Gendered language (if we know it, we can avoid it)

It’s always interesting to try to write a character when even the writer doesn’t know either their gender or their sexuality. Playtesting as a few different genders is a great way to suddenly shine a light on my own prejudices, but I know there’s loads more I don’t see.

This is a great study (limited to two genders, unfortunately) about the kind of language writers use with male/female characters—and the part the writer’s own identified gender plays in their prejudices.

I definitely agree with “chuckled”, having deliberately used it recently in a conscious imitation of a male co-writer (for a character whose gender was never specified). It’s one of those words that always feels a little off to me, and I just never use it.


I don’t think there’s a need to avoid gendered language - indeed some languages are strictly gendered. If you push too far you start sounding artificial

What matters is getting an individual’s gender correct.


I’d just make sure to use all the adjectives, I think. And to make sure my male characters feel fear. (Mwa haha!)

I don’t agree that certain words/verbs are specially for either Male or Female

murmur sound gentler and softer than muttered , yes i agree…But usually , i think when we describe a wizard’s chanting of a spell, whether male or female , we apply murmur since it is only logical wizards don’t want their enemy to overhear their casting of a spell…while muttered usually indicating a soft “cursing” of someone or when you are gossiping about someone

as for " chuckle" and “grin”, i had read many stories using these words on female as well… simply because woman grin and chuckle as well…

and for shiver and wept ? they are emotion for everyone :slight_smile:


I’m not sure if it’s my unconscious bias speaking up here, but I certainly think I write a lot of women who grin and shout (and kill), and more than a few men who weep.

That being said, I see what this article is getting at. It’s not the words themselves, but the unconscious biases towards the traits which are believed to be associated with masculinity and femininity in western society. Female characters have more murmuring and weeping because they’re “supposed” to be demure and emotional, while male characters have the expectation that they manage some level of emotional detachment and capacity for violence.


I agree!

But men and women do write differently, and our own subconscious biases creep in. I have a friend who did a thesis on how you can often tell if a writer is male or female regardless of the gender of their characters. She has assured me for fifteen years that I write like a girl (which is fine for novels, since I tend to write female characters, but when I’m writing IF I want to write in a more gender-neutral way if possible).


I remember hearing that “fictional females don’t grin as much as fictional males” about ten years ago, and my female characters have been grinning maniacally ever since.


The article is a pretty interesting read :o While I like to call myself someone who avoids gendered language, it brought up some stuff that I hadn’t thought about before

Though the article was just about the words specifically, it seems to be more of a combination of the language and characterization. I think it’s a good thing for a writer to be aware of, from both a social standpoint, and a writer’s

I grew up as a kid with a complicated relationship with gender who eventually ended up (mostly) a man and most of the key figures in my life were strong women, so the female characters I made growing up weren’t usually the stereotypical ‘damsel in distress’ types. However, (especially in my ‘Girly things suck’ phase in middle school), I didn’t have a lot of variety in them, but on the other hand, I have had more variety in male characters. To put it in the simplest terms I could think of, my female characters could only be chaotic good, neutral good, or chaotic neutral, but my male characters could be lawful good, true neutral, chaotic neutral, neutral evil, chaotic evil, etc. Then as I got older and learned about nonbinary genders, when I started creating nonbinary characters, I didn’t know where to put them so they mostly went into kind of a ‘true neutral’ category and didn’t really stray much from there

Unfortunately a lot of my characters still kind of follow that pattern so I really need to push myself more to vary them because otherwise most of them are all basically the same and it’s boring and prevents them from developing well. Plus, as I’ve known from experience, having a counter-stereotype(? if anyone knows a proper word for this, let me know) can be just as damaging as a mainstream stereotype if it’s half of everything you. It’s really divisive (hence the ‘girly things suck’ phase) and can be alienating to people who don’t fall into either category

(Apologies if this strayed too much from your original topic)


I really don’t think it matters that much outside of specific areas such as contracts and other legal documents where a specific style is required.

It can be painfully obvious when you’re trying to write in a way that isn’t natural and this can impact how your writing feels to the point of being offputting - there are already examples of this published on the HG label.

