Gender and vocabulary – walking the tightrope of political correctness

In professional writing it is very important that the reader understands the message we are trying to convey. Just as we don’t want the reader to be distracted by poor grammar or spelling, we equally don’t want them to be offended or distracted by our choice of vocabulary. This is particularly important when using non-gender-specific or gender-specific nouns and pronouns.

It used to be perfectly acceptable to see ‘chairman’ instead of ‘chairwoman’ or ‘chairperson’, ‘he’ instead of ‘he/she’ and ‘him’ instead of ‘him/her’. This is no longer the case and nowadays we are called upon to be more sensitive and ‘neutral’ in our choice of nouns and pronouns.

It is often the prefix or suffix ‘man’ which is found objectionable. Generally speaking, ‘man’ has become ‘person’, ‘men’ has become ‘people’ and ‘mankind’ is often replaced with ‘humanity’. On the other hand, the ‘man’ in ‘manpower’ and ‘manhunt’ has not been substituted by ‘person’ and neither has it been replaced in words such as ‘craftsmanship’ or ‘man-made’.

While ‘man’ has been successfully replaced with ‘person’ for some words which are not gender-specific (as in ‘spokesperson’ and ‘salesperson’), it does not work for all words (we don’t ever use ‘postperson’ instead of ‘postman’ or postwoman’). And despite the general preference for non-gender-specific nouns, some male and female forms remain – for example, actor/actress, waiter/waitress, hero/heroine and host/hostess – while in other cases the word ‘woman’ can be placed before the noun to qualify it as female e.g. ‘female doctor’.

The pronouns are also problematic. Instead of writing ‘he/she’ on each occasion, some people prefer ‘s/he’. In formal writing this can be difficult for the reader to read. The other option is to use ‘their’, so that ‘Each person must carry his own bag’ becomes ‘Each person must carry their own bag’. This can seem a little awkward because of the mix of the singular ‘each’ and the plural ‘their’. One way to avoid this is to use the plural ‘all people’ instead of ‘each person’.

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