Tom Mathews
Avoiding Sexist Language in Composition: 
Complementary Solutions from Spanish and English
Thomas J. Mathews
Weber State University
Published in the Mid-Atlantic Journal of Foreign Language Pedagogy, Spring 1995, pp. 72-82
Examples of sexist language in English will not always find a counterpart in another language, and conversely, other languages may have offensive terminology that has no parallel in English. Sexist language in both English and Spanish is perhaps most evident in the use of third person pronouns and terms that identify individuals by occupation. This paper will show that while the solutions used in the two languages are, due to linguistic constraints, quite different, the solutions are complementary; that is, while English speakers have coined non-gender-specific language where sexist terms exist, Spanish speakers have coined gendered terminology where none has existed before.
1.0 Introduction 

Sexism in language has been decried for much of this century as a hindrance to clear communication in both speaking and writing. In English, a great deal has been published to aid speakers, and more specifically writers, in their avoidance of sexist language. Most teachers of composition have become adept at identifying and correcting possibly offensive language. Some style manuals now urge a careful editing for sexist terminology (APA 1990: 43-49; Gibaldi and Achtert 1988: 33-34), and even several computer aids have been produced to help identify sexist language (Garrett et al. 1985). As feminist concerns become more evident in non-English speaking cultures, speakers and writers are finding appropriate ways to avoid sexism in languages other than English. It is certain that examples of sexist language in English will not always find a counterpart in another language, and by the same token, other languages may have offensive terminology that has no parallel in English. Even if cultural and other societal norms in two languages were somehow the same, the syntactic and morphological structure of many languages often makes the identification of sexist language and the finding of acceptable alternate language a language specific process. Frank (1978: 1) points out that 

languages may differ in their potential for non-sexist usage [and] that the structure of a language, in particular the gender system, may affect the nature of the linguistic response to changing social attitudes about sex roles. This paper will present a synthesis of the solutions commonly presented to avoid offensive language in English, followed by a comparison with those solutions most used in Spanish. Sexist language in English is most evident in the use of third person pronouns and terms that identify individuals by occupation. Interestingly, although perhaps logically, sexist language in Spanish is also most evident in the same environments, the use of third person pronouns and occupational terms. The solutions used in the two languages, although quite different, attempt to achieve the same goal--namely, the elimination of sexual bias in language. 

2.0 Avoidance of sexist language in English 

Renshaw presents an article entitled "Twenty-nine ways you can help eliminate sexism in language." Most of her suggestions aim at heightening awareness among both writers and readers. She suggests that by avoiding sexist usage teachers of language and composition demonstrate that we "care more about people than about words" (1983: 227). 

In attempts to eliminate sexist language in English, emphasis has often been placed on gender marking in third person pronouns--the only pronouns in English that are marked for gender--and terms describing occupations. Certainly, sexist language in English can and does extend beyond the use of pronouns and occupational descriptors (prompting such coinages as herstory, persyn, womyn), but for reasons of comparison with Spanish, this paper will be limited to pronouns and occupational descriptors. 

2.1 Gender in English 

In his early discussions of linguistic universals, Greenberg (1966) presented a taxonomy of gender for languages. In addition to languages that are without gender, languages are said to have either semantic (also called natural) gender or grammatical (also called anomalous) gender. English is representative of the former type, while Spanish represents more closely the latter. With few exceptions, gender in English is assigned to nouns only if the referent is animate and obviously either male or female. 

2.2 Third person pronouns in English 

The most commonly suggested solution to the sexist pronoun problem in English is to replace the traditional use of he with the plural pronoun they. Other solutions, however, include he/she, she/he, or the more cryptic s/he or herm

Gastil (1990: 638) presents empirical evidence that the pronoun they is not biased toward male or female, but that the use of he/she presents a male bias, and that "women and men understand he/she very differently." As a solution to the problem of the third person singular pronoun in English, Vaughn (1989: 38-39) makes two somewhat novel suggestions: The first is to use "the third person plural they (their, them) as a singular as well as a plural pronoun in instances in which the gender is unknown or the pronoun represents both genders." Her example is "Each technician should submit their report to their supervisor before 4 p.m." This usage has gained some acceptance in conversational English, but is generally regarded as unacceptable in composition. Vaughn's second suggestion is to use the pronoun it (its). She gives two examples (where the gender of the antecedent is not known): "The engineer is in its office," and "The engineer should submit its report to its supervisor before 4 p.m." Although Vaughn claims that these uses of they and it have advantages over coined words (like herm), it is probable that most users of English will find them unacceptable and it is unlikely that they will ever be considered appropriate for formal usage. Indeed, prescriptive grammars and style manuals often advise specifically against the use of they in precisely this context (Shaw 1970: 134, 270; APA 1990: 38). 

