Let’s be clear: thoughts on writing and editing


Gender on my mind

With both the Yes and No sides pushing their arguments at us as we go through the process of a non-binding voluntary postal survey on same sex marriage, it is becoming increasingly hard to avoid thinking about gender.

Before ‘Women’s Lib’ – the 60s and 70s second wave of feminism – gender was mainly a grammatical term, a vague notion that none but grammarians understood. A weird set of rules followed by speakers of non-English languages. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines it as “(in languages such as Latin, French, and German) each of the classes (typically masculine, feminine, common, neuter) of nouns and pronouns distinguished by the different inflections which they have and which they require in words syntactically associated with them.”

Thankfully English, although complex and confusing in many ways, especially to non-English speakers, does not worry about gender.

Except of course, in the sense of gender as referring to sexual orientation or gender identity. Which is at the centre of the angst surrounding the “respectful discussion” Australians are having now until November 15 and beyond.

This post is not about the rights or wrongs of legalising same sex marriage. It is about avoiding gender discrimination in written and spoken language – especially, but not only – in government, public service, business and community documents and communications. New South Wales was the first Australian jurisdiction to adopt gender-neutral language in legislation. The policy was formally announced by the Governor on 16 August 1983 and has been strictly applied ever since. Most other states have followed suit.

Gender- neutral language, (also termed gender- inclusive language), replaces gender-specific nouns, job titles and job descriptions with neutral terms which can apply equally to people of any gender identity. Examples such as replacing ‘Chairman/Chairwoman’ with the generic title ‘Chair’, job descriptions such as ‘worker’ rather than ’workman’, ‘actor’, ‘poet’ rather than ‘actress’, ‘poetess’, ‘wait staff’ instead of ‘waiters/waitresses’ are becoming increasingly common and accepted. Even ‘guys’ – while not suitable in formal writing – is now considered gender-neutral in the phrase ‘you guys’.


30+ years of using gender-neutral language! It should be second nature by now.

As should respecting all people, regardless of their gender identity.


Read more about using gender-neutral/gender-inclusive language at Let’s Be Clear: Keeping your writing gender neutral


Until next time,


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