As long as you get gender labels correct, just write however you write naturally- you will have a better end product for it.


This is a really interesting topic and exactly the sort of thing that makes me extremely self-conscious… enough that I’m going to have to go and do a search through a bunch of my writing just to find these verbs and see how it went :sweat_smile:

I guess with “chuckle” I could at least sort of see it suggesting a deeper voice :thinking: but women certainly do still chuckle.

And yeah, I don’t think this is advocating for avoiding these words, but rather for using them more evenly.

I’d still argue this is a generalization, though… there will always be men who write “like a woman” and women who write “like a man” because there just isn’t a hard and fast barrier between what men and women are like.
I remember reading an article online (I don’t remember where, sadly) about a male romance writer whose novel draft was rejected because the male protagonist’s voice didn’t sound accurately make enough.
I’ve also been on a site (again, I don’t remember the link offhand, sorry) that was supposed to guess a writer’s gender if you input a bunch of text, based on what words you use the most… my results were often strongly one or the other just depending on the character I was writing :confused:
(Edit: It was something similar to this:

Anyway, I’m just rather uncomfortable with the idea of certain writing styles being essentially masculine or feminine, because any of these sorts of styles and traits can appear in any gender identity or gender expression :disappointed_relieved:

But I do get really concerned about subconscious biases creeping into writing and leading to stereotyping. I usually find it much more obvious when a writer is trying too hard to write a character of a different gender by making it different and often turning out cliché.

Edit: And one other relevant thing I remembered! Another (sometimes) subconscious disparity that happens is that even when people make an effort to balance male and female characters in numbers, there can be a strong tendency for the women to have less dialog than the men.


Hmmm… i am curious whether it is individual perception on why or how a male/female character will respond?

and another thing is whether it also depend on a person’s English literacy skill in order to come up with a variety of words/verbs that depict a human emotion/reaction/character?

For common people whose first language is not English or for a person where he/she never research deeply into the “art” of English, it will be difficult for these people to come out with different variety of verbs/words to represent the emotion/reaction of a character…

Basically, when we think of happiness, we think of “smiling” and when we try to substitute it with another word , dictionary may provide us with “grinning” …

Hence i don’t think subconscious may contribute into any biasing …it is more about how a person’s understanding on using English to illustrate an action/emotion :slight_smile:

that of course, is my personal opinion regarding it :slight_smile:


Those pages about genders literature always say You are a man… No I am not a man. Those pages are bad and are more gendered that anything else.
I am a girl who use strong passionate writing. My women and men cry and smirk, curse and declared by themselves. I write a character not because a gender, Gender identity is just a part of character. If those make me a guy for those stupid pages I am proud of it.


Many fans have, to my surprise and amusement, assumed SYP was written by “two dudes,” though I know I have a very active role in the writing. But then, maybe between having two different authors POV and also a few characters whose gender is determined by story and not preset, we avoided using too much biased language since we wrote them specifically so that we could convincingly picture them as male or female? Or maybe I’m flattering myself. I did get called a tomboy a lot when I was younger. :sweat_smile: Anyway, interesting stuff to keep in mind.


I don’t find it that big of a deal, in all honesty.

Sure, scientists can do some studying that takes god-knows how long and then write up some results about how we speak, but viewing them as a problem rather than “oh, that’s a neat little factoid” leads to overanalyzing everything, and language suffers as a result.

If the languages we speak developed differently, then I would be all for using neutral language, but we’re stuck with what we got, and I’d rather speak freely and naturally then being too afraid to say the wrong words in case someone MIGHT get upset that one or two words are more male or female oriented than what their gender allows. There’s political correctness, and then there’s being too afraid to make assumptions.


