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Avoid Sexist (and Other Insensitive) Language

Most writers want to be respectful of others by avoiding offensive—particularly sexist—language. 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 woman—is 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.

Offensive Language

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 Webster’s 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 scales—disparagement (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 word’s 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?

Gender-Insensitive Language

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.

For example:

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

congress person

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.

Disability-Insensitive Language

You may also find it difficult to refer to disabilities. The American Psychological Association offers particularly helpful guidelines for identifying how references to a person’s 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 disability—a 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 Down’s 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



  1. What language bothers you personally (by that we mean words and phrases that make you feel left out, isolated, not welcome, on the other side, and so on)? It may be derogatory ethnic or national references ("an Indian giver" or "cooks like an Englishman"); it may be class based ("trailer park trash"); it may be gendered ("you guys" or "girls’ night out"); it may be regional ("Midwest fly-over" or "Southern drawl"); it may be race-based ("black as night").

    If the labeling is intended to upset you as a member of a group, it is easy to combat as sexist, racist, and so on. But often, the speaker does not realize that anyone has been made uncomfortable by a word or phrase perhaps because it is used by many people at work or because it is a commonplace in language that only bothers those who are diminished by it (e.g., the protests about Native American names for sports teams and mascots).

    How might you speak to a person you respect about such bothersome language when that person frequently uses it?

    If you could not find a way to approach the person one-on-one, what other actions might you take?

  2. Suppose your firm was required to develop a style guide for avoiding offensive and insensitive language. How would you approach clarifying what is offensive? What is insensitive? and why?

Further Guides to Avoiding Offensive Language

American Psychological Association—has 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

Purdue’s Online Writing Lab

Random House Essay on Sensitive Language

Projects Related to this Discussion

United Drill Case

Online Graphics Case

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