5 Easy Ways to Make Your Writing Gender-Neutral
You know, I had another introduction planned, but as I have been writing this over the last month, many articles on the topic of gender-neutral language have popped up (you’ll see me mention some of them below). This topic is on everyone’s mind lately because we have some high-profile people who have brought it to the forefront. But let’s not be naïve. This didn’t start the day Caitlyn appeared on Vanity Fair. This is a conversation a lot of people have been having for a long time.
The way I see it, we can solve this problem by finding ways to talk about each other and talk TO each other without relying on assumptions of gender, race, status, etc. Our biases are killing our ability to communicate respectfully and accurately. The problem of gendered language and the necessity of making assumptions about other people based on the inflexibility of that language is a problem we all face, and we, as writers, have the ability to inspire change.
This article lists several ways that you can write prose that is both neutral and accurate. With the exception of some new terms that might take some getting used to, these suggestions—which could make a world of difference to someone—are actually practical and not very hard to implement. Most lasting solutions to problems usually are. Please read this with an open mind, and remember that approaching each other with language that is inclusive is good for everyone—and that’s the point.
Without further ado…
1. Call “Mankind” Out
For a long time, we’ve been told that in the absence of knowledge as to whether a subject was male or female, or when referring to a person in the generic or hypothetical sense, it was acceptable to default to male nouns and pronouns. We were told nouns like mankind included non-males, too, even though more than 50% of “mankind” are not, in fact, men.
Let’s call bullshit on this right here and now. When you hear the words postman, fireman, salesman, journeyman, policeman, etc., tell me truly, do you not picture a man? Even in 2015 when there are plenty of real life women (and other non-males) in these occupations, you still imagine a man. I do.
It seems like the answer would be to change the nouns to feminine when referring to a woman: postwoman, spokeswoman, policewoman. Sure, terms like these are 1980s-Hot. When I hear them, I am transported back in time to a day when women-in-the-workplace was, like, a new thing. Back then, we thought that was progress. It was, but now we need to progress further. Gender is not all one or the other—we know that. And even if it were, what good is it really doing to label someone doing a job as either male or female. Postman, postwoman? Who cares!?! All I want to know is whether they delivered my latest edition of Word Dork Weekly!* [*Not a real publication, sadly.]
In the absence of specific knowledge about a certain person’s gender—let’s face it, you are NOT going to ask your mail carriers to reveal their gender to you—it’s wise to use a gender neutral noun that describes only a person’s occupation, not gender. It’s not as hard as it seems. You already know lots of gender neutral nouns, and we long ago started shifting toward these more generic terms because even with “female versions” of many nouns, making reliable plurals was still problematic. How do you refer to a group of mail carriers when 10 of them are women and 2 are men? Postmen? Even the linguistically conservative can see a problem with that—it’s inaccurate. Generic terms became necessary for reasons of both inclusion and clarity. So, really, the stage has already been set for thinking beyond binary-gendered nouns. Some generic nouns you might already know are: Spokesperson, salesperson, firefighter, police officer/cop, doctor, medical assistant, pilot, mail carrier, server, cashier, etc.
In 2013, Washington State finished up an effort to scrub its law books of gendered terms such as fishermen and penmanship and replace them with neutral descriptors that were common sense—like fisher and handwriting. According to an article written at the time, some words, like manhole or seamen, could not be replaced because they were engineering terms that didn't have a common sense alternative or they were military terms that the military was not willing to change. (Is there a problem with the word sailor?) They also added female pronouns to augment male pronouns (“he or she”), so the laws are more inclusive than before, but there is still work to be done. Other states such as Hawaii, Utah, and Rhode Island have also passed laws to update the language of their laws. So, silly exceptions aside, there is a shift toward writing with non-specific—and therefore, more inclusive—language that is taking place all over the country.
NOTE: You may have also heard the term “non-sexist language”. I prefer “gender neutral” because “sexist” still implies a male/female binary. More importantly, the use of “non” gives the term a negative tone that reads more like a scolding that an encouragement. I prefer to encourage change, not punish old habits.
2. Resist gender-izing perfectly good neutral words
“Why don't people like the sound of "woman president"?”, a recent article in The Economist asks. Good question. Why is it necessary to add “woman” or “female” to the otherwise perfectly neutral noun, “president”? The writer points out that in almost every language, the words that describe females are marked, whereas words that describe males are used for mixed groups—like mankind. The author points out that, in addition to just being unnecessary, feminized words sound diminutive, dismissive.
An actor is a somewhat generic term, but actress specifies a woman. Such specification annoys many women, in part because these feminine forms (which often end with that more playful-sounding -ess or -ette) somehow evoke something both more sexy and less serious. Consider the difference between “master” and “mistress”, and it’s clear why many women performers today prefer the more neutral “actor”.
