Some Notes on Gender-Neutral Language


The practice of assigning masculine gender to neutral terms comes from the fact that every language reflects the prejudices of the society in which it evolved, and English evolved through most of its history in a male-centered, patriarchal society. Like any other language, however, English is always changing. One only has to read aloud sentences from the 19th century books assigned for this class to sense the shifts that have occurred in the last 150 years. When readers pick up something to read, they expect different conventions depending on the time in which the material was written. As writers in 1995, we need to be not only aware of the conventions that our readers may expect, but also conscious of the responses our words may elicit. In addition, we need to know how the shifting nature of language can make certain words awkward or misleading.


Man once was a truly generic word referring to all humans, but has gradually narrowed in meaning to become a word that refers to adult male human beings. Anglo-Saxons used the word to refer to all people. One example of this occurs when an Anglo-Saxon writer refers to a seventh-century English princess as "a wonderful man." Man paralleled the Latin word homo, "a member of the human species," not vir, "an adult male of the species." The Old English word for adult male was waepman and the old English word for adult woman was wifman. In the course of time, wifman evolved into the word "woman." "Man" eventually ceased to be used to refer to individual women and replaced wer and waepman as a specific term distinguishing an adult male from an adult female. But man continued to be used in generalizations about both sexes.

By the 18th century, the modern, narrow sense of man was firmly established as the predominant one. 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. . . ." 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. Looking at modern dictionaries indicate that the definition that links "man" with males is the predominant one. Studies of college students and school children indicate that even when the broad definitions of "man" and "men" are taught, they tend to conjure up images of male people only. We would never use the sentence "A girl grows up to be a man," because we assume the narrower definition of the word man. The examples below seem disconcerting precisely for this reason:

*"Development of the Uterus in Rats, Guinea Pigs, and Men" (title of a research report)

*"The Pap test, which has greatly reduced mortality from uterine cancer, is a boon to mankind."

Even when authors insist that "man" is a general term of all humans, they can lapse into meaning it as a term for only males:

*"As for man, he is no different from the rest. His back aches, he ruptures easily, his women have difficulties in childbirth . . . "

*In James Baldwin's essay "Stranger in the Village" Baldwin refers to "white men" and "black men" (seemingly generic terms), but then he eventually refers to "that peculiar, intent, paranoiac malevolence which one sometimes surprises in the eyes of American white men when, out walking with their Sunday girl, they see a Negro male approach."

Once you've started to recognize the problems that can arise with using "man" as a generic pronoun, how can you prevent confusion? One way is by substituting "human," "humankind," "people," or another word that does not involve any specific gender.

The Pronoun Problem

The first grammars of modern English were written in the 16th and 17th centuries. They were mainly intended to help boys from upper class families prepare for the study of Latin, a language most scholars considered superior to English. The male authors of these earliest English grammars wrote for male readers in an age when few women were literate. The masculine-gender pronouns did not reflect a belief that masculine pronouns could refer to both sexes. The grammars of this period contain no indication that masculine pronouns were sex-inclusive when used in general references. Instead these pronouns reflected the reality of male cultural dominance and the male-centered world view that resulted.

"He" started to be used as a generic pronoun by grammarians who were trying to change a long-established tradition of using they as a singular pronoun. In 1850 an Act of Parliament gave official sanction to the recently invented concept of the "generic" he. In the language used in acts of Parliament, the new law said, "words importing the masculine gender shall be deemed and taken to include females." Although similar language in contracts and other legal documents subsequently helped reinforce this grammatical edict in all English-speaking countries, it was often conveniently ignored. In 1879, for example, a move to admit female physicians to the all-male Massachusetts Medical society was effectively blocked on the grounds that the society's by-laws describing membership used the pronoun he.

Just as "man" is not truly generic in the 1990s, "he" is not a true generic pronoun. Studies have confirmed that most people understand "he" to refer to men only. Sentences like "A doctor is a busy person; he must be able to balance a million obligations at once" imply that all doctors are men. Imagine what it would be like if we were to continue reading: "A doctor is a busy person; he must be able to balance a million obligations at once. Dr. Jones is no exceptionÑa clinic to run, medical students to supervise, and a husband with polio." In this context, the realization that Dr. Jones is a woman comes as a surprise to many readers. To push the point further, check out this sentence: "The average American needs the small routines of getting ready for work. As he shaves or blow-dries his hair or pulls on his panty hose, he is easing himself by small stages into the demands of the day." The first image that comes to mind is a transvestite, not the average American woman. As a result of the fact that "he" is read by many as a masculine pronoun, many people, especially women, have come to feel that the generic pronouns excludes women. This means that more and more people find the use of such a pronoun problematic.

Solving the Pronoun Problem

They as a Singular--Most people, when writing and speaking informally, rely on singular they as a matter of course: "If you love someone, set them free" (Sting). If you pay attention to your own speech, you'll probably catch yourself using the same construction yourself. "It's enough to drive anyone out of their senses" (George Bernard Shaw). "I shouldn't like to punish anyone, even if they'd done me wrong" (George Eliot). Some people are annoyed by the incorrect grammar that this solution necessitates, but this construction is used more and more frequently.

He or She--Despite the charge of clumsiness, double-pronoun constructions have made a comeback: "To be black in this country is simply too pervasive an experience for any writer to omit from her or his work," wrote Samuel R. Delany. Overuse of this solution can be awkward, however.

Pluralizing--A writer can often recast material in the plural. For instance, instead of "As he advances in his program, the medical student has increasing opportunities for clinical work," try "As they advance in their program, medical students have increasing opportunities for clinical work."

Eliminating Pronouns--Avoid having to use pronouns at all; instead of "a first grader can feed and dress himself," you could write, "a first grader can eat and get dressed without assistance."

Further Alternatives--he/she or s/he, using one instead of he, or using a new generic pronoun (thon, co, E, tey, hesh, hir).

The Practical Side

This is not about freedom of speech; at Penn, and in my class, there is no rule insisting on gender-neutral language. This is an issue of audience and awareness. Gender-neutral language has gained support from most major textbook publishers, and from professional and academic groups such as the American Psychological Association and the Associated Press. Newspapers like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal avoid such language. Many law journals, psychology journals, and literature journals do not print articles or papers that use gender-inclusive language. If you anticipate working within any of these contexts, you will need to be able to express yourself according to their guidelines, and if you wish to write or speak convincingly to people who are influenced by the conventions of these contexts, you need to be conscious of their expectations.

Examples taken from Sarah Werner, and *The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing* by Casey Miller and Kate Swift (New York: Lippincott, 1988)