Nouns have gender; people have sex

Our language is full of confusing word pairs. Have you ever tried to explain the difference between “comprise” and “compose”?

One particularly troublesome pair is “gender” and “sex.” Fortunately, there’s an easy way to remember that those two words cannot be used interchangeably. Just remember that nouns have gender. People have sex.

According to the American Medical Association Manual of Style, sex is the “classification of living things as male or female, according to their reproductive organs and functions assigned by chromosomal complement.” In other words, sex is the physical manifestation of being male or female.

Gender “refers to a person’s self-representation as man or woman, or how that person is responded to by social institutions on the basis of the person’s gender presentation.” Gender is also a category used to classify nouns, pronouns, and verbs (as masculine, feminine, or neutral).

In most of the material I edit—clinical content for physicians and nurses—the authors use “gender,” but they mean “sex.”

Incorrect: “There are several factors that affect treatment such as viral load, current liver damage, lifestyle, age, and gender.”

Correct: “There are several factors that affect treatment such as viral load, current liver damage, lifestyle, age, and sex.”

Related to this topic is how to correctly use the words “male” and “female.” Whenever possible, describe a person as a man or woman, boy, or girl. Using “male” and “female” as nouns can be dehumanizing and should be avoided.

Avoid: “Following the accident, a 30-year-old female was taken to the hospital.”
Better: “Following the accident, a 30-year-old woman was taken to the hospital.”

However, “male” and “female” can be appropriately used as adjectives.

Incorrect: “She is the first woman CEO of a high-tech company.”
Correct: “She is the first female CEO of a high-tech company.”

Using gender and sex and male and female—and other confusing word pairs—correctly can help your content be as precise and readable as possible.

PR Daily readers . . . do you have any tips for deciphering word pairs?

This article was first published on Ragan Communication’s PR Daily.

Comments are closed.