Fighting the Non-Sexist Language Battle

by Tracy Bourns

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Sexist language consists of various words and terms that foster stereotypes of social roles based on gender; chairman and workman's compensation are two examples.

Status quo debaters argue that the English language has struggled along fine with the language as it is, so why should we change now?... Don't we have better things to discuss than the masculine bias of language?

Below are some pragmatic reasons why we need to change our language, followed by some suggestions on how to do it.

How Can Writers Avoid Using Sexist Language?

Here are some suggestions:

  1. Use specific nouns such as "chairman," "chairwoman," and "worker". Specific nouns let the reader know exactly who the sentence includes. Avoid the "ess" suffix... as this connotes a lesser position.

  2. Change the sentence.

    wrong: Engineers work long hours and thus neglect their wives and children.

    right: Engineers work long hours and thus neglect their families.

  3. Use "you" when a pronoun is required. This not only avoids sexist language but is more personal.

  4. Never use the non-sexist, but confusing, "he/she".

    wrong: Once his/her selection is highlighted, he/she can press the mouse button. He/she can continue to make other selections...

    right: Once your selection is highlighted, press the mouse button. You can continue to make other selections...

    Replacing "his/he/her/she" with "you" or "your" not only removes confusion, it also reduces the length of the sentence.

  5. If the document is on the formal side, try to use plurals.

    ex: The members of the board may take their time reviewing the points below.

    Or, if you know the group is entirely male or female, address them as such.

    ex: Each board member may take his time reviewing the summary of events.

The above are a few simple tips to help you avoid using sexist language. The motivation to use them, however, is your own.

Tracy Bourns is a technical writer at IMAPRO.

© 2001 by STC Boston, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
Published in the September/October 1991 issue of the Boston Broadside
Originally published in the June 1991 issue of Stimulus, the newsletter of the Eastern Ontario chapter of STC