Gender-neutral language is language that minimizes assumptions about the social gender or biological sex of people referred to in speech or writing. In contrast to most other Indo-European languages, English does not retain grammatical gender and most of its nouns, adjectives and pronouns are therefore not gender-specific. In most other Indo-European languages, nouns are grammatically masculine (as in Spanish el humano) or grammatically feminine (as in French la personne), or sometimes grammatically neuter (as in German das Mädchen), regardless of the actual gender of the referent.
Supporters of gender-neutral language argue that making language less biased is not only laudable but also achievable. Some people find the use of non-neutral language to be offensive.
[There is] a growing awareness that language does not merely reflect the way we think: it also shapes our thinking. If words and expressions that imply that women are inferior to men are constantly used, that assumption of inferiority tends to become part of our mindset... Language is a powerful tool: poets and propagandists know this – as, indeed, do victims of discrimination.
The standards advocated by supporters of the gender-neutral modification in English have been applied differently and to differing degrees among English speakers worldwide. This reflects differences in culture and language structure, for example American English in contrast to British English.
Supporters of gender-neutral language argue that the use of gender-specific language often implies male superiority or reflects an unequal state of society. According to The Handbook of English Linguistics, generic masculine pronouns and gender-specific job titles are instances "where English linguistic convention has historically treated men as prototypical of the human species." Supporters also argue that words that refer to women often devolve in meaning, frequently developing sexual overtones.
The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing says that the words children hear affect their perceptions of the gender-appropriateness of certain careers (e.g. firemen vs firefighters). Men and women apply for jobs in more equal proportions when gender-neutral language is used in the advertisement, as opposed to the generic he or man. Some critics claim that these differences in usage are not accidental, but have been deliberately created for the purpose of upholding a patriarchal society.
Various criticisms have been leveled against the use of gender-neutral language, most focusing on specific usages, such as the use of "human" instead of "man" and "they" instead of "he". Opponents argue that the use of any other forms of language other than gender-specific language could "lead one into using awkward or grating constructions" or neologisms that are so ugly as to be "abominations".
Other criticisms argue that the linguistic differentiation of women actually reflects them being more valued than men, not less. Opponents of gender-neutral language often argue that its proponents are impinging on the right of free expression and promoting censorship. A few commentators do not disagree with the usage of gender-neutral language, but they do question the effectiveness of gender-neutral language in overcoming sexism.
Much debate over the use of gender-neutral language surrounds questions of liturgy and Bible translation. Some translations of the Bible in recent years have used gender-inclusive pronouns, but these translations have not been universally accepted.
Some critics oppose the practice of women changing their names upon marriage, on the grounds that it makes women historically invisible: "In our society 'only men have real names' in that their names are permanent and they have 'accepted the permanency of their names as one of the rights of being male.'... Essentially this practice means that women's family names do not count and that there is one more device for making women invisible." Up until the 1970s, as women were granted greater access to professions, they would be less likely to change their names, either professionally or legally; names were seen as tied to reputations and women were less likely to change their names when they had higher reputations. However, that trend was reversed starting in the 1970s; since that time, increasingly more women have been taking their husband's surname upon marriage, especially among well-educated women in high-earning occupations. Increasingly, studies have shown women's decisions on the issue are guided by factors other than political or religious ideas about women's rights or marital roles, as often believed.
The practice of referring to married women by their husband's first and last names, which only died out in the late 20th century, has been criticized since the 19th century. When the Reverend Samuel May "moved that Mrs Stephen Smith be placed on a Committee" of the National Women's Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, Lucretia Mott quickly replied: "Woman's Rights' women do not like to be called by their husbands' names, but by their own". Elizabeth Cady Stanton refused to be addressed as "Mrs Henry B. Stanton". The practice was developed in the mid-18th century and was tied to the idea of coverture, the idea that "By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law; that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage."
There is a tendency among scientists to refer to women by their first and last name and to men by their surname only. This may result in female scientists being perceived as less eminent than their male colleagues.
Examples of gender neutral language
Gender-neutral job titles do not specify the gender of the person referred to, particularly when the gender is not in fact known, or is not yet specified (as in job advertisements). Examples include firefighter instead of fireman; flight attendant instead of steward or stewardess; bartender instead of barman or barmaid; and chairperson or chair instead of chairman or chairwoman.
