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I have observed that I use a lot of sexist terms; it comes naturally to me! I have resolved to be "perfectly" non-sexist from now onwards. I would like to know how to avoid sexist language.
Yes, I've googled and found a lot of useful resources.
But I am looking for suggestions based on personal experiences.

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Whether language is "sexist" or not is a subjective label, not an objective, inherent property. If it is your goal to purify your language by purging all gender-specific references from it, I have two things to say: 1. Good luck! 2. Are you sure you want to do this? Most women I know are absolutely not offended by things like "man is a social animal" or "each participant was assigned his own machine". Moreover, some people find the obvious avoidance of gender references unappealing and all too politically correct. But of course you should make your own choice. –  Cerberus Jan 13 '11 at 1:12
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I recommend looking at using the gender neutral pronoun they, which is quite common these days. You also might want to familiarize yourself with gender-neutral job titles. Other than that, I think sexism is only superficially connected to language; it is much more fundamentally the attitude and meanings behind what you convey that come off as sexist, rather than the language itself. –  Kosmonaut Jan 13 '11 at 1:26
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@Cerberus: I disagree. The usage of male instead of gender-neutral pronouns is very objectively sexist. Not intentionally but by virtue of its grammatical gender. Furthermore, the “most women I know” argument is a horrible logical fallacy. Those women that do not object are perfectly at liberty to do so (so are most women I know). But they do not constitute a cogent argument. Other women may object, and it is relatively irrelevant whether they are in the minority or not. I can imagine it being extremely grating to be constantly and consistently neglected by language. –  Konrad Rudolph Jan 18 '11 at 18:00
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... 1. Atheists and believers alike may be offended by "godforsaken"; 2. The blind, by "looks"; 3. those who believe that animals have a soul, by "it"; 4. the vertically challenged, by "low"; 5. blacks, by "black"; 6. the ugly, by "ugly"; 7. gays, by "wedding"; 8. the lower classes, by "kitsch"; 9. the mentally impaired, because they do not understand the complicated words. - Women may be glad they are merely ignored, not denigrated. Oops, what did I just say. –  Cerberus Jan 18 '11 at 20:45
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... On a more serious note, I don't think it is a good idea to adapt too much to what some people might find offensive. We all belong to some minority or other, or we have such friends or relatives. If we avoid only the most universally condemned extremes, such as "whore" and "Untermensch", I think we have done enough. I think people should try to change the world, not the language; and there is no scientific evidence that newspeak has any positive impact in this regard. The treadmill of taboos will keep on spinning. –  Cerberus Jan 18 '11 at 20:53

4 Answers 4

up vote 10 down vote accepted

Some common things to watch out for:

  • Avoid using gender-specific nouns when neutral ones are available. For example, use human instead of man/woman.

  • In the absence of neutral words, include both sexes. For instance, you should say alumni and alumnae instead of simply alumni to refer to both men and women who have graduated from a certain institution.

  • Use both masculine and feminine pronouns when the gender is unspecified. Thus, use he/she instead of simply he.

  • Avoid using feminine derivatives where the masculine term has become acceptable for both sexes. Common examples are headmaster and director. You should not use headmistress or directress/directrice, especially not in the US of A!

  • Abstain from potentially derogatory feminine descriptive words such as chic[k], vixen, shrew, crone, and the rest of them.

  • Pay attention to the contexts of your writings or conversations. Sometimes, it is okay or even expected, to be gender-inclusive. At other times, it may be considered highly offensive to be gender-inclusive!


Sexism is not restricted to the written or spoken word. It certainly applies to behavior, as well. Thus, some more extreme traits of someone who aspires to be completely blameless with respect to avoiding sexism would be linked to the following rules:

  • Treat all humans (not men!) as equals.

  • Do not treat the ladies any more special than the gentlemen. Thus, do not pull out a chair for a lady, offer to put on/take off her coat, give up your seat for her in a crowded place or hold the door open for her.

  • Never offer to assist a female who is clearly struggling to carry a heavy item. (Believe me, I have offered and have been rebuffed on several occasions, much to my consternation and annoyance, but I continue to do so, anyway!)

  • Do not try to be overly anti-sexist. That may even make matters worse, depending on the situation.

Disclaimer: I do not follow any of these rules, except the first and the last ones!

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The disclaimer was a relief. I do think it is very important to consider women our equals, not only treat them as such. There are still some areas where I sometimes need to shake off prejudice: a mother giving her last name to her child (it should be fine, but somehow it feels confusing), or finding a man in a stereotypically female position, like a secretarial assistant or a prostitute (I am fine with it, it just surprises me). –  Cerberus Jan 13 '11 at 2:30
    
@Jimi Oke: Thank you, especially for mentioning the behavioral aspect. Your disclaimer is now mine! –  Sid Jan 13 '11 at 2:32
    
@Cerberus: You see, I was already in the anti-sexist mode. You know, there was a time when it was even better to use she instead of he in ambiguous situations, or to use the feminine term in a general case, instead of the traditional male!!! –  Jimi Oke Jan 13 '11 at 2:34
    
@iamsid: No problem. You're welcome! –  Jimi Oke Jan 13 '11 at 2:34
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@Jimi: Oh, yes, I see that sometimes, a web page on linguistics or grammar where all examples are "she". Funny. I think I have also read a book on some social science subject once, or perhaps it was logic, in which the descriptions of fictitious situations alternately used "he" and "she", even in a sequence of related examples. –  Cerberus Jan 13 '11 at 2:42

I think before a change can be made to a persons's language with regards to any "ism" (sexism, racism, etc) that person needs to become more aware of his or her thought processes, prejudices and biases. When you examine why your language changes when you are speaking to your coworker Sally as opposed to speaking to your coworker Bill, you can determine what the motivation behind that change was and correct it. (For example: even though all three of you are on the same project, you are more likely to talk about non-work things like your kids or the weather with Sally, while you are more likely to use Bill for an idea springboard for work stuff.) It doesn't need to be overtly sexist in topic to be sexist in implication - whether you're not divorcing Sally (from the previous example) from her role as a mother (and therefore by extension thinking of her as unable to divorce herself from her role, making her not as dedicated as yourself or your other, male colleagues to your jobs) or cat-calling her as she walks down the hallway, she is still a second-class citizen in your eyes. Essentially, if you teach yourself to turn a critical eye inward and examine why you choose the words, actions, and implications that you do, the changes to your language will follow.

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Don't overdo it.

  • Use a neutral noun if there is one, and it doesn't sound odd
  • If there's no neutral noun:
    • use the feminine one if it refers mostly to females
    • use the male one otherwise
  • Use proper words, don't make up new ones
  • For the love of the poor guy who invented writing thousands of years ago, do not **EVER** use abominations like he/she or (s)he; they look plain stupid to any sane person (fall back to the rules above)
  • If you're talking about people killed or something like that, never state "X victims, Y of which were women": men are not more important than women, nor the other way around, we are all humans
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These seem like good guidelines to me. Of course, each situation should be treated by itself and with discernment, but these work pretty well as rules of thumb. –  Noldorin Jan 18 '11 at 17:43

I'd like to comment on this point: "Use both masculine and feminine pronouns when the gender is unspecified. Thus, use he/she instead of simply he." Should you wish to avoid the awkwardness of such constructions, make the subject plural and everything else will fall into place. For example:

Change: The student should not place his/her bag on the floor. To: Students should not place their bags on the floor.

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