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August 13, 2007

One of the most successful and enduring changes effected by the women’s liberation movement of the 60s thru 80s was the universal adoption of nonsexist language by governmental, business and educational institutions. To speak with equality is to think with equality, simultaneously confronting and subverting the dominant paradigm. Here are alternatives to those terms you just know you shouldn’t use.

Compiled from various sources, noted below. For those who want a complete book, see Casey Miller and Kate Swift’s 2nd Edition Handbook of Nonsexist Writing (2001). For 20 quirky English rules, exemplified with humor, see http://tinyurl.com/3xtjd6

 “The uncritical use of sexist language may blind us to our having adopted a particular value-laden perspective. Such blindness may systematically distort our theories …” American Psychological Assn.

DON’Ts: DO’s

Ancient man: ancient civilization, ancient people

Authoress: author, writer

Average housewife: average consumer, average household, average homemaker

Average man: average person

Average working man: average wage earner or taxpayer

Aviatrix: aviator

Brotherhood of Man: the human family

Businessman: business executive, business men and women, businesspeople, executives, business community, entrepreneurs, financiers

Calendar girl: model

Call girl: female or male escort, prostitute, sex worker

Cameraman: camera operator

Chairman: Chair, head, committee head, coordinator, moderator, presiding officer

Congressman: Congressional representative, member of Congress, Congressmember

Churchman: cleric, practicing Christian, pillar of the Church

Cleaning lady: cleaner

English Master: English Coordinator, senior teacher of English

Englishmen: the English (or Frenchmen, say, the French)

Executrix: executor

Fatherland/Motherland: country of birth, homeland, native land, land of one’s birth

Fellowship:  community, organization

Fireman: fire fighter, fire officer

Fisherman: fisherfolk, fisherfolks, angler

Forefathers: forebears

Foreman: supervisor

Girl: woman (only women bleed, e.g. by scientific definition, an organism reaches adulthood when it can reproduce)

Father of Genetics: founder of genetic theory, founder of relativity (or any field)

Feelings of brotherhood: feelings of kinship, solidarity, affection, fraternity, collegiality, unity, congeniality, community

Fellowship:  community, organization

Founding Fathers: the Founders, (founding leaders, forebears)

Girl Friday: assistant

Hermaphrodite: intersexed

Hostess: host

Housemaid: house worker, domestic help

Housewife: homemaker

Lady doctor: doctor

Leading lady: female lead

Maiden: virgin

Maiden race, voyage or speech: first race, first voyage, first speech

Maiden name: birth name, surname at birth, original name, former name

Man a desk: staff a desk

Man: humans, the human race, people

Mailman: mail carrier, letter carrier

Man in the street: ordinary citizen, typical person, average person

Man of the land: farmer, rural worker, grazier, landowner, rural community, country people, country folk

Man’s best friend: a faithful dog

Man the booth: staff the booth

Man the phones: answer the phones

Manhood: adulthood, maturity

Man-hours: hours of labor, hours

Mankind: humanity, people, the human race

Man-made: synthetic, artificial

Manpower: labor, workforce, personnel, staff, human resources, labor, labor force or work force, human resources, personnel or staffing, combat personnel (military)

Man-sized task: a demanding task, a big job

Master: leader, teacher, boss, key (as in master concept)

Master key, master copy: pass key, original

Master plan: grand scheme, guiding principles

Master the art: become skilled

Men of science: scientists

Mice and men, best laid plans of: plans can go wrong

Midwife: (acceptable to some) birthing nurse

Modern, industrial or or ancient man: modern, industrial or ancient people or civilization

Motherland, Fatherland: native land, land of one’s birth, homeland

No man’s land: unoccupied territory, wasteland, deathtrap

Poetess: poet

Office girls: administrative staff

Policeman, policewoman: police officer

Railwayman: railway worker

Salesman/lady: shop assistant, sales attendant, salesperson

Spokesman: spokesperson, representative, official, speaking on behalf of

Sportsmanlike: fair, sporting

Sportsmanship: fairness, good humor, sense of fair play

Sportsmen: athletes, gymnasts (e.g. specify)

Statesman: expert in affairs of state, eminent person

Statesman-like: diplomatic

Steward / stewardess: flight attendant

Stockman: cattle worker, farmhand, drover

Tradesman’s entrance: service entrance

Tax man: tax commissioner, tax office, tax collector

Usherette: usher

Woman lawyer: lawyer

Woman painter: painter

Working mother/wife: wage or salary earning woman, two-income family

Workman: worker, tradesperson

Some of the above collected from Purdue Online Writing Lab, and from sources noted below. A considerable portion was collected from the Victoria University of Wellington.

Below are more general guidelines to when above list is insufficient, with specific examples that are more complicated:

Avoid personifying inanimate objects as ‘he’ or ‘she’. The pronoun ‘it’ should be used to refer to inanimate nouns.

