My use of gender-inclusive language Home

My use of gender-inclusive language

This is not a politically correct web site because I have never set out to be a politically correct person. But I do try to abide by Charlemagne’s 10th Century Code of Chivalry “To refrain from the wanton giving of offence”, which is not the same thing at all. So I try to use gender-inclusive language, not because it is politically correct to do so but because not to do so is an insult to half of humanity.


In most languages, including not only ancient languages such as Latin and Greek but also modern languages such as French and German, there are separate words for a human being and an adult male: in Latin a human being is homo whereas an adult male is vir. But in English one word, man, serves for both.

In these Web Pages, and in fact in everything else I write, I follow the usual scientific convention and use “Man” (with a capital letter) to mean all human beings, and to treat Man as a masculine singular collective noun, for example “We classify Man as a mammal because he suckles his young.” When I use the word “man” written without a capital letter I always mean an adult male. Of course if I mean an adult not specifically male I use “person” or a similar term.

The Third Person Singular

In the Middle Ages all (Christian) Church Services in Western Europe were said in Latin. The first Prayer Book in English was introduced by King Edward the Sixth in 1549 and was written by Thomas Cramner the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Cramner credited the priests and other people using this Prayer Book with a modicum of common sense. The burial service for example contains the words
We commende into thy handes of mercy (moste mercifull father) the soule of this our brother departed. And his body we commit to the earth ...

Cramner assumed that the Priest would realise that he was allowed to bury dead women and girls as well as dead men and boys, he just had to substitute sister for brother and her for his when he read this prayer.

By 1662 this had become explicit and the wording had become
Forasmuch as it hath pleased Almighty God of his great mercy to take unto himself the soul of our dear brother here departed, we therefore commit his body to the ground....

Today when someone writes a letter, or anything else, and uses a third person singular pronoun in it, either the writer or the reader has a very specific person in mind. For example, when the Queen’s personal secretary writes “Her Majesty will be arriving at 1404 and she should be welcomed by the Dean” the she refers to someone very specific indeed. Similarly when the Headmaster of an all boys school writes a letter to parents “Your son should be at the main entrance by 0900. He should wear warm clothing and bring a packed lunch” the he refers to a very specific person - a different person for each parent but still a very specific person.

People who use he or she in a document such as a letter have lost sight of the fact that although they may not know the gender of the person they refer to in the document as he or she the person reading it most certainly does. All they are really doing is trying to cover themselves against accusations of the sort “Are you so stupid/sexist that you do not realise women can be drain cleaners/men can be school secretaries?”

In these Web Pages, and in everything else that I write, I follow the convention of the 1662 Prayer Book, that is, if I write “he”, in italics, and the person you are thinking of is a she you just substitute she. Of course I am not sexist, I am just as likely to write she which you change into he if necessary.

Chairmen and manholes

Certain words, such as “Chairman” and “manhole” are an accepted part of the English language, and everyone knows what they mean. I use such words on these Web Pages and in my other writings, and make no apologies for doing so.

It is scandalous that so few of the Boards of the World’s largest and most important multi-national companies are Chaired by women. It is of course equally scandalous that so few of the people who go down into holes in the road to unblock our drains are women. But changing “Chairman” into “Chair” or “manhole” into “access point” is merely playing with language and does nothing to address the real problems of sexism, at work or anywhere else.

© Barry Gray August 2008