Mankind, Humankind, and Gender

By Maeve Maddox - 2 minute read

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A reader takes me to task for not having used “gender neutral language” in a recent post:

In your definition of eschatology you use the word mankind. You run a writing website, please use gender neutral language please, it isn’t that difficult.

My views on gendered language are perhaps too loose to meet the more extreme requirements of political correctness. For example, I don’t see anything wrong with using the word mankind in the sense of “all human beings living on the earth.” As I understand the word, it comes from an Old English construct in which man means “person.”

I do not countenance words like poetess and authoress, which I believe convey a sense of condescension.

I condemn the expression “woman doctor” used to indicate the gender of the doctor rather than the doctor’s medical specialty.

On the other hand, words like chairperson strike me as faintly absurd. And efforts to translate the Bible into “gender neutral language” seem rather misdirected, considering the patriarchal viewpoint of the content.

I suppose that I was supposed to substitute humankind for mankind. I don’t see the point. The word human derives from the Latin word for “man”: homo, There was an Old English cognate, guma (pl. guman), that also meant “man.” It survives in our word bridegroom, “the bride’s man.”

Excessive concern over “gender neutral language” frequently results in unidiomatic English and/or unnecessary transformations of useful and innocuous words.

This is a writing site, but it is also a blog. Readers have to expect that some opinion will inform the posts.

I feel an obligation to verify my discussions of standard usage by consulting the OED, the Chicago Manual of Style, and other recognized authorities. In the matter of what does and doesn’t count as “gender neutral language,” however, I feel no compulsion to buy into the world of “Chairperson Greenspan” and “Every man and woman for him or herself.” I don’t happen to see every word with a syllable spelled m-a-n as an affront to womankind. (Should we still be using the word woman?)

In my opinion, humankind is no more “gender neutral” than mankind. Both mean exactly the same thing, and both derive from the word “man.”

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115 Responses to “Mankind, Humankind, and Gender”

  • Daniel

    Any discussion of “mankind” cannot be complete without a reference to Jack Handey’s “deep thoughts” on it:

    “Maybe in order to understand mankind, we have to look at the word itself. Mankind. Basically, it’s made up of two separate words—‘mank’ and ‘ind’. What do these words mean? It’s a mystery, and that’s why so is mankind.”

  • Peter

    I condemn the expression “woman doctor” used to indicate the gender of the doctor rather than the doctor’s medical specialty.

    I don’t like the (mis)use of the word “gender” to mean “sex”, either.

    (I’d like to see people who want “gender neutral language” trying that in pretty much any European language other than English…)

  • Daeng Bo

    Why would anyone say “woman doctor” when there’s “female doctor?”

  • Nicky

    I agree with Maeve and find nothing offensive in “mankind” plus, as she says, it’s idiomatic and commonly understood to refer to humans. There are certain words that can easily be used where neutrality is preferable – e.g. “chair” (of a meeting), “headteacher” (instead of headmaster) etc. but this isn’t always the case. As Peter notes above, gender-neutral language is virtually impossible in non-English languages. I have had difficulties, when translating contracts from German ino English, where a party to the contract (usually a company) is refered to as “he” in a subsequent sentence. Am I supposed to put “he/she” or even “it”? Repeating “the Party” is not an option, as this sounds cumbersome and repetitive. I go for “he” and assume nobody is picky enough to take offence.

  • Scotty Stevens

    Feminism is to blame for all this nonsense :-s

    Good little article!

  • Deborah

    Because humankind is accepted as more inclusive. We understand a human being to be man or woman, whereas man is man. Language can be the harbinger of change, why not respect that power? And furthermore, why be stuck in old-fashioned formulations that were, after all, created by men in a world where only men counted?

  • Gini

    I totally agree with you. Using gender neutral language to satisfy some politically correct notion is absurd, unless you are a politician. A writer needs to use words that speak to the meaning rather than try to satisfy some made up sense of gender neutrality. Using words like “mail person” when “mailman” will do is ridiculous. If you need to point out that the mailman was a woman then there should be a reason for the distinction other than political correctness.