Okay, so I was curious enough that I actually went and ran through a bunch of my own writing to search for these mentioned words. (I’m not sure if it was an entirely representative sample, since my method was “go through my documents until I get bored” but oh well…)

Most of the words were actually fairly even :smile: although there are some that I just don’t use very much. My characters don’t weep very much… or, rather, they cry using different words. Screams did end up leaning female, but half of all the screams belonged to a single girl, enough to skew the data, so… she just screams a lot, I guess :stuck_out_tongue:

I was particularly happy to note that grins were almost entirely even, though I also found that, more than the other verbs, these were very clumped, such that most of the grins belonged to a few specific characters. In particular this one guy, Traverne, seems to grin all the time… calm down, boy! :grin:

The most surprising results, though, were that my male characters shiver more than the female ones, and my female characters chuckle considerably more than my male ones :confused: And both of these are the exact opposite of the tendencies the article says. Now I’m just really confused why I have so many shivery guys and chuckling women and girls. (Are they chuckling because the men are shivering? :thinking:;P)

So, that was fun, but also time-consuming, and I have no idea how to interpret the results :confused:


I tried some of my own, too. Apparently I’m pretty even for informal writing, but my formal writing is very masculine… :confused:

(And I’d like to hear more about these shivery guys… :smirk:)


Interesting article, but before the gender of the character, I think, you really have to consider the personality of the character as well as the tone of the scene.

So take “chuckle”, as was mentioned in the article. Say you’ve got “chuckle”, “titter”, and “laugh”. What fits best really depends on how you want to portray the character, and the scene in which the action takes place.

“____ sat in the stands, chuckling at your failure.”
"____ sat in the stands, tittering at your failure."
"____ sat in the stands, laughing at your failure."

In the first, the verb makes it sound almost sinister. Makes you think of the antagonist, plotting against the hero and, well, chuckling darkly. It makes it seem like the character had a hand in the protagonists failure, and turns the chuckler into someone more sinister, someone who, perhaps, the reader isn’t supposed to like. Someone who the reader is supposed to hate and fight against.

In the second, it still seems like the reader is supposed to dislike the tittering character, but it takes away the idea that they had a play in it. While chuckling is a more open action, tittering makes you think of someone hiding their mouth or gossiping via laughter. It also makes the character seem more haughty, or maybe even dogmatic, like they’re above the protagonist, and above the protagonists failures.

In the final, it’s a lot more innocent. Less like the laugher was involved in the failure or even like they feel above the protagonist. More just someone who finds joy in the situation, like a kid laughing at the cartoon who slipped on the banana peel. It’s not sinister and plotting nor is it all that high and mighty, they’re just laughing because it’s funny. It makes for a more sympathetic character.

Now, change the situation, but keep those same characters and words- the antagonist, the disliked-but-not-quite-hated, and the innocent. You can even keep the same scene- the protagonist fails at something- and change the wording around to change the feel of the verbs.

“___ chuckled at your failure.”
"___ tittered at your failure."
"___ laughed at your failure."

Here I’d argue that because you’ve taken away the passive stance of the previous example (having the character sit in the stands) you can no longer use the same words in the same way.

Laughed seems a lot less innocent now. Instead of the kid I think of the rival, someone who might even have an active part on the protagonists failure. It turns laughed from something used to describe the innocent to something used to describe the antagonist.

In much the same way, chuckled seems a lot more innocent. It seems almost paternal, or protective, like the parent helping the kid who fell into a puddle. The word seems much warmer and more open.

Titter does stay the same in that it appears to be directed towards someone who isn’t on good terms with the protagonist, but it doesn’t seem quite so haughty. Maybe even someone shyly laughing. It’s a much more passive, hidden word (that same “gossiping laughter” type), but because you no longer have that specification that the character is separate from the main action (sitting in the stands) you’re not quite sure if the character is tittering because they don’t want to hurt the protagonist by laughing, or if they’re tittering because they dislike the protagonist and enjoy their misfortune. Could go either way.

It works for other words to. Take “grin” “smile” “smirk” and “beam”, it can really change who the character comes off as (personality-wise instead of role-wise this time), and change the feeling of the scene.

Take this scene:

You stand at the mouth of the gorge- and feel your stomach drop as you stare over the cliff’s edge. “I don’t think we can make that.”

___ grins at you, “Just watch.”

You stand at the mouth of the gorge- and feel your stomach drop as you stare over the cliff’s edge. “I don’t think we can make that.”

