Making Sure Your Communication is Gender-Neutral

Our native English-speaking experts at English Business will help guide you through the thicket of gender-neutral language in your business documents.

Photo credit: Sharon McCutcheon

Efforts to create gender-neutral forms of language have recently spurred a heated debate in Germany. The German language is known for both its expressiveness and for forming long composite words. As the nation suffered through the coronavirus crisis, would any other language have come up with “Mindestabstandsregelungen” (minimum-distance regulations) for the “Anderthalbmetergesellschaft” (one-and-a-half-meter society)? Yet despite this linguistic flexibility, people in Germany are having a hard time agreeing on how to express gender neutrality.

German, like many other languages, genders words. Pupils are taught by a male Lehrer or a female Lehrerin; at a hospital, you might be treated by a male Arzt or a female Ärztin. When speaking in more general terms, however, the masculine plural form of the noun is used to address everyone: a call for all Bürger – (male) citizens – to follow coronavirus rules is of course also meant to apply to Germany’s Bürgerinnen. This plural form, known as the generic masculine, has set off an increasingly polarised debate that has involved courts, dictionary publishers and the government.

Some of EnglishBusiness’s clients, naturally aware of the controversy swirling around the subject, have expressed interest in making sure their English-language documents are gender-inclusive.

Translating Gendered Into Gender-Inclusive Language

Our solution: the translators and editors at EnglishBusiness now use the singular “they” in English. Our German clients frequently insert a note in their (German) texts saying that, while they use the masculine form for clarity, all genders are meant. Our approach is to translate the segment that contains this addendum and to then add a comment for the client noting the difference in the languages. This note says that the singular “they” has been used, and that it is unnecessary to include a comment regarding the masculine form in the final published English document.

What is This Singular “They”, Anyway?

The Associated Press Stylebook (AP), a must-have reference for writers, editors, students and professionals, provides guidelines for spelling, language, punctuation, usage and style. The AP Stylebook has a lot to say about gender-neutral language. Much of it is not necessarily useful when you’re writing business reports, but it’s a good resource to have on hand so you can make sure your written communication is balanced.

Here’s what the AP says about the singular “they”:

They, them, theirIn most cases, a plural pronoun should agree in number with the antecedent: The children love the books their uncle gave them. They/them/their is acceptable in limited cases as a singular and/or gender-neutral pronoun when alternative wording is overly awkward or clumsy. However, rewording usually is possible and always is preferable (emphasis ours). Clarity is a top priority; gender-neutral use of a singular they is unfamiliar to many readers.

As we have emphasised above, the best solution in our opinion is to reword phrases so you can avoid using the masculine pronouns “he” or “his” to refer to all people. A good reference with ideas for the singular “they” and for rewording is provided by the Canadian Government’s Department of Justice, which you can find here.

Here’s an example of the use of the singular “they”.

Instead of: Every taxpayer shall file his tax return no later than 30 April of the year following the year in which he earned the income on which he is paying taxes.

Consider this: Every taxpayer shall file their tax return no later than 30 April of the year following the year in which they earned the income on which they are paying taxes.

Photo credit: Kathie Rainbow

Three More Options for Gender-Neutral Phrasing

1. Use a neutral word or phrase such as “person” or “individual” (the position rather than his)

After the term of a member ends, he may carry out the duties of a member in respect of a matter that was referred to the Commission under subsection 26(4) while he was a member.

Consider this: After a person’s term as a member ends, the person may carry out any duties of a member in respect of a matter that was referred to the Commission under subsection 26(4) while the person was a member.

2. Define the term and repeat that noun.

Instead of: If a judge is satisfied that it is reasonable in the circumstances to do so, he must issue a warrant.

Consider this: If a judge is satisfied that it is reasonable in the circumstances to do so, the judge must issue a warrant.

This technique must be used with caution since it may become too cumbersome if the noun is repeated several times.

3. Rewrite the sentence to eliminate the pronoun completely (our favorite option!).

Instead of: A fisheries officer may issue a fishing licence and he may register the licence if he considers that the applicant has met the licence requirements.

Consider this: A fisheries officer may issue and register a licence after determining that the applicant has met the licence requirements.

The Canadian Government website also provides a chart to show examples of rewording:

chairmanchairperson (or “chair” less formally)
policemanpolice officer
businessmanbusiness executive/entrepreneur/business person
cameramancamera operator
mailmanletter carrier
stewardessflight attendant

An additional guideline for gender-inclusive language in English is provided here by the United Nations.

Legal Texts Require Special Attention

Translating legal texts is challenging because clarity is essential. While there is increasing social acceptance of the singular “they”, a court has not yet ruled on its interpretation in contracts.  Similarly, the use of the plural “they” in legal documents can be misleading. For instance, an employment offer is usually not made to a number of people but to one individual. Creativity and rewording of the clause are often necessary. The National Law Review has a useful article on How to Write Gender-Neutral Contracts.

Rewording for Success

Sometimes things can get a little awkward and silly when people try their best to come up with non-gendered language. One writer asked the AP:

Instead of using the word “middleman”, would it be appropriate to say “middleperson” and if so, would you hyphenate it?

The AP answered:

While some -person constructions, such as chairperson and spokesperson, are commonly used, avoid tortured or unfamiliar constructions such as snowperson, baseperson or freshperson. Similarly, don’t use siblinghood in place of brotherhood or sisterhood.

Instead, how about a different word altogether? Intermediary and go-between are two options.

Writing is an art, not a science. When in doubt, reword!

What About Gender-Inclusive Language in German?

We’ve found an interesting resource for German writers looking for inspired alternatives to gender-based terms. Geschickt gendern is a dictionary that provides minimally awkward substitutes such as:

  • Geschäftspartner (business partner) vs. geschäftliche Verbindung; geschäftlicher Kontakt

Wir danken allen Geschäftspartnern und Freunden.

Wir danken allen geschäftlichen Kontakten und unserem Freundeskreis.

  • Muttersprachler (native speaker) vs. Person mit der Erstsprache XYZ; Person, die XYZ als Erstsprache spricht

Für diese Stelle suchen wir einen englischen Muttersprachler.

Für diese Stelle suchen wir eine Person, deren erste Sprache Englisch ist.

Our native English-speaking translators and editors will help guide you through the thicket of gender-neutral language. Contact EnglishBusiness for a consultation; we look forward to being the business partner for all your English reporting needs.

This post was written by

Brenda Benthien

Brenda Benthien

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