Many feminists have argued that prior to this time, the practice of assigning masculine gender to generic antecedents was due to every language "[reflecting] the prejudices of the society in which it evolved, and English evolved through most of its history in a male-centered, patriarchal society."
A number of the masculine terms in Modern English come from words which were not gender-specific in Old English. For example, the word mann was originally gender-neutral (though grammatically masculine) and could be used to refer to any adult human. For gender-specific usage, wer was used to mean "man," and wíf to mean "woman." Since then, "man" has replaced wer as the primary word referring to male persons, while, for some speakers, also preserving its original gender-neutral meaning (people), especially in compounds such as "mankind." Other speakers do not view "mankind" as gender-neutral. On the other hand, the word "woman" (from wífman, grammatically masculine) replaced wíf as the word for female person. The word "human" is from Latin humanus, the adjectival form of homo "human being" (also grammatically masculine but epicene).
The use of the word man as a truly generic word referring to all humans has been declining:
Man…has gradually narrowed in meaning to become a word that refers to adult male human beings. […] By the 18th century, the modern, narrow sense of man was firmly established as the predominant one. When Edmund Burke, writing of the French Revolution, used men in the old, inclusive way, he took pains to spell out his meaning: "Such a deplorable havoc is made in the minds of men (both sexes) in France…." Thomas Jefferson did not make the same distinction in declaring that "all men are created equal" and "governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." In a time when women, having no vote, could neither give nor withhold consent, Jefferson had to be using the word men in its principal sense of "males," and it probably never occurred to him that anyone would think otherwise.
Use of the term chairman remains widespread in predominantly male sectors of society, but chairperson is now widespread in society in general, at least in the USA, Canada and increasingly in the U.K. For example, the boards of most Fortune 500 companies in the United States are presided over by a "chairman" and also the overwhelming majority of the (FTSE 100) companies in the United Kingdom have a "chairman". Since most of these are however men, a more correct description of the current language situation needs to consider use in organisations whose chairperson is a woman. Less than half of the members of the American Heritage Dictionary's usage panel accept the use of the word chairman in describing a woman.
During the 19th century, attempts to overlay Latin grammar rules onto English required the use of feminine endings in nouns ending with -or. This produced words like doctress and professoress and even lawyeress, all of which have fallen out of use; though waitress, stewardess, and actress are in contemporary use for some speakers.
Belief in social effects of language was largely a 20th century phenomenon in the English-speaking world, and has been linked to the development of the concept of politically correct language and the principle of linguistic relativity by Benjamin Whorf and others.
An example of language that may contain assumptions regarding biological sex of a human referent is:
If the speaker has no certainty that the doctor is male, the sentence above may be interpreted to include an assumption that the doctor will be male, even if the speaker did not intend it. Gender-neutral language would recommend the following kinds of alternatives:
Note that, "Tomorrow I will meet my new doctor; I hope she or he is friendly," would not be considered gender-neutral, as it implies acceptance of the construct of the gender binary.
Some usage guides, such as The Cambridge Guide to English Usage, advocate gender-neutral language in circumstances where all sexes are meant to be included. For instance, a business might advertise that it is looking for a new chair or chairperson rather than chairman. Gender-neutral language proscribes chairman, on the grounds that some readers would assume women and transgendered individuals are implicitly excluded from responding to an advertisement using this word.
Gender-neutral language is recommended by some businesses and educational institutions. Some believe that the roles of men and women in society have changed in various ways.
For example, gender-neutral language has gained support from some major textbook publishers, and from professional and academic groups such as the American Psychological Association and the Associated Press. Newspapers like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal avoid such language. Many law journals, psychology journals, and literature journals will only print articles or papers that use gender-inclusive language.
Recent employee policy manuals have begun to include strongly worded statements prescribing avoidance of language that potentially could be considered discriminatory. The wording of this statement from a policy manual is typical: "All documents, publications or presentations developed by all constituencies…shall be written in gender neutral and/or gender inclusive language. Employees are told that they need to be aware of their responsibilities to avoid discriminatory language, and that they are required to implement the enterprise's commitment to treat stakeholders equally and with courtesy. Institutional members are instructed, as a matter of corporate policy, to avoid using language that may even appear to be discriminatory, or that may gratuitously give offense in verbal or written communication. They also provide guidance about how to reflect the concept of valuing diversity in language usage.
Promoters of gender-neutral language claim that its motivation is to avoid favoring any gender over any other in contexts where the gender of a person or group of people is ambiguous. The perceived need for inclusive language arises because, according to widely accepted norms of current usage, masculine pronouns no longer communicate a generic sense of "anyone." Indeed, some people find such usage offensive.
There is a growing awareness that language does not merely reflect the way we think: it also shapes our thinking. If words and expressions that imply that women or men are inferior are constantly used, that assumption of inferiority tends to become part of our mindset…. Language is a powerful tool: poets and propagandists know this — as, indeed, do victims of discrimination.
In some cases, gender-neutral language may be achieved through the use of gender-inclusive, gender-neutral or epicene words ("human being," "person," "individual," and so on) instead of gender-specific ones ("man," "woman," "he," "she," "businessman," "mother," etc.), when speaking of people whose gender is unknown, ambiguous, or unimportant. If no gender-inclusive terms exist, new ones may be coined (e.g., "businessperson," "nurturer," "carer", or "laborer"), or there may be parallel usage of the existing gender-specific terms (as in "men and women," "he or she," "he/she," "(s)he," and so on).
