by Jennifer Klein '93
Writers recognize the problems with sexist language, but finding solutions is not always easy. Many times, writing in a non-sexist way seems very awkward and disrupts the flow of the paper. There has been talk about creating a new, non-gender-specific pronoun such as "tey," "e" or "E", but, on the whole, writers and readers are uncomfortable with such a drastic change. We as writers find ourselves in a delicate situation: knowing that we want to avoid using sexist language, how can we write in a non-sexist manner?
Sexist language can creep into a sentence in many different ways. Therefore, searching for a blanket solution is impractical. Often the best way to solve the problem is to recast the entire sentence; in other words, find a completely different way of expressing your idea. Sometimes, however, sexist language can be erased without completely changing the sentence. The best way to tackle the problem is to examine specific problems and their best solutions.
The most easily recognizable form of sexist writing occurs in a sentence such as this:
When a student writes a paper, he must proofread carefully.
Such a sentence assumes that all students are male. To fix the sentence, we must include both genders in the category of "student." There are several ways to approach this.
An easy solution to this problem is to use "he or she" instead "he." However, this technique can be deadly if overused:
When a student writes a paper, he or she should use the spellchecker on his or her computer.
The abbreviations "he/she" and "s/he" fall into the same category as "he or she." You can employ them, but sparingly; the same holds for the substitution of "one" for "he." Overuse of these techniques makes the writing infuriating to read.
To solve the problem gracefully, try making the subject of the sentence plural:
When students write their papers, they should use the spellcheckers on their computers.
The plural subject "students" now includes both genders, and the sentence retains its meaning without sounding awkward.
Another way to erase sexist language is to substitute a noun subject instead of a pronoun.
Example: Ask him to define the thesis.
Solution: Ask the writer to define the thesis.
The NCTE "Guidelines for Nonsexist Use of Language" suggest substituting the first or
second person for the third:
Example 1: When a student writes a paper, he must proofread carefully.
Revision: When we students write our papers, we must proofread carefully.
Example 2: When a teacher is strict about spelling, his students will spend more time proofreading.
Revision: When you are strict about spelling, your students will spend more time proofreading.
The change in person does not alter the meaning of either of the sentences; it merely erases the sexist language.
When the subject of a sentence is a specific but unidentified individual, making the subject plural does not make sense:
Who dropped his ticket?
Somebody left his sweater.
In both of these sentences, the subject must be singular; only one person dropped the ticket and only one person left the sweater. Without resorting to using "his or her," how can we eliminate the sexism in these sentences?
When possible, simply drop the pronoun altogether and substitute a nondescriptive article:
Who dropped a ticket?
Somebody left a sweater.
Sometimes, revising the sentence in this way changes the meaning of what you're trying to say, in which case you'll have to search for other solutions. It is, however, an "easy way out" in some cases.
Ann Bodine of Rutgers University suggests a device she calls the singular "they." Consider the following sentences:
Who dropped their ticket?
Somebody left their sweater.
Using "they" in this context technically is not grammatically correct; however, more and more people are starting to accept this usage as an alternative to sexist writing. You can also use this device to eliminate the use of "him or her"; consider the two sentences below:
Either Mary or John should bring a schedule with her or him.
Either Mary or John should bring a schedule with them. (Bodine 130-141)
Recognize that the singular "they" is not grammatically correct. Some texts offer it as a solution, but we recommend that you be wary of using it in formal writing, as some professors may take offense. When in doubt, ask your professors what they prefer.
Some terms are inherently sexist, such as "mankind" and "policeman." These terms ignore the female gender in categories that should include both men and women. Often, these terms are the hardest to avoid without making the writing sound stilted. However, there are alternatives.
In general, avoid using different words for men and women who perform the same
the common man
the average person, ordinary people
cave dwellers, prehistoric people
chair, presiding officer, chairperson
business executive, manager
sales clerk, salesperson
server, food server
Personifications, like other arbitrary classifications, grow out of cultural preconceptions… [Like other forms of stereotyping, they] can work to discourage fresh perceptions. Writers who use it to identify something inanimate are not tempted to rely on supposedly universal sex-linked characteristics to make their points. Instead, they must find precise words to delineate the thing itself (Miller and Swift 78-9).The examples in this paper easily lend themselves to the suggested revisions. When you are struggling with a real paper, solutions are usually much harder to find. If none of these suggestions lend themselves to the sentence you're working on, your best bet is to recast the entire sentence; write the sentence in a completely different way instead of trying to change bits and pieces of it. Sometimes a recast sentence not only eliminates sexist language, but also sounds clearer than your original.
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