How To Use Gender-Neutral Language, And Why It’s Important To Try

 How To Use Gender-Neutral Language, And Why It’s Important To Try

By Kim Elsesser

Last month, the Supreme Court ruled that federal anti-discrimination laws protect gay and transgender employees, yet much of our everyday language excludes people who don’t identify as exclusively male or female. LGBTQ activists and linguists have called for more inclusive language, yet we still fall remarkably short. Small tweaks to our language usage can go a long way to respect non-binary individuals and may have the additional benefit of increasing overall gender equality.

Last October, in an effort to be more gender-inclusive, Air Canada altered their scripted greetings, welcoming “everyone” instead of “ladies and gentlemen.”  The airline stated that the move was to ensure all passengers and employees felt respected.  The “ladies and gentlemen” greeting serves as a reminder just how frequently our gender is mentioned in everyday life. We’re called boys and girls in schools, sons and daughters by parents (who we call mom and dad), referred to as he or she, and our titles (Mr, Miss, Mrs and Ms) are all gendered. And that’s not to mention the countless number of times that gender or sex is required to be identified on official documents.

Our Language Impacts How We Think

For those who don’t fall neatly into the male or female categories, these constant references to the binary male and female groupings can be alienating. Even for those who do identify as male or female, these constant reminders of gender may have an impact.  Constantly dividing everyone into male and female categories may make us perceive men and women as more different than we really are.

Lera Boroditsky, a professor of Cognitive Science at UCSD writes, “Even what might be deemed frivolous aspects of language can have far-reaching subconscious effects on how we see the world.” In some languages, where all objects are classified as masculine or feminine, she has found that this classification actually impacts how people perceive the object. For example, when German and Spanish speakers were asked to describe a key, which is masculine in German, but feminine in Spanish, their response reflected this difference. Germans used much more masculine terms like “jagged”,”serrated,” “hard” and “metal” to describe a key, and Spanish speakers used more feminine terms like “little,” “shiny,” “golden” and “intricate.” The responses reversed for the word “bridge” which is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish.  Others have found that countries that speak more gendered language have less gender equality.

Although English may be less gendered than some languages, there’s still plenty of gendered references. For those trying to be more sensitive to using gender in their everyday language, here a few good places to start.

Use “They” Instead Of “He” Or “She”

According to Vitor Shereiber, Project Manager for the language-learning app Babbel, “The majority of languages don’t have gendered pronouns.” Turkish and Indonesian, for example, don’t have gender as a category for their pronouns. In English, using “he” and “she” require us to assign a gender to an individual.

 You can’t always guess what someone’s preferred pronouns by their appearance. Asking and correctly using someone’s pronouns is a way to show respect for their gender identity. For those who don’t identify as either male or female, Shereiber says the singular “they” is catching on. The American Dialect Society named singular “they” the word of the decade 2010-2019 and, in 2019, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary amended their definition so that “they” can be used for a “single person whose gender identity is nonbinary.” 

So, when we’re referring to one person, is it correct to say “they is” or “they are?” Merriam-Webster recommends “they are,” likely because that is the form that we are most comfortable speaking and hearing. 

Although “they” can be easily incorporated into your everyday speech, there are a slew of other gender-neutral pronouns that individuals may choose to adopt, including “zie” and “sie”. Be sure to ask others about their pronoun preference before making any assumptions. The Swedish have adopted “hen” as their gender-neutral pronoun of choice, and it’s been reported that kindergartens and preschools have been using the term to allow children “to grow up without feeling the impact of gender biases.”

Use “Mx” Instead Of “Mr,” “Ms,” “Mrs” Or “Miss”

“The gender-neutral ‘Mx’ is used as a title for those who do not identify as being of a particular gender, or for people who simply don’t want to be identified by gender,” according to Merriam-Webster. It’s pronounced like mix. Much like the honorific “Ms,” which provides women an alternative to being identified by their marital status, “Mx” provides individuals an alternative to being identified by their gender.

Use “Partner,” “Sibling” And “Child”

Similar to the pronouns and titles, the labels we give family members, mother, father, brother, sister, aunt, uncle are all gendered. Gender-neutral terms like partner and spouse can be substituted when discussing romantic relationships, and sibling, child and parent are also gender-neutral relations. Although some have suggested the terms “auncle” or “pibling,” no gender-neutral term has really caught on for describing the sibling of your parent.

Use “Latinx” Instead Of “Latino” Or “Latina”

Latinx, pronounced Latin-ex, is a gender-neutral term used in place of Latino or Latina to refer to a person of Latin American descent. Feminists have also lauded Latinx because it replaces the male-dominant plural, Latinos. “A group of women are Latinas, but as soon as a man joins them, the group becomes Latinos. Not anymore—thanks to ‘Latinx,’” writes Yessenia Funes.

Use Gender-neutral Forms Of Occupations

In terms of achieving gender-neutrality, perhaps the most progress has been made in occupations. Waitresses and waiters are now frequently called servers, mailmen are now mail carriers, and many actresses are now going by actor. Other occupational titles like police officer, firefighter, chairperson and flight attendant have replaced their gendered predecessors.

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Originally posted on Forbes

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