Inclusive language follows the principles of gender-neutral language and extends them to other areas of language, such as referring neither to adults nor children when discussing a person whose age cannot otherwise be determined.
Some advocates of gender-neutral language argue that traditional language fails to reflect the presence of women, the transgendered or men in society adequately. This is referred to as "symbolic annihilation." In general, they make claims about a number of issues:
Some reasons stated for these concerns about gender-specific language are that:
Gender neutral language is widely accepted. It is also new, which can lead to traditional language sounding parochial or out-of-date to those who use the new forms. Some people, of all sexes, take offense at traditional language that they interpret as suggesting stereotypical assumptions about occupations. They take offense, for example, when language implies that all lawyers are men or that all teachers are women.
Advocates point out that language is rich in alternatives that speakers and writers, sensitive to attitudes and beliefs of audiences, can use without impinging on the effectiveness of their communication. They are also able to be true to their notions of grammatical propriety. Further, proponents suggest that insensitive language usage may be an unintended form of discrimination based on a "lack of awareness" which they assert is not justifiable or acceptable.
A deeper variant of these arguments involves the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the suggestion that our language shapes our thought processes. From this perspective, to eliminate sexism, we should eliminate "sexist" forms from our language. Some people dismiss the effectiveness of such a suggestion, viewing "non-sexist language" as irrelevant window-dressing which merely hides sexist attitudes rather than changing them. The converse hypothesis is that language is an expression of attitude. The implication is that one's language choices shows that person's attitudes.
Some advocates support the enforcement of rules and policies against gender-specific language by institutions including schools, governments and workplaces. Many editing houses, corporations, and government bodies have official policies in favor of in-house use of gender-neutral language. In some cases, laws exist regarding the use of gender-neutral language in certain situations, such as job advertisements. The majority of advocates for gender-neutral language generally prefer persuasion rather than enforcement. One method for such persuasion is creating guidelines that indicate how they believe language should be used, or providing an example through their own use of gender-neutral language.
Many people have no recognition of any potential problem with gender-specific language. Thus, they have no opinion on gender-neutral language and make no special effort to avoid what advocates may describe as sexist language. However, many terms advocated or proposed by advocates of gender-neutral language, such as "firefighter" or "he or she," have entered the common lexicon and may be used by those who do not have any particular feeling about the subject.
The criticisms of promoting gender-neutral language extend from a "It's much ado about nothing," and "It's political correctness gone mad, to "It's unnecessarily ruining the English language."
Many regard gender-neutral language as revisionist, as excessively politically correct, as promoting poor or heavy writing, or simply a cosmetic change that does nothing to actually repel sexism. They may consciously refuse to use forms of speech advocated by promoters of gender-neutral language. Some critics have claimed:
Some terms, such as "firefighter" and singular "they", are sometimes criticized by opponents of gender neutral language-modification as neologisms. But supporters argue that such terms have a long history that predates the beginning of the women's liberation movement by centuries. At other times new terms have indeed been created, such as "womyn" and "herstory." The issue is sometimes confused by satirists who satirize extreme examples of the supposed consequences of "non-sexist language."
Some critics accuse advocates of gender-neutral language-modification of "re-gendering" language, replacing masculine in some cases by feminine terms that are equally sexist. Other critics argue that some phrases used in non-sexist language violate the rules of proper grammar and style.
Some critics claim that phrases like "he or she" are not real English, for they only exist in print, not in speech. They claim that in print it is easy for an editor to employ rules of gender-neutral language, but speech is practically impossible to control.
Many linguists see phrases such as "he or she" as a solution to a non-existent problem, arguing that many English speakers happily use the singular "they" without thinking. But many others still insist that it is a grammatical error. The feminist linguists argue that the case for the singular "they" is quite compelling based on the history of the English language. They argue that it has been in continuous use since the Middle Ages, and cite its use by some of the greatest English authors including Shakespeare and Chaucer. The editors of some style guides have been convinced by these arguments, and some guides have begun to accept the singular "they" as grammatically correct, while others continue to reject it.
Critics of the singular "they" argue that while it may sound acceptable in some contexts, in other contexts it would clearly sound absurd: Strunk and White remarked, under the heading They in The Elements of Style: "Some bashful speakers even say, 'A friend of mine told me that they ...'" (See also Singular they#Modern reactions.) "ABC Bakery invites you to taste their pastries" sounds acceptable in part because of the expectation that ABC Bakery is not a one-person shop. "Each candidate must submit their credentials" sounds acceptable because there are implicitly multiple candidates, even though the word "each", the subject, is singular.
Different authorities have presented guidelines on whether and how to use gender-neutral, or "non-sexist" language. Several are listed below:
Many, but by no means all, dictionaries, style books, and some authoritative guides now counsel the writer to follow gender-neutral guidelines. These guidelines, though accepted by many, often remain controversial. Conflict often arises between the desire of some to modify the English language to avoid what they perceive as sexism, and the desire of others to either continue writing and speaking in a way that feels natural and comfortable to them, and/or to maintain traditional standards of grammatical correctness.
Standards advocated by supporters of the gender-neutral modification in English have been applied differently and to differing degrees among English speakers worldwide. This has reflecting differences in cultures and language structure, for example American English in contrast to British English. They are also impacted upon, depending on whether a person uses English as their first language or as a second language, regional variants or whether their form of English is based on grammatical structures inherited from another language (for example, Hiberno-English) or owes its linguistic structure to earlier Old English or Elizabethan English. In these cases, language structure from their native tongue or linguistic inheritance may enter into their terminology.