Gender neutrality in language minimizes assumptions about the gender or sex of people referred to in writing or speech.
Give examples of gender-neutral language
- Gender neutrality in English aims to minimize assumptions about the gender or biological sex of people referred to in speech.
- Proponents of gender- neutral language argue that the use of gender-specific language often implies male superiority or reflects an unequal state of society.
- Proponents of gender-neutral language claim that linguistic clarity, as well as equality, would be better served by having “man” refer unambiguously to males, and “human” to all persons.
- Proposed alternatives to the generic “he” include “he or she,” “s/he,” or the use of “they” in the singular.
- In some cases, when writing or speaking about a person whose gender is unknown, ambiguous, or unimportant, gender-neutral language may be achieved by using gender-inclusive, gender-neutral, or epicene words in place of gender-specific ones.
- Gender-neutral language may also be achieved by parallel usage of existing gender-specific terms.
- epicene: Refers to the loss of gender distinction, often specifically the loss of masculinity.
- gender-neutral language: Used to eliminate (or neutralize) references to gender when describing people.
- singular they: A pronoun that is gender neutral and refers to a single person when paired appropriately with a gender-neutral antecedent.
Gender-neutral language is neither masculine nor feminine and avoids using gender specific pronouns such as “he” or “she.” The purpose of gender neutrality in writing is to minimize assumptions about the gender or sex of people.
The Importance of Gender-Neutral Language
Proponents of gender-neutral language argue that gender-specific language (such as policeman or waitress) often implies male superiority or reflects an unequal state of society. According to The Handbook of English Linguistics, generic masculine pronouns (such as he) and gender-specific language serve as examples of how, historically, society has treated men as the standard for all humans. Words referring to women often devolve in meaning, and frequently take on sexual overtones. In essence, the use of masculine pronouns when referring to subjects of mixed or indeterminate gender is frowned upon in academic writing. The following sentence is a good illustration of avoiding sexist language by using the gender neutral ” humanity ” and “human” rather than the gender-specific “mankind”: “Since then, humanity has entered a new phase of spiritual development, an evolution of high faculties, the very existence of which in human nature our ancestors scarcely suspected.” Using gender-neutral pronouns avoids presumptions of male superiority.
Guidelines for Gender-Neutral Language
In most cases of writing or speaking about a person whose gender is unknown, ambiguous, or irrelevant, gender-neutral language may be achieved through the use of gender-inclusive, gender-neutral, or epicene words (having characteristics of both sexes) in place of gender-specific ones. If no gender-inclusive terms exist, new ones may be coined. It is also important to consider parallel usage of existing gender-specific terms.
When possible and contextually appropriate, use nouns and pronouns that are gender-neutral rather than gender-specific.
- Instead of: waitress; businessman; workman; mailman
- Use: server; businessperson; worker; mail carrier
- Instead of: mankind; man-made; man hours; man-sized job
- Use: humankind; synthetic; working hours; large job
When referring to people in general, use plural pronouns “s/he” or “he or she” instead of gender-linked pronouns.
- Instead of: She looks for premium products and appreciates a stylish design.
- Use: They look for premium products and appreciate a stylish design.
- Instead of: Before a new business-owner files tax returns, he should seek advice from a certified public accountant.
- Use: Before a new business-owner files tax returns, she or he should seek advice from a certified public accountant.
When a singular pronoun is needed, use the “singular they” with a singular antecedent. In these examples, the antecedents are “the patient” and “someone.”
- Instead of: The patient should be informed of how much he will need to pay prior to the procedure.
- Use: The patient should be informed of how much they will need to pay prior to the procedure.
- Instead of: Someone left his lunch in the break-room microwave.
- Use: Someone left their lunch in the break-room microwave.
When in doubt, use gender-neutral salutations.
- Instead of: Dear Sir; Dear Gentlemen
- Use: Dear Personnel Department; Dear Switzer Plastics Corporation; Dear Director of Research
Additionally, many editing houses, corporations, and government bodies have official policies favoring in-house use of gender-neutral language. In some cases, laws exist to enforce the use of gender-neutral language in certain situations, such as job advertisements. Different authorities have presented guidelines on when and how to use gender-neutral, or “non-sexist” language. Several are listed below:
- The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association has an oft-cited section on “Guidelines to Reduce Bias in Language.”
- American Philosophical Association—published in 1986
- The Guardian—see section called “gender issues”
- “Avoiding Heterosexual Bias in Language,” published by the Committee on Lesbian and Gay Concerns, American Psychological Association.
