Category Archives: Sexist Language

Recommendations for inclusive language

Personal Attention

Are you a “people person”? That’s slang for an extrovert, someone who delights in the company of others. (Which brings up this question: If you like one-on-one interactions, does that make you a “person person”?)  The noun “person,” used this way, refers to someone who is extremely interested in whatever descriptive word is attached to it. In this sign, though, “phone person” probably doesn’t refer to someone whose views on the latest iPhone resemble the way the rest of us feel about air. Instead, it’s the easiest way to avoid gender-specific terms. Take a look:









Write “phone man” or “phone woman” and you’re implying the gender of the preferred job- applicant. Top marks to this signmaker for non-sexist language! Not so top marks for communication. What does a “phone person” do? Call or answer or both? People doing those tasks used to be called “operators” or “secretaries.” But back to “person”:









Note: On some devices the image appears small, so I’ll reproduce its message here:

Help wanted


  • Deli Man
  • Delivery Person

According to this sign, anyone can deliver, but only men can work in the deli. Really? I doubt that’s the meaning, if only because the ratio of men to women zooming around with bags of dinner is approximately a zillion to one, judging from my experience dodging delivery bicyclists on the sidewalks of New York. I checked “deli man” in various dictionaries, to find out whether this was a traditional term, like “businessman.” Nope. I’m still scratching my head over the mixed usage — gender nonspecific “person” v. masculine “deli man.” I can imagine a few scenarios: (1) two people worked on the sign or (2) someone cut-and-pasted part of an old sign into a new one or (3) the signwriter was on automatic pilot for the first half of the sign and then remembered that these days, discriminatory hiring is illegal. Other theories welcome.

To be fair, it’s not always easy to come up with an inclusive term. Here’s one effort:









Yes, “fishermen” would be sexist, and “fishermen/women” is way too long. But “fishers” sounds strange, at least to my ears.  And so does, I’m sad to admit, “fisherperson.”  I can’t think of another term that works, though. “Marine-life procurement specialist”? “Seafood harvester”? Nope and nope.

I’ll let you, the “blog person,” figure it out. I’m off to see the deli man for some tuna, caught by fishers.

Apostrophes. Sigh.

If I had my way, apostrophes would be exiled from English. My reasons are sound. Many perfectly fine languages do quite well without this punctuation mark. Plus, few people misunderstand the writer’s intended meaning just because an errant apostrophe has crashed a sentence or gone AWOL. Alas, I don’t have my way very often, and never in matters of apostrophes. Perhaps that’s why I seldom bother snapping photos of the many errors I see on signs around New York. But every once in a while, I can’t resist. This sign caught my eye yesterday:







I’m fine with an apostrophe-less “ladies,” because nouns do morph into adjectives at times (e.g. “Yankees baseball”). However, “mens” isn’t a noun. In fact, it’s not even a word. “Men” is an irregular plural, so the only legitimate term is “men’s,” the possessive form. But are the alternatives fair?  You can write “ladies’ & men’s” or “ladies and men” and claim symmetry and equality.  Yet while you might talk about “ladies tailoring” you probably wouldn’t say “men tailoring.” (The technical reason: It doesn’t sound right. Plus, who’s to say that you’re not talking about a guy waving a tape measure around?) Despite the difficulty of fashioning an apostrophe in neon, I think this sign should read  “ladies’ and men’s.”

This sign writer took a different approach:


Fairness demands that because you can have a “man cave,” you should also be able to have a “man shirt.” Working backward on the logic chain to the first sign in this post, you end up with “woman and man tailoring.” I can live with that usage. In fact, I can think of many a woman and man I wouldn’t mind tailoring to my specifications  — talks less, vacuums more, stuff like that. But strict grammarians might object.

One more for (and from) the road:


Why do people keep trying to make plurals with apostrophes? Upstate’s “hen’s” may be the “happiest,” but I bet upstate’s grammarians are pretty glum. They may even be the “unhappiest grammarian’s.”

Whatevers of the World, Unite!

I’ve written before about the modern custom of calling employees anything but. (See Staples has “team members” (with customers as the opponent?) and Walmart has “associates.”  This trend appears to be gaining strength. Note these signs posted in a food store near me:













The first one is a lie, judging by my experience, because the elevator has never actually functioned when I’m in the store. The second seems ominous; crew members entering their “quarters” are really on their way out of the building. Perhaps that’s why the elevator doesn’t work.