  • Dwain Wilder

    Kudos! In my writing I try to alternate the use of male and female pronouns when speaking in general terms. Your post has given me to courage to eschew the dreadful “him/her” “he/she” constructs, of which I’ve been making use from time to time. Enough! We’ve all sorted out by now who’s of what gender persuasion (except for those for whom its a somewhat permeable boundary).

    And it’s easy enough to know when the writer is being piggy about gender preferences from the context. Requiring such a writer to wrap the text in more appropriate gender references simply puts lipstick on the … (oh well, we all know that one by now)

  • Peter Garner

    I don’t see the problem with “humankind.” I use it all the time and it sounds completely natural to me. The same goes with “chairperson” (though I tend to use “chairman” when the person being referred to is a man).

  • Gini

    Don’t get me started on the he/she construct! It really slows the reader down and interupts the flow of the writing. Glad to see you are going to take the plunge and stop using it. Good for you.

  • Gini

    Peter: “I don’t see the problem with “humankind.” I use it all the time and it sounds completely natural to me. The same goes with “chairperson” (though I tend to use “chairman” when the person being referred to is a man).”

    Question: If you would use chairman to refer to a man why wouldn’t you use chairwoman to refer to a woman? Why use chairperson at all? See, it is just too confusing.

    I do agree that humankind sounds okay, but I read a lot of paranormal fiction so there is usually some other “kind” involved. 🙂

  • Terri Heath

    I agree about the silly politically correct speech. I am a woman, but using mankind is fine with me. I do have an unrelated question, though.

    I take pictures of people with my camera; my children have their spring pictures taken at school; pictures made with Santa; and we have family pictures during the holidays. During a trip to London, I asked to have my picture taken with a Beefeater at the Tower of London. He replied, “My dear, it’s a photo.” Do Americans use this term wrongly, or was he just being overly proper?

  • Ibrahim | TwentiesLife.ocm

    Agreed. It seems that sometimes people are just looking for a reason to criticize.

    Things like “Policewoman,” Firewoman” and “female doctor” seem to be insulting, as the female can’t just be identified by her profession, it has to be clearly stated that she’s a woman.

    Why, as a society, is it so important to focus on the sex of an individual, rather than just the quality that matters in the situation?!

  • Julie

    I am particularly pleased to see a well-reasoned argument against gender-neutral language from the pen (or keyboard) of a woman. Are we so unsure of our worth that we must insist on being constantly recognized by our sex? If I am referred to as a “chairwoman” or a “woman doctor,” is someone just objectifying my female brain? Ha! 😉

  • Reddy Kilowattt

    Congratulations! Thanks for standing up for the English language and common sense. The usage you (and I) support has been around for centuries, yet the political correctness crowd acts as if their new usage is all that has ever existed, or should be allowed to exist. PC language grates on the ear and on the mind. Long live mankind!

  • Nelida K.

    I have to agree with Deborah on this. While the excessive use of “gender-sensitive” language (like the he or she/person kind of thing) can be cumbersome and in some cases faintly ridiculous, and the anxiety to conform to political correctness gets at times to be quite irritating, you don’t have, you must not, lose sight of the fact that language is very powerful.

    As Deborah very aptly said, (forgive me, Deb, for quoting you without asking your permission first…):

    “And furthermore, why be stuck in old-fashioned formulations that were, after all, created by men in a world where only men counted?”

    It is subtle, but it’s there, all the time, and conditions our mind and our thinking. And our behavior. I am not a “feminist” (isn’t this term somewhat “dated” by now?) as pejoratively used by someone in this forum, but it irks me that all these savants and thinkers whom everybody quotes, are always talking about “man this”, “man that”, effectively casting aside the female half of the human species.

    I am a translator to and from Spanish, native in Spanish, and in Spanish it is a real pain trying to be gender-correct, since in that language we have what is called a “grammatical masculine gender” (gender, not “sex”) that covers both (biological) sexes, and the political correctness trend sometimes causes ridiculous constructions. So the line has to be drawn somewhere. And I do draw it, in Spanish.

