I am disappointed by the media’s return to the generic ‘he’ and ‘man’. What happened to respect and dignity? I certainly don’t feel respected when I’m told that ‘mankind’s first dwellings were…’ or that ‘a doctor feels he needs to…’. I feel my dignity is under attack when, on challenging this, I am told that a generic masculine is ‘understood’ to ‘include’ women, and that really I am making a silly, outdated fuss about nothing very important.
But it is important. If we really mean to treat people with respect, then this is a simple choice. Either use the generic knowing it upsets people, in which case you’re being deliberately inflammatory, or make a tiny effort to reframe your language.
So let’s try that sentence again, this time using a generic catch-all masculine, and see how the generic just does not wash: ‘If we are really to strive to treat man with respect…’.
It isn’t hard.
Avoid the generic ‘man’ – studies show we think ‘male’ when we hear this. Try for yourself: what does the sentence ‘Man’s vital interests include life, food and access to females’ really mean?
Avoid the generic, ‘he’. Don’t use a disclaimer that masculine pronouns are to be taken as referring to both genders, as this is likely to offend, and make for sloppy male-assumptions when writing.
Change singular to plural – ‘A person with an allegation of bullying needs to keep a diary of when he feels he is being bullied’ becomes ‘People with allegations…’
Use ‘they’ as a singular pronoun – Shakespeare did, even though your teacher may have taught you not to!
Use the second person – ‘Each candidate should write his name…’ becomes ‘Write your name…’
Use ‘the other’ – ‘Each person in turn gives feedback to his partner’ becomes ‘Each person in turn gives feedback to the other.’
There is a great book called the A-Z of Non Sexist Language, written by Margaret Doyle if you want to know more.