Don't call her a policewoman – she's a police officer. | Photo: Getty Images

 

Schools used to have a headmaster or a headmistress. The people who catch criminals were known as policewomen or policemen and someone leading a discussion was a chairman or a chairwoman. However, today gender-neutral language is preferred especially in official settings and in the media, and sometimes in private life. If you use non-neutral words today you risk sounding old-fashioned or sexist, and we don’t want that to happen! So here are some of the words you need to know if you want your English to be gender-neutral. There are many more, and you should watch out for them in your reading.

 

Old                                                                      Gender-neutral

actor, actress

Many people use ‘actor’ for both sexes; others continue to use ‘actress’ for women.

chairman, chairwoman

chairperson, chair

fireman, firewoman

firefighter

headmaster, headmistress

head teacher

manpower

staff, employees, human resources, workforce

policeman, policewoman

police officer

princess, duchess, countess

There is no gender-neutral word for titles like these. They are still ok to use.

salesman, saleswoman

sales assistant, salesperson; sales representative

sister (senior nurse in

a hospital)

charge nurse

spokesman, spokeswoman

spokesperson

steward, stewardess

(on a plane)

flight attendant

tax man

tax officer

the best man for the job

the best person for the job

the man in the street

the average person

waiter, waitress

server

 

The third person singular – he or she – is a special problem. People used to simply assume that if the gender wasn’t specified, it was a ‘he’. That is not acceptable today. To be gender-neutral, you can say ‘he or she’ but it’s perfectly correct and often more elegant to use ‘they’, even though you are only talking about one person.

 

Old

Before your child starts school, make sure he knows how to cross the road safely.

 

Gender-neutral

Before your child starts school, make sure he or she knows how to cross the road safely.

Before your child starts school, make sure they know how to cross the road safely.

 

Alternatively, you can turn the single subject into a plural so you can use ‘they’.

Before children start school, make sure they know how to cross the road safely.