Gender-neutral language

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Not to be confused with genderless language.
Sign with specific suggestions for gender-neutral language use in Spanish.

Gender-neutral language or gender-inclusive language is language that avoids bias toward a particular sex or social gender. In English, this includes use of nouns that are not gender-specific to refer to roles or professions, as well as avoidance of the pronoun he (including the forms him and his) to refer to people of unknown or indeterminate gender.[1] For example, the words policeman[2][3] and stewardess[4][5] are gender-specific; the corresponding gender-neutral terms are police officer[6][7] and flight attendant.[8][9] Other gender-specific terms, such as actor and actress, may be replaced by the originally male term; for example, actor used regardless of gender.[10][11][12] Some terms, such as chairman,[13][14] that contain the component -man but have traditionally been used to refer to persons of either sex are now seen by some as gender-specific.[15] When the gender of the person referred to is unknown or indeterminate, a gender-specific pronoun such as he may be avoided by using a gender-neutral pronoun – possibilities in English include he or she, s/he, or singular they.

Terminology and views[edit]

General[edit]

Historically, the use of masculine pronouns in place of generic was regarded as non-sexist, but various forms of gender-neutral language became a common feature in written and spoken versions of many languages in the late twentieth century. Feminists argue that previously the practice of assigning masculine gender to generic antecedents stemmed from language reflecting "the prejudices of the society in which it evolved, and English evolved through most of its history in a male-centered, patriarchal society."[16] During the 1970s, feminists Casey Miller and Kate Swift created a manual, The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing, on gender neutral language that was set to reform the existing sexist language that was said to exclude and dehumanize women.[17] In the 1980s, many feminist efforts were made to reform the androcentric language.[18] It has become common in academic and governmental settings to rely on gender-neutral language to convey inclusion of all sexes or genders (gender-inclusive language).[19][20]


The traditional use of the word "man" to encompass all of humankind is seen to be outdated.[21] Using gender-neutral language is now considered good practice in professional writing.[21] A professor at Seton Hill University explains that the use of gender neutral language is important because commonly used phrases or occupational titles "unnecessarily exclude women." The use of gender-neutral language boosts effective communication by including all possible readers, making the message more accessible.[22]

Various languages employ different means to achieve gender neutrality:

Other particular issues are also discussed:

Gender emphasis[edit]

There are different approaches in forming a "gender-neutral language":

  • Neutralising any reference to gender or sex, like using "they" as a 3rd person singular pronoun instead of "he" or "she", and proscribing words like actress (female actor) and prescribing the use of words like actor for persons of any gender. Although it has long been accepted in the English language, Traditionalists argue that using "they" as a singular pronoun is considered grammatically incorrect, but acceptable in informal writing.[21]
  • Emphasizing the gender by using wordings like "he or she" and "actors and actresses". However, some forms of emphasizing gender for gender-neutrality, are labeled gender-binary.[23]
  • Avoiding the use of "him/her" or the third person singular pronoun "they" by using "the" or restructuring the sentence all together to avoid all three.[21]

Examples of gender emphasis in occupational titles:[24]

Gendered Title Gender Neutral Title
businessman, businesswoman business person/person in business, business people/people in business
chairman, chairwoman chair, chairperson
mailman mail carrier, letter carrier
policeman, policewoman police officer
salesman salesperson, sales associate, salesclerk
steward/stewardess flight attendant
waiter, waitress server

See also[edit]

In specific languages[edit]

Related topics[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Fowler, H.W. (2015). Butterfield, Jeremy, ed. Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-966135-0. 
  2. ^ "policeman - Definition and pronunciation - Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary at OxfordLearnersDictionaries.com". Retrieved 10 October 2014. 
  3. ^ "policeman definition, meaning - what is policeman in the British English Dictionary & Thesaurus - Cambridge Dictionaries Online". Retrieved 10 October 2014. 
  4. ^ "stewardess - Definition and pronunciation - Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary at OxfordLearnersDictionaries.com". Retrieved 10 October 2014. 
  5. ^ "steward definition, meaning - what is steward in the British English Dictionary & Thesaurus - Cambridge Dictionaries Online". Retrieved 10 October 2014. 
  6. ^ "police officer - Definition and pronunciation - Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary at OxfordLearnersDictionaries.com". Retrieved 10 October 2014. 
  7. ^ "police officer definition, meaning - what is police officer in the British English Dictionary & Thesaurus - Cambridge Dictionaries Online". Retrieved 10 October 2014. 
  8. ^ "flight attendant - Definition and pronunciation - Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary at OxfordLearnersDictionaries.com". Retrieved 10 October 2014. 
  9. ^ "flight attendant definition, meaning - what is flight attendant in the British English Dictionary & Thesaurus - Cambridge Dictionaries Online". Retrieved 10 October 2014. 
  10. ^ "actor - Definition and pronunciation - Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary at OxfordLearnersDictionaries.com". Retrieved 10 October 2014. 
  11. ^ "actress - Definition and pronunciation - Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary at OxfordLearnersDictionaries.com". Retrieved 10 October 2014. 
  12. ^ "actor definition, meaning - what is actor in the British English Dictionary & Thesaurus - Cambridge Dictionaries Online". Retrieved 10 October 2014. 
  13. ^ "chairman - Definition and pronunciation - Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary at OxfordLearnersDictionaries.com". Retrieved 10 October 2014. 
  14. ^ "chairman definition, meaning - what is chairman in the British English Dictionary & Thesaurus - Cambridge Dictionaries Online". Retrieved 10 October 2014. 
  15. ^ Lowry, Howard. "Tone: A Matter of Attitude". Grammar.ccc.commnet.edu. Retrieved 2015-01-28. 
  16. ^ Carolyn Jacobson. "Some Notes on Gender-Neutral Language". Retrieved April 16, 2012. 
  17. ^ "Gender neutral language - Nonbinary.org". nonbinary.org. Retrieved 2015-11-25. 
  18. ^ Flanagan, J. (March 1, 2013). "The Use and Evolution of Gender Neutral Language in an Intentional Community". Women & Gender. 
  19. ^ "Leitfaden der Gleichstellungsbeauftragten zur geschlechtersensiblen und inklusiven Sprache" (in German). Gleichstellungsbeauftragte an der Universität zu Köln. 21 January 2014. Retrieved 9 August 2015. 
  20. ^ "Tips for Using Inclusive, Gender Neutral Language". Marquette University. Retrieved April 16, 2012. 
  21. ^ a b c d "Gender Neutral Language in Writing". www.skillsyouneed.com. Retrieved 2015-10-22. 
  22. ^ "Gender-Neutral Language Tips: How to Avoid Biased Writing, Without Sounding Awkward | Jerz's Literacy Weblog". jerz.setonhill.edu. Retrieved 2015-10-30. 
  23. ^ "Glossar zur Grünen Jugend" (in German). Grüne Jugend Dortmund. 2015. Retrieved 11 August 2015. 
  24. ^ Bureau, Government of Canada, Public Works and Government Services Canada - Translation. "Guidelines for gender-neutral language - Language articles - Language Portal of Canada". www.noslangues-ourlanguages.gc.ca. Retrieved 2015-11-03. 

Further reading[edit]

  • 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.