Sometimes, writers can slip into biases without realizing it when using gendered pronouns. There are languages that avoid gendering a subject entirely (Japanese) or that always gender certain nouns (Spanish). But English, while generally gender neutral, does offer opportunities for mistakes. At Writer’s Relief, we know the words we choose can make people feel either respected or excluded. But how do you go about using gender-neutral language correctly to ensure your writing is nonsexist and sensitive? Here are some tips from our experts about using gender-neutral language in your writing.
How To Use Gender-Neutral Language When Writing Or Speaking
It’s important to use sensitive language and consider the implications of your word choices when writing. Here’s how you can make your writing (and your daily conversations) more inclusive and gender neutral.
Use “they” as a singular pronoun: If your character is nonbinary, or you need to obscure their gender, or you do not know their gender, the use of the singular they is considered grammatically correct. Most style guides—including the Associated Press, the Chicago Manual of Style, the MLA style manual, and the APA style manual—accept the usage of the singular they. Merriam-Webster, the Oxford English Dictionary, and the American Heritage Dictionary also support the use of the singular they for a person whose gender you don’t know.
So, if your characters are discussing a recent doctor visit, and one doesn’t know the doctor’s gender, you can use the singular they.
Example: “What did you think of the doctor, and are they nice?”
Use names or proper nouns: Instead of using he or she, use the subject’s name. But be wary, as this can sound clunky when not used sparingly.
Example: Dakota really struggled with getting the shot, given Dakota’s fear of needles.
Rewrite sentences to avoid pronouns: Sometimes, rewriting your sentences to entirely skip pronouns is a valid way to avoid sexist, nonexclusive, and insensitive language. This technique can be used along with using names.
Example: While administering the injection, the doctor was careful to make sure Dakota didn’t pass out.
Use second person: Writing in the second person (you or you understood) isn’t always possible. If you’re writing a fiction story, this point-of-view isn’t commonly used. However, the second person can be used to great effect in an experimental story, in poetry, or in the dialogue of prose.
Example: If a patient seems about to faint, you should have them lie down.
What To Avoid For Gender-Neutral Language
He/She: In the past he/she was commonly recommended, but in this day and age, the use of he/she comes off as awkward and non-inclusive.
Stereotypes: You (and your readers) shouldn’t presuppose a nurse is a woman or that a doctor is a man. Don’t make assumptions about gender based on occupation. Instead of salesman, use salesperson; for chairman (or chairwoman), use chair.
Sexist references: When mentioning a married woman, it was common in the past to refer to her by her husband’s name: Mrs. Harry Jones. Nowadays, this is considered outdated and sexist. And if you don’t know (or your character doesn’t know) someone’s preferred pronouns, avoid using Mr., Mrs., or even Ms. When referring to men, women, and nonbinary people, the best, most inclusive choice is to simply use their names.
Important note: Gender-neutral language is an important way to respect someone whose pronouns you do not know. However, using gender-neutral language for transgender people who have been open and clear about their preferred pronouns denies their gender. If you are writing about a trans person whose pronouns are openly stated, do not use “they” unless that is their stated preferred pronoun.
It may feel awkward and complicated at first when you start using gender-neutral language, but it will become easier with practice. And using sensitive, inclusive language can actually help your writing appeal to more readers.
Once you’ve proofread, edited, and refined your work with a watchful eye, it’s time to submit it for publication! The research experts at Writer’s Relief can pinpoint the best markets for your writing and boost your odds of getting an acceptance. Learn more about our services, and submit your work to our Review Board today!
Whether you want to take the traditional publishing route or are thinking about self-publishing, we can help. Give us a call, and we will point you in the right direction!
Question: How do you incorporate gender-neutral language into your writing or daily conversations?