A Guide to Gender-Neutral Language

It's LGBTQ Pride month and a good time to start using gender-neutral language if you haven't started already. That's words such as people, folks, everyone, they, them, and their, which do not indicate gender. It's different from the expressions ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, men and women, sir, madam, and he-him-his-she-her-hers, which do indicate gender. 

Why should you use gender-neutral language? Because not everyone identifies as either male or female. For some people, he or she, man or woman, and sir or madam do not fit. These individuals are "non-binary"– that is, they do not fit the either/or gender model. 

Yes, it may be true that everyone in your social circle identifies as male or female. But the reason to use gender-neutral language is that not everyone beyond your circle does, and these people may turn out to be your coworkers, supervisors, employees, patients, customers, clients, constituents, volunteers, patrons, students, and students' parents. In fact, they will become part of your larger circle if you work beyond the walls of your home. 

Quick&EasyGuidetoTheyThem

I just finished reading a good starter guide on gender-neutral language: A Quick & Easy Guide to They-Them Pronounsby Archie Bongiovanni and Tristan Jimerson. It's written in comic-book style with Archie and Tristan as characters talking about why and how to use they/them pronouns and other gender-neutral language. 

I recommend the guide, especially for its non-threatening, non-judgmental, clear comic-book explanations of why it's important to learn about and use gender-neutral language. It also communicates poignantly about the life experience of non-binary people. For instance, it shows a day in the life of non-binary Archie, who is repeatedly assaulted with the terms girl, she, her, lady, woman, and miss. In character, Archie says, "Being misgendered all day is mentally exhausting." They add, "To me and other people, being misgendered can make us feel all sorts of ways" with a panel image that includes these expressions: annoyed, frustrated, alone, invisible, afraid, exhausted, and wrong in my body. 

Did you notice my use of They to refer to Archie in the previous paragraph? That's gender-neutral language. Although it may feel awkward at first to use they to refer to one person, they is no longer just a plural. It has become a plural and a singular pronoun. 

From the Amazon Look Inside feature for A Quick & Easy Guide to They-Them Pronounshere are a few examples of gender-neutral solutions:

Gender_Neutral_Language

 

The book also recommends referring to a customer as they (but addressing them as you, of course). Not long ago I had a learning experience at Staples that I could have avoided if I had read this book. Someone at Staples had been helping me with a product, but I proceeded to the checkout counter and got help. The person who had originally been helping me called out, "Did you find what you needed?" I responded, "Yes, he helped me," gesturing toward the cashier. The cashier gently corrected me, "They helped you." 

This primer belongs in your workplace. In a highly readable 64 pages, A Quick & Easy Guide to They-Them Pronouns will give you and your colleagues an excellent introduction to gender-neutral language and how and why to use it. It also gives sample dialogs for finding out whether a coworker uses the pronouns they/them/their. (Hint: It starts with stating which pronouns you use.) And it has plenty of examples of what not to do. 

Have you read the book? How well does your employer communicate in gender-neutral ways? 

Lynn (she/her)
Syntax Training 

 

14 COMMENTS

  1. I am originally from Brazil, where the Latin-based language assigns gender to EVERYTHING. Even worst, in Portuguese, there is no such thing as a gender-neutral they/them/theirs. Instead, we have the plural versions of she/her/hers and he/him/his, and the generalization of groups of people is always male, using the plural form of he/him/his even if there are hundreds of females and a single male in the group. This has always bothered me (I identify as female, she/her). I welcome gender-neutral language, have started using it in the past year or so, and vow to improve my knowledge of it. Thank you for sharing, Lynn!

  2. Lynn,I appreciate this very much. I am trying to do better in this regard, but it’s really hard to break old habits. And how do you address someone when you are trying to show respect? Many people nearly automatically say things like, “May I help you, sir?” or “Thank you, Ma’am.” They mean no ill will; they’re just trying to respect their customer. What is the correct form of address for these situations?

  3. Hi, Lynn.
    I’ve enjoyed your columns for quite some time. I believe this is my first reply. I appreciate gender-neutral language; however, I find it difficult using a plural pronoun when referring to a single person. I wish we could come up with a gender neutral single person pronoun. Does the book you mentioned discuss this? It’s very difficult to artificially add words into a language, especially a pronoun, but for me, calling a single person a plural seems artificial. If there’s a large number of people who see it that way, then why not come up with new pronouns? Thank you for posting interesting topics. I enjoy reading the responses as well. 🙂

  4. Hi Nick, Patty, Laura, and Bridget,

    Nice to hear from you all.

