AP and Chicago on Sexist Language

Notes and resources (and tweets!) from Karen Yin’s presentation at the “Sexist Creeps: How to Catch and Fix Sexist Language” panel session at ACES 2016. For information on the other presentations during this session, please contact her copanelists—Kory Stamper, Colleen Barry, and Dilane Mitchell.

Sarah is wearing glasses and a dark top, and Karen is wearing glasses and a red T-shirt with the words: Conscious Style Guide. They are in the lobby of the Hilton in Portland.

By Karen Yin • April 6, 2016


To those of you who braved discomfort to attend our session: You stood, you sat on floors, you listened to faceless voices from behind dense rows of people, you stayed when we ran overtime. And you created a massive tweetstorm! Thank you.

Here’s the link to my handout, “How Sexist Language Hurts Men” [PDF], written for the latest issue of Copyediting.

These notes are close to what transpired and more detailed in places. I didn’t have time to present the resources, which I have here. I touch upon many topics (e.g., bisexuality, transgender community, gendered pronouns) which I’ve written about in Copyediting and my (free) Conscious Style Guide newsletter, so I invite you to get both to stay on top of the ever-evolving words for people. We might not get it right, but we must try.


Generally Speaking

  • The Associated Press Stylebook is for newspapers, and The Chicago Manual of Style is for books.
  • AP style is about speed, and Chicago style is about finesse.

What to Expect

I wanted to take a close look at AP and Chicago styles, how they handle sexist language, and by sexist language, I mean language with a gender bias when the bias is irrelevant and gendered language used in an unbalanced way. Also, I wanted to formulate overarching guidelines so that we can logically draw our own conclusions about how to style language based on what we already know about these styles.

AP Style

That said, extrapolating is not really possible with AP style unless you want to always choose the conservative, traditional route. Then you’re good. But for the rest of us, the advice is completely contradictory.

First of all, it favors popular expressions and popular usage. That’s how email without the hyphen happened. And that’s totally fine.

Second, it tries to acknowledge nontraditional thought and different points of view, but at the same time, it doesn’t really seem to comprehend what’s going on. For example, it includes same-sex couples in its definitions for widow/widower, but then it says that same-sex marriage and gay marriage are used interchangeably when, actually, the term gay marriage erases people who identify as bisexual.

But you might be surprised at the number of defensible recommendations it has. For example, it says to use the same standards for men and women when deciding whether to mention appearance, marital situation, or family. It says to use female as an adjective, not woman and that women should receive equal treatment as men in all coverage.

But then it says that although the word humanity is the best choice for when both men and women are involved, man and mankind can be used when no other term is convenient. I interpret that as saying, if being nonsexist, equal, and inclusive is inconvenient, don’t worry about it.

I get the feeling that the AP Stylebook is at heart a bunch of notes cobbled together, and it lacks cohesion and consistency because the people looking at it have the same perspective, which means no perspective.

Again, AP says, “Treatment of the sexes should be evenhanded and free of assumptions and stereotypes,” but it doesn’t follow its own rules in practice. Equal treatment doesn’t mean using male versions of words equally for women.

If you look at the his/her entry, it says, “Do not presume maleness in constructing a sentence, but use the pronoun his when an indefinite antecedent may be male or female.” The example is, “A reporter tries to protect his sources.” So AP style prescribes equal treatment but, in real-life examples, it often defaults to male pronouns.

Some other examples of its gender-exclusive entries: man on the street, man-made, manhunt. And all of these can be very conveniently changed to be inclusive: person on the street, synthetic, hunt for X. AP also recommends terms like man-to-man defense in women’s basketball and basemen in women’s softball.

Recently, AP changed its entry for chairman/chairwoman. Before, the entry said, “Do not use coined words such as chairperson,” but now it accepts chairperson and chair if that’s the preference of the organization. But again, it’s like two steps forward, one step back: The word chairmanship still applies to both men and women. And, for some reason, even if a woman’s official title is chairman—which is pretty common—AP style says to use chairwoman.

AP style has moved toward accurate coverage of trans people, but its definitions right now are too narrow. If they Googled this even a little, they would see that transgender is an umbrella term which includes people who don’t identify as male or female, people who are not binary, but they’ve defined it in completely binary terms and then used the term opposite sex: “…individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics of the opposite sex.”