There are also cases where a distinct female form exists, but the basic (or "male") form does not intrinsically indicate a male (such as by including man), and can equally well be applied to any member of the profession, whether male or female or of unspecified sex. Examples include actor and actress; usher and usherette; comedian and comedienne. In such cases, proponents of gender-neutral language generally advocate the non-use of the distinct female form (always using comedian rather than comedienne, for example, even if the referent is known to be a woman).
Terms such as male nurse, male model or female judge are sometimes used in cases where the gender is irrelevant or already understood (as in "my brother is a male nurse"). Many advisors on non-sexist usage discourage such phrasing, as it implies that someone of that gender is an inferior or atypical member of the profession. Another discouraged form is the prefixing of an ordinary job title with lady, as in lady doctor: here woman or female is preferred if it is necessary to specify the gender.
Generic words for humans
Another issue for gender-neutral language concerns the use of the words man, men and mankind to refer to a person or people of unspecified sex or to persons of both sexes.
Although the word man originally referred to both males and females, some feel that it no longer does so unambiguously. In Old English, the word wer referred to males only and wif to females only, while man referred to both, although in practice man was sometimes also used in Old English to refer only to males. In time, wer fell out of use, and man came to refer sometimes to both sexes and sometimes to males only; "[a]s long as most generalizations about men were made by men about men, the ambiguity nestling in this dual usage was either not noticed or thought not to matter." By the 18th century, man had come to refer primarily to males; some writers who wished to use the term in the older sense deemed it necessary to spell out their meaning. Anthony Trollope, for example, writes of "the infinite simplicity and silliness of mankind and womankind", and when "Edmund Burke, writing of the French Revolution, used men in the old, inclusive way, he took pains to spell out his meaning: 'Such a deplorable havoc is made in the minds of men (both sexes) in France....'"
Proponents of gender-neutral language argue that seemingly generic uses of the word "man" are often not in fact generic. Miller and Swift illustrate with the following quotation:
"As for man, he is no different from the rest. His back aches, he ruptures easily, his women have difficulties in childbirth...."
"If man and he were truly generic, the parallel phrase would have been he has difficulties in childbirth", Miller and Swift comment. Writing for the American Philosophical Association, Virginia L. Warren follows Janice Moulton and suggests truly generic uses of the word man would be perceived as "false, funny, or insulting", offering as an example the sentence "Some men are female."
Further, some commentators point out that the ostensibly gender-neutral use of man has in fact sometimes been used to exclude women:
Thomas Jefferson did not make the same distinction in declaring that "all men are created equal" and "governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." In a time when women, having no vote, could neither give nor withhold consent, Jefferson had to be using the word men in its principal sense of males, and it probably never occurred to him that anyone would think otherwise.
For reasons like those above, supporters of gender-neutral language argue that linguistic clarity as well as equality would be better served by having man and men refer unambiguously to males, and human(s) or people to all persons; similarly, the word mankind replaced by humankind or humanity
The use of the word man as a generic word referring to all humans has been declining, particularly among female speakers and writers.
Another target of frequent criticism by proponents of gender-neutral language is the use of the masculine pronoun he (and its derived forms him, his and himself) to refer to antecedents of indeterminate gender. Although this usage is traditional, its critics argue that it was invented and propagated by males, whose explicit goal was the linguistic representation of male superiority. The use of the generic he was approved in an Act of Parliament, the Interpretation Act 1850 (the provision continues in the Interpretation Act 1978, although this states equally that the feminine includes the masculine). On the other hand, in 1879 the word "he" in by-laws was used to block admission of women to the Massachusetts Medical Society.
