Avoiding Sexist Language in Writing

by | Nov 2, 2020 | GrammarSpot, Writing Tips | 1 comment

Recently, my two-year-old son has learned that there is a difference between boys and girls. A few weeks ago, my husband was explaining that Connor and Daddy were boys, but that Mommy was a girl. While he listened, Connor seemed genuinely embarrassed (if that is even possible for a toddler), and quickly exclaimed, “Mommy is a girl? I told my friends Mommy was a boy!”

Even though it can be funny when little children make blunders in gender awareness, mistakes like that can be very insulting if the offender is older than about 4 or 5. When they aren’t careful, writers can alienate members of their audience by using language that fosters stereotypes about gender-related social roles. In particular, writers should be thoughtful when they choose to use singular pronouns.  Here are some writing tips to follow.


Use Generic Nouns

Over the last few decades, the use of “he” as a gender-neutral pronoun has become all but taboo, even in the most traditional settings. Most writing style guides suggest that, if you are writing in the third person, you should try to avoid using gender-specific pronouns completely. Consider the following sentence:

A business owner should always do his research before deciding which lawn mower to purchase.

This sentence could easily be written without any reference to gender:

A business owner should always research before deciding which lawn mower to purchase.

Make the Subject Plural

Another option is to change the sentence so that it isn’t singular anymore. For example:

Business owners should always do their research before deciding which lawn mower to purchase.

It is becoming very common for writers to use the word “they” as a singular pronoun (ie. “When someone shops online, theyshould always do their research.”) This is actually a heavily debated topic in the world of grammar and, as someone who generally favors more traditional language, I prefer to avoid this particular usage, especially when there are other good options available.


Use Passive Voice

A few months ago, I wrote a post about the difference between active and passive voice. In situations when passive voice is appropriate, it is another way that you can avoid using gender-specific language. For example:

Extensive research should be done by anyone who wants to make an important purchase. (This sentence is definitely a little wordy, but it gets the idea across.)

Use “He or She”

If you absolutely have to use a gender specific singular pronoun, saying “he or she” is a good way to keep your article all-inclusive. Of course, if you use this phrase too many times in a single article, it can get pretty tiresome, so I would suggest sticking to other avoidance techniques if at all possible.

One of the beautiful things about the English language is that it changes over time to reflect modern cultural conditions. Even though you may have grown up reading “he” as a gender-neutral pronoun, that practice is definitely fading out of the common vernacular.

Do you have any additional  writing tips for avoiding sexist language?

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