Use gender-neutral language

Mankind. Mother Nature. Congressmen. What do these terms have in common?

It’s probably clear that they’re gendered. No, these particular examples likely won’t offend all readers, but the generally accepted trend has been toward using more gender-neutral, inclusive language.

Of course, we should also make sure the meaning is clear. Is “honored attendant” better than “maid of honor”? That’s a tough call; I know I’d definitely need context. Is “first-year student,” as opposed to “freshman,” too forced? These are gray areas. But you’d probably agree that “flight attendant” is a better option than the outdated term “stewardess.”

Usually, rather than changing “man” or “woman” to “person” in an overt (and sometimes awkward) attempt to neutralize the term, it’s best to use another word entirely — for example, “police officer” instead of “policeperson.”

Here are some gendered terms to avoid, along with gender-neutral alternatives. Feel free to remind me of (or ask about) any I might have missed.

Gendered term: comedienne (female comedian)
Better alternative: comic

Gendered term: congressmen
Better alternative: representatives, members of Congress (although it’s Rep. before a name)

Gendered term: doorman
Better alternative: security guard

Gendered term: female/lady boss, female doctor (or any other profession historically held by men)
Better alternative: Write the title on its own, without a gender

Gendered term: fireman
Better alternative: firefighter

Gendered term: mailman
Better alternative: mail carrier

Gendered term: male nurse (or any other profession historically held by women)
Better alternative: Write the title on its own, without a gender

Gendered term: man-hours
Better alternatives: work hours

Gendered term: mankind
Better alternative: humanity, people, humans, humankind

Gendered term: manned
Better alternatives: crewed (as in crewed missions), piloted, occupied, operated

Gendered term: man-made
Better alternative: human-made

Gendered term: manpower
Better alternative: capabilities, staff, workers, workforce

Gendered term: manslaughter
Better alternative: This is a legal term referring to a specific type of homicide; there is no gender-neutral equivalent. Blame the lawyers!

Gendered term: Mother Nature
Better alternative: nature

Gendered term: policeman
Better alternative: police officer

But what about AP style … and the singular “they”?

The Associated Press editors are notoriously slow to make changes to the AP Stylebook. (After all, they didn’t switch from “Web site” to “website” until 2010.) It’s no surprise, then, that AP still favors some gender-specific terms, such as chairman/chairwoman and spokesman/spokeswoman. However, there’s some indication that they may be reconsidering this usage.

I know you’re dying for me to address gendered pronouns (he/she) and the use of the singular “they.” That’s for another week (but I promise to get to it). 🙂




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