    But in English, I always defend writing “persons” where the term “men” is meant to mean “men and women”. Why not simply say “humans” and drop the “kind” thing completely.

    Language is a powerful tool and expresses – so the linguists say – our view of the world and the society we live in. The trick is to keep this in mind and not overdo the “political correctness” angle. Moderation and common sense (a far-from-common commodity) should rule. At least, in my opinion.

  • Lynn

    Amen sister! Thanks for bringing reason to the subject. In this day and age, I don’t believe that the use of “he” or “man” belittles anyone. I abhor he/she in writing and will do everything possible to avoid using the expression in my own writing, and frankly won’t read most articles that resort to the use of it.

  • jeff

    from now on, i’m just going to use “womankind” when i’m talking about everyone; and i’ll just use “she” when i’m talking about doctors, engineers, camera operators, museum curators, business owners, company directors

    but wait, what’s tht whining noise?!?!?!

    i can already hear the hue and cry from the men that i’m making them invisible!!!!!!!!!!

  • LaWanna

    I don’t have any deep thoughts other than to say I believe the “Politically Correct Cops”have become silly.

    I only found this group a couple of weeks ago and I appreciate the information you send out each day. Continue to write the way that is comfortable for you. Most of us understand “mankind” is all inclusive. lw

  • Richard Gilbert

    Incidently, “gender” applies only to words, not to people.

  • menrvasofia

    I disagree with your post.

    We use language to interpret the world around us. We have an obligation to be as concise and correct in our usage as we can.

    Writers run the risk of alienating their audience when they use gender insensitive language and the message gets lost.

    Is that your intent?

  • jackie baisa

    Bravo. Well said.

    While I try to lack as much gender bias as possible, “mankind” is such an ancient term, who in the world would try and erase it? One could use “humanity”, but I will be honest and say that it just doesn’t pack the same punch.

    Also, some writers, editors, and bloggers (such as myself) are Old School, and even though we have zero tolerance for anything negative toward women (I am one, after all), I refuse to write “he or she” or “him or her” or “himself or herself” in every. single. instance. I’d rather not write anything, to be honest.

    I think the word “mankind” is acceptable. Maybe not completely ideal, but it’s a word that has been used through the ages and has deep root that are wont to stay in the ground.

  • Karla

    Yay, Maeve! I was in the Air Force in the late 70s/early 80s, and I think that’s when people starting using words like “chairperson” and it drove me nutty. Guys that I worked with teased that they should call me “airperson” instead of airman. My response was that I’m a hu-man, and a wo-man, and fe-male, so why not airman??? You can’t call me hu-person. How about hu-per-daughter, then? Jeesh. Enough of this PC BS.

  • L Newberry

    So many odd and often awkward sentences are created by those trying to be gender neutral. I’m hoping this trend has finished its swing to the far end and is now coming back toward a sensible middle ground. If you need to specify gender you can do so without offending most, but never think you will make everyone happy.

  • Daquan Wright

    It’s not that serious, as you’ve already noted yourself. Rather bothersome that someone would find a reason to complain about such trivial word usage anyway.

  • Jim Chazer

    Perhaps the reader should spend more time proofreading her posts and less time complaining about this sort of nonsense.

  • Susan Z. Swan

    The use of “man” and “he” as generics is indeed a big deal. Decades of sociolinguistic and psycholinguistic research has shown in every study that the actual perception of the use of these words limits the readers/hearers understanding, creating a mental understanding of males only. (I’d be delighted to provide the research should you wish to see it.) It is not an issue of “political correctness” — it is an issue of communicating effectively. People may claim that it means both male/female to them, but they are wrong. Their answer is at a surface level and not in terms of what is actually happening in their brains at the “making-meaning level”. If the intent is to communicate in a way that includes both males and females in the ultimate understanding by the receiver of the intended message, the use of “man” and “he” as generics are not the way to do it.

  • Vicki Kennedy

    I totally agree with what you said, Maeve. I am so sick of everyone having to be politically correct on everything. I’m a woman too and take no offense at the word mankind.