But let’s hear it for Starbucks, which displays this chalkboard:

I wonder if this employee’s 401K reflects her status as “partner.”  Somehow I doubt it; in fact, I doubt that she has a 401K or any other retirement plan from the coffee chain. And what’s with “quarter”? They can’t find an employee — sorry — partner of the month? I also like that she’s encouraged to show leadership “through” her peers. “Show through”? Like the crew being shown through the exit?

Lest you think I yearn for simpler times with older terms for workers, I should point out this sign is also problematic:

And the tradeswomen go where?









Leave aside for a moment the fact that “tradeswomen” are out of luck. Focus on the verb. The air of command in “will use” admits no possibility that someone delivering food, services, a baby, or whatever will disobey the sign and enter the same place as the front-door worthy. The sign is prescriptive, yes, but also it presumes to be predictive. Must be nice to see the future so clearly, as a crew member, a partner, a tradesman or a whatever.

Logical Questions

Signs and labels typically hit you with a message that you can absorb quickly. But this quality comes with a built-in problem; you have to infer the context and the implied or possible extension of what’s actually there. Which brings me to these signs, and the logical questions they inspire. The first is a label on a soda bottle:








Dieters’ delight, right? But why highlight “per 8 fl oz serving”? Do 4 ounces have half the calorie count? If so, what’s half of zero? What about 16 ounces? Does the number jump to, say, 1000 calories because the calories from the first 8 ounces are packed into the next 8, the way a “first thirty days free” subscription suddenly increases to $40/month thereafter? I bought this beverage anyway because I wanted club soda, but I would have been more comfortable with a label reading “no calories because it’s just water and a couple of minerals.” Honesty being the best policy and all.

Next up is a Valentine’s Day special, a bit late:








I understand “cookie cakes,” which I imagine combine two food groups, cookies and cakes, similar to “cronuts,” the food-fad that mixed doughnuts and croissants.  No need to discuss “heart shaped,” which is obvious. What gets me about the sign is the asterisk and its explanation. What on earth does “full legal available” mean?  If the cookie cakes were available until “Feb 21,” would they be totally illegal? Half legal and half illegal? Unavailable?

Last but not least:







At first I thought that “pick-app” was, in fact, an app. And it is! Download this code, and you’ve got a lifetime supply of pick-up lines to throw at prospective romantic partners. (No kidding. Really.) But if the sign refers to that app, how does “delivery” fit in? Does the app deliver the line, so you don’t have to say anything? Or does “delivery” refer to results —  a date or a phone number?

Theories welcome.










Pregnant Persons

On the subway this morning I heard a recorded announcement begging riders to give up their seats to “elderly, disabled, and pregnant persons.” In my experience – and contrary to New Yorkers’ reputation for callous disregard of others – all sorts of people leap up to offer seats to those with gray hair (me, for example) and to others with obvious physical needs. Still, I was pleased to hear the reminder.

M for MTA

A kinder, gentler MTA









I must confess, though, that I spent the whole ride thinking about the phrase “pregnant persons.” The writer wanted three adjectives (elderly, disabled, and pregnant) to modify the noun persons. But because only females can give birth, the gender-neutral term, pregnant persons, sounded odd.

I considered alternatives. Substituting pregnant women doesn’t work, because then you’re being polite only to females, as the other two adjectives attach to women. With that wording, a fragile 90-year-old guy is out of luck, as are men of any age who have broken legs or other conditions that make standing on a moving train a bad idea.

Nor can you simply turn those adjectives into nouns, ceding the seat to the elderly, disabled, or pregnant. This wording reduces complex human identity to one characteristic. I’m old, but age is just one part of me. I imagine that wheelchair users and others with physical issues feel the same way.  (For a longer discussion of age-related terms, check out “Euph and Old Age” in this blog. Here’s the URL:

One solution is to rearrange the sequence, so that you’re talking about pregnant women, and elderly and disabled persons. That works, but it’s awkward and may too easily be misread as excluding women from the more general category, persons.

So what’s a train-riding grammarian to do? I’m voting for something like this: “Please give up your seat to anyone who has difficulty standing.” But I’m open to suggestions from every person, including pregnant ones.


Some years ago, while I was teaching Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Fish,” a student stumbled over the proper term for the person who caught the animal. He started out with “fisherm…” and then stopped himself and went with “fisherperson.” Fisherperson? Really? I consider myself a feminist, but even I was taken aback by this word. It was fair, of course, because both men and women go fishing. But it sounded like something a late-night television host would mock. Yet what is the alternative? Fisher? Trout-worker? Marine life catcher? Perhaps letter carrier and firefighter also sounded strange when they first entered the language in place of postman and fireman.

I thought about this issue when I saw this sign on a construction project:

A single-sex project.

