Proofreading Tips: Editing Gendered Language

Many companies and individuals now aim to make their writing gender neutral. And, as a proofreader, you may have to help them achieve this. In this post, we’re going to look at some common examples of gendered language you may need to watch out for:

  1. The gendered pronoun ‘he’ being used as a neutral or default term.
  2. Unnecessarily gendered terminology like ‘mankind’ and ‘policeman’.

We’ll also offer some suggestions for avoiding this kind of gendered language in writing.

Why Are Gendered Pronouns a Problem?

English has male (e.g. he, him, his) and female (e.g. she, her, hers) personal pronouns. These are fine when referring to specific male or female people. However, sometimes a writer will need to refer to non-specific individuals, or non-binary people who do not identify as male or female, and this can pose a problem for those who want to be gender neutral.

The issue is that English has not traditionally had a gender-neutral, singular, third-person pronoun. And the solution to this was often to use ‘he’ as a default for non-specific individuals:

If a student submits work late, he will lose 5% of the marks on his paper.

However, this excludes anyone who isn’t a ‘he’. As a result, most writers now prefer to find a more inclusive approach to pronouns. And if you see unnecessarily gendered pronouns in a document you are proofreading, you may want to suggest an alternative for your client.

Alternatives to Gendered Pronouns

Some common alternatives to using unnecessarily gendered pronouns include:

  • Using both male and female pronouns – This involves using both gendered terms alongside one another. This is more inclusive, but it can be a little wordy.

If a student submits work late, he or she will lose 5% of the marks on his or her paper.

  • Using the plural – This allows use of gender-neutral plural pronouns like ‘they’ and ‘their’.

If students submit work late, they will lose 5% of the marks on their papers.

  • Writing in the second person – Using second-person pronouns such as ‘you’ and ‘your’ ensures gender neutrality, but they may not always be suitable for the situation (e.g. it would be fine in instructions where the author is addressing the reader directly, but it would not work in formal documents such as research papers or business reports).

If you submit work late, you will lose 5% of the marks on your paper.

  • Using the singular ‘they’ – Increasingly, ‘they’ is used as a singular, third-person pronoun in English. The same is true of ‘them’ and ‘their’. Traditionalists may still consider this ungrammatical, but it does offer a simple solution to the problem of gendered pronouns.

If a student submits work late, they will lose 5% of the marks on their paper.

There are also other options, such as using dedicated gender-neutral pronouns. The best solution will thus depend on the context of the document and your client’s preferences. You should also check your client’s style guide if they have one, as this will usually offer advice.

Other Gendered Terms to Avoid

It isn’t only pronouns that can be gendered in English! There are lots of terms that you may need to highlight if your client wants to maintain gender neutrality in their writing.

Common cases of gendered language you may want to highlight include:

  • Words that contain ‘man’ but refer to humanity in general (e.g. mankind, manpower).
  • Jobs or other roles that contain ‘man’ (e.g. policeman, spokesman, postman).
  • Words that imply a gendered stereotype (e.g. using maternal to simply mean caring).
  • Unnecessarily gendered terms where a neutral option exists (e.g. referring to a female comedian as a comedienne, or a female actor as an actress).

These words are not always inappropriate. Some women who act prefer the term ‘actress’ to ‘actor’, for instance. But unless a writer is referring to a specific individual for whom the gendered term is appropriate, it is typically best to use gender-neutral terminology instead.

Luckily, there is usually a simple alternative. Instead of ‘mankind’, for example, gender-neutral options include ‘humanity’ and ‘people’. And most job roles will now have a gender-neutral title instead of the traditional gendered ones (e.g. police officer, spokesperson, postal worker).

When to Edit Gendered Language

In this post, we’ve highlighted some common instances of gendered language. If you spot these issues while proofreading, you may need to highlight them for your client.

As a proofreader, though, you should be careful not to edit excessively. Unless your client has asked you to address gendered language as part of the brief for a job, you might not want to make direct changes. Instead, leave a sensitively worded comment for the client noting the issue and suggesting a solution. Your client can then decide whether to make the change.

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