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Gender-Neutral Writing: Questions of Usage


Read up on gender-neutral English and you’re bound to run into the history of the word man. Briefly, it goes like this. In Old English man meant a human being, male or female. The sex-differentiated terms were wer and wif, for males and females respectively. Around the late thirteenth century, wer fell out of use (though as horror fans know, we kept werewolf) and man took its place. Thus, for a time man carried two meanings: the newer one (male human beings) and the older one (all human beings). Now the newer meaning is the predominant one.

Critics of gender-neutral usage—those for whom the prospect of changing workman to worker is a needless if not infuriating restriction of personal freedom, in a league with obeying "no smoking" signs or yielding to pedestrians—love this history. They will trot out the dual-sex meaning of man to defend all manner of gender-biased terms, including businessman, fireman, mailman, mankind. Such terms don’t refer exclusively to men, the critics say; they refer to both sexes, because that’s what man used to mean.

Comforting as this argument may be to some, it skips over the fact that in our time the male meaning of man outweighs any other. As Editing Canadian English (2nd ed., 2000) notes: "Research has confirmed what was long suspected: when they hear or read the generic man, people form mental pictures of males." Anyone who doubts this should consider this oft-cited (though fictitious) title of a medical paper: "Development of the uterus in rats, guinea pigs, and men."

To sidestep the perceived bias, not to mention lack of logic, that results from referring to people as men in modern English, government bodies, companies, publishers and academic institutions have made gender-neutral vocabulary a requirement. Putting that requirement into practice means knowing which words to replace and which to leave alone.

Test yourself

To measure your GQ (gender quotient), decide which of the following words you would change, in most circumstances, to a gender-neutral alternative. Answer yes, no or iffy.

  1. chairman
  2. man-made
  3. manufactured
  4. midwife
  5. actress
  6. dude
  7. manpower
  8. manslaughter
  9. Mrs.
  10. fisherman
  1. Iffy. When referring to the position in the abstract, use the gender-neutral chair or chairperson. But if you know and want to specify the sex of the person holding the position, chairman or chairwoman may be fine. Above all, respect the official job title if there is one: if an organization elects a Chair of the Board, consistently refer to that person as chair.
  2. Yes. There are many synonyms that allow for the possibility that a woman had a hand in making the thing. Try fabricated, machine-made, artificial, factory-produced, synthetic.
  3. No. Don’t assume that all terms that contain man derive from the word man. Words such as manufacture, manipulate, manual and manuscript come from manus, the Latin for "hand" (making manufactured another option for man-made in question 2).
  4. No. Midwife is a Middle English combination of the Old English mid (with) and wif (woman). It means a person of either sex who is with a woman giving birth.
  5. Iffy. Actress is a feminine form of actor; actor refers to either sex. Many feminine forms, including authoress, poetess and aviatrix, have exited current English, but actress is one of a few to hang on. For how much longer? One Los Angeles Times article says that "over the last decade or so, most thespians of the female persuasion now refer to themselves as actors, not actresses" (see Still, we need only look at acting awards to see how divided the usage is. The Screen Actors Guild Awards honour the best male actor and best female actor, while the Oscars go to best actors and actresses.
  6. No. For teens and 20-somethings, dude has become the unisex equivalent of guy (as in you guys, which we older dudes use for males, females or both). Says a University of Pittsburgh professor who has tracked the word, "Dude is used mostly by young men to address other young men; however, its use has expanded so that it is now used as a general address term for a group (same or mixed gender), and by and to women" ( This gender-inclusivity is confirmed by a later study, entitled "Dude, Katie! Your dress is so cute: why dude became an exclamation," by Muffy Siegel, and no, I am not making that up (see,+Katie!+Your+dress+is+so+cute%3A+why+dude+became+an+exclamation.-a0155404360).
  7. Yes. Like man-made, this word has many gender-neutral synonyms, among them labour, staff, human resources, workers, personnel, workforce.
  8. No. There is no synonym for manslaughter, a category of homicide that comes with a specific legal definition and a complex history of judicial precedent. Any attempt to create a gender-neutral synonym would distort meaning and sacrifice correctness and clarity. Similar words for which we have no reasonable synonyms, and which we should therefore leave alone, are manhole, defenceman and craftsmanship.
  9. Iffy. Because the traditional titles Mrs. and Miss indicate marital status, they are not equivalent to Mr., which is silent on whether a man has said "I do." The default honorific for women has therefore become Ms. This blend of Miss and Mrs., until recently thought to have originated in 1949, has now been traced back to a 1901 Massachusetts newspaper article that proposed it as a title that disregarded marital state (see Still, as ubiquitous as Ms. has become, there are women who prefer to be called Mrs. or Miss. So how do you handle women’s titles? If the individual has indicated a preference, then respect it; otherwise, use Ms. And don’t assume that Mrs. is acceptable for any female who is married. There are many happily wedded women (your author included) who would no more call themselves Mrs. than they would wear a whalebone corset.
  10. Iffy. Who’d have pegged the rugged world of fisheries as the crucible for gender-neutral language in Canada? Yet that’s what it became in the late 1990s, when federal efforts to replace fisherman with fisher in government documents, coupled with a high-profile Supreme Court decision on native fishing rights, caused a riptide of dissent over what to call people who fish. To complicate matters, many women in the industry resented having their job title changed and insisted on being called fishermen. The "Fissure over Fisher," as it was called in an article on the CBC treatment of the issue (, has since narrowed but not closed. On one side is the government approach: fish harvester is now the official term for Fisheries and Oceans Canada (confirmed in an email to me from the department’s Communications Branch, June 21, 2013). On the other side is general publishing: The Canadian Press Stylebook (16th ed., 2010) states under "Sexism" that "there is not an entirely satisfactory substitute for fisherman, although fisher, fish harvester, fish industry worker, fishing licensees or the phrase fishermen and women are all possibilities"; the Oxford Guide to Canadian English Usage (2nd ed., 2007), in its entry on job titles, singles out fisher as a term that has yet to gain wide acceptance.

Even this brief test shows that stamping out gender bias can be tricky. As always, it’s a question of bearing in mind audience, message and clarity, those familiar ingredients of good writing. And as always, it’s a question of having reliable resources. One I can recommend is the Law Society of British Columbia’s "Respectful Language Guideline" ( In particular, check out Appendix A ("Gender-Neutral Language") for a list of terms to avoid and their gender-neutral substitutes.

Test yourself