How to write in a gender neutral way

Sarah Wragg avatar
gender neutral writing

There’s an old riddle that really used to get people scratching their heads. It went something like this: “A doctor and a boy were out fishing together. The boy was the doctor’s son, but the doctor was not the boy’s father. Who was the doctor?” The riddle plays on what used to be entrenched views of professions, i.e. that doctors were all male, nurses were all female (think of any Carry On film and you’ll get my drift), and that only men went fishing etc etc. The riddle confounded expectations of what we thought was the ‘norm’; the answer to the riddle, of course, is that the doctor is the boy’s mother.

Well, according to figures published by the GMC, there are now more women GPs than there are male GPs, rendering riddles like this null and void. Which is a good thing.

Even Hollywood’s going gender-neutral

You may have noticed recently that the world of acting has started referring to luvvies of both sexes as ‘actors’. Even if we’re specifically referring to a woman who treads the boards, her official job title is Actor. Because this is quite a new thing, at the moment, every time we hear the word ‘actor’ our brains may fill in the blanks with an image of a male actor but, over time, we will get more used to the fact that it refers to either sex, like we already have (or really should have) with professional roles such as manager, chair, television presenter, singer, entrepreneur and even Prime Minister.

Who knows, using gender-neutral terms for Hollywood stars and wannabes may even halve the number of Oscars needed in the future, giving Emma Stone an equal chance of winning the ‘Best Actor’ award as Casey Affleck. Although this… Share on X

Writing in a gender-neutral way = thinking in plurals

People have been encouraged to write and think in a gender-neutral way in business and academia for many years, so you’ll hopefully know the rules by now. By making gender-specific words and phrases plural, you’ll allow readers to make their own assumptions about gender. Anything they still can’t cope with, to paraphrase The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, is, therefore, their own problem.

Star Trek fans (yes, I confess, I’m a bit of a Trekkie*) are well aware of this. In the original series, Captain Kirk’s crew famously went “where no man has gone before”. By the time the Enterprise had been taken over by Captain Picard, they were going “where no one has gone before”. Just one small word makes all the difference when it comes to including everyone (women and aliens of all genders) in the exploration of space.

The rule also applies when it comes to pronouns. Some people still think that if you refer to everyone as ‘she’, this will tick all the equality boxes, but all they’re doing is overcompensating… and being very annoying. Others prefer to write ‘he/she’ or ‘his/her’, but I think this can get very clunky and it basically looks like you’re trying too hard.

The best way round this is to make everything plural, so you use the word ‘their’ instead of ‘his’ or ‘her’, i.e. “Trekkies will always be happy to talk about their favourite Captain”.

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*In case you’re wondering, I know I’m supposed to worry about these things, but I actually have no opinion about split infinitives and am unfazed about whether or not we ‘go boldly’ or ‘boldly go’. The misuse of apostrophes on the other hand…

Sarah Wragg avatar

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