Non-sexist Language: The American Philosophical Association and Jennifer Mather Saul

Candace, 15 August 2005, No comments
Categories: Academia, Feminism, Feminist Theory, Language, Sexism, Women's Studies

Feminist discussions of gender neutrality in language have achieved some reform in spoken and written English language. Organizations like the American Philosophical Association (APA) provide guidelines to their members in the use of non-sexist language. Saul suggests similar strategies for creating gender-neutral language. This paper will discuss how the “Guidelines for Non-Sexist Use of Language” (Warren) call for concrete gender-neutral word choice and will identify where Saul’s discussion of gender-biased language differs in guidelines and in justifications.

It is important to first identify that the document “Guidelines for Non-Sexist Use of Language” by Virginia L. Warren and found on the APA website (and elsewhere) begins with a foreword from the APA’s Executive Director, Eric Hoffman. Hoffman explicitly states that publication of the document “does not imply formal endorsement” (Warren) of the guidelines. The association provides the guidelines from the APA Committee on the Status of Women in the Profession with the provision that “members may find the suggestions in this report helpful in ensuring sensitivity to all the considerations that may influence philosophical conclusions” (Hoffman, qtd. in Warren). The guidelines contained in the report are suggestions that the APA has made available to its members in order that their publications are written keeping in mind how word choice influences readers. It is unclear what further effort would cause the APA to ‘formally’ commit to terminating the use of sexist language use. This foreword suggests that a member can equally make the choice to use gender-biased or gender-neutral language. It is unsettling that Warren’s work requires this foreword and unfortunate that the APA cannot wholeheartedly endorse non-sexist language.

To look at their writing, it is evident that Saul and Warren have different goals in mind. Warren is ultimately compiling a practical summary of guidelines for the use of nonsexist language. Her need is to be convincing yet concise. She accomplishes this through a discussion of three main categories of sexist language: “The Generic Use of ‘Man’ and ‘He’”, “Addressing the Professional”, and “Sexual Stereotyping: Distortions and Silence”. She follows this with a summary of guidelines and a chart with seventeen concrete alternatives where nonsexist language replaces sexist language. Her article is easily accessible and quick to assimilate and understand as well as widely available on the Internet.

Saul has more space to deliver her argument and she does this in essay format rather than as a summary as Warren does. Because of this freedom, she can pursue greater depth and breadth in her justifications and explanations as well as explore counter-arguments. Saul does not provide a ‘summary at a glance’ but does include two and a half pages of “Solutions” (179-181) although her suggestions are spread throughout the essay. The reader must compile a writer’s reference chart if one is desired.

That said, Warren begins by illustrating with examples how the gender-neutral use of masculine terms and pronouns (‘he’, ‘his’, ‘man’) fails because these terms are not gender-neutral. Warren provides examples where the use of ‘man’ is obviously gender specific, for example: “Some men are female” (Moulton, qtd. in Warren). This statement is peculiar because the word ‘men’ is not gender neutral. If it were, there would be nothing more noticeable than in the statement “Some human beings are female” (Moulton, qtd. in Warren). Saul agrees with this and provides further examples including “Early man breastfed his young” (Saul, 175). Females provide breastmilk to their offspring, not males; ‘man’ in this example is gender-specific. Saul says that the use of ‘man’ as gender-neutral defines males as the norm and females as ‘other’ (Saul, 177). Saul however goes into greater detail about why these terms cannot be used as gender-neutral and develops three reasons: they are confusing, they affect our thought, and they are not really neutral.

Warren explains how “regardless of the author’s intention the generic ‘man’ is not interpreted gender neutrally” (Moulton qtd. in Warren). She refers to research where the use of the word ‘man’ influenced participants to select more male images from a set than when gender-neutral language was used (Miller and Swift, 1976, qtd. in Warren). Regardless of whether a speaker intends ‘man’ to be gender inclusive or not, people are more likely to think ‘male’ when they hear a masculine term. Saul also refers to a study where participants chose more male images when instructed using words like ‘man’ and ‘he’ (Erlich and King, 1998 qtd. in Saul, 174). Both Warren and Saul explain that females are called to mind less often when male terms are used as neutral than when gender-neutral vocabulary is used. Saul explains how this influences women’s employment opportunities (Saul, 174). A woman is more likely to apply for a job that uses gender inclusive language like ‘he and she’ (Saul, 174). Warren does not explore the specific impact sexist language has on groups of people beyond affirming that there is an effect.