Randall (1985) defends the use of they in this context, that is, with a singular antecedent, on historical and literary grounds. She cites Shakespeare's use in The Rape of Lucrece (1.125): "And everyone to bed themselves betake." In addition she found similar usages by a host of past and more contemporary authors. Certainly, this form is very commonly seen in popular usage as well. Nevertheless, the most commonly accepted solution to the sexist pronoun problem in English involves no new coinages, nor the changing of standard English grammar rules. It merely requires that speakers and authors pay attention, change the antecedent to plural and then use they or them

Rovano (1991: 62) insists that this can always be done, unless the antecedent is a specific male of female person, in which case using the masculine or feminine pronoun is not sexist. In order to convince the stubborn she rewrites: "'A wise man changes his mind, a fool never' . . . as 'Wise people change their minds, fools never. . . ." 

The APA style manual (1990: 47) states that writers using its format should "change to plural if discussing women as well as men," but cautions against using s/he. The handbook for the MLA (Gibaldi and Achert 1988: 34) seems to prefer that authors "recast sentences into the plural [or] if all else fails, use he or she or her or him." The strong implication is that, in scholarly writing at least, the awkward use of both male and female pronouns is frowned upon, perhaps for prosodic or stylistic reasons. In addition, since both the APA and the MLA disallow the use of the clumsy portmanteau pronoun (s/he), it should be discouraged in student writing, even if that writing is of a less formal nature. Many will object to this construction because it is not visually pleasing. Furthermore, it is quite sure that nobody can be positive how it ought to be pronounced if read aloud. 

2.3 Occupational terms in English 

Since occupational terms in English are often seen as a source of perceived sexism, McMinn et al. (1990) administered a test to check for the use of sexist language among college students. In written and oral protocols subjects were asked to respond to the following occupational terms, which had been placed in non-sexual contexts: business executive, nurse, professor, truck driver, librarian, robber, bank teller. Their study shows that sexual bias in English goes beyond grammatical marking, that is, that simply finding terms unmarked for gender will not disabuse language users of their sexual stereotypes. Rovano (1991: 62) adds that although some terms do seem to contain sexual bias, no one has suggested alternatives; "We don't say teacher/teacheress or principal/principaless." Randall (1985: 129) mentions stereotyping in the terms governor and governess, and bachelor and spinster, where the masculine and feminine forms have vastly differing connotations. Clearly, there is also a large number of pairs in English, where the occupational terms are marked morphologically for either male of female (e.g., actor, actress; poet, poetess; executor, executrix) but where no other semantic change is present. 

Still, the vast majority of suggestions made to remedy sexist usage in English occupational terms have focused on finding generic or non-gendered terms for those that are grammatically marked for gender. 

3.0 Avoidance of sexist language in Spanish 

Data were collected for this paper during the winter of 1993 in Concepción, Chile. Fifteen North American students from Brigham Young University, who were participating in a semester-long study abroad program in Conception, interviewed native speakers to determine which terms in Spanish were thought of as sexist, and to provide alternative non-sexist terms, if possible. Although not scientifically selected, and therefore not necessarily representative of the speech community in Concepción, the sample of 32 native-speakers did represent some variety in educational and socioeconomic status. The purpose of these interviews was not to define in any precise terms the usage in Concepción, let alone in the Spanish speaking world. Nevertheless, it is believed that the data collected can indicate generally the direction in which Spanish is moving, particularly among those Chilean speakers who are sensitive to language and gender issues. 

The movement toward sexual equality in language use among native speakers of Spanish is a recent one relative to the similar movement in English. Nevertheless, a considerable amount of change can be seen recently in the language, the most pronounced of which is a large quantity of new terminology. This terminology is almost exclusively made up of new words which refer to women, complementing an existing female-exclusive term. 

