Gendered language and UX writing

Inclusivity is a big topic in the global conversation amongst UX writers/content designers these days, and rightfully so! Inclusivity is a big topic; in this article I’m going to focus on writing for gender inclusivity.

Many languages around the world are gendered. In order to write grammatically, one must speak in feminine or masculine tense, there’s no way around it (or is there…) I happen to live in a country where this is the case for the local language, Hebrew. Just one anecdote of when this put me in a tight spot: I was speaking on the phone to a customer service rep and could not tell from the voice or name whether the rep was male or female. In English, that wouldn’t have mattered. I could just say, “Can you help me with this?” In Hebrew, I am forced to choose the masculine or feminine “you”. I had to know how this person identifies in order to continue the conversation. I already have a foreign accent, the last thing I needed was to make grammatical errors as well. So I guessed, waited to see whether I was corrected, and then went to ask friends for advice. It turns out the solution is to ask, “With whom am I speaking?” This gets me out of choosing a “you”. I’ve been using that “trick” ever since.

There is basically one common instance in English where we feel this pain — third person singular. Thankfully, we’ve essentially solved the issue by normalizing the singular they/their. Instead of, “The user filled in his form”, we can write, “The user filled in their form”. My sixth grade English teacher would lose her lunch over mixing the singular and plural in that sentence but that’s why she works in the sixth grade and not on digital interfaces. Using the plural third person in this way is not only acceptable, it’s preferable to clunky alternatives like “s/he” or “he/she” or “he or she”. And it goes without saying that it’s better than the non inclusive language “he” or “she”.

Inclusive restroom signs I saw at a studio where I was recording a conference talk

Though as I described at the beginning, in other languages, it’s not that easy. Kinneret Yifrah and her community of UX writers in Israel put together a guide for writing gender neutral copy in Hebrew and while translating the guide into English doesn’t make sense, I do think there’s a lot for English writers to learn from it. So instead of translating it, I’ll share some of my takeaways.

Using a gerund instead of a verb can help create gender neutral microcopy in gendered languages.

A gerund is the –ing form of a verb that functions the same as a noun. For example, “Running is fun.” In this sentence, “running” is the gerund. It acts just like a noun. Everyday Grammar

For example, instead of using the verb, “He’ll print it over there”, you can use the gerund, “Printing is over there”. The latter gets you out of needing gendered language.

Switching part of speech can be useful in more contexts, beyond gender inclusivity, for example, device inclusivity. Say you’re writing placeholder text for an input field and torn between, “Click on your state” and “Tap on your state”. Are most of your users clicking on desktop or tapping on mobile? Is it worth the engineering resources to maintain code for both? Perhaps you solve it with, “Choose your state”. But what if you could shorten the whole thing by just writing, “State”. Instead of weighing different verbs, chuck all the verbs out the window and look for a solution in a different part of speech.

We’ve all heard “ladies and gentlemen” a million times; this is a pattern we can use in our UX writing, too. “Girls and boys,” “waiters and waitresses,” “policemen and women,” are all better than using only one gender.

It’s true that we have cases like “firefighters” and “police officers” that save us having to write in duplicate like in those examples, but plenty of words still don’t have that option.

There are words that while once considered to be masculine, are now used as gender neutral, like “actors”. But that isn’t ideal in my opinion: What is the greater message in choosing to use the masculine version for everyone? Making the masculine the default seems to me a sort of regression in our subconscious, not a step forward.

There’s another way in English to use both genders at once: “he/she” or “s/he”. It’s clunky, but inclusive. In Hebrew, the slashes are sometimes replaced by periods which is slightly easier on the eyes in a UI.

The movement for gender neutral language came from females being excluded from text. But just as improving usability for some via accessibility improvements, in turn improves usability for all, moving toward gender neutral language to include females, in turn, includes the whole spectrum of gender identifications out there. Making male and female language a non issue opens up the text to include any, every, and no gender identification.

Users come from all walks of life and our copy should resonate with them all not only out of respect for them, but for the sake of making us tech creators more ethical ourselves, and because more users means a more successful product in a business sense. When we’re more inclusive, everyone wins.

UX writer specializing in complex products. Passionate about making tech accessible to mass markets. Also a proud em dash enthusiast.