Proposed alternatives to the generic he include he or she (or she or he), s/he, or the use of singular they. Each of these alternatives has met with objections. The use of he or she has been criticized for reinforcing the gender binary. Some feel the use of singular they to be a grammatical error, but according to most references, they, their and them have long been grammatically acceptable as gender-neutral singular pronouns in English, having been used in the singular continuously since the Middle Ages, including by a number of prominent authors, such as Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, and Jane Austen. Linguist Steven Pinker goes further and argues that traditional grammar proscriptions regarding the use of singular "they" are themselves incorrect:
The logical point that you, Holden Caulfield, and everyone but the language mavens intuitively grasp is that everyone and they are not an "antecedent" and a "pronoun" referring to the same person in the world, which would force them to agree in number. They are a "quantifier" and a "bound variable", a different logical relationship. Everyone returned to their seats means "For all X, X returned to X's seat." The "X" does not refer to any particular person or group of people; it is simply a placeholder that keeps track of the roles that players play across different relationships. In this case, the X that comes back to a seat is the same X that owns the seat that X comes back to. The their there does not, in fact, have plural number, because it refers neither to one thing nor to many things; it does not refer at all.
Some style guides[which?] accept singular they as grammatically correct, while others[which?] reject it. Some, such as The Chicago Manual of Style, hold a neutral position on the issue, and contend that any approach used is likely to displease some readers.
Research[by whom?] has found that the use of masculine pronouns in a generic sense creates "male bias" by evoking a disproportionate number of male images and excluding thoughts of women in non-sex specific instances. Moreover, a study by John Gastil found that while they functions as a generic pronoun for both males and females, males may comprehend he/she in a manner similar to he.
Proponents of gender-neutral language point out that while Mr is used for men regardless of marital status, the titles Miss and Mrs indicate a woman's marital status, and thus signal her sexual availability in a way that men's titles do not. The honorific "Ms" can be used for women regardless of marital status.
The gender-neutral honorific Mx (usually // "mix", // MUKS) can be used in place of gendered honorifics to provide gender neutrality. Adoption of the honorific has been relatively rapid and thorough in the UK. In 2013, Brighton and Hove City Council in Sussex, England, voted to allow its use on council forms, and in 2014, The Royal Bank of Scotland included the title as an option. In 2015, recognition spread more broadly across UK institutions, including the Royal Mail, government agencies responsible for documents such as drivers' licenses, and several other major banks. In 2015, it was included in the Oxford English Dictionary.
Style guidance by publishers and others
Many editing houses, corporations, and government bodies have official policies in favor of in-house use of gender-neutral language. In some cases, laws exist regarding the use of gender-neutral language in certain situations, such as job advertisements. Different authorities have presented guidelines on whether and how to use gender-neutral, or "non-sexist" language. Several are listed below:
- The "Publication Manual" of the American Psychological Association has an oft-cited section on "Guidelines to Reduce Bias in Language". ISBN 1-55798-791-2
- American Philosophical Association Archived 2003-04-13 at the Wayback Machine—published 1986
- The Guardian—see section "gender issues"
- Avoiding Heterosexual Bias in Language, published by the Committee on Lesbian and Gay Concerns, American Psychological Association.
In addition, gender-neutral language has gained support from some major textbook publishers, and from professional and academic groups such as the American Psychological Association and the Associated Press. Newspapers such as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal use gender-neutral language. Many law journals, psychology journals, and literature journals will only print articles or papers that use gender-inclusive language.
Employee policy manuals sometimes include strongly worded statements prescribing avoidance of language that potentially could be considered discriminatory. One such example is from the University of Saskatchewan: "All documents, publications or presentations developed by all constituencies...shall be written in gender neutral and/or gender inclusive language."
In 1989 the American Bar Association's House of Delegates adopted a resolution stating that "the American Bar Association and each of its entities should use gender-neutral language in all documents establishing policy and procedure."
In 2015 the Union for Reform Judaism in North America passed a "Resolution on the Rights of Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming People" stating in part: "THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED THAT the Union for Reform Judaism...[u]rges Reform Movement institutions to review their use of language in prayers, forms and policies in an effort to ensure people of all gender identities and gender expressions are welcomed, included, accepted and respected. This includes developing statements of inclusion and/or non-discrimination policies pertaining to gender identity and gender expression, the use when feasible of gender-neutral language, and offering more than two gender options or eliminating the need to select a gender on forms".
- Gender in English
- Gender role
- Gender neutrality in languages with grammatical gender
- Gender neutrality in genderless languages
- Gender marking in job titles
- Generic antecedent
- Unisex name
- "You guys"
- Chappell, Virginia (2007). "Tips for Using Inclusive, Gender Neutral Language". Marquette.edu. Retrieved July 16, 2016.
