Gender-Inclusive Language for English Learners

Describing People
Describing People. Creative / DigitalVision / Getty Images

Gender refers to either being a man or a woman. Gender-inclusive language can be defined as language that doesn’t prefer one gender over another. Here are a few examples of gender-biased language common in the English language used in the past.

A doctor can treat you for a wide variety of diseases. It’s important that he understands your health history.

Successful businessmen understand how to negotiate good deals.

In the first sentence, the writer speaks in general about doctors, but assumes that a doctor is a man. In the second example, the term businessmen ignores the fact that many successful business people are
women.

Terminology

  • gender = the sex of a person -> male or female 
  • gender-inclusive = including all genders
  • gender-biased = showing a preference for or against a gender
  • gender-neutral = showing no preference for or against a gender

As an English student, it’s possible that you’ve learned some English that has gender-biased language. Gender-biased can be understood as as language which uses stereotypes to describe men and women. 

This article will help you recognize gender-biased English language statements and provide suggestions on how you can use more gender-inclusive language. English is already difficult enough, so you might not think this is important. However, there is a strong push towards the use of more gender-neutral language in day to day usage, especially at work.

Over the past few decades, writers and instructors have become more aware of common terminology and writing styles that tend to favor men and assumptions about behavior that no longer reflect the modern world. To change this, English speakers have adopted new terminology that reflect a more gender-neutral style.

Common Changes in Professions

The easiest change you can make is with professions that end in ‘-man’ such as ‘businessman’ or
‘postman’. Often we substitute ‘person’ for ‘-man’, in other cases the name of the profession may
change. Another word that changes is ‘master’ which indicates a man. Here are some of the most common changes.

Common Changes to Gender-Inclusive English

  • actress -> actor
  • stewardess -> flight attendant
  • anchorman / anchorwoman -> anchor
  • businessman / businesswoman -> businessperson
  • chairman / chairwoman -> chair person / chair
  • congressman ->  member of congress / congress person
  • craftsman ->  artisan
  • deliveryman – courier
  • doorman ->  door attendent
  • statesman ->  statesperson
  • fireman ->  firefighter
  • freshman ->  first year student
  • handyman ->  maintenance person
  • headmaster ->  principal
  • heroine ->  hero
  • housewife ->  homemaker
  • Frenchman ->  French person
  • maid ->  house cleaner
  • mailman ->  mail carrier
  • mankind ->  humanity
  • master ->  expert
  • masterpiece – great work of art
  • Miss / Mrs. ->  Ms.
  • mother tongue ->  native language / first language
  • spokesman / spokeswoman ->  spokesperson
  • waitress / waiter ->  wait person
  • policeman ->  police officer / officer

Shaun Fawcett has a great page if you're interested in an extensive list of gender-neutral equivalent words.

Mr. and Ms.

In English, Mr. is used for all men. However, in the past, women were either ‘Mrs.’ or ‘Miss’ depending
on whether they were married. Now, ‘Ms.’ is used for all women. ‘Ms.’ reflects that it is not important to
know whether a women is married or not. 

Gender-Neutral Pronouns

Pronouns can be very tricky. In the past, when speaking in general, the pronoun ‘he’ was often used.

  • A person who lives in the country has many advantages. He can enjoy daily walks and enjoy fresh air. He can live a healthy life and meet with his friends.

However, this shows a bias towards men in general. Of course, there are healthy women who live in the country! Here are a few suggestions on how to stay away from this common mistake.

They = She / He

Using they / them to indicate a single, gender neutral person is now commonly accepted.

 

  • You can be sure someone understands by how they react to your statement.
  • Does anybody know the answer to the question? They can email the director with the answer.

He / She

Before they / them entered the common vernacular, writers often used he/she – him/her (or she/he – her/him) to show both are possible when speaking in general.

  • When someone gets ready to find a new job, he/she needs to be aware that there are many challenges in this difficult market. It’s up to her/him to research any job opening carefully.

Alternating Pronouns

Another approach is to change pronoun forms throughout your writing. This can be confusing to the reader.

  • Someone who goes shopping will have too many choices. He might have more than twenty clothing stores to choose from. Or, she might just go to a department store. In any case, he might spend more time trying to find just the right item. 

Plural Forms 

Another way to be gender-neutral in your writing is to speak in general and use plural forms when possible rather than the singular. Consider this example:

  • A student has to be on time and take careful notes. He/She also needs to do homework every night. 
  • Students have to be on time and take careful notes. They also need to do homework every night. 

In the second example, the plural pronoun 'they' replaces 'students' as the rules are meant for everybody.