The official magazine of international civil servants since 1949

La revue officielle des fonctionnaires internationaux depuis 1949

a
a

INSIDE VIEW

Use gender-sensitive language
1 Mar 2021

Since gender is attached to the noun in many languages, some non-native speakers of English presume that English is similar

Or they simply may be unaware of the importance of gender neutrality, especially in today’s world. Thus, they may write:

When a student enrols in the course, he needs permission from his supervisor. Every conference participant must submit his credentials to the Office of Protocol. So, what can you use to be inclusive and replace the outdated and inappropriate use of the so-called “generic ‘he’”?

Here are three possible options for redrafting the sentences:

1. Use “he or she”, “his or her”
(But this can get cumbersome if you need to repeat it)
When a student enrols in the course, he or she needs permission from his or her supervisor.
Every conference participant must submit his or her credentials to the Office of Protocol.

2. Use the plural

When students enrol in the course, they need permission from their supervisor.
Conference participants must submit their credentials to the Office of Protocol.

3. Use singular “they”
When a student enrols in the course, they need permission from their supervisor.

Every conference participant must submit their credentials to the Office of Protocol.
You may ask: “Can you use ‘they’ in the singular?” The answer: “Yes, you can!”

The Concise Oxford English Dictionary, twelfth edition, which is the current authority for spelling in the United Nations, has the following usage note on singular “they”:

“It is now widely held that the traditional use of he to refer to a person of either sex is outdated and sexist; the alternative, he or she, can be clumsy. It is now generally acceptable, therefore, to use they (with its counterparts them, their and themselves) instead.”

You can use the “singular ‘they’” if you’re referring to pronouns such as “each”, “one”, “anybody”, “somebody”, “everybody”:
• Everybody/each person in the group should take their passport with them.
• Somebody forgot their credit card at the checkout.
• Does each participant understand their instructions?
• If anybody would like to have extra assistance, they should let the secretary know.
• Only one of them had completed their report by the deadline.

You can also use the “singular ‘they’” with gender-neutral nouns and phrases such as “a parent”, “a reader”, “a neighbour”, and with “neither he nor she”:

Examples

• “The photo must be of the applicant…showing their full head…” (UK Passport Office instructions)
• A parent could be sent to prison if they leave their baby alone in a hotel room.
• If a security guard asks to see your identity badge, you must show it to them.
• If your vacuum cleaner isn’t working, why not ask one of your neighbours/a neighbour if you can borrow theirs?
• The letter to the Editor was from someone called J. Smith, who said they were delighted to read that news article.
• Neither he nor she could recall what café they had taken the taxi from. [It would sound very awkward to write “Neither he nor she could recall what café he or she had taken the taxi from.”]

Using gender-sensitive terms for people

Test yourself to see how gender sensitive you are. In contemporary English we don’t like words with “man” or “woman” in them when they refer to both men and women, and we don’t like marking a woman with “-ess” endings, such as authoress. We prefer to use a term that could refer to either gender.

Old-fashioned terms

What is the best gender-sensitive alternative to this kind of dated language?
• businessman, business woman
• chairman, chairwoman
• the common/ordinary man
• Dear Mrs. Smith, Dear Miss Smith,
• Dear Sir, (for an unknown recipient)
• fireman
• to man the phones, the helpdesk
• manageress, authoress, air stewardess, actress
• mankind, womankind
• man-made
• policeman, policewoman
• postman, postwoman

* Carol Waites is an English language trainer at the Centre for Learning and Multilingualism, United Nations Office at Geneva (UNOG).
Read more articles about INSIDE VIEW