- "Guidelines on Gender-Neutral Language", page 4. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), 1999. http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0011/001149/114950mo.pdf. Accessed March 25, 2007.
- Spender (1980), p. x
- Miller & Swift (1988), pp. 45, 64, 66
- Aarts, Bas and April M. S. McMahon. The Handbook of English Linguistics. Malden, MA; Oxford: Blackwell Pub., 2006, ISBN 978-1-4051-1382-3.
- Spender (1980), p. 18
- Miller & Swift (1988)
- Mills (1995)
- Spender (1980), pp. 1-6
- Lynch, Jack. "Guide to Grammar and Style". rutgers.edu. Archived from the original on July 7, 2016. Retrieved July 16, 2016.
- "Against the Theory of "Sexist Language"". Friesian.com. Retrieved July 16, 2016.
- Louis Markos (August 4, 2009). "One Eternal Day: A world safe from male pronouns". One-eternal-day.com. Retrieved July 16, 2016.
- Pauwels, Anne (2003). "Linguistic Sexism and Feminist Linguistic Activism". The Handbook and Language of Gender: 550–570. doi:10.1002/9780470756942.ch24. ISBN 9780470756942.
- "The Gender-Neutral Language Controversy". Bible Research. Retrieved 8 August 2014.
- Spender (1980), p. 24
- Stannard (1977), pp. 164-166
- Sue Shelenbarger (May 8, 2011). "The Name Change Dilemma - The Juggle". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved July 16, 2016.
- Quoted in Stannard (1977), p. 3
- Stannard (1977), p. 4
- Henry Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, quoted in Stannard (1977), p. 9
- "Calling men by their surname gives them an unfair career boost". Retrieved 6 July 2018.
- Miller & Swift (1988), pp. 11-17
- Curzan (2003), p. 134
- Curzan (2003), p. 163
- Miller & Swift (1988), p. 12
- Quoted in Miller & Swift (1988), p. 26
- Miller & Swift (1988), p. 12
- Miller & Swift (1988), p. 15
- Warren, Virginia L. "Guidelines for Non-Sexist Use of Language". American Philosophical Association. Archived from the original on 2 March 2020. Retrieved 29 March 2020.
- Freeman (1979), p. 492
- Freeman (1979), p. 493
- Miller & Swift (1988), pp. 27
- Spender (1980), pp. 147. Among writers defending the usage of generic he, the author cites a Thomas Wilson, writing in 1553, and grammarian Joshua Poole (1646).
- Carolyn Jacobsen. "Some Notes on Gender-Neutral Language". english.upenn.edu. Archived from the original on 2 July 2010. Retrieved 16 July 2016.
- Chak, Avinash (7 December 2015). "Beyond 'he' and 'she': The rise of non-binary pronouns". BBC News. Retrieved 11 May 2021.
- Churchyard, Henry. "Jane Austen and other famous authors violate what everyone learned in their English class". Archived from the original on 2009-04-30. Retrieved 14 April 2009.
- Pinker (2000)
- Peters, Pam (2004). The Cambridge Guide to English Usage. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-62181-6.
- University of Chicago. Press (2003). The Chicago Manual of Style. University of Chicago Press. p. 233. ISBN 978-0-226-10403-4.
- Miller, Megan M.; James, Lorie E. (2009). "Is the generic pronoun he still comprehended as excluding women?". The American Journal of Psychology. 122 (4): 483–96. JSTOR 27784423. PMID 20066927.
- Hamilton, Mykol C. (1988). "Using masculine generics: Does generic he increase male bias in the user's imagery?". Sex Roles. 19 (11–12): 785–99. doi:10.1007/BF00288993. S2CID 144493073.
- Gastil, John (1990). "Generic pronouns and sexist language: The oxymoronic character of masculine generics". Sex Roles. 23 (11–12): 629–43. doi:10.1007/BF00289252. S2CID 33772213.
- Freeman (1979), p. 491
- Jane Fae (18 January 2013). "It's going to be Mr, Mrs or 'Mx' in Brighton as city goes trans friendly". Gay Star News. Retrieved 2013-09-10.
