Last week, I tackled the pronoun problem in legal writing and explained how legal writers can avoid using masculine-singular-personal pronouns—words that can distract some readers and diminish your credibility as a legal writer.

This week, I discuss non-sexist solutions to troublesome man-ending nouns, and how to make sure that you’re using non-sexist salutations in letters.

Substitute Sex-Neutral Words for Man-Ending Nouns

Man-ending nouns abound in the English language. We have, for example, common words like policeman, congressman, and businessman; but there are innumerable more.

19th- and early-20th-Century judicial opinions are also littered with man-ending nouns, which cemented the acceptability of some of these words as legal terms of art into the minds of impressionable law students.

But like the modern preference of avoiding masculine-singular-personal pronouns, using man-ending nouns in legal writing is generally disfavored.

In The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style, Bryan Garner gives a helpful list of man-ending nouns and some preferred substitutes:

  • anchor for anchorman
  • camera operator or photographer for cameraman
  • chair for chairman
  • craftworker or crafter or artisan for craftsman
  • dock worker for longshoreman
  • drafter for draftsman
  • firefighter for fireman
  • guard or security officer for guardsman
  • police officer for policeman
  • mail/letter carrier for mailman or postman
  • nonlawyer for layman
  • ombuds for ombudsman
  • presiding juror for jury foreman
  • repairer for repairman
  • reporter for newsman
  • representative for congressman
  • representative (or flack?) for spokesman
  • sales clerk for salesman
  • soldier for serviceman
  • supervisor or manager for foreman
  • tribe member for tribesman
  • veniremember for venireman
  • warehouse employee for warehouseman
  • worker for workman

The style manual (p. 71) of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court lists some of these substitutes for man-ending nouns, adds a few more, and also addresses the masculine-singular-personal-pronoun problem.

Avoid Person-Ending Neologisms

Using the sex-neutral substitutes above is the preferred way to avoid using man-ending nouns. What’s not preferred—and what will jar readers—is substituting person-ending nouns for man-ending nouns. Person-ending nouns are neologisms—which is a fancy term for made-up words.

In Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage, Garner calls person-ending nouns “wooden and pompous” and “ugly and ineffective.” In Woe is I, Patricia T. O’Conner calls these neologisms “clunky.”

Take their advice: Leave neologisms like personpower to writers who don’t care about being guardians of the English language.

Avoid Sexist Salutations

Even addressing a business letter can give rise to charges of latent sexism.

As R.W Burchfield notes in The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (3d ed. 1996), in the 1970s feminists in the United States started promoting the use of Ms. in business correspondence where the marital status of the woman to whom the letter was addressed was unknown.

Today, as Bryan Garner notes in Garner’s Modern American Usage, distinguishing in salutations between a married woman, on the one hand, and a single woman, on the other, should be avoided:

Differentiating between one woman and another on the basis of her marital status is invidious, really, if we do not make the same distinction for men. . . . Though many people once considered Ms. an abomination, today it is accepted as the standard way of addressing a married or unmarried woman. Unless the writer knows that a woman prefers to use Mrs. or Miss, the surest course today is to use Ms.

Although Garner’s bright-line rule of substituting Ms. for Mrs. is safe to follow, Eric Patridge might have a slightly better alternative: “One should . . . try to ascertain the woman’s preference and use Ms with caution, particularly in correspondence with older women who grew up before this locution [Ms.] was heard of.”

Be Conscious of Sexism in Legal Writing

Regardless of whether you believe that the criticism of sexism in legal writing is unwarranted or overblown, your credibility as a legal writer depends on spotting these problem areas.

There are many obstacles to good legal writing. Don’t let inadvertent sexism be another one.


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