Michael Eriksson
A Swede in Germany
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Gender-neutral language


While the general idea behind “gender-neutral” (and similar terms; some even go overboard, calling the opposite “sexist”) language is sound, its implementations and some of the ideas presented by feminists, the politically correct, and similar groups, are less so—typically, because they lack the understanding and knowledge to actually judge the involved issues correctly. At least in the case of some feminist groups, their tendency to see oppression of women in everything, regardless of the facts, certainly plays in. The result is an unfortunate weakening of the English language with no true gain.

Below I will explore some of the related issues. While a limited adaption can be justified, my advice is to err on the side of “conservative” use, and to never sacrifice understandability and logic for the sake of a dubious political agenda. In particular: Adapting content and style is sometimes beneficial; however, the underlying grammar and rules of the language, it self, must not be touched.


Below, for brevity and precision, I will use the word “gender” to refer to the grammatical gender and “sex” to refer to the man/woman differentiation in real life. (The phrase “gender-neutral” being an exception.) Other meanings of these words will not be used; in particular, I will gloss over the concept of “social gender”, transsexuals, and so on—incorporating them would make this page unnecessarily complex without in anyway affecting the main points and principles. An extended note on why “sex” should be preferred over “gender” in a non-grammatical context can be found at the end of this article, however.

Rationale for gender-neutrality

The rationales typically given is that non-neutral language would:

  1. Make women (or, generally, some group) feel excluded.

    This is partially valid, partially not—as discussed below.

  2. Reduce the effectiveness of an author’s writing by not “reaching” all readers sufficiently.


  3. Perpetuate perceived social and societal inequalities or stereotypes.

    This is largely nonsense—while at the same time being the main reason for the current demands for greater gender-neutrality.

Precedence/if it works do not fix it

A critical issue is that of precedence and backwards compatibility: Deliberately changing a working system without a clear improvement (which I contend does not exist here) is dubious at best; and when it threatens backwards compatibility, it is highly inadvisable. Note that (in addition to the direct consequences) changes to school books, style guides, grammar books, etc., must be considered—and this can come to considerable unnecessary costs. Consider also that someone from an older generation or another English-speaking country stands the risk of being accused of sexism—just for following the rules he once learned in school. The possibility that existing literature eventually would be actively re-written to adhere to “gender-neutrality” is not at all far-fetched: Similar attempts have already been made in other areas (typically relating to race); and ideological movements that have reached their original goals need even farther-going ones in order to not wither and die.


Apparently, there have been attempts at making the Bible gender-neutral. Predictably (and rightfully), these attempts have come under criticism for potentially changing the meaning of the text, e.g. because passages have been altered that originally did refer only to men, or when an explicit and deliberate singular has been changed to a plural. This is particularly outrageous, because the Bible is the foundation of several “revealed religions”, and these changes amount to humans presuming to alter the revealed content. (Notwithstanding that other such changes, typically unintentional, have been plentiful—one wrong does not justify the other.) Cf. e.g. 1e, 2e, 3e for various views.

Changing language for political reasons is wrong, per se

A warning must always be raised against the “slippery slope”: While most such descents turn out to be short and comparatively harmless, the risk must never be forgotten. Once tampering begins, it can be hard to stop, and seemingly innocent changes can accumulate to a far from innocent overall—once any perceived “anti-feminist” phrasings have been eradicated from language, calls for “pro-feminist” phrasings would follow (but not necessarily be granted). Further, any tampering of this kind implies that a certain world-view is imposed through language—consider e.g. the common use of “rättvisa” on the Swedish Left to imply equality of outcome (rather than equality of opportunity). A similar, unintentional, imposition of male ideals could conceivably exist today—although not to the degree feminists like to claim—; but its female counter-part would certainly exist if feminists were allowed to govern language.

