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Sexist Language

Sexism in language has become an especially sensitive topic in recent years. We would be foolish as well as obtuse to include depersonalizing terms like chick, tomato and broad in our serious essays; and "humorous" use of such words is rarely funny. Less obviously, we should realize that the word equivalent to man is woman, not lady, girl or gal. If William Shakespeare is Shakespeare in our prose, then Emily Dickinson should be Dickinson, not Miss Dickinson or Emily. And designations such as authoress and lady lawyer should be avoided for their objectionable hint that genuine, normal authors and lawyers are men. Even coed should be dropped on these grounds; it insinuates that the higher education of women is an afterthought to the real (male) thing.

Yet because the idea of sexism is relatively new, and because different groups have reached different stages of resentment against sex-weighted language, it is not easy to say how far you should go toward purging English of its longstanding favoritism to the male. The title Ms., which does not indicate marital status, is becoming well established as the female counterpart to Mr., and you cannot go wrong by changing stewardess to flight attendant and cleaning lady to housekeeper. Actress and waitress, on the other hand, have so far resisted all pressure to step aside for genderless words; if you used actor and waiter to indicate women, readers would be misled or taken aback. Are mankind, man-made and chairman offensive? More and more readers believe they are. You can substitute humanity for mankind and artificial for man-made, without attracting notice; but chairperson, though it is rapidly becoming common, will still bother some readers. Many people find person-suffixed words clumsy and self-conscious. Before using one, try finding a neutral alternative: not congressperson but representative, not police person but officer.

The sorest of all issues in contemporary usage is that of the so-called common gender. Which pronouns should be used when an indefinite person, a "one," is being discussed? Traditionally, that indefinite person has been "male": he, his, him, as in "A taxpayer must check his return carefully." For the centuries in which this practice went unchallenged, the masculine pronouns in such sentences were understood to designate, not actual men, but people of either sex. Today, however, many readers find those words an offensive reminder of second class citizenship for women. Remedies that have been proposed range from using he or she (or she or he) for the common gender, to treating singular common words as plural (A taxpayer must check their return) to combining masculine and feminine pronouns in forms like s/he, to using she in one sentence and he in the next.

Unfortunately, all of these solutions carry serious drawbacks. Continual repetition of he or she is cumbersome and monotonous; most readers would regard "A taxpayer must check their return" as a blunder, not a blow for liberation; pronunciation of s/he is uncertain; and the use of she and he in alternation, though increasingly common, risks confusing the reader by implying that two indefinite persons, a female and a male, are involved.

To avoid sexist language that may be offensive to some readers, consider following these guidelines:

  • Use she whenever you are sure the indefinite person would be a female (a student in a women's college for example).
  • Do not use she for roles that are "traditionally female" but actually mixed: filing clerks, grade-school teachers, laundry workers etc.
  • Use gender-neutral terms when speaking of other people. These include substituting the human race, humankind, work force or personnel, and average person for words such as man, mankind, manpower and man on the street.
  • Avoid gender-marked titles when good alternatives are available. Substitute speaker or representative for spokesman, police officer for policeman, etc.
  • Rewrite sentences to avoid using gender pronouns, by using the appropriate title instead. (Substitute "You should see your doctor first, and the doctor should call the emergency room directly" for "You should see your doctor first, and he should call the emergency room directly.")
  • Use an occasional he or she or she or he to indicate an indefinite person. But be sparing with this formula.
  • Avoid the singular whenever your meaning is not affected: "Taxpayers must check their returns."
  • Omit the pronoun altogether wherever you can do so without awkwardness. (Not "Everyone needs his or her vacation" but "Everyone needs a vacation.")
  • Address your reader directly in the second person if you can do so appropriately. (Substitute "Send in your application by the final deadline date" for "The student must send in his application by the final deadline date.")
  • Replace third-person singular possessives with articles. (Substitute "Every proctor should draft a preliminary schedule by Friday" for "Every proctor should draft his preliminary schedule by Friday.")

Information in this handout was adapted from The Random House Handbook by Frederick Crews and Writing and Learning by Anne Ruggles Gere.