A single-sex project.


Only men work there? Or are only the male workers dangerous? Neither meaning is likely, so the sign is incorrect. The habit of assuming that a male term is understood to include both men and women – the “masculine universal” – has been out of favor, and for very good reason, for many years. Yet “MEN AND WOMEN WORKING ABOVE” seems artificial. How about “DANGER: CONSTRUCTION ABOVE”? Or, “WATCH OUT! WE’RE WORKING UP HERE!”

Here’s another sign:

No more "busboys"?

No more “busboys”?









Okay, busboy doesn’t work, not least because some of those doing this job are a couple of decades past boyhood (or girlhood). I can’t really support busser, as buss is a slang word for “kiss.” Table cleaner isn’t accurate, nor is plate remover. So, I’m stumped. Any suggestions?

The larger point is that language changes slowly, especially when it’s tied to a social movement, in this case feminism. And yes, gendered language matters. Children asked to draw a scene with cavemen hardly ever include women, while those asked to draw cave people more or less balance the sexes. So we do need these changes if we’re to see possibilities and eventual equality. Along the way, though, we may have to deal with some fisherpeople.



I’m not “his”

Today’s paper has a full-page ad for a type of investment product I’ve been considering for some time. The ad, which had to cost a bundle, detailed why I should leave my current financial advisor and switch to the guy whose smiling photo appears in a sidebar. I was halfway to writing “follow up on this” on my to-do list when I crashed into a recommendation about what I should  “ask the salesman when evaluating his product.” Excuse me? No females sell investment products? I could accept this sentence if it referred to Smiling Guy’s company, because presumably he’d know the gender composition of his sales force. However, the recommendation was to ask my advisor. My advisor could be anywhere and therefore could be anyone, including a female.

I imagine that Smiling Guy (or his copy editor) was taught that a masculine pronoun includes both men and women. This principle, the “masculine universal,” was in effect when I was in elementary school. Judging from his photo, though, I’m quite a bit older than Smiling Guy. Plus, I’ve learned and taught that inclusiveness costs nothing and brings huge advantages. Leaving out half the human race (notice that I didn’t say “mankind”) isn’t good business. This fact I know for sure, as there’s no way I’m giving my money or time to Smiling Guy, because to him I don’t exist. I’d rather speak with a broker, investment counselor, or agent than with a company that attaches the word sales only to a man and his product.

Not that I’m blaming Smiling Guy. Well, actually I am, but only a little. The problem Smiling Guy faces is rooted in Standard English grammar and British history. One unbreakable rule, agreement, holds that singular forms must be paired with singular forms and plural with plural. A table has stains on its legs; tables have stains on their legs. The singular noun table pairs up with the singular pronoun its, and the plural noun tables pairs with the plural pronoun their. So far, so good, because its is neither masculine nor feminine, but “neuter,” in grammar terminology. The plural pronoun their wins the hospitality award, because this useful pronoun  pairs with plurals of nouns that are masculine, feminine, and neuter.

Their was once considered a good match for both singular and plural nouns. Here’s where British history enters: One highly influential British grammarian decided that such versatility was confusing and declared that their henceforth would be plural only. Because this grammarian saw no problem with the masculine universal, the proper match for a noun such as student was he (singular, masculine), and any females in the vicinity were expected to understand their supposed inclusion in that pronoun.

Enter feminism, sometime in the late 60s and early 70s, and a different viewpoint on language. It became obvious that Standard English, when dealing with a singular noun that could apply to either gender, had a pronoun problem. Some radicals urged the adoption of per to replace, for example, his or her. This effort was as effective as the invention of Esperanto, a so-called universal language created from shreds of many other languages and spoken by a crowd small enough to fit in my living room – and I live in NYC, so my living room isn’t all that big. Other grammarians opted for their, reasoning that this now firmly plural term should revert to its singular/plural, all-inclusive nature. Still others urged a 50-50 split, alternating the masculine universal with the feminine universal (she and  her, referring to both sexes), paragraph by paragraph. Personally, I find it jarring to read about giving a baby his bottle and changing her diaper shortly thereafter.

Most English teachers, including me, adopted this rule: Use his or her or he or she when you refer to a mixed group of males and females or when you don’t know which genders are represented in the group. I should point out that my rule comes with a warning. No one wants to read clunky sentences like “every agent should ask his or her client about his or her investment goals.” Solve this problem by rewording the sentence to avoid the need for pronouns (“Ask the client about investment goals”) or switch to plural (“Ask clients about their investment goals”).

Smiling Guy, take note, and perhaps your company will appear on my to-do list after all.