    Nick, you leave me smiling and speechless!

    Patty, good for you for wanting to improve your knowledge. And thanks for letting us know about Portuguese. That masculine language dominance is frustrating. I have found it interesting that in Spanish people now use Latinx instead of Latina or Latino–that’s progress.

    Laura, good question. The authors of the book suggest that a bright “hello” is a good, respectful replacement for a gender-based greeting. I use “sir” a lot–that’s a habit I need to break immediately.

    Bridget, thanks for your positive feedback. As soon as I wrote this review, I lent my copy of the book to someone at a high-tech company, so my comment here is from memory. I believe the authors briefly touched on “hir” and “hirs” as written gender-neutral replacements for “his” and “hers,” but those new words have not become popular. And they would not help in a spoken situation since they sound the same as “her” and “hers.” I think the solution is to become comfortable with “they” as a singular. It does take time.

    Lynn

  5. Lynn,

    I almost mentioned the “x”, which is also available in Portuguese. Instead of “ela” (she) or “ele” (he), I use elx, and so forth. However, it’s much easier written than spoken. Half of the time, I am uncertain on how to pronounce the word once I make the “x” substitution. But yes, it’s progress.

    It has always been common in Portuguese to address groups of people by saying both genders (“ladies and gentleman” style), but of course that language only addresses 2 gender possibilities. I also have a “bad” “sir” and “ma’am” habit. Have gotten in trouble with people who find those terms ageist; now I have to worry about gender as well. But I find “hello” kinda lacking. And how do you get someone’s attention when they’re not looking? “Hey, you”?

    Hopefully, as the language continues to evolve, respectful, gender-neutral terms will appear.

    Kindly,
    Patty

  6. Patty, these are all good points. Thank you!

    I too find “hello” lacking. It doesn’t convey respect the way “sir” and “ma’am” do. Yet I am hopeful that using it with the right body language will communicate.

    Regarding getting someone’s attention, I guess we just have to use a loud “Excuse me” or a similar expression. I know that when my daughter was little, every time I heard “Mom” or “Mommy” I paid attention–even if she was not with me. We need a word that does that job without being gender- or role-based. That’s a challenge!

    In the Democratic presidential debates last night I heard a candidate say “Latin-ex.” Although perfectly clear, it sounded weird. I guess I was hoping for “Lah-teen-ex” or something that sounded more like Spanish.

    And the world continues to change.

    Thanks for the conversation.

    Lynn

  7. Hello Lynn,

    I truly appreciate your column and am happy to see the use of gender-neutral words as this week’s topic.

    As for a respectful greeting that does not use ma’am or sir, I have begun to use phrases such as “Hello, fellow teammates!” or “Good day, dear customer!”.
    Most of the time, people just greet me right back. When I do get a questioning look, I explain that I am practicing gender neutral greetings. The key is being authentic in the greeting and showing respect.

    I hope this may help your dear readers.

    Regards,

    Carmel (she/her)

  8. I’ve got mixed feelings about this. While it seems doable in English, I find it very hard in Italian or any other language where adjectives get conjugated according to the gender (which applies not only to humans, but also to objects and animals…). I follow this topic with genuine interest, hoping to find some guidance, and as always I’ve found some great tips here. Thank you for bringing it up!

  9. Deborah, I agree that gender-neutral communication is challenging in many languages, particularly those that communicate the gender of everything. But I’m encouraged with the development of the word “Latinx” as an alternative to “Latino” and “Latina” in Spanish. Evolution of a language takes time, but it does happen.

    Lynn

  10. Thank you for posting–this is a very important topic!
    For Bridget and others who find it challenging to use “they” to refer to one person, keep in mind we often use “they” as a singular pronoun in casual speech. For example, if you find a wallet on the ground, do you say, “Someone has dropped his or her wallet”? Probably not! I’m much more likely to say “Someone dropped their wallet.” This frame of thinking helped me realize that it’s perfectly acceptable to use “they” to refer to one person!

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