  • Rod

    Maeve is right, euphemisms and changes in words due to sexual prejudices are ridiculous “police woman, business woman” sounds like a super hero to me, words should be a linguistics problem not a sexist discussion

  • Stevie Godson

    Well said, Maeve Maddox. Sanity at last!

  • Eric C

    I’m usually on the side of gender nuetral stuff, but I agreed with Maeve for most of her examples.

  • Charlie

    Glad to read that I’m not the only one who is driven nuts by trying to be gender-neutral when writing.
    It does inhibit the flow when you have to stop and acknowledge both sides.
    Thanks, Maeve. This is a good read on the blog portion and in the comments.

  • Nicky

    Terri,

    Re your picture/photo question: I am a UK English speaker, I don’t think this is a question of right or wrong usage, just a difference between American and English usage. In the UK, a picture is normally a drawing or a painting, whereas a camera invariably takes photos. We would always say school photo, photo with Santa etc.That’s just the way we use the word. Sounds like the beefeater was being a bit snobby!

  • melissa

    Many people are pointing out that you should use human instead of human kind or whatever, but I’m not sure if they completely read what you wrote here, Meave. Man is even inside of the word human! I couldn’t agree with you more that the implication that we have to separate out the men from the women in a profession as if they could not be equally judge inside the profession, is insulting to both genders and to even the said profession.
    Nicky, I can’t speak for German, but I’m fluent in Spanish and I can’t agree more how annoying the translating process is. In Spanish the word is feminine & thusly would be read as she in the translated documents by your standards. I, personally, don’t have a problem with either way, but I could see confusion for multi-lingual readers or non-fluent English readers. Who’s she (or he, in your case)? Where did they come from? I believe it’s standardly translated to ‘it.’ I have noticed that some contracts will state that from here on out the will refer to such and such as _______ and then repetitively say “_______” almost never has he/she/it. I think it’s more to cover their butts than to be neutral, though.

  • Chris M

    There is nothing wrong with the word “mankind” to refer to everyone. To use the phrase “humankind” would say that the animal kingdom also view this website or perhaps we are discussing aliens from another planet that may have an opinion.

    I mean if you really want to get serious about neutral gender based phrasing, why not use the term “carbon-based lifeforms”?

  • Drew

    As a women I agree it is condescending when people refer to me using gender-neutral language. If I were to achieve a postion worthy of a title such as chairman, or doctor, I would like to think I achieved it because of my personal worth or because I was best for the job and not in any way due to my sex.

  • Bruce Dodd

    I am now long retired, but I used to administer a large number of committees developing consensus standards in a number of fields. One of those dealt with Electronic Data Interchange, EDI, and, due to the nature of the field, had several active technical sub-committees.

    One of the latter (an unusually contentious one) was chaired by one of the best, most effective, committee chairmen I ever dealt with; and irrelevantly one of the most beautiful, a tall, blonde, and altogether lovely young woman named Caroline, with brains to match. What the Brits would call “a smasher”.

    At the close of one meeting I addressed her as Madam Chairman (though she was in fact Mademoiselle). I was taken to task by an officious official of our national standards body, who thought I should have referred to her as chairperson.
    Since she was standing nearby, I appealed to Caroline herself. I thought her reply worth repeating.

    “Oh, I think that’s very silly. ‘Chairman’ is fine with me. Besides, (small smile) I think people can tell the difference, don’t you?”

    Bruce Dodd
    Ottawa

  • Daeng Bo

    Jeff,

    You’re welcome to refer to everyone as “she,” but since it goes against the conventions of standard English, your readers are bound to be confused. I won’t be whining, though.

  • Gabrielle T

    Sorry Maeve, since when and why should ‘man’ mean person. That is ridiculous, as is the many examples you quote, clutching at straws methinks?

    Yes, indeed, ‘humankind’, why not? Why not ‘Chair’, no need to qualify, similarly, no need to qualify (self-explanatory), poet, author, or doctor.

