How to get used to gender neutral language
Using gender-neutral langauge can be confusing if you're not used to it. Here's how to incorporate it into your daily life, to ensure you're ready when meeting somebody who prefers neutral pronouns.
Gender is a huge part of life. It affects everything: how we speak to each other, how we see each other, even how we see ourselves. This can be really tough to break out of, especially in the language we use.
The world, however, is changing and so is our understanding of gender. It’s important to make sure the way we speak and refer to people helps to legitimise and support that change.
Read more: The gender glossary
What is gender-neutral language and why is it important?
Unlike gendered language, gender-neutral language applies to anyone and everyone. The gender-neutral terms we use can be used to describe male, female, non-binary and any other people we are discussing. These words already exist in our day-to-day language: doctor, athlete and person are all ways, for instance, of describing someone in a gender-neutral way.
Things get trickier, though, when we come to pronouns. Gender is a huge factor when we talk about people. To save ourselves repeating people’s names, we switch to pronouns like "he" or "she". This can make it very difficult to describe people in a neutral manner, particularly if they are non-binary or prefer to be referred to in the neutral. Although older texts sometimes use "he" as a neutral pronoun, that would no longer be considered correct. Today, people increasingly opt for the "they" pronoun. This is logical since we tend to use this language anyway if we don’t know the gender of someone we’re talking about.
"If you’re meeting someone for the first time and are uncertain, then the best thing you can do is ask"
Some people may overlook these concerns as unimportant, but we simply must be aware of the discussion. When you consider that language is the primary filter through which we perceive the world, it’s obvious that it affects how we relate to and make judgements about others. Part of any attempt to create a society in which all people have equal opportunities and freedoms is to use language that no longer excludes certain groups or creates unconscious bias.
On top of this, people do have a right to dictate how they are addressed—especially if it is tied to their identity. Understanding gender-neutral pronouns and words is extremely important; in order to recognise, respect and support non-binary people and to be inclusive.
How do I incorporate it into my everyday speech?
Moving towards gender-neutral language requires conscious thought and effort. In a way, it involves unlearning what we’ve learned.
There are some bright spots, however. Many English words are already gender-neutral, and it's fairly easy to use them. "People" and "guests", for example, are all non-gendered group nouns. Meanwhile, "person", "friend" and "colleague" are all non-gendered singular nouns. Some casual forms of address, like the plural "guys" or the singular "dude" may have started out masculine but are now used in a gender-neutral way. Over time we might see this become the norm with the majority of the language we utilise.
Gendered pronouns, on the other hand, can be a bit trickier. Whilst it’s fairly simple to use "they" in place of "he" or "she" (ie "they" walked, "they" are walking, do "they" want to walk with us?), it’s also important to make sure you’re using neutral pronouns for people when they want to be identified in that way. Usually, someone will tell you when they’d prefer to use neutral pronouns (in fact, it’s becoming more common to see pronouns listed in social media biographies and email signatures). Make sure to look out for this signposting and take note: the key thing is to remember those people who prefer "they" pronouns and address them accordingly. If you’re meeting someone for the first time and are uncertain, then the best thing you can do is ask.
Mostly, it's important to be mindful of new or evolving gender-neutral terms as and when they begin to arise. For example, in more recent years, the word actor has been used in place of actress. Similarly, flight attendant has been preferred to stewardess for quite some time. We now increasingly see titles that once ended in –man, –ress and –ette falling out of use in favour of gender-neutral variants. People of all genders do the same jobs, and they do them equally well. It’s wonderful to see that our language is reflecting that.
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