Gender-Neutral Language in Writing
Gender-neutral language is language that avoids bias towards either sex or any gender. In other words, it avoids the use of masculine or feminine pronouns and terms, in favour of terms that are not gender-specific in any way.
It is also known as gender-inclusive language.
Some writers may suggest that this is unimportant: that masculine terms cover both genders. However, in professional writing, it is now good practice to use gender-neutral language.
This page explains why this is important and provides some suggestions for gender-neutral terms to replace common pronouns, honorifics and descriptions.
Why Gender-Neutral Language Matters
The use of gender-neutral language may seem unnecessary to some writers.
They argue that ‘everyone knows’ that masculine pronouns cover everyone, or that they have defined the use of he/him as meaning anyone.
This is, however, arguable. Writing can be taken out of context. An isolated quote, or even reading a different section of the text can give the impression that women are or were excluded. It is also likely to give the impression that women are somehow less important than men.
This is dangerous because it can lead to bias of thought and action.
It does not matter what the writer intended. What matters is the impression gained by the reader. Many readers read masculine pronouns to refer only to men. By using masculine language, writers can therefore inadvertently create the wrong impression.
There is also a ‘flip side’ to this. When masculine language is used to mean ‘everyone’, this can obscure situations when women were genuinely excluded.
For example, it is only recently that those running clinical trials have been required to state the gender balance in their sample. Historically, many clinical trials have largely involved men, often with the excuse that the data were easier to interpret without cyclical changes in hormones. This has led to a huge gap in information about how women respond to particular drugs or treatments—but this gap has only recently become clear.
Case study: ‘Man who has it all’
The satirical Twitter account ‘Man who has it all’ is dedicated to exposing casual sexism in language. The account was set up back in 2015 by a “working dad” to provide advice for “men juggling a successful career and fatherhood”.
“My wife is actually really good. She irons her own tops and makes her own sandwiches for work.” Steve, age 42. Wow! You're a lucky man Steve.
My friend is a history teacher. She's compiling a list of great historical figures and she needs a male to add to the list. Suggestions?
Just a little reminder that there's a word for male humans. It's MEN. No need to be squeamish. Avoid saying 'gentlemen' or 'the male of the species' in a weird embarrassed voice when referring to us. Thanks.
"I'm not hung up on the label 'Saleswoman' because I know it covers both women and men," Geoff, Saleswoman, age 50. Very sensible mate.
By turning gender-specific advice on its head, the author highlights the silliness of some of the tips and language around women—and skewers the idea that masculine can ever mean ‘gender-neutral’.
Using Gender-Neutral Language in Writing
There are several different elements to using gender-neutral language in writing.
These include honorifics, pronouns, and descriptive terms. These need care because of the assumptions that we may make, often inadvertently, when seeing a name or honorific.
Honorifics are titles prefixing a person's name, for example Miss, Ms, Mr, Sir, Mrs, Dr and Lord.
Some of these, such as ‘Dr’, relate to qualifications. These should not be problematic. If you know that someone holds that qualification, you can use that term.
However, others, such as Miss and Mrs, relate to marital status. Many women, unsurprisingly, object to providing this information, especially when men do not have to do so. The term ‘Ms’ has therefore been adopted as an alternative.
The rule here is to consider the issue on the basis of the question ‘Are the boys doing it?’. This was described by Caitlin Moran in her book How to Be a Woman. If ‘the boys’ aren’t doing it (in this case, having to provide information about their marital status simply by giving their name), then why should women?
In other words, do not assume that you know which honorific a woman prefers on the basis of her marital status. Unless you know her preference, use “Ms” until instructed otherwise.
You should also take care not to assume that a doctor (for example Dr J. Smith) or someone with a gender-ambiguous name (for example Pat or Alex) is necessarily male.
Job Titles and Descriptive Terms
A number of job titles have traditionally included the word ‘man’ or ‘woman’, or had male- and female-specific versions.
These have now largely been replaced with gender-neutral terms, to cover everyone.
It is good practice to use these gender-neutral terms, rather than the gender-specific versions, even if you know (or think you know) the preferred gender of the person concerned.
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
- Fireman: Firefighter
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 “she or he”), “s/he”, or the use of “they” in the singular. However, each of these alternatives has potential problems.
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. There is a counter-argument that “they”, “their”, and “them” have long been grammatically acceptable as gender-neutral singular pronouns in English. However, this is largely in speech rather than written English, and certainly not in formal language. Traditionalists still find this use hard to accept.
Words for Humans
Traditionally, the word “man” has often been used to mean humans in scientific terms, especially in subjects like anthropology.
Under these circumstances, the word was often capitalised, to show that it described a species. For example, “Man’s impact on the environment”.
This use of the term ‘man’ to represent both men and women is now seen as out-dated.
When referring to both men and women, it is more appropriate to use the terms “human(s)”, “human beings”, “humankind” or simply “people”.
There are two main alternatives to gender-specific pronouns and terms now in use:
Adapt phrases to avoid the use of gender-specific pronouns and words. For example, “To boldly go where no man has gone before” can be rephrased as “To boldly go where no-one has gone before.”
Use the plural form and rewrite the phrase. For example, the phrase “Today, the typical student knows what he wants to do when he graduates” can be rephrased as “Today, most students know what they want to do when they graduate”.
Either of these is considered acceptable. The use of the plural form of “they” has now been largely adopted as the standard in academic writing. In more formal writing, you may prefer to rewrite the text to avoid the problem.
A Final Word
Purely and simply, the use of gender-neutral language in writing comes down to two issues. The first is showing respect and the second is not misleading or confusing your readers.
Both of these seem worthwhile aims for any writer.