Editing Tip: Writing in Gender-Neutral Language
- You can use several tactics to achieve unbiased language in your manuscript
- Replace any references of 'man' to overall personas with broader terms, ensure job titles do not stereotype, and use 'he or she' intermittently
Updated on May 2, 2014
Using gender-neutral language requires some extra effort, but in the end, doing so will save you time editing your article for submission and will increase your chances of getting published. In addition to communicating sexism in subtle ways, using exclusively masculine nouns and pronouns to refer to both men and women may create ambiguity and elicit confusion in readers.
How can we write in gender-neutral language without resorting to awkward phrasing or sacrificing style? Here are a few alternatives that, depending on the context, can prove effective.
Avoid using ‘man' to refer to all persons
- Instead of “The average man,” use “The average person” or “average individual.”
- Instead of “mankind” use “humans,” “persons,” “humankind,” or “people” depending on the context.
Make use of job titles that are free from gender stereotyping
- Use “fisher” instead of “fisherman,” “flight attendant” instead of “stewardess,” “salesperson” instead of “salesman,” “administrative assistant” instead of “secretary,” “chairperson” instead of “chairman,” etc.
Pronouns: avoid using he/his when referring to all persons. Try the following instead:
- Replace ‘he' and ‘his' with ‘he or she' or ‘his or her.'
- "A citizen is allowed to vote in the primary if he has registered in advance.” becomes... “A citizen is allowed to vote in the primary if he or she has registered in advance.”
- NOTE: “He or she” is a much better alternative to “s/he”, an alternative which should be avoided. Use sparingly, however. Resorting to “he or she” more than once in a sentence or in various sentences in a row will affect style.
- Pluralize the sentence (make all cases plural):
- “An effective teacher will have good presentation skills to market himself and his ideas." becomes... "Effective teachers will have good presentation skills to market themselves and their ideas."
Alternatives you might want to avoid:
- Replacing he/she, his/her with ‘they/their' without pluralizing the antecedent:
- “If a student wants to succeed in class, all he has to do is complete his assignments.” becomes... “If a student wants to succeed in class all they have to do is complete their assignments.”
- Many authors and speakers use the “singular their” as an easy way to avoid the more awkward repetition of “he or she.” Although this usage is common and hotly debated among descriptive and prescriptive grammarians, it is generally unacceptable in formal academic writing.
There is no magic formula for transforming gendered language into gender-neutral language. Different contexts call for different strategies. This tips sheet is by no means exhaustive. For more guidance on this topic see The Chicago Manual of Style (16th edition), 5.221–30 (especially 5.225) or The American Psychological Association Publication Manual (6th edition) 3.12 f.