Chapter 2: How to speak in a gender-neutral way in English

Chapter 1 of Language and Gender suggested that language is not only vital for communication among people, but it is also the filter through which we may perceive the world. To shape a society in which all people have the same rights one ought to use language that is inclusive and that does not promote unconscious bias and feelings of being left out.

Following up on what we discussed in Chapter 1, Chapter 2 is going to present some tactics we can use in English in order to practice gender-inclusive language. These tactics are considered of high importance in academic writing, but they are equally essential in everyday settings – and, therefore, highly recommended!


Tactic No.1   

Avoid defaulting to “man”

There are indeed so many common words and phrases in English that use the word man: for example, mankind, manpower, man/men, congressman, etc. The truth is that sometimes these words come out naturally.

So, what should we do?

We should use gender-neutral descriptions instead!

  • Mankind > humankind
  • Manpower > human power
  • Man/men > people
  • Freshmen > first-year students
  • Chairman > board member
  • Guys, ladies, and gentlemen > everybody, folks

Tactic No.

Job titles: choose neutral titles – if possible – over male or female ones

It is less politically correct to use a male or female job title if a neutral title exists:

  • Postman/postwoman > postal worker
  • Fireman/firewoman > firefighter
  • Congressmen/congresswomen > Members of Congress
  • Policeman/policewoman > police officer
  • Steward/stewardess > flight attendant
  • Salesman/saleswoman > salesperson or sales representative
  • Waiter/waitress > server
  • Barman/barwoman > bartender
  • Headmaster/headmistress > principal

Tactic No.3

Be careful with pronouns!

When we write, we tend to use pronouns like he or she in order to avoid referring to people by name again and again.

But what should we do when we refer to unnamed people or groups of people?

We should not just assume their gender. Again, a very common example is when we refer to certain jobs. For instance, a writer or a speaker may refer to a teacher or a nurse as “she” without having asked about the gender of the teacher before. And the same happens with doctors; how many times have people – and you – used the pronoun “he” when speaking about a doctor?

So, what can we do then?

We should refrain from using gender-biased options or in the end we could avoid using gendered pronouns!

Example with bias: The teacher decided to paint the walls in her classroom.

Example without bias: The teacher decided to paint the walls in the classroom.Moreover, when we need to refer to somebody without using their name or their job title, and we still do not know them or their gender, we should again refrain from using the pronouns “he” or  “she”.

What should we do in that case?

We should use more inclusive options or preferred personal pronouns instead! As a matter of fact, we could always ask somebody what their preferred personal pronouns are. This is something that has already become an option on social media too, such as LinkedIn. Some options are:

  • One
  • They/their (although these pronouns have historically been plural only, it is grammatically acceptable to use them as singular ones too)

Example with bias: The student had to submit his paper online.

  • Example without bias: The student had to submit their paper online.


Nowadays, there has also been an evolving conversation in the linguistic community regarding the emergence of some new personal pronouns, which are called neopronouns. These pronouns may be used in place of common gender-specific pronouns. Some examples are, among many others, ze, hir, and zir. It is very likely that in the future we are going to hear more about them!

We no more live in the past, things are changing, people are changing, and we should therefore be constantly aware of the language that we use; our perceptions and views are reflected in our lexical choices of everyday communication, not only in some particular conversations with specific audiences. If we start being more careful with the language we use, stereotypes will decline, and this is going to have a positive impact on our social encounters!


by Maria G.