becoming increasingly accepted (just be prepared to argue with those who tell you that “they” can not be used in the singular).  

In practice, phrases can be adapted to avoid use of gender-specific pronouns.   For example,   “To boldly go where no man has gone before” can be rephrased as “To boldly go where no one has gone before.” 

Alternatively a plural form might be adopted, for example “Today, the typical student knows what he wants to do when he graduates” can be rephrased “Today, most students know what they want to do when they graduate”.

Overall, perhaps the best option is to use the plural pronouns “them” and” their” in informal writing and rewrite your text to avoid the problem in more formal writing.

Words for Humans

The traditional use of the word “man”, as in “man’s impact on the environment”, to represent both men and women is seen as out-dated. 

To argue that “man” truly represents both men and women in undermined by the absurdity of a phrase such as “Some men are female”.

When referring to both men and women, use human(s), human beings, humankind or people instead.