First of all, men and women are not opposites, and using the term opposite sex has profoundly damaging consequences for how we see ourselves and treat each other. Saying opposite sex pushes the misbelief that women and men are totally different and pits us against one another. There are greater differences within one gender than between genders. Second, it assumes only two genders, which leaves no room for everybody else. So if you want to be accurate, the term to use is a different sex or another sex, not the opposite sex.

AP style also recommends deadnaming trans people, which means mentioning their birth names, like “formerly known as Bruce Jenner.” It would be different if, for example, I changed my name, and in your article about me, you noted that I used to be known as Karen. That’s fine—but I’m not trans. For the trans community, deadnaming is just one more act of violence. So don’t deadname unless you have their permission.

One more thing about AP style and the trans community: It says to refer to Caitlyn Jenner as “Kylie’s transgender father” and to refer to her sports achievements using male pronouns because she was Bruce back then. This completely goes against what trans activists are asking of the media. Caitlyn is a (trans) woman and a (trans) mother, or (trans) parent, and we should use current pronouns unless we have permission to not.

On my Conscious Style Guide website, I have a lot of resources for covering the queer community, which includes the trans community, but even those are already outdated, because that’s what language does. It evolves. I keep in touch with people who work with queer youth, and new words are coming up fast, like instead of the term gender-nonconforming, we can say gender-expansive, and instead of cisgender, which a lot of cis people don’t like, we can say gender normative.

Perhaps most telling about AP style and sexist language is that it has an entry for female but not male, which implies that it’s “the other” that must be explained, never the norm.

Chicago Style

AP style and Chicago style have similarities.

They both hold the position that the singular they is grammatically incorrect for formal writing, but while AP defaults to male pronouns in cases of unknown gender, Chicago says to use “he or she, his or her” because male pronouns are sexist when used generically. And with chairman/chairwoman/chairperson, Chicago flat-out says that chair is widely regarded as the best gender-neutral choice and has been used since the mid-17th century. And Chicago supports the use of woman as a modifier, as in woman judge, with the note that using female as an adjective could “strike some readers as being dismissive or derogatory,” but it’s the best choice when paired with male as an adjective.

Chicago style has always emphasized credibility and flexibility, and this applies to its recommendations on sexist language as well.

According to Chicago style, “Careful writers avoid language that reasonable readers might find offensive or distracting—unless the biased language is central to the meaning of the writing.” Basically, biased language that is not central to the meaning distracts readers and makes the work less credible, but it’s also distracting to call attention to the supposed lack of biases, which also weakens credibility. Unfortunately, and Chicago says this also, you’re going to lose credibility with readers either way.

It also says, “Unless you’re involved in a debate about, for example, sexism, you’ll probably want a style…that never suggests you’re contorting your language to be nonsexist.”

We have completely been contorting our language to be nonsexist!

But the truth is, if we didn’t contort language, movement would be too slow. People are dying. We can’t just wait for inclusive language to happen, and because we’ve been contorting language to make space for more of us, the entire conversation has changed. So for Chicago style, you can lean heavily on its guidance to be flexible, because we need to move things along.

Food for Thought

One last thing I want to mention is, gender-free pronouns make so much sense even when you know someone is a woman or a man. Most newsroom style guides prohibit the mention of ethnicity or sexual orientation when those details are irrelevant to the story. But by defaulting to gendered pronouns, even when gender identity is known, we make gender matter.

Imagine how racist racialized pronouns would be. I brought this up at a feminist conference in 1990, and they had no idea what to do with the question. Now that we are embracing the singular they, my hope is that we are ready to have a conversation about using gender-free pronouns when gender is not part of the point.


Both style guides have online Q&A sections which fill gaps on rulings:

  • AP’s “Ask the Editor”:
  • “Chicago Style Q&A”:

Conscious Style Guide: https://consciousstyleguide.com/gender-sex-sexuality/

Karen has long wavy hair and is smiling into the camera. She's wearing a gray T-shirt and an aquamarine pendant.Karen Yin is the author of the upcoming book Conscious Language (Little, Brown Spark) and founder of Conscious Style Guide, a resource for inclusive, empowering, and respectful language; Editors of Color, tools for diversifying your staff and sources; and AP vs. Chicago, an irreverent language blog for anyone who “gives a dollar sign, ampersand, exclamation point, and pound sign about style.” She received the 2017 ACES Robinson Prize for furthering the craft of professional editing.


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