Gender neutrality in English

Gender neutrality in English

Gender neutrality in English is a form of linguistic prescriptivism that aims at using a form of English that minimizes assumptions about the gender or biological sex of people referred to in speech.



Proponents of gender-neutral language argue that the use of gender-specific language often implies male superiority or reflects an unequal state of society.[1][2] 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."[3] Words that refer to women often devolve in meaning, frequently taking on sexual overtones.[4]

These differences in usage are criticized on two grounds: one, that they reflect a biased state of society,[5] 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.[6] 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".[7] 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.[8] Proponents of gender-neutral language give many examples of usages that they find problematic.

Job titles

Words for humans

Proponents of gender-neutral language often point to the history of the word "man" to argue that, although the word once referred to both males and females, it no longer does so unambiguously.[9] In Old English, "wer" referred to males only and "wif" to females only; "man" referred to both,[10] although in practice "man" was sometimes also used in Old English to refer only to males.[11] 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."[12] By the eighteenth 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"[13] 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....'"[12]

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.[14]

Other commentators have suggested that truly generic uses of the word "man" would be perceived as "false, funny, or insulting",[15] citing as an example the phrase "Some men are female."[15]

Further, some commentators point out that, in the past, the ostensibly gender-neutral use of "man" has in fact been used to exclude women:[16]

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.[12]

For these reasons, proponents of gender-neutral language claim that linguistic clarity as well as equality would be better served by having "man" refer unambiguously to males, and "human" to all persons.[17]


The use of masculine pronouns to refer to antecedents of mixed or indeterminate gender, while traditional, is a target of frequent criticism by proponents of gender-neutral language. Critics of the use of the generic "he" argue that this usage was invented and propagated by men, such as Thomas Wilson and Joshua Poole, whose explicit goal was the linguistic representation of men's superiority.[18] The use of the generic "he" was in fact enforced by an Act of Parliament[19] and, despite its putative inclusiveness, has been used to deny women's entry into professions and schools.[5]

Proposed alternatives to the generic "he" include "he or she" (or "she or he"), "s/he", or the use of "they" in the singular; each of these alternatives has met with objections. Some feel the use of the singular "they" sounds like a grammatical error, but according to some references, "they", "their", and "them" have long been grammatically acceptable as gender-neutral singular pronouns in English:

Proponents of the singular "they" argue that the word has been used in the singular continuously since the Middle Ages, and cite its use by a number of prominent authors, including Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, and Jane Austen.[20] Linguist Steven Pinker goes further and argues that traditional grammar prescriptions regarding the use of singular "they" are themselves grammatically incorrect:

The next time you get corrected for this sin [of using "they" in the singular], ask Mr. Smartypants how you should fix the following:
Mary saw everyone before John noticed them.
Now watch him squirm as he mulls over the downright unintelligible "improvement", Mary saw everyone before John noticed him.
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.[21]

Most[citation needed] style guides agree with these arguments, and generally accept the singular "they" as grammatically correct,[22] while others continue to reject it.[citation needed] Some, such as The Chicago Manual of Style, hold a neutral position on the issue, and contend any approach used is likely to displease some readers.[23]

Research has found that the use of generic masculine pronouns creates "male bias" by evoking a disproportionate number of male images and excluding thoughts of women in non-sex specific instances.[24][25] Moreover, a study by John Gastil found that while the plural they functions as a generic pronoun for both males and females, males may comprehend he/she in a manner similar to he.[26]

Naming practices

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 womens' family names do not count and that there is one more device for making women invisible."[27] Historically, as women have been granted greater access to the professions they have been less likely to change their names, either professionally or legally; names are tied to reputations and women have been less likely to changes their names when they have higher reputations.[28]


Proponents of gender-neutral language point out that, while Mr is used of men regardless of marital status, the titles Miss and Mrs indicate a woman's marital status, and thus signal her sexual availability to men in a way that men's titles do not.[29] 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."[30] Elizabeth Cady Stanton refused to be addressed as "Mrs Henry B. Stanton".[31] 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."[32]

The honorific "Mx," full form Mixter, is used in place of traditional honorifics in order to provide gender-neutrality.