3.1 Gender in Spanish 

As Greenberg (1966) pointed out, semantic gender in English is arranged according to the biological gender of the referent. Inanimate or otherwise sexless referents are assigned neutral gender. Gender in Spanish is grammatical or anomalous. Although non-animate nouns use the same grammatical markings for masculine and feminine as those used to refer to male and female among animates, the attribution of gender to non-animates is, at least synchronically, completely arbitrary. Nevertheless, the masculine gender is generally considered to be dominant in Spanish. In the plural, a group of mixed gender objects will traditionally carry masculine gender. The Real Academia Española (1983: 174), accepted prescriptively as one of the highest authorities, explains: 

Los plurales masculinos, los, ellos, estos, etc., designan una pluralidad de varones, pero también pueden designar conjuntamente una pluralidad de hembras y varones, cualquiera que sea el número de ellos y de ellas, lo que se produce en virtud de la idea general o genérica que es inherente al masculino. . . . No solamente los plurales masculinos, como hijos, hermanos, pueden significar varones y hembras conjuntamente. El singualr masculino hombre equivale a varón, pero también designa mujeres y varones empleado como término general o genérico. 
Many popular grammar texts are in agreement with the position of the Academia (Fuentes 1991; Roa Bleck 1992; Solé and Solé 1977); indeed, some beginning Spanish textbooks overtly teach the principle of a "generic masculine" (Lathrop 1987: 266). Solé and Solé write (1977: 273), "With plural nouns referring to both genders, the masculine plural form of the article is used" (see also Lunn and DeCesaris 1992: 118; Seco 1982: 25). 

English speakers have attempted to avoid sexist language by modifying the language's relatively few gender marked nouns and pronouns and finding non-gendered or generic alternatives. However, since almost nothing in Spanish is non-gendered, the English example cannot be followed. Whitley (1986: 146) said it plainly, 

In Spanish it is almost impossible to use a noun without marking its gender, thanks to the required agreement of its modifiers. 
3.2 Pronouns in Spanish 

In Spanish pronouns, gender is marked in first person plural, second person plural and third person pronouns, both singular and plural. This common marking is in sharp contrast to English which only marks pronouns for gender in the third person singular. Spanish also does not have the option of a neutral pronoun, as English does. The Spanish third person neutral pronoun, lo, cannot be used intelligibly to refer to anything but abstract concepts. 

Although first and second person plural pronouns are marked for gender (nosotros, nosotras, vosotros, vosotras), they are not as likely to result in sexist language as the third person pronouns. This is because they less often refer to non-specific groups of individuals. Pinto (1993) however prefers the use of nosotros y nosotras in mixed groups. This is a particular chore for male speakers of Spanish, who otherwise may have never used the form nosotras in their lives. Pinto also suggests, following the same line of reasoning as Vaughn in English (1989), the coinage of new pronouns which are not marked for gender. She suggests nosotres and vosotres, although she admits herself that using them in fluent speech is difficult for a speaker and quite annoying for a listener. 

No simple non-sexist solution to the use of third person pronouns in Spanish is apparent either. Barring the coinage of new, non-gendered, pronouns, the only solution is to use both pronouns, resulting in the rather awkward él y ella, or ellos y ellas, with all of the problems that attend that same solution in English. 

3.3 Occupational terms in Spanish 

When considering occupational terms in Spanish, the difference between the semantic gender of English and the grammatical gender of Spanish is most easily seen. In English the great majority of occupational terms are not marked for either gender and those that are have been modified to fit in with the rest, and therefore, become non-sexist. In Spanish, on the other hand, nearly all occupational terms are marked overtly for gender, and the English solution would entail finding alternative terms for the majority. In contrast, sensitive Spanish speakers and authors have taken those relatively few terms that are not gendered and made sure that both a masculine and feminine form exist. 

Occupational terms in Spanish seem to fall into three categories: first, those terms that have paired feminine and masculine forms; second, terms that are marked grammatically as masculine, yet have had no corresponding feminine form; and third, terms that are grammatically ambiguous, yet have been generally interpreted as being masculine in meaning. 

Table 1 shows a listing of terms of the first category. A variety of feminine noun endings exists, depending on the masculine form, although in most cases the feminine morpheme is an addition to a masculine root or root plus masculine morpheme. 

