On gender-neutral language

Despite being a relatively small issue, this one’s important to me. Hopefully I’ll explain why and what you can do to address it too.

An (imperfect) example that fellow nerds will be very familiar with is:

To boldly go where no-one has gone before

You’ll recognise that as part of the Star Trek: The Next Generation opening credits. In a previous iteration, it went thus:

To boldly go where no man has gone before

Split infinitive pedantry aside (you’re wrong, anyway), unfortunately this change was less about including women and more about including non-human species, but, hey. Take what you can get.

There are far more examples, though, and since whenever we discuss this some men will tend to get very angry, let’s look at it in a bit more detail.

via @ManWhoHasItAll, for which this post is basically an ad

For a good run through, I’d recommend this from Oxford English Dictionaries.

Specifically on using “man” to refer to humanity in general:

There is a historical reason for this meaning. In Old English, the main sense of the word man was ‘a human being’: the words wer and wif were used to refer specifically to ‘a male person’ and ‘a female person’. Eventually, man replaced wer as the normal term for ‘a male person’ but the older meaning of ‘a human being’ remained in use.

In the second half of the 20th century, this older use began to seem old-fashioned and sexist, and it’s now best to avoid it wherever possible.

So, this was already getting tired in the 1980s and 90s. If you are still complaining about people who push for you to use crewed instead of manned, or people instead of men, or humanity instead of mankind then you really need to get with the fucking programme.

The use of -person as a gender-neutral alternative to -man in words referring to occupations and roles in society is a relatively new development in the English language. It began in the 1970s when the word chairperson was first used as a replacement for chairman.

Oxford English Dictionary

Personally, I prefer ‘chair’, it’s less clunky. We all know what it means; people aren’t literally chairs, so don’t even try that.


Why does it matter?

This is a small part of a bigger problem: representation, meaning the kinds of human beings we see in entertainment etc. but also within our use of language.


The core of the problem is using words specifically referring to a section of the population (in this case men/male bodied people) and expanding it to – supposedly – include everyone.

The way we represent people in these ways shows what we think of them and their place in our world, in our society. Both to young people whose ideas about humanity and themselves are being formed, and to those around us. It reflects our values.

By definition using words specifically referring to one gender alone does not represent everyone. The reason it used to be used in that way is precisely because men were considered the default, most important kind of human being; an attitude hardly restricted to the past. People still act like this, consciously and not.

The Default Male gaze does not just dominate cinema, it looks down on society like the eye on Sauron’s tower in The Lord of the Rings. Every other identity group is “othered” by it…

Default Man feels he is the reference point from which all other values and cultures are judged. Default Man is the zero longitude of identities.

Grayson Perry

I currently irritate myself by defaulting to he/him if I’m referring to animals, or indeed other gamers (despite me and a few of my clanmates being obvious exceptions). The fact it’s so hard to stop doing this shows how ingrained it is.


Thought from language

Importantly, as well as language being created to express our thoughts, the language we use, understand, and are surrounded by also influences how we think.

So, if we continue to hear heavily biased language, the implications tend to become our own feelings too. If you constantly hear your family and friends speaking ill of certain kinds of people – or neglecting to speak of them at all – you internalise this. It’s how biases and prejudice propagate. Children are not born with them, they are learned.


“The most pervasive aspect of the Default Man identity is that it masquerades very efficiently as “normal” – and “normal”, along with “natural”, is a dangerous word, often at the root of hateful prejudice.

Grayson Perry

The more you repeat the idea that the person you expect to find in any given situation – whether a profession, character role, or anything else – is a man, the more you sideline everyone who is not a man. The more you reinforce the idea that men should be and are expected to be the ones in power, in view, whether now, previously or indeed in future.

If you don’t get it yet we probably can’t help you

Using gender-neutral terms is a way to be more inclusive, to help us to consider more kinds of people than just men – because newsflash, men don’t do everything, and never have. Part of the problem of erasure of women’s and others’ contributions throughout history comes from the use of this exclusive language.

More what you are than what you do

People tend to believe and rarely challenge the idea that men are simply, naturally, better suited to or more gifted in just about every sphere (unless it’s something particularly feminine).

But it’s bullshit; where men have been seriously over-represented it is not generally because they are better. Rarely do the slight height/weight/strength advantages enjoyed by men on average confer greater ability in various roles.

The advantages have actually been in wealth and opportunity; in the very expectation of men doing the things in the first place. Language does matter in this. If all you ever hear about or see is one type of person, you are much likely to think of everyone who isn’t like that as sufficiently different as to be regarded with some suspicion.

This is privilege in action. Something so invisible to so many as to whip them into a rage if you mention it; but it’s what we enjoy when we lack certain human characteristics that have for so long been minimised, ignored, demonised or otherwise othered.

