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How to use gender sensitive language. Part 2: Using gender neutral language

In the first part of our series on gender sensitive language we talked about when to use gender neutral language. Now let’s get to the “how?” In this article, we will explain the basics of gender neutral phrases and also give you some pointers on how to do it in German.

How do I use gender neutral language?

As we have previously discussed, English is a relatively gender neutral language to begin with. Articles, such as “the” and “a”, don’t have a grammatical gender, and neither do many nouns. So the main things to watch out for are nouns that do contain gendered components as well as phrases that convey gender stereotypes.

Gendergerechte Sprache als Buchstabensuppe?
Formulating in a gender-sensitive way is not that difficult, but above all requires a willingness to use words creatively.

Using gender neutral language: Do's and Don'ts

  • When you’re speaking generally, avoid the generic masculine. E.g. use “police officers” instead of “policemen” or “businessperson” instead of “businessman”. (In theory, the same rule would apply to words containing the singular “woman”; however, this is very rarely used generically. Do consider replacing it with the more neutral phrase if you’re not sure that the person identifies as a woman.)

  • The same is true for phrases that use both the male and female form. “Congresspeople” is more inclusive than “congressmen and -women”.

  • Words with the female form “-ess” are increasingly considered outdated. When speaking generically or about a nonbinary person, use the base form instead (e.g. “actor” instead of “actress”). For other individuals, use the form they prefer.

  • Avoid generalizations. Watch out for phrases such as “Women like…” or “Men are…” and consider what you are implying about a large group of people. Don’t use gender as a shorthand.

We will discuss how to use pronouns neutrally and address everyone respectfully in the next part of this series.

How to use gender neutral language in German

Those of you who speak or are learning German might have noticed that speaking gender neutrally is a lot more complicated. Most nouns come in male and female versions, and most other words are also different depending on the gender of the noun. But there are strategies that you can use:

  • Use so-called “gender signs”. A slash has been used for many years to include both female and male forms (“Mitarbeiter/innen”), but there are others, such as a colon (“Mitarbeiter:innen”) or underscore (“Mitarbeiter_innen”). We recommend the asterisk, the so-called “Gendersternchen”, as it’s been proven to be comparatively accessible and is preferred by trans, inter and nonbinary communities.

  • The “Gendersternchen”, like all gender signs, is used by putting it between the male and female forms of the word: “Mitarbeiter*innen”. If the male form ends in a vowel, it is dropped (“Kund*in”). 

  • Gender signs are pronounced as a very short pause, similar to many compound nouns.

  • Alternatively, use neutral words, similar to English, e.g. “Fachkraft” instead of “Fachmann/Fachfrau”. Advanced learners might find the collection of neutral words at useful.

  • If no neutral word exists or can be created, consider rephrasing your sentence. For example, you can address someone directly or rearrange the sentence to avoid gendered words: “Du kannst Fragen im Chat stellen” or “Fragen können im Chat gestellt werden” instead of “Teilnehmer können Fragen im Chat stellen.”

What about pronouns?

Of course, nouns are not the only words that can reflect gender. Using gender neutral language also means being mindful of language in general. Many people are particularly concerned about the correct use of pronouns. This is why in the next part of this series, we will discuss what they are and how to use them to refer to everyone correctly and respectfully. Stay tuned!


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