What it boils down to: Changing language for political, religious, or ideological reasons is evil; and, even when originally done with good intentions, more harm than good will come from it (cf. e.g. the whole “hyphenated-American” idiocy). Good intentions, however, tend to be rare—more often than not, the true reason is an attempt to control how people think. We do not have to go to the extreme of Newspeakw, nor even Nazi-Germany, GDR, or the Soviet Union: Almost all dictatorships, many democracies, religious sects, corporations, whatnot, deliberately try to control thoughts by manipulating language (and in a number of other ways). Any attempt to change language for a reason that is not geared at improving the language, it self, should be viewed with utmost suspicion. Valid reasons can include eliminating inconsistencies in use, improving the internal logic of the language, adding new words for new concepts or to differentiate between related concepts, and similar; not, however, the perception or misperception that a certain word would be sexist, racist, discriminatory, or similar.


These methods can be subtle, possibly not even always deliberate: Consider e.g. representatives from various parties that use words like “democracy”, “freedom”, “justice”, ..., in slightly different ways that happen to make their own party ever-so-slightly more democratic (and so on). Unlike with examples like the German Democratic Republic (i.e. the East Germany of old), a too casual observer may not even notice the differences and changes in meaning, the implications for who is what, etc.

Inclusive and exclusive language

A point where some justification can be found is whether the language used is inclusive or exclusive towards certain groups (e.g. women) with regard to its contents: It can make great sense to write texts in a manner that does not make the reader feel excluded, e.g. by avoiding too sex-specific examples. However, for pragmatical reasons, this cannot be more than a nice-to-have. Consider e.g. that a writer naturally writes from own experiences, and that restricting those may weaken his writing, logic, pedagogical abilities, whatnot; that the best example need not be neutral; that similar consideration would have to be applied to others areas, e.g. cultural background and nationality (in fact, these may be far more important); or that some contexts may require non-neutral examples—taking the proposal to its extreme, entire topic areas would have to be avoided.

An irony is that the examples I have so far seen cited have been comparatively harmless, e.g. the claim that formulations like “Remember playing cowboys-and-indians as a child!” would be too exclusive (never minding that most US and European girls will have played this game at least on some occasion)—while writings by female writers contain some of the most extreme violations, e.g. texts that assume that the reader menstruates or will at some time be (or already has been) pregnant.

Further, the cowboys-and-indians example does not have as its main weakness that it would be exclusive towards women, but that large parts of the African and Asian, possibly also South-American, populations would be excluded. Less serious in quantity, but equal in quality, is the exclusion of many who were handicapped from an early age. The main difference: These groups do not have the propaganda machine that feminists do. A similar criticism applies to most other examples I have seen.

Changing words used

The main criticism, however, is typically directed towards individual words, say “chairman”. This is usually a fallacy based on a limited understanding of the meaning and etymology of various words: Some words are simply used in several meanings, or have a partial use reflecting an older meaning. Cf. the etymology of “man”e, and note that both in Sweden and Germany (with variations in spelling) this word is used to indicate either a man or the pronoun “one”—and few even notice this dual use in daily life. (Although the German joke of using formulations like “Frau kann [...]”—“Woman can [...]” instead of “Man kann [...]”–“One can [...]” when women are discussed, is so common as to be annoying—merely proving that the authors lack imagination and creativity, and are unable to understand the problems with hackneyed jokes.) Notably, the common feminist claim that use of such words in modern language reflect sexism, are very hard to justify: If anything, a male dominance in (historical) society has over time caused a partial drift in meaning.

To a limited degree, I admit, such changes can be justified, e.g. by using “human” instead of “man”; however, this should be done for disambiguation—not due to a political agenda. The meaning of “man” has shifted sufficiently far in its typical use (in English) that someone using it in the same meaning as “human” runs a large risk of being misunderstood, and eliminating this risk is a valid reason to pick another word. Even with words like “chairman”, however, attempts at change become disputable: Little is won by such changes, the presence of several variations (“-man”, “-woman”, “-person”) makes it harder to choose an appropriate formulation, and (at least) “chairperson” is an awkward and unnecessarily long word. (It could further be argued that any attempt to imply or interpret gender through a title like “chairXXX” is fundamentally flawed, because it is used for someone acting in a certain role and capacity, which should be kept strictly apart from the chair’s person, personal life, non-professional opinions, etc. This being so, the “man” at the end of “chairman” would be entirely irrelevant—and the attempts to make the word gender-neutral on par with introducing expressions like “praying womantis” or “praying persontis”.)