- "Honorifics could be dropped from official letters by council". The Telegraph. October 25, 2012. Retrieved July 16, 2016.
- "Trans Equality Scrutiny Panel" (PDF). Brighton & Hove City Council. January 2013. Retrieved 2013-09-10.[permanent dead link]
- "Mx (Mixter) title adopted in Brighton for transgender people". BBC News. 10 May 2013. Retrieved 13 February 2014.
- Saner, Emine (17 November 2014). "RBS: the bank that likes to say Mx". The Guardian. Retrieved 26 January 2015.
- "Now pick Mr, Mrs, Miss, Ms . . . or Mx for no specific gender". The Times. Archived from the original on 2017-07-08.
- "Mx". Oxford dictionaries. Retrieved 14 November 2015.
- "Gender Neutral Language". University of Saskatchewan Policies, 2001. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2006-10-28. Retrieved 2007-03-25.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link). Accessed March 25, 2007.
- "American Bar Association section of tort and insurance practice and the commission on women in the profession" (PDF). americanbar.org. Retrieved July 16, 2016.
- Barbara Liston (November 5, 2015). "U.S. Reform Jews adopt sweeping transgender rights policy". Yahoo News. Retrieved July 16, 2016.
- "Resolution on the Rights of Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming People". Urj.org. Retrieved July 16, 2016.
- Curzan, Anne (2003). Gender shifts in the history of English. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-82007-3.
- Freeman, Jo (1979). Women, a feminist perspective. Mayfield Publishing Company. ISBN 978-0-87484-422-1.
- Miller, Casey; Swift, Kate (1 February 1988). The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing. Harper & Row. ISBN 978-0-06-273173-9.
- Mills, Sara (1995). Feminist Stylistics. Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-05027-2.
- Pinker, Steven (2000). The Language Instinct: How the mind creates language. Harper Collins. ISBN 978-0-06-095833-6.
- Spender, Dale (1980). Man Made Language. Pandora. ISBN 978-0-04-440766-9.
- Stannard, Una (1977). Mrs Man. GermainBooks. ISBN 978-0-914142-02-7.
|Look up Appendix:English third-person singular pronouns or Appendix:List of protologisms/third person singular gender neutral pronouns in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|
- American Heritage Dictionaries (9 September 1996). The American Heritage Book of English Usage: A Practical and Authoritative Guide to Contemporary English. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN 978-0-547-56321-3.
- Ansary, H.; Babaii, E. (March 2003). "Subliminal sexism in current ESL EFL textbooks". The Asian EFL Journal. Archived from the original on February 10, 2006. Retrieved 16 July 2016.
- Beisner, E. Calvin (2003). "Does the Bible really support gender-inclusive language?". Christiananswers.net. Retrieved July 16, 2016.
- "CBT Policy on Gender-Inclusive Language". Bible-researcher.com. 1992. Retrieved July 16, 2016.
- Guyatt, Gordon H.; Cook, Deborah J.; Griffith, Lauren; Walter, Stephen D.; Risdon, Catherine; Liutkus, Joanne (1997). "Attitudes toward the use of gender-inclusive language among residency trainees. The McMaster Residency Training Program Directors". CMAJ. 156 (9): 1289–93. PMC 1227330. PMID 9145055.
- "Guidelines for Gender-Fair Use of Language". Ncte.org. Retrieved July 16, 2016.
- Hyde, Martin (2001). "Appendix 1 – Use of gender-neutral pronouns". Democracy Education and the Canadian Voting Age: 144–146.
- "Humanist Gender Neutral English". Posilicious. August 27, 2020. Retrieved August 31, 2020. — Complete framework for 'Humanist' Gender Neutral and Inclusive English.
- Regender can translate English web pages so as to swap genders. Reading such gender-swapped pages can be an interesting exercise in detecting "gender-biased language".
- Shetter, William Z. (2000). "Female Grammar: Men's speech and women's speech". bluemarble,net. Archived from the original on May 31, 2007. Retrieved July 16, 2016.
- Zijlstra, Maria (August 26, 2006). "Anyone who had a heart would know their own language - Lingua Franca". ABC Radio National. Retrieved July 16, 2016. — Transcript of ABC Radio program on the singular they.