Eliminate the generic use of ‘he’ by:

• using plural nouns

• deleting ‘he’, ‘his’, and ‘him’ altogether

• substituting articles (‘the’, ‘a’, ‘an’) for ‘his’ and ‘who’ for ‘he’

• substituting ‘one’, ‘we’, or ‘you’

• minimizing use of indefinite pronouns (e.g. ‘everybody’, ‘someone’)

• using the passive voice [use sparingly]

• substituting nouns for pronouns [use sparingly]

Eliminate the generic use of ‘man’: (See above glossary.) 

Eliminate sexism when addressing persons formally by:

• using ‘Ms’ instead of ‘Miss’ or ‘Mrs.’, even when a woman’s marital status is known (however, use what the woman prefers, if known)

• using a married woman’s first name instead of her husband’s (e.g., “Ms. Annabelle Lee” not “Mrs. Herman Lee”)

• using the corresponding title for females (‘Ms.’, ‘Dr.’, ‘Prof.’) whenever a title is appropriate for males

• using ‘Dear Colleague’ or ‘Editor’ or ‘Professor’, etc. in letters to unknown persons (instead of ‘Dear Sir’, ‘Gentlemen’)

Eliminate sexual stereotyping of roles by:

• using the same term (which avoids the generic ‘man’) for both females and males (e.g., ‘department chair’ or ‘chairperson’), or by using the corresponding verb (e.g., ‘to chair’) not calling attention to irrelevancies (e.g., ‘lady lawyer’, ‘male nurse’)

Consideration for the Reader (Carnegie Mellon School of Computer Science)

A writing style that might imply sexual, gender or ethnic bias may be distracting, causing irritation or interruption, and so should be avoided, out of consideration for the reader. Further, authors are required to “avoid writing in a manner that reinforces questionable attitudes and assumptions about people”. To do otherwise is not only offensive, but also can create bias in both research design and interpretation.


Use an Appropriate Level of Specificity

In referring to people, choose words that are accurate, clear and free from bias. Be aware of the powerful influence of cultural practice. Use of the term man as a generic noun is not only ambiguous but also it reinforces the message that women are of secondary importance. Choose words that eliminate ambiguity.

It is also important to avoid stereotyping when writing; rather than using terms such as typically female, describe behavior accurately.

See table for examples of appropriate language use in this and other sections.

Be Sensitive to Labels

Respect group members’ preferences when deciding how to describe groups of people. Acceptable descriptions change over time, and there is often variation within groups regarding preferred wording. If in doubt, ask!

Avoid labeling wherever possible; in particular, equating people with categories (the schizophrenics, the elderly, the gays) is de-individualizing and demeaning. Use adjectives, or preferably put the person first with a description after, people with schizophrenia.

Aim to balance sensitivity, clarity and parsimony and ensure terms used are inoffensive.

Be aware of bias inherent in using one group as a standard against which others are judged. Use of the word normal as a comparison group can stigmatize people who are different and imply they are abnormal. The BPS guidelines suggest a test of implied evaluation: “substitute another group (your own) for the group being discussed. If you are offended by the revised statement there is probably bias in the original statement”.

Non-parallel terms are also problematic and should be avoided e.g. man and wife defines the woman only in relation to the man.



Possible areas of bias include: using he to refer to both genders; defining roles by gender, e.g. using she to refer to nursing staff; stereotyping.

Avoid ambiguity by choosing words to accurately describe participants or behaviors. Rephrasing can avoid use of the generic he, as can replacing the pronoun with an article or dropping the pronoun. Replacing with he or she or s/he should be done sparingly as it can become very tiresome.

(Note: a strong and vocal minority assert there are more than two genders, which bears out scientifically. You can be ahead of the curve by being aware of this in your writings. People transitioning from one gender to another usually prefer to be referred to by the gender they are morphing into; altho it is always best to ask. Generally, it is proper to refer to transvestites and transgendered folks according to how they are dressed.)

Sexual Orientation

The word orientation is generally preferable to preference; the terms lesbians and gay men preferable to homosexual. Homosexual is ambiguous and has accrued negative connotations in the past. Again, be specific and precise. In referring inclusively to people whose orientation is not heterosexual, include bisexual people.

Be aware of the distinction between sexual behavior and sexual orientation. In describing behavior, adjectives are preferable to nouns to clarify this distinction, e.g. same gender, male-male, female-female, male-female sexual behavior.

Racial and Ethnic Identity

Acceptable phrasing for referring to ethnic and racial groups changes frequently, partly due to personal preference, partly that terms often accrue negative connotations. Again, remember basic guidelines of sensitivity and specificity. Ask about preferred terminology and avoid negatively perceived terms. Black and African-American are currently acceptable. In this context, terms such as Black and White should be capitalized since they refer to ethnic groups and are therefore proper nouns.


Maintain the integrity of individuals as human beings, do not equate the person with the disability, avoid unnecessary negative terms such as victim, (stroke victim) or cripple.

Disability refers to an attribute of the person and handicap to constraints on the person, which may include attitudes, physical environment and legislation.


Be specific when defining ages of participants. Older person is preferable to elderly, which can be considered pejorative and is not acceptable as a noun. Dementia is preferable to senility, although senile dementia of the Alzheimer’s type is acceptable.