An interesting phenomenon is that attempts to make language gender-neutral often involve throwing out a female title (e.g. “actress”) in favour of a previously male title (“actor”)—without anyone considering this sexist. Notably, “actor” is masculine in the original Latin (the feminine version being “actrix”), and this change is logically equivalent to replacing “chairman” and “chairwoman” with “chairman”—not “chairperson”. (Cf. also this article on demands for gender-neutrality taken ad absurdume.)

A further irony is that such “unified” titles are often extended with “female”, e.g. “female actor”, for clarification. Worse, the abuse of “woman” as an adjective, e.g. “woman actor”, is very common.


What is wrong with “woman actor”?

For one thing, it is ungrammatical; for another, it is ugly; for a third, it can cause severe misunderstandings: Consider this article proclaiming “Women abusers on the rise”e. What the actual text of the article says is that female [adjective] abusers are on the rise, i.e. there are more women who are abusive; what the head line says is women [noun] abusers, i.e. people who abuse women, are on the rise.


An article in FAZe provides a good example of how the lack of a unified noun can lead to complications: It mentions, as an aside, that Angela Merkel replaced Wolfgang Schäuble as “Generalsekretärin” of their party (CDU). In effect, she replaced him as “female secretary general”, which strictly speaking presupposes that Schäuble is another woman...

The reader will make the right conclusion (that no implication of womanhood was made), seeing that there would be no good workaround for this in German and that such examples are comparatively common. Nevertheless, there is a comical effect and misunderstandings could ensue when less context is given, e.g. if a comparatively unknown person with a name like “Kim” or “Andrea” was discussed.

Changing grammar, pronouns, etc.

A major problem is that the proponents of gender-neutrality do not tend to be happy with changes like the above, but insist on changing the entire grammar system, most notably what pronoun to use when and where. This leads to a loss of logic, makes sentences harder to understand, and otherwise weakens the language—all to the glory of “political correctness”.

Here I will look upon some of the related issues.

Gender and sex are different things

There is a logical difference between the grammatical gender of a word and the actual sex of the person being referred to. Not all languages have a visible differentiation into grammatical genders (respectively, have only one), and, unfortunately, many native speakers of these languages fail to understand the concept. To give a few examples in German (one of the many languages that do differentiate):

Der SohnThe sonmasculinummale
Das KindThe childneutrummale or female
Die TochterThe daughterfemininumfemale
Das MädchenThe girlneutrumfemale
Die PersonThe personfemininummale or female
Der MenschThe humanmasculinummale or female
Das IndividuumThe individual (restricted meaning)neutrummale or female

Notably, in correct German, pronouns are chosen after the last used noun referring to the same person (in theory; most people are sloppy with this), with the implication that the words corresponding to “he”, “it”, and “she” can be used about anyone, irrespective of sex. Consider a perfectly correct example: “Die Person da drüben, wer ist sie? Sie ist Michael.”–“The person over there, who is she? She is Michael.” Further, many of the declension forms coincide with one another, making e.g. masculinum and neutrum indistinguishable in dative, meaning that a text discussing a girl (“Mädchen”) will use dative forms like “seinem” (“his”/“its”) or “dem” (“the” in a masculine or neutral differentiation). Further yet, the forms of various words in different grammatical cases can coincide: The dative of “die” (“the” with a feminine differentiation) is “der”—which also happens to be the nominative form of “the” with a masculine differentiation. The difference in grammar between English and German makes it hard to provide a good example, but assume that “I went with her to the movies.” would correctly be “I went with he to the movies.”—which only requires a small change to the actual form used in modern English.

