Gender neutrality in English
Gender-neutral language is a form of linguistic prescriptivism that aims to minimize assumptions about the gender or biological sex of people referred to in speech or writing. This article discusses aspects of gender neutrality as they relate to the English language.
Proponents 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." Words that refer to women often devolve in meaning, frequently taking on sexual overtones.
These differences in usage are criticized on two grounds: one, that they reflect a biased state of society, and two, that they help to uphold that state. Studies of children, for instance, indicate that the words children hear affect their perceptions of the gender-appropriateness of certain careers. Other research has demonstrated that 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 make the further claim that these differences in usage are not accidental, but have been deliberately created for the purpose of upholding a patriarchal society. Proponents of gender-neutral language give many examples of usages that they find problematic.
A reason to avoid gender-bias in language is to maintain clarity and accuracy when communicating to some audiences. Using he to refer to a person of unspecified gender may be misunderstood, possibly in different ways by different people.
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 like 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 deprecate such phrasing, as it implies that someone of that gender is an inferior or atypical member of the profession. Another deprecated 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 persons 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:
One author, ostensibly generalizing about all human beings, wrote:
"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.
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 these reasons, proponents of gender-neutral language claim that linguistic clarity as well as equality would be better served by having man and men refer unambiguously to males, and human(s) to all persons. Similarly, although it is not normally ambiguous, the word mankind may be replaced by humankind or humanity.
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 men, whose explicit goal was the linguistic representation of men's 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). However, despite its putative inclusiveness, it has been used to deny women's entry into professions and schools.
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. Some feel the use of singular they to be a grammatical error, but according to some 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, including Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, and Jane Austen. Linguist Steven Pinker goes further and argues that traditional grammar prescriptions 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. The same goes for the hypothetical caller: there may be one, there may be none, or the phone might ring off the hook with would-be suitors; all that matters is that every time there is a caller, if there is a caller, that caller, and not someone else, should be put off.
Some style guides accept singular they as grammatically correct, while others 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 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.
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 the professions they were 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.[full citation needed] 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.
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 invented honorific "Mx", pronounced "Mix" or "Mux", can be used in place of traditional honorifics in order to provide gender-neutrality, though its actual usage is almost unknown. Ser can also be used.
The practice of referring to married women by their husband's first and last names has also been criticized, beginning in the nineteenth 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-eighteenth 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."
Advocates of gender-neutral language argue that language is rich in alternatives that speakers and writers, sensitive to attitudes and beliefs of audiences, can use without impinging on the effectiveness of their communication. They are also able to be true to their notions of grammatical propriety. In some cases, gender-neutral language may be achieved through the use of gender-inclusive, gender-neutral or epicene words ("human being", "person", "individual", and so on) instead of gender-specific ones ("man", "woman", "he", "she", "businessman", "mother", etc.), when speaking of people whose gender is unknown, ambiguous, or unimportant. If no gender-inclusive terms exist, new ones may be coined (e.g., "businessperson"). There may also be parallel usage of existing gender-specific terms - for example, "men and women" rather than "men and ladies", or "husband and wife" instead of "man and wife".
Further, proponents of gender-neutral language argue that making language less biased is not only laudable, but achievable. Many people find 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 or men are inferior 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.
However, the use of the word "man" as a generic word referring to all humans has been declining, particularly among female speakers and writers. Other potentially male-centric terms such as woman are generally acceptable. 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. The majority of advocates for gender-neutral language, however, generally prefer persuasion rather than enforcement. One method for such persuasion is creating guidelines that indicate how they believe language should be used, or providing an example through their own use of gender-neutral language.
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 — 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 have recently started to include strongly worded statements prescribing avoidance of language that potentially could be considered discriminatory. The wording of this statement from a policy manual is typical: "All documents, publications or presentations developed by all constituencies…shall be written in gender neutral and/or gender inclusive language." Employees are told that they need to be aware of their responsibilities to avoid discriminatory language, and that they must implement the enterprise's commitment to treat stakeholders equally and with courtesy. Institutional members are instructed, as a matter of corporate policy, to avoid using language that may even appear to be discriminatory, or that may gratuitously give offense in verbal or written communication. Manuals sometimes provide guidance about how to reflect the concept of valuing diversity in language usage.
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. They are also affected by other factors, such as whether a person uses English as a first language or as a second language, regional variants or whether a particular form of English is based on grammatical structures inherited from another language (for example, Hiberno-English) or owes its linguistic structure to earlier Old English or Elizabethan English. In these cases, language structure from the native tongue or linguistic inheritance may be engaged.
Various criticisms have been leveled against the use of gender-neutral language, most focusing on specific usages, such as the use of "human" for "man" and "he or she" for "he". The use of the singular "they" is called "grammatical nonsense", as are such little-used neologisms as "herstory". Any other alternatives to gender-specific language are claimed to "lead one into using awkward or grating constructions" or neologisms that are so ugly as to be "abominations".
