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Keeping Gender Neutrality in Speaking and Writing

Keeping Gender Neutrality in Speaking and Writing
on July, 21 2014
Image credit: ‪Woman with broom‬ taken by Wuyouyuan under Public Domain.‬

Image credit: ‪Woman with broom‬ taken by Wuyouyuan under Public Domain.‬

As professionals, it is important that we maintain a level of consciousness to use gender neutrality in the way we speak and write. The goal of using gender-neutral language is to refrain from or at least reduce the explicit or implicit references to sex or gender. As much as possible, the language to use should be inclusive so as not to make any presumptions about specific professions or traits. This gender-neutral language is called nonsexist or inclusive language.

Based on the accepted patterns of current usage, the need to use inclusive language came about because the usual masculine pronouns that were previously used generically to indicate "anyone" is no longer effective. Many people actually find this offensive and inaccurate. Now, it is more courteous to use gender-neutral or inclusive alternatives, such as using people, humankind or human being/s instead of man or men.

Most of us are unaware of these practices as we have been doing them all our life. Here are some guidelines on how to change words or sentences to make them nonsexist.

1. Create gender balance. We have been taught to use "he" to represent both male and female, but it actually excludes the female. Now it is better to use "he or she," or better yet, reverse the order and make it plural. To illustrate:

In this original sentence, "If a student studies hard, he will succeed" it is implied that a student, whether it is a male or a female, must study hard to succeed. If you revise it, you will come up with "If a student studies hard, he or she will succeed." The better alternative is to say, "Students who study hard will succeed."

2. Use generic terms to identify names, titles and labels. Instead of using "female judge" or "male nurse" it is better to use judge or nurse except when seeking professional assistance and gender is very important, which is an exception rather than a rule. Find gender-neutral alternatives, such as "women" instead of "ladies" or use "complex," "difficult," or "enormous" when you want do describe a huge job that we would previously refer to as a "man-sized job."

3. Do not use gender specific stereotypes. Do not use terms that represent particular roles or jobs as typically held by men or women, such as elementary teachers are women and farmers are men. Making stereotype descriptions should also be kept off your writing. Examples of this include men are active and females are passive, or girls are timid and boys are brave.

4. Use a directly stated passage when making text citations or paraphrase it to make it gender-fair. You have the option to change the direct quotation that will fit the core of the discussion and yet still retain the idea and intent of the original author. You can also point out the gender-biased passage and add a qualifying sentence or phrase. You may make deletions and substantial revisions to remove assumptions that are stereotyped. If there are no options left open, it would be better not to use the passage if it will not diminish the purpose, tone and content of your writing.

Eliminating sexist language from your writing takes conscious effort. There are simple rules however, such as using the second person, revising the copy to remove singular and gendered pronouns, using plural pronouns without any gender reference, and not using conditional sentences that begin with when or if that usually requires the use of a pronoun.

Bernadine Racoma

Bernadine is a writer, researcher, professional and multi-awarded blogger and new media consultant. She brings with her a rich set of experience in the corporate world, as well as in the field of research and writing. Having taken early retirement after working as an international civil servant and traveling the world for 22 years, she has aggressively pursued her main interest in writing and research. You can also find Bernadine Racoma at .

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