We have many unnecessarily feminized nouns: actress, stewardess, waitress, poetess, seamstress. There’s no real reason to have to identify the person who is serving you a burger as either male or female. The term server works well because it’s inclusive, specific, and descriptive, which all writers know is preferred. Furthermore, there is no reason to add the word “female” or “woman” to otherwise neutral nouns like “president,” “pilot,” “CEO,” “soldier,” etc. I would advise against the reverse for the same reasons; “male nurse,” “male teacher,” “man receptionist,” sound just as asinine to me as “woman doctor.” It’s not just about male vs. female anyway, and gendering a noun one way or the other is problematic no matter how you look at it because it always leads to exclusion. Besides the sort of obvious sexist connotations of feeling obliged to point out that a particular person in a historically male profession is a woman or vice versa, I think that we need to think bigger than that.
Extrapolate this argument to include racially specific language and any other ways that people are labeled unfairly and unnecessarily, and you can see how helpful it can be to choose unbiased words and avoid adding qualifiers to otherwise strong, descriptive nouns that need no distinction. Saying “black president” sounds just as silly. Not to eschew the accomplishment of being the first to hold the position when it has historically always been a white male, but adding “black” to the perfectly unmarked noun “president” takes something away. We would never have called Dubya the “43rd white male president,” and we certainly never say G. Washington was the “first white male president of the US.” Perhaps it is more accurate to say, the “first time a US president is a black person” or “the first time a US president is a woman.” Maybe that’s a lot to say, but think harder about what “woman president” and “black president” really mean when you would never say it the other way around.
3. Practice The New Polite
Common courtesy reminds us to refer to strangers and authority figures as “sir” or “maam”, “Mr Soandso” or “Miss/Mrs/Ms Soandso.” I am a huge advocate for being polite and respectful, but I think the old school rules surrounding the words we use to accomplish this are changing—and SHOULD change.
I was recently on the receiving end of a poorly made assumption that is from the old school. Just last September, I wrote an article for LitReactor about old school rules, and I told you all how my college addressed its alumni magazine to “Mr. and Mrs. Maurice Houston.” (Maurice is my spouse). (You can read my detailed diatribe here.) Sure, I sent in a wedding announcement to the alumni association and noted my changed last name in their directory, but they made the decision to address their magazine to my spouse based on an old set of assumptions about married people! I wrote a letter to the editor of the magazine outlining my reasons for outrage, the biggest being that same-sex marriage is LEGAL now, so this makes no sense anymore!!! I received only a passive promise to update my record.
Really, Hamilton College?
This incident reminded me that we need to find new ways to talk to each other. Mr. and Mrs. Soandso may have been the polite-speak of yester-year, but it assumes things that many people today don’t appreciate and a reality they are not living. Honorifics such as Mr. or Mrs. assume more than just gender—they assume rank and status, especially for women. Being married may, depending on your point of view, give a person advantages or disadvantages. And a married person may not may not wish to be identified as being married, for whatever reason.
Enough judgment is attached to names, anyway. Because I grew up with a name that was traditionally a surname or a boy’s first name, I found myself able to walk a line between the genders—at least on paper. I didn’t much appreciate it back then—especially when I was put into the boy’s Physical Education class in the 6th grade. Later, when I was putting it on job applications, I was glad that it was a name that could easily go either way because I knew a lot of places would look past my resume just for being a girl. If they couldn’t tell, all the better for me. I hate filling out forms that ask if I’m male or female—unless you’re my doctor, why should you care? There are laws against discrimination, yet we still get asked—are you are girl or a boy? Are you black or white? Are your married or single? What’s it to you?! Either I can do the job, or I can’t. The rest is none of your business.
For me, the new polite consists of taking people as they come. Addressing them by the name they prefer whenever possible. If you don’t know the name, say nothing. You can as easily say, “Can I get the door for you?” as you can say, “Can I get the door for you, maam?” It’s still an act of kindness, but one that is unassuming.
NOTE: I took a Twitter break while I was doing the final edit of this article. At the top of my feed was a link to an article in the UK’s Metro entitled “The ‘gender neutral’ Mx has joined ‘Mr’ and ‘Mrs’ in the dictionary.” Half a scroll later, and I saw an article from Merriam-Webster that explains that you pronounce it “mix” or “mux,” and that it has appeared in print at least a few times since 1977. The article also notes that it took over 80 years for Ms to gain adoption by mainstream publications like The New York Times.
I have not heard of this particular gender neutral honorific, but I am not surprised that someone already tried to amend the issue of formally addressing people who are either transgender or who would prefer not to identify their gender. While I still think a simple solution to this problem is to call someone by their actual name, no honorific required, I can see how practical widespread adoption of this could be. How much junk (and not-as-junky) mail do I get addressed to Mr. Taylor Houston or Mr. Taylor Fleming-Henning (my maiden name)? Answer: a lot. Probably 1 per day. Somewhere, some poor schmuck had to make a blind determination of my gender based on my name alone. Wouldn’t it be so much easier to address mail to Mx. Taylor Houston to be safe? Since first names often move across gender lines, it seems asinine to try to guess the gender of a Jamie Smith or Charlie Jones or Ashley McKenna. (*WINK*)
4. Consider the case for 'they'
They/them/their have been used as singular pronouns for as long as anything else the purists might hold dear; it’s not some new, young rebel here to destroy good writing. In his book, Sense of Style, Steven Pinker explains many of the oft-quoted English writers use they/them/their in place of a singular pronoun—George Bernard Shaw, William Thackeray, Edith Wharton, Geoffrey Chaucer, Billy T. Shakespeare, and even the writers of the King James Bible! To make his point, he cites an example from Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park:
Every body began to have their vexation.
