When was the last time someone referred to you as “thou”? The fact that we greet each other with “How are you?” instead of “How art thou?” is an example of how language can change over time.
When was the last time someone referred to you as “man” or “he”? If you’re a man, this probably happens all the time. But it has also been happening to women for centuries.
From accuracy to ambiguity
Ever since Old English transitioned to Modern English, the word “man” can refer to both a male person and to people in general—including women. Likewise, the words “he,” “him,” and “his” can refer to a specific man, or they can refer to any person—including a woman. It was up to women to examine the context and determine whether or not they are meant to be included.
Of course, in most cases this is easy enough to sort out. But the few cases where it is unclear can have far-reaching consequences. For example, when Thomas Jefferson wrote “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” does “men” mean people in general, or does it mean just male people? When some translations of the Bible say, “God our Savior…wants all men to be saved” (1 Tim. 2:4 NIV), does this include women?
It may seem obvious to many of us that women are supposed to be included in these statements. But this linguistic ambiguity can cause confusion for more literally-minded interpreters such as children and non-native English speakers. Since there are many acceptable alternatives to these masculine terms, why continue to risk confusion over statements as important as these?
There is an even greater risk than this kind of confusion when masculine terms are used generically for all people. What message does it send women when society uses exclusively masculine terms for human beings when more accurate and inclusive terms are also available? Why require women to constantly wonder whether or not they are included in statements about men? How does being called “man” and “he” affect women over the course of a lifetime? Over generations?
Since language both reflects and reinforces cultural values, the dominance of masculine terms in our language and male dominance in our culture are linked. This linguistic imbalance affects assumptions men and women make about each other and themselves.
From ambiguity to accuracy
This ambiguity in the English language is gradually transitioning toward greater accuracy as generic uses of man and masculine pronouns are being replaced by terms that are gender-neutral or gender-inclusive.
As Christians, we have good reasons to support this change. Besides being more accurate, gender-inclusive language also reflects the biblical value of hospitality. Explicitly including people instead of assuming their presence is a way of loving our neighbors. It also makes our message more accessible to more people, such as children and non-native English speakers. Language that includes both genders reflects both our God-given distinctiveness and God-given equality.
In a way, gender-inclusive language is a grammatical equivalent of the Golden Rule—Jesus’ famous teaching, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It is a tool that helps us describe people the way you would want to be described. Men would probably be confused and even offended if Thomas Jefferson had said, “all women are created equal” or if 1 Timothy 2:4 was translated as “God our Savior…wants all women to be saved.” If statements like these used language that accurately included all people, they would follow both grammatical rules and the Golden Rule.
Making the switch
Gender-inclusive language has become the standard for most publications, curriculum, and news sources over the last several decades. But changes in language happen slowly, so responses to these terms vary by region, culture, and generation.
For people who are accustomed to gender-inclusive language, generic masculine language can sound old-fashioned or even sexist. For people who are accustomed to generic masculine language, gender-inclusive language can sound awkward or even pandering. Tension is natural during times of change, so be prepared to respond with conviction—but also patience and grace—to people who have strong reactions on either side.
While gender-inclusive language is definitely an improvement, it’s important that we don’t overreact to the limitations of generic masculine language. Overreacting could alienate us from people who still use this language, and from invaluable texts such as the King James Bible and many beloved hymns. Even more recent writings of Christian authors such as C. S. Lewis and Dorothy Sayers use masculine language. Disappointment with the language they use need not prevent us from discerning the valuable truths these texts offer.
CBE guidelines for using gender-inclusive language
The following guidelines for using gender-inclusive language are based on these principles:
- Accuracy—Choose words that clearly indicate who you intend to include.
- Transparency—Choose words that support your meaning without distracting interpreters with unfamiliar words or awkward phrasing.
- Hospitality—Choose words that welcome people who have historically been excluded, but remain sensitive to the concerns of those who resist this change in our language.
Because of these principles, we use the most familiar gender-inclusive word choices possible and avoid neologisms that can confuse, alienate, or distract interpreters. A good test for this is to ask yourself if the wording would sound natural if someone used it in a conversation.
Here are some examples of ways to use gender inclusive language:
Options to avoid
Alternate “he” and “she”
- Strength: Grammatically correct; inclusive overall, though not in particular phrases.
- Weakness: Can sound patronizing; implies that “he” and “she” can be used generically, which is no longer the case.
Use combination forms such as “he/she” or “(s)he”:
- Example: “If a person is called to preach, he/she should consider going to seminary.”
- Strength: Inclusive; gaining acceptance
- Weakness: Awkward and distracting—no one talks like that.
Options to use sparingly
Enlist they, them, their, and theirs as honorary singular pronouns:
- Example: “If a person is called to preach, they should consider going to seminary.”
- Strength: Sounds natural to some people; gaining acceptance
- Weakness: Still potentially cringe-inducing; grammatically dubious; not always possible
Use “he or she,” “him or her,” “his or her,” “his or hers”:
- Example: “If a person is called to preach, he or she should consider going to seminary.”
- Strength: Accurate; grammatically correct
- Weakness: clumsy, especially if used repeatedly
The plural instead of singular forms
- Example: “If people are called to preach, they should consider going to seminary.”
- Strength: sounds natural
- Weakness: can affect meaning; not always possible
Rephrase by replacing or omitting the pronoun
- Example: “People who are called to preach should consider going to seminary.”
- Strength: sounds natural
- Weakness: can affect meaning; not always possible
In conclusion, here are a few more tips for using gender-inclusive language:
Use inclusive terms for groups that include men and women
Mankind, man, men humankind, humanity, people, men and women
Use parallel forms of reference for men and women
men and females men and women, males and females
men and wives men and women, husbands and wives, spouses
girls and men men and women, girls and boys, children
Use language that avoids assumptions about gender based on profession
pastors and their wives pastors and their spouses
nurses and their husbands nurses and their spouses
Use terms for professions that are not marked by gender
policeman police officer
chairman chair person, chair
stewardess flight attendant
mailman letter carrier, postal worker
male nurse nurse
lady doctor doctor
woman soldier soldier