Open Dictionary word of the week: gender-neutral

Posted by on May 31, 2012

gender-neutral (adjective)

1. gender-neutral language does not refer specifically to males or females and so can be used when talking about either sex

The ‘singular’ use of they, them, and themselves partly solves the problems raised by the lack of a gender-neutral pronoun in English.

2. relating to policies or ideas that seek to avoid or remove obvious distinctions between males and females

Passport Canada is mulling over changes that would allow Canadians to make their passports gender neutral.

It must be something to do with summer over here … but around this time each year the issue of gender in language comes along to ask us if we’ve solved the obvious linguistics problems yet. And we say, no, we haven’t. We’re still mucking about with their and them as singulars; s/he, her/him.  And I still find myself saying things like – Oh no, I mean the the girl, I mean woman … no, her, CALL THAT SHE-WAITER over here!  I mean, it’s just that – aren’t we supposed to say waiter for both? OMG(ess)!  I’m not hungry anymore.

It’s weird that we haven’t sorted this one yet, isn’t it? Nevertheless, we have talked about it extensively here on the blog both recently (Gill Francis asked if there was a case for the pronoun themself), and last year when we spent the month of August talking about gender and English. Michael Rundell wrote Political Correctness Gone Mad in two parts (so you see, we really are trying to deal with it); Stan Carey considered the Problems with Pronouns – the post drew some interesting comments from readers, one of them wondering “if the use of gender-neutral pronouns to point out chauvinism in language is anything like restructuring the history class curriculum to not be just one war after the other…”?

Tony Voss contributed a thoughtful post on the subject and I’ll end here with a quote from it:

“… do we all recognise a strong sense that gender – female/male – offers a basic binary of life that is reflected in language? So, in the Sonnets again, as elsewhere fortune and nature are female, while death and time are masculine. Language is always caught between reflecting the world as it is and reflecting the world as we see it.”

All of the posts written during gender English month are worth another read – besides, it’s that time of year boys and girls, it’s that time of year.

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