Active Voice vs. Passive Voice
In grammar, “voice” refers to the relationship between the subject and the verb—that is to say, how the action is performed.
Classify sentences as active or passive
- In active voice, the subject performs the action of the verb. A clause with an active, transitive verb will follow a pattern of subject-verb- object —for example, “The dog [subject] eats [verb] the food [object].”
- A sentence in active voice will have different emphasis, and thus a slightly different tone, than if the same sentence were written in passive voice.
- Try to use active voice unless there is a reason to use passive voice.
- active voice: A sentence construction in which a subject performs the action of the verb.
- passive voice: A sentence construction in which the verb’s action is performed, in some cases “by” a subject.
- voice: In grammar, the relationship between the subject and the verb—i.e., how the action is performed.
In grammar, “voice” refers to the relationship between the subject and the verb—that is to say, how the action is performed. Active voice emphasizes the subject as the one performing the action. In contrast, passive voice deemphasizes the subject as performer and instead frames the subject as receiving the action.
Which voice you choose to use should depend on the type of writing and your audience. The active voice is more frequently used in non-scientific writing. Since it usually uses fewer words, it is more succinct and clearer than the passive voice. However, only using the passive voice in scientific writing can make it dry and bog down the reader. Choosing the proper voice will set the tone for your writing, but keep in mind that most writing will include both active and passive voice.
Let’s take a look at some examples.
Active and Passive Voice
In a sentence written in active voice, the subject’s role in performing the action of the verb is emphasized. These sentences will generally follow the pattern of subject–verb–object (or simply subject–verb, for intransitive verbs—i.e., for verbs that don’t need an object):
- The student [subject] finishes [verb] the exercise [object].
- Fred [subject] ate [verb] his sandwich [object].
- Eve [subject] survived [verb, no object needed].
In a sentence written in passive voice, the subject’s role in performing the action of the verb is deemphasized. Instead, passive voice frames the subject as receiving the action. Passive voice is the opposite of active voice, so sentences in passive voice tend to follow the reverse pattern of object–verb–subject, and the word “by” often shows up between the verb and the subject:
- The exercise [object] was finished [verb] by the student [subject].
- The sandwich [object] was eaten [verb] by Fred [subject].
In most sentences in passive voice, you will see the word “by” between the verb and the subject. In fact, a rule of thumb for recognizing passive voice if you see the construction “was/is [verb]ed by” (for verbs like finished or started) or “was/is [verb]en by” (for verbs like eaten and forgotten).
Most sentences can be phrased to be in either active or passive voice. For example:
- Active voice: The teacher sent the student to the principal’s office.
- Passive voice: The student was sent to the principal’s office by the teacher.
Which one you choose may not significantly change the meaning of the sentence, but it will likely change its tone and emphasis. It is important to understand the connotations of both active and passive voice, therefore, so your sentences don’t sound odd or out of context.
That said, sentences with intransitive verbs—verbs that do not take direct objects—cannot be passivized because there is no object to put before the verb. For example:
- Millions of people lived.
- We arrived yesterday.
- Shelly will be asleep.
Try to put these in passive voice (in the order object–verb–subject): “[Blank] was lived by millions of people.” It doesn’t make sense! Intransitive verbs can never be used in passive voice.
Most of the Time, Use Active Voice
Active voice is generally more direct and neutral than passive voice. Passive voice tends to sound evasive, like the writer is trying to avoid blame for whoever performed an action, or academic, like a dry science report. Active voice is generally more effective at capturing the reader’s attention. For example,
- Passive voice: The ball was hit by Linda.
- Active voice: Linda hit the ball.
- Passive: The theme that was most commonly addressed by 17th-century writers was…
- Active: 17th-century writers most commonly addressed the theme of…
The use of active voice is more direct and provides information about who performed the action.
Guidelines for Avoiding Passive Voice
- Avoid sentences that use the verb “to be” or its variations (is, was, will be). The verb “to be” often describes what something is rather than what it does.
- Avoid beginning sentences with “It is …” or “There are …”
- Avoid sentences where the action is frozen in a word that ends with one of the following suffixes: -tion; -ment; -ing; -ion; -ance. These words mute the action that the verb should communicate by turning them into nouns.
Using Passive Voice Effectively
All that said, passive voice certainly has its uses—you just need to be smart about when you use it! For example:
- “Hamlet was written by Shakespeare.” Here, the passive voice emphasizes “Shakespeare,” the most important part of the sentence.
