‘Unsexing’ the English language

Addressing gender specificity, neutrality and fluidity in written English

Of late, abuses of patriarchy in Hollywood, the theatre and politics have dominated the news. For many, we are witnessing a step change in terms of what modern society considers to be acceptable, decent and inclusive. History will tell.

If modern society does indeed choose to comprehensively unpick the structures of patriarchy, not just in light of recent events, language will be under scrutiny as never before. The relationship between language, power and gender is as old as language itself. As a communication tool, in common with any other tool, language can be used to do good or serve malicious ends. From benevolence to exploitation, from cruelty to kindness, from compassion to hatred: language is an indiscriminate enabler.

As a proofreader and editor, I witness the impact of gender on the use of the English language on a daily basis.  The most immediate – and probably most obvious – manifestation concerns the use of the pronoun ‘he’ when referring to someone of either gender, rather than a specific male person. There are various ways in which ‘he’ appears in this regard, sometimes accompanied by ‘she’. Here are a few examples:

  • Exclusive use of ‘he’ to refer to someone of either gender
  • Mixed, inconsistent use of ‘he’ and ‘she’ to refer to someone of either gender
  • Consistent use of ‘he/she’, ‘s/he’, ‘he and she’, ‘he or she’ and ‘he and/or she’ (or ‘she/he’ etc.) to refer to someone of either gender

Undoubtedly, there are various reasons why any of the above is applied. Professionally speaking, ensuring consistency across the board (e.g., in terms of font values, type of English and hyphenations) is my number-one responsibility. Thus, if an author refers to someone of either gender as ‘he’ in one paragraph and ‘she’ in another, I will inevitably apply ‘he/she’ or ‘s/he’ throughout the manuscript to address this inconsistency. Nothing problematic about that.

I also increasingly come across the exclusive use of ‘she’ to refer to someone of either gender. Choosing to apply ‘she’ in this manner should be respected not only as an alternative to ‘he’, but also as a potential statement of equality and empowerment.

But, what about the persistent use of ‘he’ to refer to someone of either gender? Does a proofreader and editor have a responsibility beyond spelling, punctuation and grammar to address this clear (even if it is unintended) demonstration of patriarchy in written English? I would say ‘yes’.

This is not to argue for a heavy-handed approach on my part. Instead, I propose that a polite, but unambiguous, comment, which advises a more gender-neutral approach, should be adequate. After all, the author is responsible for his/her own content, which includes the values embedded within that content (within limits, of course, because I would never entertain proofreading or editing ‘hate speech’).

In my professional estimation, the situation is similar to how we use terminology that relates to mental health, where a literal or outdated translation into English may be regarded as highly inappropriate or even highly offensive, however unwittingly.

Returning to the topic in hand, it is clear that gendered identity is no longer limited to binary definitions, to the extent that terms such as ‘he/she’ and ‘s/he’ may not be sufficiently gender-neutral in certain contexts.

Indeed, for some time now in my professional life, I have encouraged the use of ‘they’ (as well as ‘them’ and ‘their’) in the third-person singular as a way to positively – and comprehensively – embrace gender neutrality when writing English. That said, the jury is still out concerning the use of ‘themself’ as the third-person singular equivalent of ‘themselves’. For now, the Oxford English Dictionary advises against its use when writing English in a formal style. What is clear, however, is that language is going to be one of the major indicators of how we evolve and communicate with each other in relation to gender fluidity.

If you have any comments on this or another topic related to using the English language, please feel free to contact me.

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Dr Stephen Gregson
Co-founder and Chief Proofreader & Editor
Language and Culture

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