Why Words Matter: Gender Neutral Language

Editing and Writing

Why Words Matter: Gender Neutral Language

You may think that using gender neutral language is just too inconvenient, and you might secretly feel that it’s also an imposition, since using “he” to signify all humans has seemed to work just fine before now. But there are very good reasons to use gender neutral language. Plus, it’s simply not that hard.

How Will Your Readers React?

First, the good reasons. When people see the words he, him, or his, it’s simply a fact that the vast majority of them picture a male. Even when they know the word is being used to signify the entire human race, the word he is so closely associated with men that it’s men who are envisioned. And it’s men, therefore, who are reinforced as the primary people who represent “all humanity.” This is bound to be disconcerting to some people, both male and female.

You yourself may have no problem with that. But you can be absolutely sure that many of your readers will. You may find yourself having to decide that you don’t mind turning off some potential customers, or possible readers of your writing. This doesn’t just refer to feminists or “touchy women” — there are plenty of men who object to this sort of language use as well. But if you’re comfortable with turning them away and are content with your current audience, then more power to you.

Reworking Your Sentences

But if you’d like to reach the broadest possible range of customers or readers, you’ll be happy to know that gender-neutral language really isn’t that hard. And some of the complaints against using it really don’t carry much weight.

Take a simple example in this sentence:

  • Mankind began to advance when he first learned to use tools.

It is the simplest thing in the world to substitute the word humankind for the word mankind. It doesn’t even have to take extra time to pronounce. And you could substitute the generic they in place of he. Or if you don’t agree with using they as that sort of generic, you could slightly reword the last part of the sentence. See these sentences as examples:

  • Humankind began to advance when they first learned to use tools.
  • Humankind began to advance after learning to use tools.

With either of these examples, you’ve created a perfectly good sentence that genuinely does encompass the entire human race, male and female. You don’t have readers whose attention “hitches” at the male-related words. Instead, they read the meaning of your sentence with full concentration, without being distracted by your word usage and having to pull their attention back.

Some Objections

Some people complain that altering their sentences to make them gender neutral makes them longer or adds unnecessary words or syllables. This can be true in some cases, and untrue in others. After all, look at the second altered sentence, above: it’s actually shorter than the original.

This complaint is often a smokescreen for a simple reluctance to make any effort, or for a disbelief that anyone even should. But any business writer who tosses off words like “demographics,” “photomapping,” “expertise,” or even “communications,” or who uses industry-related jargon of any sort, is obviously fine with using longer words and more complex sentences. So this excuse simply doesn’t stand. Using a few extra words to make one’s writing apply to everyone equally is no different from using a few extra words or some specialized words to reach one’s business audience.

But what about those instances where a piece of writing really does require a single pronoun? You can use the phrase he or she in single instances, of course, and the problem is easily solved. But there are undoubtedly some written works where pronouns are sprinkled all through the paragraphs, and writing that entire phrase each time will get awfully cumbersome. This usage would be bad writing. So isn’t this an instance in which we just shouldn’t bother?

Not at all. In such cases, the recommended usage is to write he and she alternately. You might want to go back and forth between every sentence, or use a different pronoun in alternating paragraphs.

There is always a solution of some sort that will allow you to create gender neutral language. Writing inclusively takes some getting used to at first, as previous habits are changed. But if inclusive language might open the door to a wider audience or more business contacts, is it not worth it?