In contrast, some other languages have more or less genders than three—or none at all.

Use of “they” instead of “he”

One of the more idiotic variations of gender-neutrality is the demand that “he”, as a reference to an unspecified person, be replaced with “they”, e.g. “I saw someone. They are coming this way.”—never minding how horrendously illogical this is. Annoyingly, this often occurs even when the sex of the person in question is known: “I saw my girl-friend. They are coming this way.” This a severe weakening of both the logic of the language and its exactness. In particular, it introduces the question of what the writer actually meant: Was he simply using an ungrammatical construct, or were more than one person involved? (Who then went unmentioned in the first half of the sentence, for some reason.)

A very common problem with sentences that use “their” instead of “his” (“ones”, and the like) is grossly incorrect references. Consider, e.g., “They saw a person who lived with their parents.”. The intention, from the context this was adopted from, is “[...] her parents.”; what actually is said is something very different. Another consequence is that a known sex is not communicated, even when it would actually be relevant for the sentence, e.g. because the optimal reaction to a man is often very different from the optimal reaction to a woman, or because certain behaviours have very different frequencies and implications for the two sexes. Yet another is that ambiguity increases: Does “My cousin is visiting; they have grown.” imply that “they” indicates a singular (be it through incompetence or a deliberate choice), or that several cousins are visiting (with an error made in the first part of the sentence)? Have an unfortunate deletion or copy-and-paste mixed two separate sentences together in a misleading manner? Are two entirely different subjects discussed (not entirely unlikely if the statement was spoken)? Does “they” sloppily refer to e.g. the children of the cousin?


I have seen examples like “Everyone is coming. They are happy about the invitation.” cited as precedent that “they” can be validly used as a singular. This, however, is a specious argument: “Everyone” is grammatically a singular (“every one”); but is often logically a plural. Above, this is the case, and “they” can be justified on that ground; while e.g. “He” would be illogical. In contrast, in a sentence where “everyone” has a strong logical character of singular, this does not hold: “Everyone who wishes to participate must bring his own teddy-bear.” (Note that many uneducated would write this “... their own teddy-bears.”. This, however, is not a use of “their” in singular; but in plural, based on the misconception that “everyone” is a grammatical plural.)

Consider using a passive, a pure plural, or “one”

If someone absolutely insists on not using “he” then “they” (as a singular) should still be avoided, e.g. by using a passive. (The modern fixation on avoiding the passive at all cost has little value to it, and has done more harm than good.) Those who are not happy with the passive can always switch to a pure plural, which they can do by avoiding words like “someone” and “anyone”. In many cases one can also use “one” to handle ones needs—the fact that it sounds stilted is largely due to its rarity in (at least) US English.

An interesting twist...

... to the claim that non-neutral language would have negative side-effects for women is that there would also be negative effects for men. Swedish papers, e.g., tend to use the word “gärningsman” (“perpetrator”) irrespective of the sex of the perpetrator, which by the same reasoning used to promote gender-neutral language would serve to spread and preserve a negative stereotype of men. Notably, demand for a “-person” or “-kvinna” (“-woman”) are far rarer than where more positively valued words are concerned.


Swedish newspapers have a tendency to not mention vital contextual information up-front, e.g. that the “Swedes” that are in trouble in Africa or Russia are immigrated Africans or Russians, with a citizenship that goes back two years... As a result, an incorrect impression of the sex of the above perpetrator could remain throughout a sizable part of the article.

For that matter, as a part of the extreme simplification (not to say dumbing-down) Swedish has gone through the last hundred-or-so years, many of the gender-differentiated word endings (not present in English, but compare the discussion about German above) have gradually disappeared—with the female “a”-suffixes remaining and the male “e”-suffixes disappearing. Sexism? No: A natural development, where the one form just happens to roll over the tongue a little easier. (An example would be the change of “den andre mannen”–“the other/second man” to “den andra mannen”.)