- “Jamey was fascinated by language arts.” The passive-voice construction of this sentence emphasizes “Jamey” more effectively than the active-voice equivalent.
- “Smoking is strictly prohibited.” Because a passive verb consists of two words, an adverb (like strictly) is accentuated when placed between “to be” and the past participle.
When Writing a Research Paper
In particular, scientific research writing often requires that the writer deemphasize themselves as the performer of the action. This makes the language more objective; in theory, an experiment should happen the same way and have the same results no matter who conducts it. For example:
- Active voice: I found that the frog population decreased by 10% last year.
- Passive voice: It was found that the frog population decreased by 10% last year.
When Talking about General Rules
Passive voice is also often used when talking about general rules, to make it clear that the performer is less important than the action. For example:
- Active voice: The landlord expects the rent check on the first of the month.
- Passive: The rent check will be collected on the first of the month.
Passive voice can also be used to make rules or expectations sound less harsh. For example:
- Active voice: Do not smoke.
- Passive voice: Smoking is prohibited.
It is important to keep sentences concise; the longer and more complex a sentence gets, the harder it is for a reader to understand.
Distinguish between concise and wordy sentences
- Make your writing more forceful, memorable, and persuasive by making it concise.
- Concise writing is clear and reader-friendly, increasing your reader’s ability to understand your argument.
- Avoid padding your writing with extra words or lengthening sentences and paragraphs to meet a word count for an assignment.
- Match your vocabulary to your reader and your writing task. Avoid using elevated or flowery language to sound impressive.
- concision: Brevity, or the practice of using no more words than necessary to describe an idea.
Varying sentence lengths and types of sentences can help to break up otherwise tedious prose blocks. However, it is important to keep in mind that the longer and more complex a sentence gets, the more difficult it can be for a reader to interpret that sentence. Take this paragraph as an example:
- The author of the novel illustrated various differences between the characters. The novel, which was a romantic novel, portrayed characters in devious sorts of ways in which they did things that were very deceptive. The two main characters, April and Jamil, were never definitely and completely honest with each other, which led to the final outcome of their divorce. This outcome, which left them both miserable as they still loved one another, is designed in a way to show the readers just exactly how the novelist feels about lying in relationships.
This paragraph is quite wordy and takes longer than necessary to make its point. Let’s break it up into shorter sentences and omit unnecessary words:
- The romantic novelist portrayed the main characters as devious. April and Jamil were in love, but they were never honest with each other, and ultimately they got a divorce. This shows us how the novelist feels about lying.
This is much clearer! Students often make the mistake of using more words than necessary because they think it will impress their reader or professor. However, instructors and other readers easily see through this, and they usually just want you to get your point across! Always consider your reader, and make your writing easy for them to grasp.
Revising for Concision
Consider the following general guidelines. These are good rules to keep in mind when you are revising your paper for concision.
Eliminate unnecessary words. Keep an eye out for places where you can convey your meaning more directly. For example:
- Original: The physical size of the workroom is too small to accommodate this equipment.
- Revised: The workroom is too small for this equipment.
Also, try to avoid the following phrases, which are redundant and have more concise alternatives:
- absolutely essential
- in my personal opinion
- basic fundamentals
- past memories
- each and every
- small in size
- first and foremost
- very unique
Combine Short, Choppy Sentences
After you eliminate unnecessary words, you may find yourself with much shorter sentences, so your paper may now feel choppy. Combine these short sentences to improve flow and clarify your train of thought. The single combined sentence may be longer than each of the two original sentences, but overall you are using fewer words and communicating your point more clearly.
- Original: Water quality in Fairfield declined in March. This decline occurred because of the heavy rainfall that month. All the extra water overloaded Tomlin County’s water treatment plant.
- Revised: Water quality in Fairfield declined in March because heavy rainfall overloaded Tomlin County’s water treatment plant.
- Original: According to optimal quality-control practices in manufacturing any product, it is important that every component part that is constituent of the product be examined and checked individually after being received from its supplier or other source but before the final, finished product is assembled. (45 words)
- Revised: Effective quality control requires that every component be checked individually before the final product is assembled. (16 words)
- Original: Over the most recent monthly period, there has been a large increase in the number of complaints that customers have made about service that has been slow. (27 words)
- Revised: Last month, many more customers than usual complained about slow service. (11 words)