___ smiles at you, “Just watch.”

You stand at the mouth of the gorge- and feel your stomach drop as you stare over the cliff’s edge. “I don’t think we can make that.”

___ smirks at you, “Just watch.”

You stand at the mouth of the gorge- and feel your stomach drop as you stare over the cliff’s edge. “I don’t think we can make that.”

___ beams at you, “Just watch.”

In each of these, the scene stays the same, the situation is the same, but the tone and character changes because of the word.

With “grin”, the character seems self-assured and confident. You get the sense that ___ knows something the character doesn’t, something that’s about to happen- something good. It helps the reader to expect the character to either do something out of the ordinary, or for something else to swoop in and fix the situation.

“Smile” is geared more towards reassurance. It makes the character seem gentler, kinder, like ____ is reassuring the protagonist that everything will be A-OK. It takes away some of the tension of the scene and makes it seem more like the character already has a plan or something was set up in place beforehand, so the reader then expects that.

“Smirk” on the other hand is teasing, cocky, and seems a bit more brash and impulsive. It makes it seem like ___ doesn’t have a plan but instead is confident enough in their abilities or skills that they feel they can just wing it. It, opposite of smile, raises the tension because it doesn’t make it seem like victory is assured. Maybe it’s assured in the character’s mind but certainly not in reality.

“Beam” is a lot like smile, but with it comes some optimism and a little less assurance. Beam seems more youthful and bright, which maybe takes away the experience or forethought that the reader felt with smile. Sure, everything still feels like it’s going to be okay but it doesn’t feel like everything is planned out. More of a “we’ll get through this somehow” kind of expectation.

So while I agree that people do have subconscious biases that can influence their verb choice when it comes to the gender of the character, I think that the danger of the line of thought of doing exactly opposite that is then that you can start to focus only on that. A man can chuckle in the stands as the villain of the story after his dastardly plot has come to fruition and a woman can titter beside the protagonist because she’s trying to hide her laughter when they messed up in a funny way. Of course they also work conversely. It all depends on who the characters are, what their personalities are.

Which I guess my point would be that instead of “have I counted that ___ chuckles as many times as ___?”, personally, I’d think it’d be better to focus on “does this word fit for this character in this scene?”

… All that being said. I’m admittedly also a little curious as to what words I use often with certain characters of my own, and am now probably going to waste a good hour or two looking and searching for what it is I use for who.


I’d wonder if some of the discrepancy happens because authors are tending to write men who have personalities where it would make sense to chuckle more often than women who would do so. (And likewise with other verbs.) That is, that the gender disparity in characterization might come less at the level of word choice, but at the level of how authors create their characters’ whole personalities.

(Also, if I were to associate any laughing verb with gender, stereotypically, it would be “giggle” :thinking: It definitely sounds stereotypically feminine to me, though of course I would argue that it doesn’t have to be.)


Agreed. I kind of assumed from the article that they were taking that into account, as well. That maybe stereotypical maleness is equated with assertiveness/boisterous personalities, while femaleness means a character being more fragile or emotional, thus the word choices to describe those people align with those traits.

What I wonder is if you took some of those character descriptions and had people read them WITHOUT revealing the character’s name or gender, what assumptions would the reader make? Okay, actually, I don’t, I’m almost certain I could guess the average responses, unfortunately. :sweat_smile: But being aware of the issue is half the battle, right?


Good point. In which case I guess that would be the main subconscious bias to look out for. Since it’d essentially just be the words following the bias in that case instead of the bias being the words themselves. (Which you also see a lot in media, just take the “damsel in distress” trope as an example. I’d put money on it that that’s where the “weeping” and “screaming” being stereotypically female idea comes from)

Giggle can be used to portray energy or embarrassment if you don’t want it to be stereotypically feminine.

“___ giggled” sounds a lot more lively than “___ laughed” to me.

Or you could use it as, “___ giggled, hiding [their] mouth behind [their] hand.” which sounds more embarrassed and/or more like they’re trying to be discreet than “___ laughed, hiding [their] mouth behind [their] hand.”

Which I guess all of these would come back to your idea about just the stereotypes behind characters and their gender to begin with. Women being stereotypically portrayed and discreet and such.