Most writers want to be respectful of others by avoiding offensiveparticularly sexistlanguage. The question, what counts as sexist? is the blunt query that seems to call for a list of words to avoid. Yes, such a list could be made: swear words that emphasize masculine power or feminine helplessness would top this list, and "pet terms" that imply that a person is inexperienced or less capable (for example, "girlie" or "son") would be featured as well.
But that offensive words list would not cover the range of adjustments people need to make to their regular use of English in order to blunt its bias toward "male." To put it directly, the English language prefers the male. Social conventions commonly refer to all people "mankind" or "man" and use "he" as the generic pronoun. Being inclusive of all people requires some structural adjustments to expression. For example, while the address "Mr." is seen as a neutral way to refer to any man, there is no neutral way to refer to a womanis she naturally a "Miss," a "Mrs.," or a "Ms."?
Below, we discuss offensive and gender-sensitive language in more detail as a way to provide you with some guidelines for becoming more sensitive to potentially offensive expression. As stated earlier, paying attention to your language in this area is ethical behavior. But, it is also polite, respectful, and wise: You always want to treat fellow workers in the ways that you would want to be treated.
Language can be offensive either through intent or interpretation. Because it is communication, there will be specific, possibly different meanings for the speaker/writer and also for the hearers/listeners. Further, written language is particularly dangerous because it often outlasts its writers and because it can make its way into unintended places. Take the example of an e-mail you send to a colleague that includes a mild gripe about the boss but is labeled "New Time for Meeting on Part-time Budget Requests." That e-mail is likely to get forwarded to the boss and others, and your mild gripe may well offend the boss (in part because many people see it).
Random House Websters College Dictionary has made available information how they assign their O.Q. or offensiveness quotient for sexist and racist language. They label terms on two six-point scalesdisparagement (degree of intent to offend) and offensiveness (degree of offense taken). A disparaging term can range from "not intended to offend, even though it may" (e.g., oriental, welsh [on a deal], lady, crippled) to "intended to offend and hurt" (e.g., faggot, nigger, ofay). An offensive term can range from "rarely taken as offensive" (e.g. guys [for women], Moslem [for Muslim], cover girl) to "taken as offensive and hurtful" (e.g. cunt, Hebe, gook, retard). A words O.Q. is the average of its rank on the two scales.
To check how offensive a term may be, examine the ways that you characterize others in your writing and ask yourself
If people have told you that you sometimes offend them, it may help you to role play as one of those easily offended people. Would this easily offended person consider the term you are using as offensive to readers?
Such reflection will help you spot overtly offensive terms in your language. But that approach of examining terms that characterize others does not cover the less direct use of language to deflate one gender usage most label "gender-insensitive" language. Most writers need the work, becoming gender sensitive because there are no clear guidelines.
We suggest that you focus as you inspect gender sensitivity in language on references to persons. Notice how particular people are referred to; notice how general nouns are phrased; notice how pronouns are used.
The patterns of reference to people should be similar in your texts. If you talk about four people in a text, you should refer to them in analogous ways:
First Reference Second Reference Pronouns Stanley Jones Jones he Chris Solomon Solomon depends on sex Jane Jackson Jackson she Marvin Barnes Barnes he
If the last name alone is used in second and subsequent references, all people should receive the same treatment.
But, if at least some of the people hold a high rank, and therefore you want to include their titles with their names, all people referenced in the document should nevertheless receive the same treatment.
When you use general or collective nouns to reference people, you should be sensitive to the use of "man" to represent all people.
Insensitive to Gender Sensitive to Gender man humankind or people chairman chairperson or chair policeman police officer sportsman sports person cattleman cattle rancher cowboy cowhand workman worker newspaperman journalist businessman business person or professional foreman shift boss congressman
salesman salesperson craftsman craftperson clergyman clergyperson or clergy fisherman crew member or fishes folk clansman clan member ombudsman consumer advocate spokesman spokes person; representative for cameraman camera person or camera operator
Interestingly, some of the words dubbed insensitive to gender have more sensitive counterparts that sound "right" to us, while others do not. "Sports Person of the Year" and "congress person" sound more off putting than "chair" or "police officer."
When you refer to a human in general, avoid using "he" exclusively. There are two ways frequently used to do this: (1) Pluralize references to people (instead of "he" you use "they") or (2) Alternate the use of "he" and "she". As the second alternative is sometimes seen as "politically correct," it might be wise to begin making general references in the plural.
You may also find it difficult to refer to disabilities. The American Psychological Association offers particularly helpful guidelines for identifying how references to a persons disability might be seen as insensitive. The APA recommends that "disability" be used to refer to an attribute of a person rather than as the identifying characteristic of that person. Often, they point out, the environment is what limits a person with a disabilitya building that has no ramps, for example, where people in wheelchairs cannot enter. Prejudice, too, limits what people with disabilities can achieve, if they receive fewer opportunities because they are "crippled" or "blind" or "deaf".
A guiding principle, therefore, for maintaining the integrity of people who have disabilities, is to avoid language that
Put more positively, your language should:
Common, but insensitive Better disabled person person with disabilities mentally ill person person with mental illness handicapped person person with physical handicaps
Common, but insensitive Better schizophrenic person with schizophrenia amputee person with an amputation disabled person with disabilities learning disabled person with learning disabilities cripple person with a limp mongoloid person with Downs Syndrome crazy person with symptoms of mental illness
Common, but insensitive Better stroke victim individual who has had a stroke suffering from multiple sclerosis person who has multiple sclerosis family burden with family support needs
American Psychological Associationhas put online its guidelines for avoiding various biases in psychology publications:Avoiding Heterosexual Bias in Language
Guidelines for Avoiding Racial/Ethnic Bias in Language
Guidelines for Non-Handicapping Language in APA Journals
Purdues Online Writing Lab
Random House Essay on Sensitive Language
United Drill Case
Online Graphics Case