Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

When is a man not a man?

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Ancient stone tools
Image via Wikipedia

Studies going back to the 1970s show that the word ‘man’ is not generally understood to include women. If we want to write clearly and without ambiguity, we need to remember this. Women are not men, but the notion persists. Just look at the phrases below which are still frequently used in our newspapers, and on TV and radio by intelligent, educated (and, though I hesitate to spit in my own beer, often female) people who should jolly well know better.

Early man

Modern man

The man in the street

The average man

The common man



A headline in the Independent newspaper read:

Stone Age man is now 200,000 years older

The story went on to use the phrase ‘ancient humans’ (hoorah!) in the first paragraph, but then reverted to ‘early man’. Confusion reigns. This double whammy of confusion and women-exclusive language could have been easily remedied by the writer (and the sub who wrote the headline).

Clichéd, women-exclusive phrases slip far more easily from the pen and computer keyboard than do their fresher, and more importantly, far more accurate alternatives:

Early man — prefer ancient people, early humans or similar

Modern man — prefer modern people or human beings today

Mankind — prefer people, humans, humanity, humankind or the human race

Layman — prefer layperson

The common man — prefer the ordinary person

The average man — prefer the average person

The man in the street — prefer the person in the street 

 Yes, yes, using the term ‘man’ to mean ‘men and women’ has centuries of precedent. But this doesn’t make it right. Some of these well-worn phrases even do a disservice to men too, for example:

Man’s inhumanity to man

Why not: Our inhumanity to each other? This is far more immediate. In the process of finding ways to ensure we include women in our writing, fresh and arresting prose often results — and your readers will sit up and take note.

Girls or women?

Gratuitous modifiers or the lady bus driver

Top scientist or top female scientist?

Marketing man — or woman?

He or she — or they?

She’s so intolerant, but he doesn’t suffer fools gladly

She’s such a tomboy

Old wives’ tales — good or bad?

Ladies first?

Jack of all trades

Am I allowed to say that?


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