Table 1 
A few occupational terms with traditional masculine and feminine variants 
Table 2 presents terms from the second category, that is, terms that are marked grammatically as masculine, and which historically have no corresponding feminine form. The terms in the column marked feminine have become more and more common as the need for non-sexist language becomes evident, and also, of course, as women enter occupations from which they have formerly been excluded. Indeed, it might be argued that the feminine forms of many of these terms have not been defined until recently in most dictionaries, simply because there have been no referents for the terms, not because the words are nonexistent. The difficulty seems to be that of convincing speakers and writers to accept them and to use them. A group of four law students in Concepción, two men and two women, insisted that of the terms listed in Table 2, several of the feminine forms do not exist and are incorrect. Interestingly, among these objectionable terms was abogada, which the female law students would not accept to define themselves, although it is accepted by the Real Academia and defined as a female lawyer in many Spanish dictionaries. Other terms that this group, and other native speakers of Spanish objected to are química (as a female chemist), física (a female physicist) and ingeniera. Nevertheless, of 32 Chilean Spanish speakers interviewed, the overwhelming consensus was that the feminine terms were acceptable, while admitting that some of them, like geóloga, huasa, miembra, correra, did sound quite strange. 

Table 2 
Some occupational terms traditionally marked as masculine with corresponding modern feminine forms. 
truck driver 
police officer 
mail carrier 
The third category mentioned above was that of terms that are grammatically ambiguous, but that have a generally accepted masculine connotation. Most of these occupational terms end with the morpheme -or or the morpheme -ante (-ente). Prescriptive gram–marians and purists might argue that since these terms are neither overtly masculine or feminine, no second form is needed. However, this is not in keeping with the usual paired situation for occupational terms in Spanish. Besides, the coinage of a feminine form for these terms is seldom difficult. In the case of the -or endings, the addition of an -a is done through analogy to long existing pairs (doctor, doctora; profesor, profesora). The terms ending in -ante or -ente can invariably be made overtly feminine by changing the final e to a. Some dictionaries now list many these terms. 

Table 3 
Some occupational terms of ambiguous gender, with modern feminie forms 

Group A 
Group B 
Group C
chófera, chofera
The terms listed in the third grouping in Table 3, are also of ambiguous gender, and have traditionally been interpreted as masculine, yet the feminine forms are admittedly more disconcerting than those in Groups A or B of Table 3. However, these forms were all either seen in print or heard in the speech of educated native speakers of Chilean Spanish. 

Interestingly, some occupational terms exist in Spanish which, although they refer to traditional male roles, end in the letter -a, giving at least the appearance of a feminine ending. These terms, shown in Table 4, are left alone, even by those sensitive to sexist language, and used with either a masculine or feminine article to indicate gender. 

Table 4 
Some occupational terms of ambiguous gender, which maintain an ambiguous form 

police officer
In addition to the categories or occupational terms just described, there is a small group of nouns, perhaps not necessarily occupational terms, which are feminine, and remain so whether referring to a woman or a man. Two examples are víctima and persona, which carry a feminine article and feminine agreement with adjectives, regardless of the referent. 

4.0 Conclusions 

The possibility for sexist language may be nearly universal, and it is appropriate that sexism be eliminated in formal speech and writing. The most common pathway to non-biased language in English is to modify the pronominal system, since it is the only remnant of grammatical gender in English. Equity can be achieved by either using a plural pronoun (they, their), in which no gender marking exists, or by using both masculine and feminine pronouns (he/she, her/his), thus giving equal time to both genders (though not avoiding the issue of which pronoun to put first). English has also taken those relatively few occupational descriptors which are gender specific and coined gender neutral terms (stewardess ® flight attendant; mailman ® mail carrier). 

Spanish, because of its anomalous gender marking, has developed a very different solution. Gender plays an inextricable part in the Spanish nominal and pronominal systems; no neutral personal pronouns exist in third person. Using the English solution would mean coining a new pronoun, and the odds of that kind of change being ultimately successful are vanishingly small. The great majority of occupational descriptors also exist in two forms, one masculine and one feminine. Therefore, to achieve gender equity, Spanish speakers have taken to coining gendered terms (usually feminine) to compliment the relatively few existing generic or sexist terms (usually masculine) (presidente ® presidenta; juez ® jueza). 

This means that bilingual speakers and writers, teachers and students, may apply the sensitivities they have to sexist language in both Spanish and English, and yet they must avoid insisting that the solution to offensive usage will be the same in both languages. Indeed, the solutions appear to nearly oppose one another. While English speakers tend to search for a gender neutral term to describe people, where only gender specific terms exist, Spanish speakers tend to search for gendered terms in those cases where only a generic term exists. 

The implications for teaching are many. Foreign and second language teachers may continue to call the issue of sexist language to their students' attention. Sexist usage can be identified in student composition and the ensuing correction may be a valuable lesson in vocabulary and morphology, as well as a lesson in culture. Designers of curriculum and materials should also be able to avoid sexist language in Spanish and English by understanding the complementary opposition proposed in this paper. 

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