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English Language & Linguistics

English Language


Sexist Terms - and alternatives

This list of sexist terms shows not only what may be avoided but also how they may be avoided.

It has been noted that the pronoun "he" is used far more in literature than "she". There are many cultural reasons for this, and it's worth observing that JRR Tolkein uses "she" only once in his story The Hobbit (about Bilbo Baggins' mother) andin an extensive survey Jane Austen was the only writer to always use "she" more than "he".

If in the company of people who are made uncomfortable by sexist terms, there is a polite and linguistically acceptable alternative in most cases. The often quoted "person aperture cover" for "man hole" is both a hoax and a parody of the intention of the language. The following are becoming increasingly accepted and mostly are no longer an issue of contention.

The following checklist of alternatives to sexist language was produced by a publisher giving advice to authors.
1. Do you agree with the premise that the "words to be avoided" are in fact sexist?
2. Do you agree that the "words to be preferred" are suitable?
3. Explain your decisions and suggest better alternatives where possible.

 To be avoided
  To be preferred
 mankind  humanity, human beings, human race, people, humans
 man's achievements  human achievements, our achievements
 If a man drove 50 miles at 60 mph ...  If a person / driver drove 50 miles at 60 mph ...
 the best man for the job  the best person or candidate for the job
 man-made  artificial, synthetic, manufactured, constructed, of human origin, processed (ie a natural material transformed by human intervention)
 manpower  workers. workforce, staff, labour, staffing, human resources
 man  people, humankind, men and women, women and men, individuals, human beings, person, the individual
 man the desk  staff the desk, be at the desk
 manpower planning  labour market planning, workforce planning, staff planning, workload planning
 chairman  chairperson, chair, convener (don't use non-parallel terms such as 'chairman' for men and 'chairperson' or 'person chairing' for women)
 headmaster  headteacher, head, Principal
 policeman, fireman  police officer, fire fighter

If the gender of the person being discussed is unknown or could be either female or male, there are several alternatives. One is to use 'She or he should show his/her tickets', or even "S/he should show ..." (only common on forms and questionnaires). Another is to use the plural "Customers should show their tickets" or to use the second person pronoun instead - "Please show your ticket." Use of the passive is an alternative though it may lead to less clarity - "Tickets should be shown."

The Female Leader

In March 2012 Dr Clare Gerada, chairwoman [sic] of the Royal College of General Practitioners, spoke out against male NHS executives for their use of sexist language and of portraying her approach to negotiations as "emotional" and "naive" because she was a woman.

Gerada said that if she had been a male leader she would have been referred to as "strong willed" or "open minded" but instead was described as "naive."

In an interview with the Sunday Times (accompanied by a rather unsympathetic and harshly lit portrait of her) she said, "... the language used is slightly pejorative. So I have been, for example, "passionate" and "naive" or "emotional". I have never heard a man called "emotional" or "naive". I would not use these words in a professional context."

Can we be neutral?

Many attempts have been made to devise new and neutral pronouns, though none has become common. S/he is possibly the nearest to popularity. Consider rephrasing to use plural pronouns which are non sex specific ("they" instead of "he" and "she").

Transgender Sensitivity

In 2016 UK Education Secretary Nicky Morgan introduced equalities legislation on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues. Subsequently the Girls' Schools Association (GSA) advised school heads to use gender neutral words such as "pupils", "people" or "students" instead of "girls," "young women" or "young ladies." They should not use the word "girls" in case it upsets and discriminates against pupils who question their gender identity. According to a report in The Sunday Times, 19th June 2016, "The advice on stamping out discriminatory language also applies to single-sex schools for boys such as Eton College."

"Jay Stewart, chairman of Gendered Intelligence, said about 1% of the population were transgender and could start to feel they were the wrong sex from as young as four."

Many teachers in mixed sex schools, which comprise the vast majority of UK schools, have always used inclusive terms such as "boys and girls", or even "folks" and referred generically to them as "youngsters", "students" or "pupils" or "class" as in "right class, let's settle down" or "come on now, year 10".

Spivak gender
The idea behind Spivak gender is to replace our current set of gendered pronouns with a genderless set. This provides a degree of vagueness about identity and sexual orientation conducive to more adventurous e-mail postings.

A proposed set of "Spivak gender" pronouns includes "e, em, eir, eirs, eirself, sie." In Spivak-speak, "She talks to herself,' would become "Sie talks to eirself," "sie" being a substitute for both "he" and "she."

In a survey of 100 authors by Ben Blatt, male authors were seen to write "she screamed" more often than female writers and "she kissed" more often than "he kissed."

He also found a greater probability in classic fiction that female chaaracters "shivered, wept, murmured, screamed and married" whereas male characters "muttered, grinned, shouted, chuckled and killed."

Generally useful advice

  • Do not assume that the male should always come first, so alternate she and he, hers and his, wives and husbands.
  • Neutral 'spouse' or 'partner' may be preferable in some cases to 'husband' or 'wife', and 'partner' may be the only suitable term for same-sex couples or for unmarried couples for whom "boyfriend" or "girlfriend" has been outgrown.
  • Neutral 'sibling' may be preferable in some cases to sister and brother.
  • Aim to use equivalent terms for both genders: boy/girl ; man/woman; lady/gentleman.

see also women's language.