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16.5 Avoiding Sexist and Offensive Language

Learning Objectives

  1. Recognize language that is considered sexist.
  2. Avoid sexist language in your writing.
  3. Recognize and avoid language that is offensive to any specific group of people.

The rights of women have changed dramatically over the past few decades. Slowly, written English has started to reflect those changes. No longer is it considered appropriate to refer to a “female engineer” or a “male nurse.” It is also unacceptable to refer generically to a doctor as “him,” a teacher as “her,” or a politician as “him.” Such usage is considered to be sexist languageWords that suggest that a given situation or role is attributable to members of only one sex (e.g., mailman).. You can use acceptable nonsexist languageWords that suggest that a given situation or role is attributable to members of both sexes (e.g., mail carrier). by using passive voice (see the example in Section 16.2.5 "Using Passive Voice"), using plural formats (see the examples in Section 16.5.1 "Using Plural Format"), eliminating pronouns, switching to direct address, and choosing nonsexist terms whenever possible. An option of last resort is to use “his or her,” “his/her,” “her or his,” or “her/his” or even to alternate “his” and “her” throughout a text, though this path is stylistically awkward and usually unnecessary given the other options available to you.

Using Plural Format

By using plural nouns instead of singular nouns, you can switch from sex-specific singular pronouns to gender-neutral pronounsA pronoun that is neither female nor male (e.g., they, it)..

Examples

Example of sexist language using singular pronoun: A family member who misses a holiday dinner will find he has missed more than the food.

Example of nonsexist language using plural pronoun: Family members who miss holiday dinners will find they have missed more than the food.

Revising to Eliminate Pronouns

Since English includes many singular gender-specific pronounsA pronoun that is either female or male (e.g., he, she)., another way to eliminate sexist language is to eliminate the use of pronouns.

Examples

Example of sexist language using singular pronoun: A family member who misses a holiday dinner will find he has missed more than the food.

Example of nonsexist language due to elimination of pronoun: A family member who misses a holiday dinner misses more than the food.

Using Direct Address

Sometimes you can simply switch from third-person singular to second-person singular or plural and in the process make your tone more engaging.

Examples

Example of sexist language using third-person pronoun: A student who forgets to bring his book to class will be assessed a ten-point penalty for his daily work.

Example of nonsexist language using second-person pronoun: If you forget to bring your book to class, you will be assessed a ten-point penalty for your daily work.

Choosing Nonsexist Terms

One of the best methods of solving the sexist language problem is to choose nonsexist terms. With a little practice, you can learn to naturally use the currently preferred nonsexist language rather than terms that are no longer acceptable. Study the following table for some examples.

Formerly Acceptable Currently Acceptable
businessman, businesswoman businessperson, business executive
chairman, chairwoman chairperson, chair, head, leader
congressman, congresswoman congressperson, legislator, member of Congress
fireman firefighter
mailman mail carrier, mail delivery person, letter carrier, postal worker
man, mankind humankind, humans, people, Homo sapiens, humanity, the human race
policeman, policewoman police officer, officer of the law, trooper
salesman sales associate, salesperson, seller, vendor

Avoiding Other Offensive Language

Whether language is offensive depends entirely on the audience. If the audience or part of the audience views the wording as offensive, then the wording is offensive. To avoid inadvertent offensive text, adhere to the following general guidelines.

  • Use currently accepted terminology when referencing groups of people. If you are writing about a group of people and you are unsure of the proper terminology, research the most recent usage patterns before you write.
  • Be sensitive when referencing people with disabilities by using a “people firstWording that recognizes people before conditions of the people (e.g., “person who is blind” as opposed to “blind person”).” approach. For example, say “a person who uses a wheelchair” instead of “a wheelchair-bound person.”
  • Do not use profanity or vulgar words of any kind. When in doubt, don’t use the term, or if you must use it as part of a quotation, make clear that you’re quoting it.
  • Avoid stereotypingAttributing common traits to all members of a group. (ascribing positive or negative attributes to people based on groups to which they belong).

Key Takeaways

  • Some language that was formerly considered acceptable is now considered sexist.
  • You can avoid sexist language by using passive voice or plural constructions, by eliminating pronouns, or by switching to direct address.
  • Whenever possible, you should choose from among nonsexist terms that are increasingly available.
  • Be sensitive when you write. Avoid any language that might offend others.

Exercises

  1. Rewrite each of the following sentences three times to eliminate the sexist language using the techniques discussed in this section

    1. When the customer uses abusive language, he can be thrown out of the restaurant.
    2. A student who habitually arrives late for class is endangering his chances for success.
    3. There’s nothing more important to elementary education than a teacher who is committed to her students.
  2. Over the course of a week, record any instances of stereotypes or any shorthand characterizations of groups of people. Share your list with other members of your group or the class as a whole.