    Comments naturally, coming mostly from males, defend the use of ‘he’ ‘men’ ‘man’ etc, in whatever context.

    Thanks DEBORAH, I totally agree with your comment.

    It is well established; in the minds of little girls from the moment, they begin reading that the world revolves around ‘he’. Society tends to describe successful women battling through the so called ‘glass ceiling’ as ‘male identifiers’.

    The burghers from centuries past permit ‘Mother Earth’, created (of course) by a god, not a goddess.

    A child with a captured insect (for instance) may say ‘I’ll let him go back to his mummy’. But where’s dad, at the gas station, ‘fillin her up’, ‘gettin’ her going’, ‘give her a kick-start’ and so on. Utilities, such as ships, aeroplanes etc servicing ‘man’ kind, referred to as ‘her’ (for some extraordinary reason) is demeaning to the female race, inferring mindless, subservience. Imagine: ‘he’ set sail and gallantly breasted the waves?

    Julian Barnes wrote an amusing article on the subliminal effect the use of ‘man’ has on society in general – the consensus being – what’s wrong with ‘they’, or ‘it’?

    ‘Give me the child until he’s seven and I’ll give you the man’ avow the notoriously misogynist Jesuit Priests. Obviously, we women are exempt, how fortunate.

    Think: Enid Blyton’s ‘Famous Five’, timid, feeble Anne, but intrepid George earns the masculine nomenclature, ‘tomboy’, as girls still do if/when demonstrating ‘boyish’ behaviour. ‘The Wind in the Willows’ has badger, ratty, mole, toad, et al, all blokes. And what about ‘Nancy boys’, a derisory allusion to male homosexuals, (dykes don’t matter, they don’t exist); the examples are endless.

    One needn’t stop to wonder why women, brainwashed from birth, consciously, or unconsciously bow to the influence of men.

    ‘Feminism’ an outdated concept, may (thankfully) be so, when women (once forbidden to vote, forbidden to work if married), are paid the same as their male counterparts, granted maternity leave, permitted to wear a veil or burqa if they wish, are not discriminated in the workforce because of their biology, and so on. Thanks to feminism, we have come a long way since the ‘olden’ days, but while arcane ‘he’ dominates our parlance, may they remain.

    The following comments I’ve directed to those who expressed their views on this vexed topic.

    22 Responses to “Mankind, Humankind, and Gender”

    I agree with DANIEL, and with PETER, but NICKY, no, you’re wrong, plenty are ‘picky enough to take offence’. GINI – why not post-officer? Postman is unacceptable. DWAIN, there are ways around him/her, read Julian Barne’s dissertation on the topic. TERRI, Santa Claus? Parents (in this age of pedophile paranoia) discourage their kids from hopping on the lap of a (presumably) kindly old man that they do not know, dressed in disguise.

    NEDILA, right on, well done.

    LYNN, insensitive use of ‘he’ or ‘man’ to denote the human race is most certainly belittling.

    JEFF, you must be joking.

    KARLA, if airman/or woman is a pilot, then why not leave it at that.

    ROD, ‘Police’ stands alone, needs no qualification. DAQUAN, word usage, biased in favour of the male race is far from trivial.

    NICKY, ‘Santa’, as a patriarch, why is that, no prizes for guessing.

    Gabrielle T. (alias, ‘Sappho is a right-on woman’).

