Gender-Specific Pronouns

A student planning to graduate this spring should see his advisor at once.

And we hope that the writer of the sentence above is working at an all-male school; otherwise, grief will follow him or her all his or her days. Our section on Pronouns already has a paragraph on avoiding gender problems with the singular "his," and we refer you to that document. Most gender problems can be avoided without the use of the clunky he or she/him or her construction or the more monstrous he/she by using the plural: "Students planning to graduate this spring should see their counselor at once." An occasional he or she is all right, but after a while it becomes too demanding of the reader's attention, and the device becomes more important than the message. Where a singular pronoun is necessary, use either the masculine or feminine consistently enough to avoid confusion. (You can switch pronouns within an essay, but not within a paragraph.)

Avoid Sexist Terminology

Avoid language based on hurtful assumptions about gender:

"I need to see a doctor."
"She's busy right now."
"No, I said a doctor."

The conversation above probably took place between some chap and the "girl" at the front desk. A responsible, sensitive writer will never make demeaning assumptions about gender role. Whether words such as chairman and congressman are sexist and hurtful and whether their substitutes chairperson and members of congress are unnecessary and cumbersome is an argument that some people will still make, but if we can avoid the argument (and the possibility of hurt) with the use of reasonable substitutes, it's well worth it. The following table lists words that many people regard as sexist and some appropriate substitutes for those words.

AvoidUse instead. . .
all forms of alumnus/a
chairmanchairperson, chair
freshman/freshmenfirst-year students, frosh
mailmanmail carrier
male nursenurse
man (meaning any human being)person, people
managers and their wivesmanagers and their spouses
mankindhumanity, people
policemanpolice officer
salesmansales representative, salesclerk
stewardessflight attendant
Pearson Education and the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) sites offer excellent online guides to help you avoid insensitive language. Click the enter buttons below to find out more.

Copy Editor Bill Walsh has this to say about using the word "female":

In most cases, use "woman" as the noun and "female" as the adjective. "Female soldiers," "female priests." Things like "women senators" should be confined to quotes (does anybody say men senators?). "Female" is OK as a noun when talking about animals, when it hasn't been established whether the person in question is a woman or a girl, and when talking about a group that includes both women and girls. If it's ever necessary to use the sexist cliche "women drivers," that would be an exception.

Being careful to avoid sexist language should not lead one into silliness. High schools do not have women's basketball programs unless they have men's basketball programs, also, which is doubtful (in spite of the bulk and hairiness of that kid playing center). To use women and men in that context suggests that there is something wrong with being a girl or a boy. On the other hand, why do some universities still have a women's basketball program, but the men's program is simply called the basketball program? One last thought: writers should no more apologize for the sexism so liberally sprinkled throughout the history of our literature than they should apologize for the way our predecessors dressed.

In the box below is a perfectly wonderful definition of a college. It was written, probably in the late 1940s, by Howard Lowry, a critic of nineteenth-century literature and a President of the College of Wooster. There are word choices in this definition, however, that might make people cringe today.

A college is a corner of men's hearts where hope has not died. Here the prison house has not closed; here no battle is yet quite lost. Here, we assert, endow, and defend as final reality the best of our dream as men. Here lies our sense of community.

__ Howard Lowry

How would we write this piece of text differently today? How about "A college is a corner of our hearts where hope has not died"? and "Here, we assert, endow, and defend as final reality the best of our dreams."? We certainly have not improved upon the sound of Lowry's words, but have we lost anything by these changes? Probably not much, and what we have lost, we've more than gained by decreasing the chances of offending or marginalizing an entire gender from the definition of a college — something that would never have entered Howard Lowry's unbiased mind and generous heart.

QuizGender Neutral Language

Referring to Groups of People

Any time a writer wishes to or has to refer to a group of people to the exclusion of others, he or she must be cautious not to use language that is regarded as hurtful by the group being referred to. Nowadays, minority groups and special-interest groups have a great deal to say, and rightfully so, about the language used to refer to them. More than one political career has fallen upon hard times through an insensitive or rude remark. When a presidential candidate a few years ago made a reference to "you people," he surely did so without conscious or wicked intent. Still, the phrase you people or those people excludes groups without reason for doing so and thus is regarded as hurtful. Staying current with appropriate language is not always easy. In fact, following the history of the ideas and attitudes inherent in words such as crippled or retarded can be an interesting (if not dizzying) exploration of a nation's social consciousness.

The need to be sensitive, fair, and respectful can lead to all kinds of social and personal discoveries. A blind person will be the first to remind us that he or she is, indeed, a blind person, and the term visually impaired is a needless euphemism. On the other hand, we should speak of "blind people," not "the blind." The word special, in this regard, has become almost meaningless, and even the term queer, which has often been used in a nasty, derogatory way, has writers who claim it as a badge of honor. The power of language to hurt is never more clear than in the realm of racial slurs or epithets. Within an extremely restricted context, the word nigger has been claimed as a mark of camaraderie and affection, but only a fool or a boor would use that word outside of that limited social and artistic context and only certain writers and journalists in special circumstances would have the artistic license to use it at all. The Editorials Editor of the Yale Daily News contends that "There is, arguably, no other word which elicits the same expressions of disgust, or feelings of shock as universally as that racial epithet." We highly recommend Keith Woods' essay, "An Essay on a Wickedly Powerful Word," from the online archives of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, on the uses of this particular racial epithet in journalistic situations. Among other things, the essay is instructive in the power of language.

One must be careful, too, in using ethnic and nationalist terms. The word Asian is now widely used instead of Oriental (except, for some reason, when talking about carpeting) and, in general, it is wise to use a specific geographical term or area when speaking of people's origins. For that reason, the word Hispanic seems to have been supplanted by Latino/Latina and that, in turn, by Cuban, Colombian, Puerto Rican, Chicano/Chicana, etc. Most writers nowadays will use Native American instead of Indian or Indian-American, but many Native American writers will use the term Indian themselves or insist that writers be more specific (and exact) about tribe and nation grouping (Sioux, Navajo, Paugausset, etc.). In fact, American Indian seems to be regaining ascendancy. The discussion about black versus African American (no longer Afro-American) may know no end, especially if Islander blacks are involved. (Note that the terms black and white are not capitalized.)

And that is precisely the point: discussion — it is ongoing and it reflects important changes in our culture. As long as writers try to be sensitive to the feelings of minorities and special-interest groups and as long as writers consciously attempt to avoid divisive language that offends, stereotypes, belittles, or hurtfully excludes people, that is all that anyone can ask.

The American Heritage Book of English Usage sums it up this way:

As a general rule, it is good to remember that you should only refer to a person by category when it is relevant or necessary to the discussion at hand. That is, you should ordinarily view people as individuals and not mention their racial, ethnic, or other status, unless it is important to your larger purpose in communicating.

That book also maintains a list of names and labels and discusses the social history and appropriateness of those terms.