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What Is Gendered Language and What You Should Know about It?

When you read books and articles or when you watch some videos or films, you have probably noticed that masculine nouns are used to denominate subjects that refer to variable or unclear gender. Sometimes, there are even feminine variants of a specific denomination but still many people prefer to use masculine nouns. Do you remember the statement from the US Declaration of Independence, where “All men are equal.” With this statement, people have been taught that the word “men” can be equal to “people,” where both men and women are taken into account. A similar case is with words denominating professions. In particular, a “policeman” may refer equally to a man and a woman working in the police.

Still, many years have passed from the time the US Declaration of Independence was adopted. If people want to reach some more equality between men and women and if people have long been fighting for equal rights, it means that something should be also changed about the language they use. Nowadays, a word “man” is no longer synonymous to the word “person.” Therefore, people should express themselves clearer in such contexts. Sometimes, “gender-neutral” words, terms, and denominations may sound offensive, especially for women, when their professional belonging or some other part of their identity does not have a proper feminine term.

What Are Gendered Nouns?

One of the brightest examples of gendered words are nouns ending in “-man.” They bear the meaning of denoting a person of male gender. To refer to people in general (a group where both men and women are present) or to denote some feminine terms, it is better to be more picky about your choice of words. Therefore, in your everyday speech, try to replace such words with more neutral language. “No man” may be replaced to “nobody” or “no one.”

Please check out more extensive list of gendered words and their neutral equivalents:

Gendered word

Neutral equivalent

man

individual, person

mankind

humanity, human beings, people

freshman

a first-year student

chairman

head, coordinator, chairperson

man-made

artificial, synthetic, machine-made

common man

an average person

policeman

police officer

steward/ stewardess

flight attendant

mailman

mail carrier, postal worker, letter carrier

There are nouns that denote positions or jobs that indicate precisely the sex of the person holding position. These nouns are most widely used when the sex of the person should be known because of some prejudiced expectations. One of the brightest examples is that people expect a doctor to be a man and a nurse to be a woman. Therefore, such phrases as, “a female doctor” or a “male nurse” help to fight these biased assumptions. If the indication of sex is not important for the general meaning or comprehension of the sentence/ information/ message, then it can be omitted.

Names and Titles

Another manifestation of gendered language is the usage of titles “Mrs.” and “Miss” to define women depending on their marital status and direct relation to their relationship with men. It is better to use “Ms.” for women as a more neutral title. These are considered gendered titles since there is only one title for men – “Mr,” which does not indicate any marital status.

Usage of Pronouns

Pronouns are used to substitute nouns. Pronouns help avoid repetitions of the same noun throughout the text. However, pronoun usage in the English language should also be taken into consideration when it comes to using gender-neutral words. In English, there are pronouns that refer to all genders: he – for masculine, she – for feminine, it – for neutral/ non-living creatures. Still, there is no universally accepted pronoun that can generalize or refer to gender-neutral words. In many cases, especially in books written some time ago, a masculine pronoun “he” and its variations “him” or “his” were accepted as universal ones. Nowadays, using these pronouns will be definitely offensive for women.

What to Do When You Have Encountered Ambiguous Situations with the Usage of Gendered Vocabulary?

  1. Use different pronouns when referring to different people/ genders. For example, if you do not know the gender or you want to generalize some statement, always provide an alternative: he/ she, him/ her, etc.
  2. Alternate different pronouns depending on gender. In some places, opt for using masculine pronouns, whereas in the other cases – use feminine pronouns. However, this approach may be good only in hypothetical situation, where you do not know the person but it may be either a man or a women without any difference (hypothetically).
  3. In different college manuals, use some general denominations, such as a “student.” Here the work can refer both to a boy and a girl. The other options of neutral language are a “reader,” a “writer,” etc.
  4. Compose plural forms of pronouns or nouns depending on a situation. If you use plural forms of nouns, you will be able then to use a pronoun “they,” “them,” “their,” etc. In such a way, you will avoid gendered language.
  5. Use “they” instead of a singular pronoun. This is a frequently used option when it comes to pronoun usage but it is not grammatically correct though. Still, it is a good solution if you do not know about gender of people you are talking about.

There are cases when you may need to use a pronoun to refer to a person whose gender is not known for you. It may be the author of the book (and it may be hard to infer from the name whether it is a man or a woman” or you may need to refer to some participant in a discussion forum online, who is known by the username only. What to do in such cases? It would be awkward if you used “he” or “she” wrong. Using “they” may also seem strange, especially when you refer to a single individual. Find out the following tips on what to do in this case:

  1. a) Refer to the person via a descriptive phrase or word. For example, “the Beowulf poet,” “the Hamlet author,” etc.
  2. b) Refer to a person by the indicated username (if it is some discussion in an online thread). You can just repeat the username or, as an option, shorten it for the further referrals (for example, as an acronym).
  3. c) If you see the person’s name but you cannot find out whether this is a male or female name, just refer to the person by his/ her name. Avoid pronouns in such cases not to cause misunderstanding.
  4. d) If you are writing about a famous person or a public figure, carry out some research online in order to find out the gender of the person.
  5. e) If you are writing about the person you personally know, you can ask directly how he/ she likes being referred to.

The Content of the Paper: What You Should Know

When it comes to the discussion of gendered language, it is mainly limited to the choice of separate words, phrases or lexical units. Still, what about the overall information, or content of the paper, which you plan to convey to your reader? Only words are not decisive to the overall message or idea that will be communicated across “between the lines.” The ideas presented can also convey assumptions about the values regarding gender.

Content matters particularly when it comes to videos. For example, think of different videos when presidents appear in public with their wives. As a rule, the women are those who are critiqued or discussed most. Journalists pay attention to their clothes, accessories, shoes, etc. Just find some articles about Barack and Michelle Obama in particular or Donald and Melania Trump. Who is discussed more? When you read the articles or watch some videos, you will find out that these are female public figures who are most discussed and criticized in terms of hairstyle, clothing, weight, height, and lifestyle in general. What is even more important, it is not only about political figures but female figures in general: in sports, in art, in literature, etc. Thus, women are the ones who should be particularly picky to what they wear, how they look, how they speak, etc.

Moreover, when it comes to gendered contexts, please pay attention to the way relationships of women and men within families are discussed. Most attention is paid towards maternity or paternity leaves. If a man looks after his own child, it is regarded as some courageous act. However, when a woman is on maternity leave and she leaves her work due to it, this act is regarded as “nothing special” and is often taken for granted. Nonetheless, both of them are parent and have equal rights and responsibilities when it comes to their child.

If you have to write an essay, a research paper or a case study and it deals with some gender issues, make sure you compose a checklist in order to find out whether you have been objective and unbiased in providing your opinion and discussion. Therefore, after you complete your piece of writing, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. a) Have you used such words as “man” or “men” ONLY to male gender? Read the paper attentively and double-check whether “man” is not used for people who are not necessarily males.
  2. b) Pay attention to the usage of “he,” “him,” “his,” etc. Are these pronouns used in relation to men ONLY?
  3. c) If you have purposefully mentioned someone’s belonging to a specific gender, was it really necessary?
  4. d) Are there any stereotypes present in your paper (regarding occupation, etc.)?
  5. e) Do you provide the same descriptive information about people of different sexes?
April 4, 2019
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