    Julian Barnes wrote an amusing article on the subliminal effect the use of ‘man’ has on society in general – the consensus being – what’s wrong with ‘they’, or ‘it’?
    ‘Give me the child until he’s seven and I’ll give you the man’ avow the notoriously misogynist Jesuit Priests. Obviously, we women are exempt, how fortunate.
    Think: Enid Blyton’s ‘Famous Five’, timid, feeble Anne, but intrepid George earns the masculine nomenclature, ‘tomboy’, as girls still do if/when demonstrating ‘boyish’ behaviour. ‘The Wind in the Willows’ has badger, ratty, mole, toad, et al, all blokes. And what about ‘Nancy boys’, a derisory allusion to male homosexuals, (dykes don’t matter, they don’t exist); the examples are endless.
    One needn’t stop to wonder why women, brainwashed from birth, consciously, or unconsciously bow to the influence of men.
    ‘Feminism’ an outdated concept, may (thankfully) be so, when women (once forbidden to vote, forbidden to work if married), are paid the same as their male counterparts, granted maternity leave, permitted to wear a veil or burqa if they wish, are not discriminated in the workforce because of their biology, and so on. Thanks to feminism, we have come a long way since the ‘olden’ days, but while arcane ‘he’ dominates our parlance, may they remain.
    The following comments I’ve directed to those who expressed their views on this vexed topic.
    22 Responses to “Mankind, Humankind, and Gender”

    I agree with Daniel, and with Peter, but Nicky, no, you’re wrong, plenty are ‘picky enough to take offence’. Gini – why not post-officer? Postman is unacceptable. Dwain, there are ways around him/her, read Julian Barne’s dissertation on the topic. Terri, Santa Claus? Parents (in this age of pedophile paranoia) discourage their kids from hopping on the lap of a (presumably) kindly old man that they do not know, dressed in disguise.

    Nelida, Right on, well done.

    Lynn, insensitive use of ‘he’ or ‘man’ to denote the human race is most certainly belittling. Jeff, you must be joking. Karla, if airman/or woman is a pilot, then why not leave it at that. Rod, ‘Police’ stands alone, needs no qualification. Daquan, word usage, biased in favour of the male race is far from trivial. Nicky, ‘Santa’, as a patriarch, why is that, no prizes for guessing.

    Gabrielle T. (alias, ‘Sappho is a right-on woman’).

  • Terry

    I am woman, here me whine…mankind is fine. And I come from a long line of good old boys. Heck, my name is Terry, Dad tried to masculate me in every way- but I always knew who I was and what I was. Words don’t diminish us ladies, well I guess they can if one allows it. If we’re always up in arms about every little word- we’ll always feel a separation. Taking the whole article into context- we all are included, no offense do I read. Write on!

    “You can’t please every one, so you got to please your self…”
    Da-da-da-da-dadadada-

  • E

    I absolutely agree with you. People who over-use “gender-neutral” language just end up coming off as absurd and their writing sounds unnatural. The same goes for the ridiculous “he/she”, which in my opinion only accomplishes to distract the reader. I think that words like “actress” and “hostess” are fine if one is trying to make clear that the fact that the person in question is a woman, but words like “humankind” are just stupid.

  • Peter Garner

    Gini: “Question: If you would use chairman to refer to a man why wouldn’t you use chairwoman to refer to a woman? Why use chairperson at all? See, it is just too confusing.”

    It’s not systematic; I approach every case differently. I think we writers should be flexible. To my way of thinking, both “chairman” and “chairperson” sound fine, whereas “chairwoman” sounds forced. Not particularly logical, I admit, but then, the English language is nothing if not illogical in the extreme. In any case, judging by the comments (and my personal experience), we all have very different opinions and tolerances in this regard.

    As for the whole he/she issue, 99 percent of the time, a good writer should be able to avoid it (for example, by using the plural). On the odd occasion when it appears to be unavoidable, I have no qualms about using, for example, the so-called “singular ‘they’.” I sometimes get flack from my clients for it, but I try and fight the good fight. 😀

  • Nelida K.

    Peter Garner:

    Finally, a linguistic approach to the question. A nice change from the usual gents’ gut macho reaction. I resort to the singular “they” and the plural frequently.

    My contention was (maybe I wasn’t clear enough in my previous comment) that you cannot wipe out with one stroke of your pen a whole chunk of social changes occurred in the last century. Entire legislations recognized women a new role in the political, social and economic aspects of society, and it is only natural that language should recognize it. But one should strive, as with all historic swings, to stay in the middle.