Warren and Saul both acknowledge the challenge of titles when formally addressing an individual (Saul, 183). Warren simply says that women should not be referred to by first name, but instead by title whevever possible. In a particular instance, if a man is referred to by title then a woman should also be referred to by title. In Example 13, Warren comments that women should not be presumed married (Warren). Saul pursues this issue with greater depth. She explores the traditional significance attached to a woman’s marital status when addressing her by title (Saul, 184) and the evolution of the title ‘Ms” (Saul, 183). Something important she addresses that Warren does not is the global variation in need and use of titles, specifically ‘Ms’ (Saul, 183) which is more common in the United States than in the United Kingdom (Saul, 183). Saul also addresses the lack of privacy associated with a woman needing to reveal her marital status before she can be titled (Saul, 185). Both Warren and Saul agree that when referring to women by title, they should be addressed using ‘Ms’ regardless of whether or not their marital status is known (Saul, 185). The reason Saul gives for this is ultimately one of convenience (Saul, 185). It is sometimes difficult to ascertain an individual’s marital status. Calling all women ‘Ms’ eliminates this difficulty. Warren argues that to a philosopher, language reform should be based on conscious attention to the influence of word choice, avoiding a “value-laden perspective”, and the pursuit of truth (Warren). Convenience does not enter into her arguments.

The term ‘Ms’ is not without problems however. Saul’s deeper analysis points out that to call one’s self ‘Ms’ is often to make a political statement and to label one’s self a “difficult feminist” (Saul, 194). Warren discusses different issues regarding addressing people which Saul does not, specifically being conscious of using a married woman’s name in her title rather than her husband’s name, and how to address people of unknown gender, for example “using ‘Dear Colleague’ or ‘Editor’ or ‘Professor’, etc.” (Warren). In a footnote, Saul proposes the elimination of titles (183). Warren suggests adopting “a modified memo style” when gender is unknown.

According to Warren, the third person plural pronoun ‘they’ tends to have a gender-specific (male) interpretation (Hyde, qtd. in Warren). Warren’s summary does not include a suggestion for the use of ‘they’ although in her examples she does use ‘they’ as a preferred alternative in Example 1. Saul disagrees and sees ‘they’ as an acceptable gender-neutral term. She recalls the historical use of ‘they’ as a singular pronoun (186). In Example 6, Warren provides a comment that ‘they’ is not to be used as a singular in formal writing (The National Council of Teachers of English, 1975, qtd. in Warren). Saul elaborates on the difficulty between maintaining agreement in number versus agreement in gender, and the especial difficulty faced when gender is unknown (Saul, 181). The example “Pat will pick up their shoes” (Saul, 181) illustrates this particularly effectively because Pat is a gender ambiguous name and Pat is a singular person. Neither Warren nor Saul can make a grammatically correct suggestion on how to structure this sentence.

Both Saul and Warren stress the importance of “not calling attention to irrelevancies” (Warren). This recalls Frye who also spoke against making gender relevant when it is not (Frye, 18-19). Sexual stereotyping centralizes gender, for example in terms like ‘male nurse’ or ‘female doctor’. Saul brings to attention terms like ‘manageress’ and argues that the marking of this word implies that a woman in somehow unsuited to be a ‘manager’ (Saul, 181). It also informs about the manager’s gender when gender is irrelevant.

Sexual stereotypes, according to Warren, perpetuate a male outlook and silence women. It is important to use examples that feature women and men, not just a generic male or ‘humanity’ (Warren). Saul reinforces and expands this with examples of how language encodes male experience and reflects a male viewpoint (Saul, 189). Saul’s uses the sexual example of penetration versus enclosure (Saul, 189) to show how this experience encodes a male perspective.

Both Warren and Saul point out how women’s experiences are neglected when male terms are used. In justifying her position on gender-neutral language, Warren states that the use of the generic male causes invisibility for groups other than women like children and minorities. Saul neglects this point and focuses only on the dichotomy of male versus female. Both authors point out that the generic male means neither all people nor all men, but only a particular group of privileged men, as Saul puts it, “a very limited meaning of ‘men’ – limited not just to males, but to white, property-owning males” (173).

Because of the different goals of the two authors, it is difficult to suggest a combination of their articles. Warren must maintain brevity. Saul’s article would be stronger had it discussed the impact of sexist language on a variety of marginalized groups. Had Saul also included a summary of guidelines as Warren does, her work would be more accessible as a tool for writers. Both writers are conscious of the “tendency to confuse verbal purification with real social change” (Ehrenreich, qtd. in Saul, 195) and seem committed to the latter.


Saul, Jennifer Mather. Feminism: Issues and Arguments. New York: Oxford University Press. 2003.

Frye, Marilyn. The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory. California: The Crossing Press. 1983.

Warren, Viginia L. “Guidelines for Non-Sexist Use of Language.” APAOnline. February 1986. American Philosophical Association. March 22.


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