SMT Nonsexist Language

Guidelines for Nonsexist Language

In affirmation of its belief that language which includes women and treats both sexes fairly should characterize all its publications, the Society for Music Theory recommends the following guidelines to contributors to the SMT Newsletter, Music Theory Spectrum, and Music Theory Online. These guidelines have been drawn up jointly by the Committee on the Status of Women and the Publications Committee. They offer strategies for avoiding irrelevant gender distinctions in language.*


The word "man" is inherently ambiguous. It can mean: (a) a human being; (b) human beings as a group or race; or (c) a male human being. Useful alternatives to "man," when it is meant to signify the first of these, are: human, person, individual. For the second, consider: men and women, humankind, humanity, humans or human beings, people. Expressions that incorporate "man" can be revised: "working hours" for "manhours"; "synthetic" or "artificial" for "man-made." "Chair" is really the best substitute for "chairman"; neither "chairwoman," which focuses pointlessly on gender, nor "chairperson," a clumsy neologism, is a very good alternative.


A pronoun agrees with its antecedent in number and gender. The English language lacks gender-neutral third-person singular pronouns, a circumstance that has defined "he," "his," and "him" as generic indicators of both men and women. Although such usage is correct grammatically, it suggests to readers, if only subliminally, that the reference is only to males. Faced with this problem, the writer has several options:

1) Recast in the plural. For example, instead of "Each subject was instructed to hand in his exercise after ten minutes' work," say "Subjects were instructed to hand in their exercises...." Recasting in the plural is also preferable to violating traditional canons of grammar by following a singular antecedent, such as "someone" or "everybody," with "they," "them," or "their." For example, "When everyone contributed their perceptions about meter in this passage" is better expressed as "When all participants contributed their perceptions..."

2) Simply omit or replace a troublesome possessive pronoun. For example, change "Every member of the Society is invited to express his opinion on this topic" to "Every member of the Society is invited to express an opinion...," or "A composer chooses his phrase structures according to..." could become "A composer chooses phrase structures according to..."

3) Recast opening subordinate clauses that present a noun subject so that the noun begins the principal clause. For example, "When a Schenkerian theorist moves from foreground to middleground, she must..." can become "The Schenkerian theorist, upon moving from foreground to middleground, must...," or, for "If a set theorist circles his nexus sets on the score, he soon discovers that...," substitute "A set theorist who circles nexus sets on scores soon discovers that..."

4) Recast in the passive voice. "Each committee chair should submit his report by September 1" can be replaced by "Committee reports should be submitted by September 1."

5) Recast using "one." "He might well wonder what his response should be" could become "One might well wonder how to respond."

6) Use the first (or second) person instead of the third person. For instance, "When the listener encounters this phrase, he will be struck by the sudden shift in the harmonic rhythm" could be reworded to read: "When we encounter this phrase, we will be struck by the sudden shift..."

Not all of these will work under all conditions. The passive voice and "one," in particular, become wearisome if overused, and repeated recourse to the first or second person, singular or plural, can all too easily generate a cozy or folksy tone that is at times inappropriate to scholarly prose. If none of the alternatives listed above seems appropriate, completely rewriting the passage in question may be the best solution.

"His or her," "she/he," and other such formations are recommended only as a last resort. Used once, they will probably have to be used again, with eventually disastrous impact upon the smooth flow of prose.


1) Identify women and men in the same way. Special forms to indicate women are usually unnecessary. Words and phrases such as "authoress," "poetess," "coed," "lady conductor," "woman professor," and "concertmistress" are better rendered as "author," "poet," "student," "conductor," "professor," and "concertmaster" respectively.

2) Likewise, writers would do well to avoid the identifications of roles or jobs as gender-specific, as in the following sentence: "Professors sometimes become so involved in their work that they neglect their wives and children." This would be more accurately stated as: "Professors sometimes become so involved in their work that they neglect their families."

3) Adopt parallel usage for both women and men. In referring to publications by two holders of the Ph.D., for example, cite the work of "Dr. Ruth Adams and Dr. John Hatcher," not "Mrs. Ruth Adams and Dr. John Hatcher." Instead of saying "This phenomenon was first noted by Prof. John Smith of Central University; later, Mary Jones developed...," refer to "Professor John Smith" and "Professor Mary Jones," or "John Smith" and "Mary Jones," depending on the circumstances.

4) Certain terms that are often used in writing about music unfortunately embed sex-role stereotypes. It is not usually a great problem to avoid or rephrase these; for instance, "masculine ending" and "feminine cadence" are easily rendered as "metrically accented ending" and "metrically unaccented cadence" respectively, without loss of clarity.


Writers are urged to consider alternatives to incorporating such quotations into their own prose. For instance, might the quotation appear instead in paraphrase, or as an indirect quotation, or even be avoided altogether?

* These guidelines are partially based on two publications: "Guidelines for Nonsexist Use of Language in NCTE [National Council of Teachers of English] Publications"; Wendy R. Katz, _Her and His: Language of Equal Value. A Report of the Status of Women Committee of the Nova Scotia Federation of University Faculty Associations on Sexist Language and the University, with Guidelines_ (Halifax, 1981). For further reading, see Francine Wattman Frank and Paula A. Treichler, _Language, Gender, and Professional Writing_ (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1979), which includes 42 pages of bibliography. See also Casey Miller and Kate Swift, _The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing: For Writers, Editors, and Speakers_ (New York: Harper, 1988).
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David Loberg Code, School of Music, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, MI, 49008. E-mail: 
Revised: 6 June 1996