I’m just a normal person

This is extended out to the problem we have with people complaining about diversity and inclusion in workplaces, and of “diversity hires” – they simply cannot imagine that anyone other than a (straight, cis) white man could be a great person to be in a particular position. All those other people are identities whereas they are just… humans. Men.

The amount of talent and contribution we have lost out on due to a system that prioritises the ‘normal’ person, that assumes only he can have the best ideas and aptitude – the sheer arrogance of that! – is huge.

Complaints of tokenism (which is a real thing, just not as critics of diversity tend to use it) completely ignore the fact that talent can and does come from anywhere, and they assume that we operate and have operated on a meritocracy when we really never have.

A true meritocracy would not result in any majority-white-male field. It’s laughable for anyone to think it would. That it does is a result of bias and unequal opportunity; of white men tending to end up the richest, best educated, and most likely to be selected and given multiple chances – where everyone else is more likely to be restricted in one or more of those areas.

I guess the pushback comes from the discomfort that happens when said white men are asked to consider the fact that they – or even people like them – might not have got to where they are if they hadn’t received the benefits of doubt that come with their own identity. They don’t want to think of it as an identity. They want to have succeeded entirely through merit. Everyone does! But, in reality, most of us don’t.

People with heavily privileged identities are given more opportunity and those without have to out-perform just to be considered. You can rail against that all you like but it’s how our societies work and we have to actively change it or we’ll be stuck in the stagnant pool of pale male mediocrity forever.

No, not every white dude lacks merit and no they’re not all mediocre. But look around you. A hell of a lot of intensely mediocre white men are constantly getting away with things no other type of person would.

No, that is not entirely down to language, or referring to all human beings as men.
It is a small part of that huge puzzle. And you can help throw those pieces away.

Problems with pronouns

People do get their pants in a twist over whether to use ‘he or she’, still, it seems – but it’s really very simple. English already has the means for us to get around this in the form of they/them.

Despite objections, there is a trend to use ‘singular they’. In fact, it is historically long established. It goes back at least to the 16th century, and writers such as Shakespeare, Sidney, Byron, and Ruskin used it

Yes, people have been using this to refer to single people of unspecified gender for a long time. You do it without thinking and are well understood. Usually, what’s in someone’s pants and how they present themselves to the world is really secondary to whatever we’re talking about, so consider if you really need to identify someone’s gender right away.

There are other gender-neutral pronouns in use, and other languages can work differently – with more or less ease – but if you’re not sure, just ask!

How and why

Just be mindful of the kind of person you visualise in different situations, why, and whether identifying people in certain ways comes naturally (or not) – see if you can change it. If it makes you uncomfortable to try, why might that be?

Why bother?

Using more neutral language helps to carve out space for everyone who doesn’t fit neatly into the boxes that our binary ideas of gender have set up so rigidly for everyone. Non-binary (‘enby’) folks benefit from less assumption, less insistence on categorising everyone by their genitals/clothing/hairstyle/other weirdly gendered things in our culture. And so do we all (except perhaps those men in positions they never actually earned… but hey, if they’re really so great, they’ll be fine! If not, everyone else wins).

Plus, we always have new generations growing up around us. If they’re not white boys, might you want them to have the same opportunities as anyone else? For everyone to see themselves in any career or hobbies they’d like? Then don’t refer to all sportspeople as men, challenge ideas that scientists or businesspeople or doctors have to be men – and the reverse.

Women are capable of far more than the caring roles society has traditionally funnelled them into (making fun of men for doing ‘feminine’ things is still misogyny, and while it restricts those men it continues to make life difficult for women too; sexism benefits no one but the powerful men).

Remember to follow Man Who Has It All! The comments are always joyous

There are so many more related things (like how we talk about our relationships, maybe I’ll come back to that) but I’ve gone on enough – try it! Be more neutral.

If my words (or @manwhohasitall’s) aren’t convincing, try this paper:

A Person Paper on Purity in Language

William Satire (alias Douglas R. Hofstadter). From Metamagical Themas: Questing for the Essence of Mind and Pattern
by Douglas R. Hofstadter, Basic Books, 1985.

While racism and sexism are definitely not the same thing, this can be eye-opening for some who haven’t yet seen how gendered our language actually is. More to read:

Pervasive cultural stereotypes associate brilliance with men, not women. Given these stereotypes, messages suggesting that a career requires brilliance may undermine women’s interest. Consistent with this hypothesis, linking success to brilliance lowered women’s (but not men’s) interest in a range of educational and professional opportunities

J. Exp. Psych (above)

6 thoughts on “On gender-neutral language

  1. Oh another one I forgot to put in – when I open a boardgame and the instructions constantly refer to players as he/him. Totally unnecessary. They/them is fine, or player(s). Puts me right off.

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