    But you have it so easy in English to be politically gender-correct. It is a lot harder, believe you me, in Spanish. Just an example: in English you say “the student” for both sexes. In Spanish, the sex is indicated by the article: “la” for feminine, “el” for masculine. But there is the “masculine grammatical gender” which is all-inclusive, so you would say “los estudiantes” and it is understood that it covers both. Unless if for some specific reason, a statistical study maybe, you wanted to refer to the female or male student population. Or “reader”. Traditionally “el lector”, which is masculine but understood to cover both. Some try and use gender sensitive language in this connection which always results in a forced rendition.
    Nice meeting you in this forum. Take care.

  • Dwain Wilder

    Richard Gilbert wrote, “Incidently, “gender” applies only to words, not to people.”

    Not so fast, sir. Try telling that to a transgendered person. Gender expression is a well known trait of all animals. We, as all species, even play and play tricks with its expression. And having the wrong gender, one that doesn’t match one’s mind, can be quite painful and disorienting.

  • Karla

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gender: Gender is the wide set of characteristics that are seen to distinguish between male and female entities, extending from one’s biological sex to, in humans, one’s social role or gender identity. As a word, it has more than one valid definition. In linguistics, it refers to characteristics of words. In ordinary speech, it is used interchangeably with “sex” to denote the condition of being male or female. In the social sciences, however, it refers specifically to social differences such as gender roles.

  • Deb Kincaid

    I’m a 50-something woman who grew up during the “burn-your-bra” heyday–and I think gender neutral language is absurd. I never, in my entire life, even as a little girl, thought the term mankind excluded me. I never thought referring to “he” or “him” in writing excluded “she’s” or “her’s” either, unless the surrounding context implied it. I hate trying to accommodate gender neutral guidelines in the magazine articles I write; it provokes cumbersome and often silly sentences. It also hobbles the writing process. It also hobbles the reader. It trips me up every time. There are two situations I DO hate:

    (1) using “they” when he or she is called for. But, of course, we can’t use “he” to refer to “he and she” anymore, or the political correctors get their (he and she) knickers in a twist; and (2) alternating “he” and “she” in consecutive paragraphs. Now that is just plain nonsense.

    I, too, will be glad when writers can concentrate on writing and won’t have to worry about somebody else’s pet insecurity, and about them foisting their phobias on the writing community. Let’s hope the pendulum swings back toward reasonableness.

  • Nelida K.

    When I last posted a comment, I did so responding to an email notification and had not read all the previous posts.

    So I just wish to add: Susan Z. Swan, Gabrielle T., Karla: Bravo. Well done. Change, and necessary change at that, will always cause ripples….And, I insist: language is shaped by our thinking, and in turn our thinking is shaped by language. Which is not negligible. At all.

  • Karla

    Gabrielle T.: If the airman happens to be a pilot, then the pilot is called Capt., Lt., Col., because they’re officers. I was enlisted. When I became a Sgt., then I was called Sgt. The word airman is just what they call people in the AF. Just as in the Navy you’re a sailor, in the Army you’re a soldier, in the Marines you’re a marine, etc. When the AF split off from the Army, there was a Women’s Air Force, and the women were called WAFs. Thankfully, that practice was frowned upon after the women were merged with the “regular” AF.

  • Peter

    Sorry Maeve, since when and why should ‘man’ mean person.

    Since…well, thousands of years BC, at least, having had this meaning in the earliest extant IE languages. (FWIW, in Anglo-Saxon English, the word from which modern English gets the word “woman” had masculine gender! A woman was properly a “he”, not a “she”, in Old English — nota bene: gender has little to do with the sex of the referent)

  • Maeve

    Before “man” meant “male person” in Old English, it meant “human being.” A male human being was “werman” and a female human being was “wyfman.” In time “man” came to mean “male human being,” but the earlier meaning remained in certain words. “Wyfman” became “wyf,” female human being.”

    In any case, as at least one reader has pointed out, a word’s original meaning is irrelevant to current usage. If “mankind” offends large numbers of people, writers will do well to be aware of the fact.

    I like Peter Garner’s comment regarding the role of the writer in these matters. And as someone else has pointed out, no writer is going to be able to avoid offending someone.

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