Other sources

Against the Theory of Sexist Languagee is an excellent discussion of the topic.

Ayn Rand’s Antheme (which is set in a dystopian, de-individualized world) provides a very good example of what ambiguities, stylistic problems, whatnot, can follow when language is perverted by e.g. a “he” -> “they” shift. The reading should be particularly disturbing to those who wish for such changes because of a strong believe in the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesisw. (Obviously, the lesson to be drawn about language is secondary in this little masterpiece of thought and metaphor.)

Note on “gender” vs. “sex” outside of grammar

Today, “gender” seems to increasingly drive out “sex” as the word used to differ between men and women. This is unfortunate for several reasons, including:

  1. “Gender” already has an established meaning (in grammar) and to use it in a different sense can cause severe confusion; in particular, when, as above, the topics of biological sex and grammatical gender occur in the same discussion. Notably, the main problem above, that people fail to differentiate between biology and grammar, is likely to be worsened.

    It is true that “sex” also has a double meaning (“sexual intercourse”); however, this problem is far lesser, disambiguation is easier, and it is an existing problem. To remedy this minor existing problem by artificially introducing a larger problem is counterproductive.


    In the following, for simplicity, I will ignore these other meanings.

  2. They do not mean the same thing in all contexts—and what people usually mean when they say “gender” is actually “sex”:

    “Sex” is a statement about biological fact. Notably, with very, very few exceptions, humans are unambiguously male or female—and have a correspondingly unambiguous sex.

    “Gender” is, in many contexts and in the mouths of many speakers, about perceived identity: Some (biological) men consider themselves women in a man’s body; some women consider themselves men in a woman’s body. These are grouped with the men who considers themselves men and the women who considers themselves women to form two genders. (Or are given genders of their own, as are homosexual men, homosexual women, etc.)

    When we use these words interchangeably, there is considerable risk of additional confusion and ambiguity.

    If we now assume different meanings and look at more-or-less any regularly occurring context (outside of specific topic areas and groups), the appropriate word is almost always “sex”:

    Sexual discrimination (whether real or alleged) is a matter of just that—sexual discrimination. To speak of “gender discrimination” or claim that someone is mistreated because of his gender is unrealistic, because in almost all cases the differences in treatment will stem from physical, biological characteristics—the sex. Similarly, to speak of quotas based on gender simply does not make sense—what is really used is the sex. “Gender stereotypes”, again, are actually not attached to gender, but to sex. Obviously, “gender-neutral” is itself an example, if taken in the non-grammatical sense: “Sex neutral” is the typical proposed ideal. (OTOH, if the grammatical sense is used, and depending on the exact solution proposed, we do not have neutrality—but absence.)


    To expand on stereotypes, the problems that arise for someone with a different gender from his sex is based largely on a mismatch between the, de facto, sex stereotype and his actual behaviour. To take a simplified example: If a man feels like a woman and decides to wear lipstick, he adheres to the gender stereotype (women do wear lipstick), but not to the sex stereotype (men do not wear lipstick)—his problem does not arise from a gender stereotype, but from a sex stereotype.

  3. The concept of gender (in particular, “gender as a social construct” and concerning gender roles) is very blurry, with an additional dimension of how each sex is formed—not just what sex each individual belongs to. This not only introduces yet another unnecessary ambiguity, but also opens up the door for both miscommunications and deliberate abuse, e.g. in that the claim “Gender is a social construct.” is “proved” by using a tautological and near meaningless definition—possibly followed by application using another definition that happens to be more meaningful, but for which the claim does not hold... Notably, Swedish feminist often go in the direction that gender would be, per definition, “socially constructed roles and perceptions” (or similar).

  4. As can be seen by the above, it is hard to know what any particular individual means by “gender”—even when it is clear that grammar is not intended. “Sex”, OTOH, is free from ambiguities (except for “sexual intercourse”).