Neutering the Law

by Translation Guy on February 5, 2013

Many US states are taking all the sex out of state statutes.  The goal is to make the language of the law gender-neutral. The gender neutrality movement seeks to encourage the use of language that avoids “distinguishing roles by what reproductive organs people happen to have  in order to avoid discrimination arising from the impression that there are social roles for which one gender is more suited than the other.”

In Washington state for the last six years, state officials have been rewriting state laws that go back all the way to the state’s foundation in 1854. That’s a lot of law. Sometimes it’s easy:  “policemen” become “police officers,” “firemen” become “firefighters,” “freshmen” become “first-year students” and “penmanship” becomes “handwriting.” There are lots of pronouns to be changed, too, resulting in “he or she,”  “him or her” and “his or her.”

But some patriarchal terms proved to be a bit more challenging. In terms of gender neutrality, “manhole” is clearly not neutral; it implies that these are male-only holes or that women cannot descend to sewer level as readily as their male colleagues. However, alternatives such as “utility hole” are subject to misinterpretation and confusion, so that a “manhole” will remain a “manhole” in the state of Washington. (What is it with English and the whole “hole” terminology deficit? For example, the place where you stick the gas nozzle when fueling up the car – is that a gas hole? I don’t think there is even a word for that.)

“Changing words can change what we think about the world around us,” says sociolinguist Crispin Thurlow about the change of language. “These tiny moments accrue and become big movements.”  Whorfians like Thurlow say that words make the woman (or man), but I’m not so sure..

Many think these efforts at post-hoc political correction are so much window dressing. Others are opposed to the entire notion of gender neutrality in the belief that there is a biological basis to sex roles.

Personally, I’ve been gender-obsessed since about 14, so I would probably have to hire an editorial hatchet-man to get my language snipped.  Every since elementary school, I’ve always had trouble with criticism from editors and educators, but doted on any signs of life from my readers, out of terror that my prose is toppling over silently in lonely literary thickets. Big data tells me that my readers  are mostly women, and I am writing about an industry that is mostly run by women, and I am ever so desperate to keep you guys with me until the next sentence, at least. So are women more likely to prefer gender-neutral language than men? I just don’t know, even after spending almost 90 seconds researching this on Google. But maybe what we want is not the point. It’s about what we should want.

I’ve got to stop here to tend my own garden, so I invite readers to finish off this post by tying this to translation in some way.  (Gender-neutral language strongly encouraged).  Is anyone translating for gender-neutral? I don’t think we’ve had it come up more than a few times ever.

Or we can go with a  linguistic wrap-up, As in “My Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis Right or Wrong. Crispin?


  1. Speaking only for myself, I prefer simplicity. If I wrote grammar rules, I would simply make “their” an acceptable replacement of “his or her”, which I think is the whole reason these re-writes become so cumbersome (and often absurd). So “A police officer may wear his or her belt around his or her pants” would become “A police officer may wear their belt around their pants”. Hard-core grammarians cringe at the idea, but I think it’s the obvious solution in our modern politically correct world. And I apologize for the terrible example, but it’s the best I could do in a 2 minute comment!

    • Ken says:

      I take a singular point of view, and prefer to avoid plural unless they are a crowd.

  2. (Beforehand, excuse me if my English is not good enough). I think laws needs to be neutral and that has to include genders where it’s possible. However, at the same time we should respect the nature of your language. If there is no neutral word to refer to a specific profession (for example, fisherman) we have to accept it! A language reflects the past of its speakers.
    Regards from Spain.

  3. James M. says:

    I suppose we could push for something like in Mandarin. There is no way to distinguish between “He” or “She” in spoken mandarin other than possibly context. It would always be voiced as “Ta1” [He, she, or it]. However, in written Chinese after contact with Western nations the concept of differentiating “he” or “she” was introduced into the language in the forms 他 and 她.

    In spoken language, I usually tend to use a pluralized “their” instead of using “his or hers” when I want to avoid using a specific gender. However, it still makes me pause and cringe a little. It will be interesting to see which way English evolves.

  4. Karen Kaye says:

    While I commend the sentiment behind the action, I fear this is going to become something of a joke that changes little in reality.

  5. Jack Barton says:

    Certainly there is some evidence that the presentation of language shapes the way we think, Orwell and rand had some good arguments in this regard, I think going as far as to address issues such as manhole is sheer stupidity.

  6. Greg says:

    “Sewer hole”, that works doesn’t it?

  7. Nikki says:

    While I am a woman, and certainly I think a little gender neutrality in regards to certain things is good, changing things like freshmen, penmanship, or manhole is just ridiculous.

  8. Bennet Daube says:

    The question is can gender neutral language survive translation? While Ebglish certainly has the variety to allow for genderless descriptions on many levels, many languages don’t.

  9. This is just going to lead to awkward phrasology, abominable neologisms and grammatical nonsense. Also I would argue the usefulness of gender neutral language in overcoming sexism, especially when used in laws few people actually read.

  10. Cindy says:

    I think this is actually long overdue, a new generation will grow up with no gender biased conceptions in their minds because of repeatedly being exposed to words like policeman, etc.

  11. They are just going to end up butchering the English language and making laws more vague and incomprehensible.

  12. Linda says:

    This is post-hoc political correctness window dressing, just a ridiculous waste of tax payer money.

  13. I read something like this somewhere else, but it seemed a little silly, they were changing phrases such as “man or woman” to person, which seems excessive as the former is already inclusive enough in my opinion.

    • Ken says:

      “persons” lacks personality, somehow.

  14. Tim Windhof says:

    When I did my Masters at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, I was told that using the male form in, e.g. a thesis, would be considered sexual harassment!

    • Ken says:

      That’s what she said.

LiveZilla Live Chat Software