One of my duties as a copyeditor is to ensure texts are free from sexist or gendered terms. At the most basic level, that means changing words like fireman to firefighter and stewardess to flight attendant. It also includes avoiding the use of male pronouns when referring to a person of unknown gender or groups of multiple genders, which is where singular they comes in handy. (There’s more to it than that, but for this post, I’ll stick to the basics.)
Sometimes it’s easy—as with the above-mentioned fireman to firefighter. But other times, I have to put a little more thought into it. For instance, what’s an acceptable substitute for mankind? You could use people, although that doesn’t really do the job. Humankind, humanity or human race might be better. Some instances are less noticeable to the average reader. If I’m editing a magazine article about raising children and the author continually refers to moms, I’ll mostly likely change moms to parents (which covers moms and dads) or caregivers (which covers even more).
Then there are casual terms, such as guys or you guys, to refer to groups of people. Although this comes up more in spoken language than written language, it can be an issue in social media posts and blogs. Unless you’re addressing friends who also use you guys loosely, I’d recommend switching to everyone, people, y’all or simply you, which can be plural and often gets the job done.
If you have a hard time changing your habits or fail to see the value in using gender-neutral terms, I encourage you to learn more and reconsider your stance. (If you’re a professional writer, you don’t have much of a choice.) If the gender-neutral term gets the point across, and many readers might consider themselves excluded by a gender-specific term, then why not just use the gender-neutral term? It’s more accurate and includes everyone.
Below is a list I’ve compiled of gender-specific terms and my suggestions for their gender-neutral counterparts:
alderman ›››››››› legislator
cameraman ›››››››› camera operator
chairman ›››››››› chair, chairperson, head
common man ›››››››› average person
dad ›››››››› parent, caregiver
fiancé (male) ›››››››› partner
fiancée (female) ›››››››› partner
fireman ›››››››› firefighter
freshman ›››››››› first-year student
mailman ›››››››› mail carrier, postal worker
man ›››››››› person, human, individual
manhole ›››››››› utility hole
mankind ›››››››› people, humankind, humanity, the human race
man-made ›››››››› artificial
manning a post ›››››››› staffing a post
mom ›››››››› parent, caregiver
policeman ›››››››› police officer
salesman ›››››››› salesperson, sales associate
stewardess ›››››››› flight attendant
you guys ›››››››› you, you all, y’all, everyone, people, friends
waiter/waitress ›››››››› waitstaff, server
Please note, I am by no means the ultimate authority on this. You’re free to come up with your own gender-neutral terms. In fact, I’d love to hear them so I can add them to my list. Leave a comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.