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Gender-neutral language is the use of pronouns and nouns that do not indicate a specific gender or that are more inclusive to both male and female individuals. This is often seen in general third-person writing in which a non-specific character is being referred to through the use of a phrase like “he or she” rather than either “he” or “she.” A wide array of nouns, usually for different professions or similar descriptions, can indicate a particular gender, such as “policeman” or “actress,” so other terms may be preferable for gender-neutrality, such as “police officer” or “performer.” Gender-neutral language is not the same as genderless language, which refers to language in which nouns do not have grammatical gender ascribed to them.
The purpose of gender-neutral language is for someone to write or speak in a way that does not come across as sexist or as promoting a particular gender over another. In English, for example, many pronouns and nouns were created in a way that has been seen as having a strong male bias. Writers often used “man” to indicate all people, and this usage of a gender-specific noun can be seen as sexist toward women. The use of gender-neutral language allows writers to avoid this issue and ensure that their writing is more widely accessible.
There are several different ways to ensure gender-neutral language in writing, though one of the most common methods is to include both genders. Rather than writing, “When someone uses a computer, he should turn it on first,” someone can write, “When someone uses a computer, he or she should turn it on first.” This includes both genders and allows for gender-neutral language throughout a piece of writing.
Pluralizing pronouns can also help produce gender-neutral language. This is often done to reduce the use of the phrases “his or her” or “he or she” that can make a piece of writing feel clunky. Rather than writing “A teacher should try to engage his or her students,” a writer can simply write “Teachers should try to engage their students.” It can also be advantageous for someone to watch for nouns that have a gender bias, such as “fireman” and “stewardess” and to use nouns like “firefighter” and “flight attendant” instead.
Gender-neutral language should not be confused with genderless language. A genderless language is a language in which nouns are not given a grammatical gender. English, for example, is a genderless language and nouns like “table,” “chair,” and “cat” do not have grammatical genders. In other languages, such as French, Spanish, and German, these terms do have genders that dictate what articles can be used with them.
As a writer by trade, I have a *big* problem with awkward gender-neutral language. When it becomes more difficult to write around something than to use a perfectly acceptable pronoun, then there is a problem that transcends sexism.
I don't have a problem with terms like "police officer," "firefighter," "mail carrier," etc., since those terms describe what the person does, and they do so with economy. Pluralize them and you can then use "they" and be grammatically correct, as Grivusangel noted.
As for me, I don't have a problem with using "he" as a general pronoun. I'm secure enough in my femininity that I don't feel marginalized by the use of a centuries-old word that most people understand to *be* the gender-neutral pronoun. I wish all I had to worry about was whether someone used gender-neutral language. Good Lord. Talk about your first-world problems. This is one.
What English needs, and what has never been developed, is a gender-neutral pronoun that would stand in for "he" and "she." Too often, people substitute "they" for a singular pronoun, which really isn't correct. They will say something like, "If a person is hard at work, they shouldn't be bothered." That's really not correct, but the only other option, pronoun-wise, is "it," which usually refers to non-human living beings or objects. People don’t like that option, either.
Some enterprising linguist needs to develop a gender-neutral pronoun to supplement the use of gendered pronouns when using other pronouns may be considered inappropriate.