Public awareness of gender discrimination in language has increased markedly since the mid‑1970s. Partly because it has, and partly because change has not yet gone far enough, it is worth affirming this declaration of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE):
Language plays a central role in the way human beings think and behave . . . [hence we] need to promote language that opens rather than closes possibilities for women and men.
Eliza Blake, former copy editor of The Guilfordian, notes "there are a lot of problems . . . that make it difficult to let the world know that ‘Everyman' is not male, that a good scientist does not always double check his results, but quite often her results, and that a nurse that is male does not need to be called a male nurse."
Sexist language can originate from improper choices in (1) vocabulary and (2) grammar. Here are some general suggestions to help you avoid either kind. Most of the material is drawn verbatim from a document entitled "Guidelines for Nonsexist Use of Language in NCTE Publications."
The two chief problems connected with vocabulary involve use of generic "man" and stereotyping of sex roles. Regarding the first: since the word man has come to refer almost exclusively to adult males, it is sometimes difficult to recognize its generic meaning. Thus:
mankind humanity, human beings, people
man's achievements human achievements
the best man for the job the best person for the job
the common man the average person, ordinary people
cavemen cave dwellers, prehistoric people
Sometimes the combining form ‑woman is used alongside ‑man in occupational terms and job titles, but to be preferred is the use of the same titles for men and women when naming jobs that could be held by both. Thus:
chairman/chairwoman chair, coordinator, chairperson
businessman/businesswoman business executive, manager
congressman/congresswoman congressional representative
salesman/saleswoman sales clerk, salesperson
fireman fire fighter
mailman letter carrier
Regarding gender‑role stereotyping:
(a) Diminutive or special forms to name women are usually unnecessary.
stewardess flight attendant
lady lawyer lawyer . . . she
(b) Do not represent women as occupying only certain jobs or roles and men as occupying only certain others, especially if such choices reflect unfortunate and unconscious assumptions‑‑for example that men are valued for their accomplishments and women for their physical attributes, or that men are strong and brave while women are weak and timid.
the kindergarten teacher . . . she [occasionally use] the kindergarten teacher
. . . he, or kindergarten teachers . . . they
the principal . . . he [occasionally use] the principal . . . she, or
principals . . . they
Have your mother send a snack Have a parent send . . .
to the party.
Writers become so involved in their Writers become so involved in their
work that they neglect their wives work that they neglect their
and children. families.
(c) Treat men and women in parallel fashion.
The class interviewed Chief Justice The class interviewed Mr. Burger
Burger and Mrs. O'Connor and Ms. O'Connor
or . . . Chief Justice Burger and
The reading list included Proust, The reading list included Proust,
Joyce, Gide, and Virginia Woolf. Joyce, Gide, and Woolf.
(d) Avoid language that patronizes or trivializes women as well as that which reinforces stereotyped images of both women and men.
Joan is a career woman. Joan is a professional.
The ladies on the committee all The women on the committee all
supported the proposal. supported the proposal.
This is a man‑sized job. This is a big (huge, enormous) job.
That's just an old wives’ tale. That's just a superstition.
Because there is no one pronoun in English that can effectively substitute for "he" or "his," several alternatives have arisen. The form "he or she" has been the official NCTE style over the last fifteen years, on the premise that it is less distracting than "she or he" or "he/she." There are other choices, however:
(a) Sometimes it is possible to drop the possessive form "his" altogether or to substitute an article.
The average student is worried The average student is worried
about his grades. about grades.
When the student hands in his When the student hands in the
paper, read it immediately. paper, read it immediately.
(b) Often it makes sense to use the plural instead of the singular.
Ask the student to finish his assign‑ Ask students to hand in their work
ment as soon as he is finished. as soon as they are finished.
(c) In some situations, the pronoun "one" ("one's") can be substituted for "he" ("his"), but it should be used sparingly.
He might well wonder what his re‑ One night well wonder what the
sponse should be. response should be.
(d) A sentence with "he" or "his" can sometimes be recast in the passive voice.
Each student should report his re‑ All results should be reported
sults promptly. promptly.
(e) When the subject is an indefinite pronoun, the plural form "their" can occasionally be used with it, especially when the referent for the pronoun is clearly understood to be plural.
When everyone contributes his own When everyone contributes their
ideas, the discussion will be a own ideas, the discussion will
success. be a success.
Finally, regarding the issue of sexist language in a direct quotation: Quotations cannot be altered. But there are ways to deal with a perceived problem:
1. Avoid the quotation altogether if it is not really necessary.
2. Paraphrase the quotation, giving the original author credit.
3. If the quotation is fairly short, recast it as an indirect quotation,
substituting nonsexist words as necessary.