Some argue that gender-neutral language is unnecessary because no bias exists, finding the endeavor to be "useless, for we all know that the masculine pronoun refers to female and male people".
Others argue that the linguistic differentiation of women actually reflects women being "more" valued than men, not less. Opponents of gender-neutral language often argue that proponents of gender-neutral language are impinging on the right of free expression and promoting censorship.[full citation needed] A few commentators do not disagree with the usage of gender-neutral language per se, but they do question the effectiveness of gender-neutral language in overcoming sexism.
Debate over Biblical use
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.
- Gender in English
- Gender-neutrality in languages with grammatical gender
- Gender-neutrality in languages without grammatical gender
- Gender-neutral pronoun
- Gender-specific pronoun
- Gender-specific job title
- Generic antecedents
- Unisex name
- Gender role
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- Miller and Swift (1988), 45, 64, 66.
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- "The Name Change Dilemma". The Juggle. Retrieved 2013-09-10.
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- Jane Fae (2013-01-18). "It’s going to be Mr, Mrs or ‘Mx’ in Brighton as city goes trans friendly". Gay Star News. Retrieved 2013-09-10.
- 9:13PM BST 25 Oct 2012 (2012-10-25). "Honorifics could be dropped from official letters by council". Telegraph. Retrieved 2013-09-10.
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- "Guidelines on Gender-Neutral Language". United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), 1999. http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0011/001149/114950mo.pdf. Accessed March 25, 2007.
- "Gender Neutral Language". University of Saskatchewan Policies, 2001. http://www.usask.ca/policies/2_03.htm. Accessed March 25, 2007.
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- http://www.bible-researcher.com/inclusive.html[full citation needed]
- Bodine, Ann (1998). Cameron, Deborah, ed. "Androcentrism in Prescriptive Grammar" in The Feminist Critique of Language. Routledge. ISBN 0-415-16400-1.
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- Bojarska, Katarzyna (2012). "Responding to lexical stimuli with gender associations: A Cognitive–Cultural Model". Journal of Language and Social Psychology 32: 46. doi:10.1177/0261927X12463008.
- Chappell, Virginia (2007). "Tips for Using Inclusive, Gender Neutral Language". Retrieved 14 April 2009.
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- Freeman, Jo (1979). Women, a feminist perspective. Mayfield Publishing Company. ISBN 0-87484-422-3.
- Jacobsen, Carolyn. "Some Notes on Gender-Neutral Language". Archived from the original on 2010-07-02. Retrieved 1 November 2011.
- Lynch, Jack. "Guide to Grammar and Style". Retrieved 14 April 2009.
- Maggio, Rosalie, Talking About People: A Guide to Fair and Accurate Language (Phoenix, Ariz.: Oryx Press, 1997) (English glossary or dictionary with annotations).
- Mankowski, Paul (1998). "Jesus, Son of Humankind? The Necessary Failure of Inclusive-Language Translations". Retrieved 14 April 2009.
- Markos, Louis. "Why I do not use Gender Neutral Language". Retrieved 14 April 2009.
- Miller, Casey; Kate Swift (1988). The Handbook of Non-Sexist Writing: For Writers, Editors, and Speakers (Second ed.). Harper and Row. ISBN 0-06-273173-4.
- Miller, Michael. "Femspeak". (original GeoCities URL: http://www.geocities.com/rationalargumentator/Femspeak.html). Archived from the original on 22 October 2009. Retrieved 14 April 2009.
- Mills, Sara (1995). Feminist Stylistics. Routledge. ISBN 415050278 Check
- Parks, Janet B; Mary Ann Robertson (September 2008). "Generation Gaps in Attitudes Toward Sexist/Nonsexist Language". Journal of Language & Social Psychology 27 (3): 276–283. doi:10.1177/0261927X08317956. ISSN 0261-927X.
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- Anyone who had a heart would know their own language — Transcript of ABC Radio program on the singular they.
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- Bible Research — Gender-neutral Bible controversy
- CBT Policy on Gender-Inclusive Language
- Does the Bible really support gender-inclusive language?
- Excerpt from "The American Heritage Book of English Usage. A Practical and Authoritative Guide to Contemporary English". 1996.
- Female Grammar: Men's speech and women's speech
- Guidelines for Gender-Fair Use of Language The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE)
- Ansary, H., & Babaii, E. (2003). Subliminal sexism in current ESL EFL textbooks. The Asian EFL Journal Vol 5(1)
- 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".
- Some Notes on Gender-Neutral Language
- New Feminist. "Against 'Against the Theory of Sexist Language.'" http://newfeminist.wordpress.com/2008/10/02/against-against-the-theory-of-sexist-language/