Gender Neutral Language
The best writers strive to use language that evokes precisely the ideas, images, and facts that they wish the reader to perceive. The best writers are aware that language has social and political impact, and they attend to the connotations of the words they use in order to affect readers appropriately.
When we want our readers to see that gender makes a difference, we should use specific gender references: he, she, it, masculine, feminine, neuter, etc. For example, a biologist might appropriately observe that the male seahorse nurtures the young. Conversely, when gender has nothing to do with our topic, we should keep our references neutral. For example, when the President of the University of Chicago gives a speech, we should note that the President spoke, not "Madame President," or some equally irrelevant reference.
Neutral language keeps the readers' minds on the actual subject, it keeps the author from offending people, and it improves the precision of pronoun reference. Most important, neutral language recognizes the potential of all individuals to contribute to our human commonwealth, without prejudice.
Proper use of neutral gender language is more a matter of the author's frame of mind and sensibility of ear than it is the adherence to a set of rules. Here are some examples:
- mankind, womankind
- man's achievements
- the best woman for the job
- fireman, firewoman
- mailman, mailwoman
- policeman, policewoman
- steward, stewardess
- Give each student his paper.
- If a student was satisfied with his performance, he could skip the final exam.
- The average student is worried about her grades.
- humanity, people, human beings
- human achievements
- the best person for the job
- chair, head, officer, moderator, executive
- mail carrier
- police officer
- flight attendant
- Give the students their papers.
- Any student satisfied with their performance could skip the final exam.
- The average student is worried about grades.
Guidelines for Equitable or Neutral Pronoun Usage
When referring indefinitely to groups of people or types of individuals, either alternate the gender, giving roughly equal time to males and females, or change to plurals throughout.
Let all students participate. Has he had a chance to talk? Could she feel left out?
Let all students participate. Have all had a chance to talk? Could someone feel left out?
[Adapted by G. Meese from the National Council of Teachers of English Guidelines, 1981]