Language and gender
Gender awareness and vocabulary
In professional contexts and elsewhere, we often take care to use gender-neutral language in English.
David Crystal, in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, writes:
Attention has been focused on the replacement of "male" words with a generic meaning by
neutral items - chairman, for example, becoming chair or chairperson (though not without
controversy) or salesman becoming sales assistant. In certain cases, such as job descriptions,
the use of sexually neutral language has become a legal requirement. There is continuing
debate between extremists and moderates as to how far such revisions should go - whether
they should affect traditional idioms such as man in the street1 and Neanderthal Man2, or
apply to parts of words where the male meaning of man is no longer dominant, such as
manhandle3 and woman. The vocabulary of marital status has also been affected, notably in the
introduction of Ms as a neutral alternative to Miss or Mrs.
a typical person (could be replaced by person in the street) 2 a now-extinct species that were the ancestors of
present-day humans 3 handle roughly, using force
Here are some examples of gender-neutral variations of vocabulary.
firefighter, police officer
the human race / human beings
to man (a machine or place of work)
Words referring to men and women
used for gender classification in biology
male and female bees
having qualities traditionally felt to be typically male or
masculine pride, feminine
informal words for a man
Jack's a really nice guy.
an informal word for men and women, especially in the
phrase you guys, as a way of addressing people directly
Do any of you guys fancy
going out for a pizza tonight?
used by women to refer to a female friend
I"m meeting up with a few
girlfriends this evening.
used to describe things that girls and young women often
enjoy without men, especially involving clothes, make-up, etc.
They"re having a girlie
evening at home.
informal word for a boy or young man
He's having a night out with
some of the lads tonight.
used to describe unpleasant behaviour thought to be typical
of young men in a group, especially drinking alcohol
I can't stand that kind of
used to describe a man who likes to appear strong and
doesn't show his feelings
He refuses to cry - it would
spoil his macho image!
Answer these questions about the text opposite.
1 Why do you think there have been attempts to introduce gender-neutral language of the kind
described by David Crystal?
2 How would you explain this expression: "male" words with a generic meaning?
3 Why do you think there might have been controversy about attempts to change the
4 What do more extreme advocates of making English gender-neutral want to do that is
unacceptable to the moderates?
5 Why was Ms introduced and why is it useful?
Change these sentences so they reflect modern usage.
Choose the correct word to complete each sentence.
Three firemen helped put out a fire at a disused warehouse last night.
A spokesman for the Department of Education provided us with a statement.
Cleaning lady wanted for house in Priory Street.
The helpline is continuously manned even during holiday periods.
All our air hostesses are fluent in at least three languages.
The fibres in this garment are man-made.
Policemen today spend more time in cars than on the beat.
This was a great step for mankind.
The man in the street has little time for such issues.
Salesmen are often well trained and can be very persuasive.
She always dresses in a very feminine / female way.
The masculine / male cat is less aggressive than his sister.
Do you girlfriends / guys fancy meeting up later?
The bar was full of loud, lad / laddish young men.
Ross likes to see himself as a tough male / macho man!
Anna's going away for the weekend with a few girlfriends / females.
Answer these questions.
1 Do you think that using gender-specific language affects people's attitudes to men and women's
roles in society?
2 Does your language ever use male words generically? If so, give examples of words you use to
avoid gender stereotyping.
3 How do you feel about imposing language changes of the different kinds that David Crystal
4 Do terms of address (i.e. Mr, Mrs, etc.) in your language indicate whether people are married?
5 Do you think it is better if terms of address indicate marital status or not? Why?
6 A grammatical problem in this area is the use of he/his to refer to a person of either gender. In the
sentence "A government minister may have to neglect his family", the minister could be a man or
a woman. However, the use of "his" assumes, perhaps wrongly, that it is a man. How could you
rewrite this sentence to avoid this problem?