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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Plain language: The tricky aspects of gender-neutral language | When 'he or she' doesn't work

I'd say most people these days agree that using he, his, him and various terms built on man is an outdated, inaccurate and biased way to refer to everyone when the gender of the subject is unclear or variable. Those words, obviously not gender-neutral, unfairly represent a population that's about half male, half female.

And though sensitivity to this language usage has grown steadily during the past 40 years or so, replacing the masculine nouns and pronouns words can sometimes be difficult, at least for some people.

This blog post by Caryn Gootkin suggests alternatives to gender-specific pronouns that can make your writing more accurate, less offensive and plainer. I especially like what Gootkin says about "plainer" writing:

The principles of plain language suggest that we should use gender-neutral language to avoid offending half our audience.
As I note in Garbl's Plain-English Writing Guide:
Sexist writing builds a barrier between you and half your readers. Use sex-neutral terms by avoiding words that suggest maleness is the norm, superior or positive and that femaleness is nonstandard, subordinate or negative.
Gootkin's blog posts lists 10 tips on how to write without gender-specific pronouns. She writes:
I set out below various ways to implement this in your writing. You must decide which is best suited to your context. What sounds appropriate in one sentence may sound totally awkward in another.
Besides Gootkin's sugestions, here's additional advice from the sex, sexim entry in Garbl's Editorial Style and Usage Manual, with links to related terms:
sex, sexism Base communication on relevant qualities of men and women, not on their sex or sexual orientation. See gay, lesbiangender.
Avoid the outdated use of words that restrict meaning to males. Include all people in general references by substituting unbiased, asexual words and phrases: informal agreement for gentlemen's agreementhomemaker for housewifeemployees and their spouses for employees and their wives.
Here are other examples: hours worked, staff hours or working hours for man-hours; people, men and women, human beings, the human race, civilization or humanity for mankind; physical strength, resources, human effort, staff, workers or work force for manpower; artificial, synthetic, manufactured or handmade for manmade; and large, big, generous or formidable for man-sized. Also, think about using sewer access, pipeline opening, utility maintenance hole or utility access hole for manhole. See man.
Avoid using man or woman as a suffix or prefix in job titles: Substitute business executive, business leader or businessperson for businessman; worker, laborer or employee for workman; camera operator, videographer or cinematographer for cameraman; firefighter for fireman; letter carrier, mail carrier or postal worker for mailman; and sales representative, agent or clerk for salesman. Use generic titles or descriptions for both men and women. 
Avoid writing about woman managers, male secretaries, men's work, women's interests such as recipe swapping, sewing and fashion. See chairman, chairperson, chairwoman.
Reword sentences to drop unnecessary gender pronouns, especially the outdated generic he and his but also she and her. Here are some alternatives:
  • Try dropping use of any pronoun.
  • Substitute the articles a or the for the pronoun where suitable.
  • Use the plural pronouns they and their with plural nouns: Workers ... they. Not The worker ... he. Using plural pronouns with singular nouns is not, yet, widely accepted: The worker ... they. But see their, them, their.
  • Use he or she and his or hers--but don't overdo it. Alternate between using those phrases and other alternatives. See he or she, he/shehis, his/her.
  • Repeat the original noun or use synonyms for second references to nouns like the worker or workers. But don't overdo that either. Make sure it's clear to readers the synonyms refer to the same person or people.
  • Alternate male and female expressions and examples. This style manual uses examples involving both males and females.
Refer to women and men equally and consistently: Middle school teachers Larry Carson and Emily Johnson won the awards. Not: Middle school teachers Larry Carson and Mrs. Gus Johnson won the awards. See Miss, Mr., Mrs., Ms..
Use parallel language when mentioning people by gender: Substitute husband and wife for man and wife, ladies and gentlemen for ladies and men (or gentlemen and ladies, for variety). Neither men nor women over the age of 18 are boys or girls. Usually, use woman and man as the noun and female and male as the adjective. See female, male.
Give equal respect to women and men. Do not describe men by mental qualities or professional position and, simultaneously, describe women by physical features. Only refer to appearance, charm, intuition or physical strength when relevant. 
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Thanks to Nick Wright of Editor Software for highlighting Gootkin's article in the Plain Language Advocates group at LinkedIn. Gootkin's article is also featured today, April 23, in my daily online paper, Garbl's Plain English Paragraphs, available at the Plain Language tab above and by free email subscription.


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