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Using Gender-Neutral Alternatives

When writing with awareness and sensitivity, we can find creative and correct ways to express gender.

3:42 min read
  Teri Lapping  —  Grammar Tips
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Are you sexist or gender-biased? Of course not.

 In 1776, Thomas Jefferson coined the phrase “all men are created equal,” and his words have become a cornerstone of our shared value system. But Jefferson was not using the word “men” to generically cover both men and women; no, in a society controlled by men, he meant that the men of the American colonies were created equal to the British servants of the King; it is notable that women were not even on the playing field. 

This sneaky type of written sexism was powerful, concretely invisible, and reflected the long history of a male-oriented world view.

In 1850, the British government decreed that the pronoun “he” could be used as the catch-all when referring to both the males as well as the females in a group. This decree was ignored, and the general population continued to interpret the use of the words “he” and “his” as a sign that women were not and should not be part of the group. 

For example, the by-laws of most groups used the pronoun “he”, thus effectively barring women from membership. 

This problem still exists. 

Using Gender-Neutral Alternatives

When writing English, we often find ourselves automatically using the male gender nouns and pronouns when referring to males, females, and transgender people.  

Have you encountered this tendency in your own writing? 

Do you use the words “he” and “his” disproportionately when composing a gender-neutral sentence? 

I know that I do

Think about the continuing ramifications of this. We are unconsciously assigning male attributes to the subjects of our gender-neutral sentences. For example: 

My mother suggested that I consult a specialist to hear his recommendation.” T

his specialist is assumed to be a man: knowledgeable, responsible, dependable.  

• How does this tendency toward male gender-bias translate in the choices that we make in our everyday lives? 

• How does this affect our beliefs and our aspirations?

• What are we teaching our children?

Today, we can be better than that. When writing with awareness and sensitivity, we can find creative and correct ways to express gender. 

The following is list of Gender-Neutral Alternatives that we can use when writing and speaking:

• Use plurals. 
Do not use: Each student must submit his report.
Use: Students must submit their reports.

• Use the direct address (second person “you”).
Do not use: The teacher must sign his contract by Friday. 
Use: Sign your contract by Friday.

• Use the passive voice
Do not use: Each researcher defined his thesis.
Use: The thesis was defined by each researcher.

• Use both the male and female pronouns.
Do not use: Everyone should bring his own lunch to the meeting.
Use: Everyone should bring his or her own lunch to the meeting.
Use: Everyone should bring her or his own lunch to the meeting.

• Use articles.
Do not use: The child read his book.
Use: The child read a book. 
The child read the book.

• Use gender-neutral words when speaking in the generic about people.
Do not use: mankind, humankind Use: people
Do not use: human Use: person, being
Do not use: manpower        Use: personnel, workforce
Do not use: mothering         Use: nurturing
Do not use: congressman Use: Legislator
Do not use: landlord Use: owner
Do not use: fireman Use: firefighter
Do not use: repairman Use: repairperson
Do not use: chairman Use: chair
Do not use: foreman Use: supervisor
Do not use: manned Use: crewed, operated
Do not use: freshman Use: first-year student
Do not use: mailman Use: postal worker

We have seen how the English language can be a gender-exclusive language, organized in a way that often equates men with positions of power and esteem, and equates all others with lesser positions that are managed by men. 

By choosing to use language that supports this male dominated hierarchy, we are perpetuating its inherent sexism. You and I can consciously decide to stop using gender-biased language and to pay attention to the words and phrases that we do choose to use.  

When we actively seek to eliminate the sexism that is a socially accepted part of our language, we are doing a great service toward constructing a gender-inclusive language which will inevitably herald a gender-inclusive society. 
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