On 14 February, Nasa put out a press release with the title “Nasa Releases Images of Man-Made Crater on Comet." There were voices of protest over the use of the word “man-made", which, according to many, is gender-specific and ought to be replaced by “artificial". In fact Nasa’s own style guide insists that all references to the space programme should be non-gender-specific.

For several decades now, English has been under scrutiny for usage that might offend women. From this angle, even the first sentence of the Gettysburg Address—“Our fathers brought forth on this continent…"—would not pass muster. Does “fathers" include mothers too? The second part of the sentence reads: “…all men are created equal." Again, “men" can appear to be an exclusive term. Compare Barack Obama’s inaugural speech. He steered clear of gender-sensitive terms and, in words redolent of Gettysburg, recalled “the sacrifices borne by our ancestors". He referred to founding documents, and not to founding fathers.

This column examined some aspects of gender bias in “A gender-fair language" (Mint, 2 July 2007). After almost four years, the debate continues. In 2009, the European Union (EU) released a booklet on non-offensive use of language. It had originally been published in 1987 as Guide to Non-Sexist Language. The 2009 version was named Gender-Neutral Language. The guidelines were sent to 785 members by the parliament’s secretary-general.

“EU bans Mrs and Miss," headlines said the next day. This step was in response to the question: why should women’s titles refer to their marital status, when men can use titles that don’t? The EU wanted members to use full names when addressing women.

The guide discourages the generic use of “man" as in “Man is a product of his environment". “People" or “human beings" can be used here. Job titles, too, have to be made gender-neutral. Many of them end in -man, and the booklet recommends the following alternatives: police officer, camera operator, business executive, and sales representative. “Statesman" is to be replaced by “political leader". But “Churchill is a great political leader" does not have half the force of “Churchill is a great statesman".

Here is a sentence that I find amusing and tricky: “The Taliban has trained some women gunmen too." The suggested alternative is “shooter". How are we to deal with an established legal term such as “manslaughter"?

In words such as manageress, mayoress and authoress, the suffix can be dropped and the word brought to neutral use.

A well-known use of the word “man" is in the expression “to boldly go where no man has gone before". This is part of the opening narration of the science fiction series Star Trek. As we progress through the episodes, the phrase gets modified. In Star Trek: The Next Generation, “man" was replaced by “one". But in the finale, Enterprise, the episode closes with the original gender-specific version. Man seems appropriate here, as it stands collectively for beings from the planet earth who have not yet reached these “strange new worlds".

The EU guide irritated many members of the European parliament. They wanted it withdrawn, and called it political correctness gone mad. They argued that the gender systems of many languages, with their masculine and feminine articles and adjectives to go with nouns, made these recommendations “not only absurd but impossible". For instance, “sun" is feminine in German and masculine in French; and vice versa for “moon". In such languages, it is the grammar that determines the form of the word, and not the choice made by the user.

VR Narayanaswami is a former professor of English, and has written several books and articles on the usage of language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.

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