If the purists had it their way, that line would have been:
Every body began to have his or her vexation.
If the old school “mankind means everybody” people had it their way, that line would have been:
Every body began to have his vexation.
Aside from there being no poetry in his or her—it’s too clunky!—there is an argument that the plural pronoun is perfectly appropriate in context, even if it’s grammatically un-perfect. Pinker explains how the indication of more than one person in the expression “every body” makes a plural pronoun appropriate—we are talking about more than one person being vexed.
Such usages are everywhere! And, as Pinker points out, they aren’t problematic at all. Have generations of Austen readers been confused by that line? I think not. Most, I’d bet, didn’t even notice. What does that tell us? It tells us that a grammatically singular they should not turn heads, cause confusion, nor start a third world war. On the contrary, it feels natural and it’s inclusive in ways that a he=everybody or he or she can never be.
Some people would say, “Well you could rewrite such sentences to plural to avoid the singular they.” This is true! Pinker shows us that the Austen line could be written as
They all began to have their vexations.
This solution works well! So well that I would remind people that writing something as a plural is another way you can avoid gendered nouns. Instead of “men and women,” use “people.” Instead of “boys and girls” say “children.” Many plural words in the English language are built to be non-gender specific, so they are a great way to make your language more inclusive.
Second person is another way to neutralize gendered language in your writing. You, you all, your, etc. are non-gendered pronouns that, utilized well, can be used to create inclusiveness. I use it all the time in articles because I am talking to an unknown audience. In the past, writers might have leaned on he as a way to talk about unknowns, but in many contexts, you works as well, or better.
5. Try something new
Five minutes after Josh okay’d my pitch for this article, I logged on to cnn.com to see what’s wrong with the world now, and I came across this article entitled Goodbye to 'he' and 'she' and hello to 'ze'? In the article, author John McWhorter makes the case for English speakers to move toward gender-neutral pronouns such as ze or they because:
Our new conceptions of gender are a good time to get past the conservatism about singular “they.”
In some cases, they, might still be an awkward solution to the gender-neutral pronoun problem. Consider a sentence that uses a name:
Jamie put on their jacket.
Though gender neutral, you can’t argue that this sentence has a contextual plural the way that the Austen sentence does. A singular gender neutral pronoun would be useful here. McWhorter makes a case for ze, which is one of several non-gendered pronouns that people have been throwing around. Some other possibilities are ne, ve, hir, zir, xe, and spivak. (In fact, you can click the link to see a discussion of each gender-neutral pronoun and its viability as a real alternative or click here for a larger list.)
Let me say this: I know something like pronoun replacement will take time, and I don’t foresee the typical gendered pronouns he or she going anywhere—in fact, for some, proper gender identification may be important, so let’s not get freaked out about total language androgyny. But it should matter less to us if someone identifies as male or female or transgender. Though many writers and grammatically-inclined people have their reservations about embracing any particular alternative, I think most of us who want to see a more inclusive language agree with McWhorter’s opinion that:
there is room for presenting "ze" as a matter not of fashion, but of basic civility — people must think of new pronouns as the proper thing to do, not as a stunt.
I do think that until a truly neutral pronoun comes into the common usage, we can let people choose their own, as many colleges, such as Harvard, have already started to do. And we can honor their choices by not making assumptions and by asking politely, when appropriate, what they would like to be called. This is a small thing, and it may not always be without awkwardness, but I think it’s the right thing to do.
A Final Note of Encouragement
Writers have a kind of super power—we can enact real cultural change by shifting the words we use. Paying attention to how you characterize a person with your words can have a negative or a positive impact on that person, so it’s our duty to be mindful of that. I am by no means perfect in this—I have many bad habits, and an audit of my own writing would assuredly produce hundreds of infractions, but the point is to try. And, I am not an expert on gender identity. But I can relate to being called something that isn’t how I identify myself, and I can see how, however unintentional, using the wrong words can be hurtful. Remembering to curb our assumptions by using more inclusive language is a step toward a better world. It may seem farfetched, but I wouldn’t be a part of this whole writing racket if I didn’t think words could make a big impact. Let’s do this.
A request to readers who speak languages other than English:
I would love to know how (and if) there are movements among those who speak Spanish, French, Chinese, Finnish, Russian, or any other language to create room for gender neutral vocabulary. I can imagine with some languages, like Spanish, where most nouns have a gender, accomplishing true neutrality could be more challenging. Feel free to comment below or reach out to me via email. I’m really interested to learn what’s going on in other languages.
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