Hege Library & Learning Technologies

Guilford College Writing Manual

This is the official Guilford College Writing Manual. A collaboration between the English Department and the Hege Library.

Revising to Make Language More Inclusive



            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."

(1) Vocabulary

            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:

            problems                                               alternatives

            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:

            problems                                              alternatives

            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.

            problems                                              alternatives

            stewardess                                           flight attendant

            waitress                                                waitperson

            poetess                                                 poet

            coed                                                     student

            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.

            problems                                              alternatives

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.

            problems                                              alternatives

            The class interviewed Chief Justice       The class interviewed Mr. Burger

              Burger and Mrs. O'Connor                     and Ms. O'Connor

                                                                           or  . . . Chief Justice Burger and

                                                                           Justice O'Connor.

            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.

            problems                                              alternatives

            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.

(2) Grammar

            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.

            problems                                              alternatives

            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.                       

            problem                                                alternative

            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.

            problem                                                alternative

            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.

            problem                                                alternative

            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.

            problem                                                alternative

            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.