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.[6] They are also able to be true to their notions of grammatical propriety.[6][33] 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.[citation needed] If no gender-inclusive terms exist, new ones may be coined (e.g., "businessperson").[citation needed] 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".[citation needed]

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.[34]

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.[35]

However, the use of the word "man" as a generic word referring to all humans has been declining, particularly among female speakers and writers.[6] 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.[citation needed] 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.[citation needed]

Different authorities have presented guidelines on whether and how to use gender-neutral, or "non-sexist" language. Several are listed below:

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.[5]

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."[36] 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.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

Arguments against

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".[37] The use of the singular "they" is called "grammatical nonsense",[37] as are such little-used neologisms as "herstory".[37] Any other alternatives to gender-specific language are claimed to "lead one into using awkward or grating constructions"[38] or neologisms that are so ugly as to be "abominations".[38]

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".[37] A common argument is that historically terms such as "man" have been uniformly used as gender-neutral, and opponents of gender-neutral language often point to the fact that "man" in Old English referred to either men or women; feminists are claimed to be engaged in an attempt to "blot out" this fact and "re-write history".[39]

Others argue that the linguistic differentiation of women actually reflects women being "more" valued than men, not less.[40] Opponents of gender-neutral language often argue that proponents of gender-neutral language are impinging on the right of free expression and promoting censorship.[41] 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.[7]

Debate over Christian use

Much debate over the use of gender-neutral language surrounds questions of liturgy and Bible translation.

See also


  1. ^ Spender (1980), x.
  2. ^ Miller and Swift (1988), 45, 64, 66.
  3. ^ Aarts, Bas and April M. S. McMahon. The handbook of English linguistics. Malden, MA; Oxford: Blackwell Pub., 2006, ISBN 978-1-40-511382-3.
  4. ^ Spender (1980), 18.
  5. ^ a b c Jacobsen.
  6. ^ a b c d Miller, Casey, and Kate Swift. The Handbook of Non-Sexist Usage.
  7. ^ a b Mills, Sara. Feminist Stylistics.
  8. ^ Spender (1980), 1-6.
  9. ^ Miller and Swift (1988), 11-17.
  10. ^ Curzan (2003), 134.
  11. ^ Curzan (2003), 163.
  12. ^ a b c Miller and Swift (1988), 12.
  13. ^ Quoted in Miller and Swift (1988), 26.
  14. ^ Miller and Swift (1988), 15.
  15. ^ a b Warren.
  16. ^ Freeman (1979), 492.
  17. ^ Freeman (1979), 493.
  18. ^ Spender (1980), 147.
  19. ^ Interpretation Act 1850
  20. ^ Churchyard.
  21. ^ Pinker, Steven. The Language Instinct. Chapter 12.
  22. ^ The Cambridge Guide to English Usage. 2004.
  23. ^ Chicago Manual of Style, 13th edition, (1983): p. 233.
  24. ^ Miller, Megan M. and Lorie E. James (2009). Is the generic pronoun he still comprehended as excluding women? American Journal of Psychology, Vol. 122, No. 4, pp. 483-496.
  25. ^ Hamilton, Mykol C. (1988). Using masculine generics: Does generic he increase male bias in the user's imagery? Sex Roles, Vol. 19, Nos. 11-12, pp. 785-799, DOI: 10.1007/BF00288993.
  26. ^ Gastil, John (1990) Generic Pronouns and sexist language: The oxymoronic character of masculine generics. Sex Roles, Vol. 23, Nos. 11/12, pp. 629-643.
  27. ^ Spender (1980), 24.
  28. ^ Stannard (1977), 164-166.
  29. ^ Freeman (1979), 491.
  30. ^ Quoted in Stannard (1977), 3.
  31. ^ Stannard (1977), 4.
  32. ^ Henry Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, quoted in Stannard (1977), 9.
  33. ^ Pinker, Steven. The Language Instinct.
  34. ^ Chappell.
  35. ^ "Guidelines on Gender-Neutral Language". United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), 1999. Accessed March 25, 2007.
  36. ^ "Gender Neutral Language". University of Saskatchewan Policies, 2001. Accessed March 25, 2007.
  37. ^ a b c d Van Woerkom.
  38. ^ a b Lynch.
  39. ^ Miller.
  40. ^ Ross.
  41. ^ Markos.


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