LANGUAGE, SEX AND GENDER (Manchester University of Salford)

Sexist language expresses bias in favor of one sex and thus discriminates against the other. Though in certain circumstances bias does occur in favour of women, in general it appears to be in favor of men and against women. Any language that discriminates against women and men by not adequately reflecting their roles, status and presence in society is sexist.

Some of the major forms of sexist language are:


Women are often invisible in language. This is due to the use of the masculine pronouns ‘he’, ‘him’, ‘his’ to refer to both men and women, and the use of ‘man’ as a noun, verb or adjective in words such as ‘mankind’ and ‘man made’.


Women are often portrayed in language as subordinate to men. Expressions such as ‘female technician’ and ‘woman academic’ imply that women are regarded as different in certain situations or occupations. The use of ‘feminine’ suffixes such as ‘ette’, ‘ess’, ‘ienne’ and ‘trix’ is unnecessary and demeaning. The inappropriate use of these titles indicates that women are viewed as subordinate to men.


Women/men and their activities, actions and occupations are often trivialized or denigrated in language through expressions like ‘girls in the office’, ‘just a housewife’, ‘boys in the storeroom’, etc.

Why You Should Use Non-Sexist Language

Non-sexist language is not intended to ‘de-sex’ language, but to ensure a balanced and fair representation of men and women in language. Non-sexist language increases clarity in language use by removing ambiguities, and increases accuracy by avoiding false assumptions about the nature and roles of women and men in society.

The word ‘Chairman’ is traditionally used at the University but not everyone is happy with this because it seems to imply exclusion of women from the role. However, people have also expressed objections to the use of ‘Chairwoman’ or ‘Chair’. People in the Chair should therefore be free to consult with their committees and to choose whichever form of address seems most appropriate to them and their colleagues.

Alternatives to ‘he’ and ‘his’

Because English does not possess a singular, sex-indefinite pronoun, the pronouns ‘he’, ‘his’ and ‘him’ are frequently used as generic pronouns. As this use is both ambiguous and excludes women, try to find alternatives. (See list at top.)

Avoid personifying inanimate objects as ‘he’ or ‘she’. The pronoun ‘it’ should be used to refer to inanimate nouns.

Varying Word Order

Men usually precede women in expressions such as men and women, his and hers, him and her, he and she, Sir or Madam, etc. Try reversing the word order in these expressions: women and men, hers and his, her and him, she and he, Madam or Sir, etc. Alternate the words throughout a document or verbal presentation.

Alternative Occupation Terms

The greater presence of women in a range of occupations makes it desirable to seek alternative forms and titles to avoid the impression that these positions are male-exclusive. It is important to be consistent in your use of alternative occupation terms, and to avoid using them only or mainly when the incumbent is a women.

Generic occupational terms such as doctor, lawyer, academic, administrator, secretary, should be assumed to apply equally to a man or a woman. Expressions such as ‘male secretary’, ‘lady lawyer’, ‘woman academic’ should be avoided in contexts where the reference to a person’s sex is irrelevant. If sex specification is necessary, the use of the adjectives ‘female’ and ‘male’ before the non-sexist noun is preferable.

Titles and Other Modes of Address

The inappropriate use of names, titles, salutations and endearments creates the impression that women merit less respect or less serious consideration than men. Titles and modes of address should be used consistently, and in a parallel fashion, for women and men:

Use of Ms, Mrs, Miss, Mr

The titles ‘Miss’ and ‘Mrs’ not only identify the person addressed as a woman but also reveal her marital status, whereas the use of ‘Mr’ merely identifies that person as a man. The use of ‘Ms’ is recommended for all women when the parallel ‘Mr’ is applicable, and ‘Ms’ should always be used when a woman’s preferred title is unknown. A woman’s preferred title should be respected when known.

It has become more common for women to keep their birth names after marriage or revert to them after divorce and this should be reflected.

Hyphenated surnames or double names are also increasingly used by married women. Care should be taken that a woman, like a man, is addressed by the name which she prefers. It is particularly important in a university environment to ensure that people’s qualifications are accurately reflected in their titles, and that women’s and men’s academic titles are used in a parallel fashion.

Patronizing Expressions

It is important to recognize and avoid language that trivializes or denigrates women. Members of both sexes should be represented as whole human beings and treated with the same respect, dignity and seriousness. Use the words man/woman, girl/boy, gentleman/lady in a parallel manner.

Avoid irrelevant references to a woman’s physical appearance. It should also be noted that references to a woman’s marital or parenting status are generally irrelevant in contexts where her professional role or capacity are being described.

Sexist ‘Humor’

Sexist ‘jokes’ are offensive to many people and should be avoided.

Representation of Women and Men in Case Materials and Illustrations

When selecting examples, case studies and visual material and when using illustrations, ensure that both men and women are represented and shown in a variety of roles.

Quoting Sexist Material

When quoting from recent (post 1985) sources where demeaning or sexist language has been thoughtlessly and offensively used, it may be appropriate to draw attention to the usage by inserting ‘[sic]’ after the offending word or phrase.