Gender neutrality in English

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Gender neutrality in English is a form of linguistic prescriptivism that aims at using a form of English that minimizes assumptions about the gender or biological sex of people referred to in speech.

Contents

Rationale

Proponents of gender-neutral language argue that the use of gender-specific language often implies male superiority or reflects an unequal state of society.[1][2] Words that refer to women often devolve in meaning, frequently taking on sexual overtones; for example, the word "mistress", once a title of honor, now denotes a man's lover, or a "kept" woman.[3]

These differences in usage are criticized on two grounds: one, that they reflect a biased state of society,[4] and two, that they help to uphold that state. Studies of children, for instance, indicate that the words children hear affect their perceptions of the gender-appropriateness of certain careers.[5] Other research has demonstrated that men and women apply for jobs in more equal proportions when gender-neutral language is used in the advertisement, as opposed to the generic "he" or "man".[6] Some critics make the further claim that these differences in usage are not accidental, but have been deliberately created for the purpose of upholding a patriarchal society.[7] Proponents of gender-neutral language give many examples of usages that they find problematic.

Job titles

Words for humans

Proponents of gender-neutral language often point to the history of the word "man" to argue that, although the word once referred to both males and females, it no longer does so unambiguously.[8] In Old English, "wer" referred to males only and "wif" to females only; "man" referred to both,[9] although in practice "man" was sometimes also used in Old English to refer only to males.[10] In time, "wer" fell out of use, and "man" came to refer sometimes to both sexes and sometimes to males only; "[a]s long as most generalizations about men were made by men about men, the ambiguity nestling in this dual usage was either not noticed or thought not to matter."[11] By the eighteenth century, "man" had come to refer primarily to males; some writers who wished to use the term in the older sense deemed it necessary to spell out their meaning: Anthony Trollope, for example, writes of "the infinite simplicity and silliness of mankind and womankind"[12] and when "Edmund Burke, writing of the French Revolution, used men in the old, inclusive way, he took pains to spell out his meaning: 'Such a deplorable havoc is made in the minds of men (both sexes) in France....'"[11]

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