Editorial Style Guide

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Gender-neutral language

The generic “man”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language explains in a Usage Note that the word “man” has been used in the sense of the broader term “human” since Old English times. This, the Note goes on, results in “an asymmetrical arrangement that many criticize as sexist” (including, it seems, most women members of the Usage Panel)1. Although levels of acceptance vary for each of the words in the left-hand column below (as well as for their feminine counterparts, of course), we offer some possible gender-neutral substitutions, should you choose to use them. Which we encourage.

Instead of ... You could substitute ...
anchorman news anchor, anchor, newscaster
bellboy bellhop
businessman business executive, manager
caveman (cave man) cave dweller
congressman representative
doorman security guard
fireman firefighter
freshman first-year student
mailman, postman mail (or letter) carrier
man (v.) to guard, to staff, to mind [the store]
manholes utility holes, sewer holes
mankind humanity, people, human beings, humankind
manmade synthetic, artificial
manpower workers, workforce, staffing
manslaughter (Sorry, but this legal term for a form of homicide has no gender-neutral replacement.)
middleman intermediary, go-between
newsman reporter, correspondent
policeman police officer

A further note: If -man and -woman words are preferable to the alternatives, be sure to stick to parallel word forms:

  • Incorrect: salesmen and women ... correct: salesmen and saleswomen
  • Incorrect: spokesman and spokesperson ... correct: spokesman and spokeswoman

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The generic “he”

Using the pronoun “he” to mean "he and she" is no longer acceptable. Fortunately, the generic "he" can be avoided in many ways. Here are strategies and examples, including some borrowed from The Bias-Free Word Finder: A Dictionary of Nondiscriminatory Language2 and Unbiased: Editing in a Diverse Society3.

  • Re-write your sentence in the pural.
      • Biased: “Everyone is a genius at least once a year; a real genius has his original ideas closer together.” (G.C. Lichtenberg)
      • Improved: “Everyone is a genius at least once a year; real geniuses have their original ideas closer together.”
  • Turn the sentence around.
      • Biased: A good journalist knows that he should strive for accuracy.
      • Improved: Accuracy is an important goal for a good journalist.
  • Use the second person.
      • Biased: Every student should store his belongings in the locker provided.
      • Improved: Students, please store your belongings in the locker provided.
  • Recast the sentence or phrase in the passive voice.
      • Biased: “Pessimist: One who, when he has the choice of two evils, chooses both.” (Oscar Wilde)
      • Improved: “Pessimist: One who, when given the choice of two evils, chooses both.”
  • Substitute an infinitive (in this case, “to strive”).
      • Biased: A good student knows that he should strive for excellence.
      • Improved: A good student knows to strive for excellence. Or, A good student strives for excellence.
  • Omit the pronoun altogether.
      • Biased: A good juror relies, to some degree, on his common sense.
      • Improved: A good juror relies, to some degree, on common sense.
  • Replace the masculine pronoun with an article.
      • Biased: “Can’t a critic give his opinion of an omelette without being asked to lay an egg?” (Clayton Rawson)
      • Improved: “Can’t a critic give an opinion of an omelette without being asked to lay an egg?”
  • Replace the pronoun with words like someone, anyone, one, no one.
      • Biased: “He who asks is a fool for five minutes, but he who does not ask remains a fool forever.” (Chinese proverb)
      • Improved: “Anyone who asks is a fool for five minutes, but one who does not ask remains a fool forever.”
  • Use he and she, or his or her (but only as a last resort, as this can get cumbersome!).
      • Biased: “Only a mediocre person is always at his best.” (W. Somerset Maugham)
      • Improved: “Only a mediocre person is always at his or her best.”

 

1 The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Edition. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000.) p. 1061.
2 Maggio, Rosalie. The Bias-Free Word Finder: A Dictionary of Nondiscriminatory Language. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1991.)
3 Wissner-Gross, Elizabeth. Unbiased: Editing in a Diverse Society. (Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press, 1999.)

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