Author logo Language and gender

What's it all about?
Is it easy or hard?
Where to find out more
The forms and functions of talk
Robin Lakoff
O'Barr and Atkins
Dominance and difference
Dominance theory
Deborah Tannen and difference
Trudgill, social class and speech sounds
Jennifer Coates and Deborah Jones
Deborah Cameron
Gender themes in writing
Gender spotting
Writing for women
Historical and contemporary changes
Names and titles
Occupational lexis
Semantic non-equivalences
Patronizing, controlling and insulting
Beauty and appearance
Example texts
Specimen exam questions
Sample texts for practice
Commentary on sample texts
Printing and copying this guide
Maximize this page


This guide is written for students who are following GCE Advanced level (AS and A2) syllabuses in English Language. This resource may also be of general interest to language students on university degree courses, trainee teachers and anyone with a general interest in language science.

On this page I use red type for emphasis. Brown type is used where italics would appear in print (in this screen font, italic looks like this, and is unkind on most readers). Headings have their own hierarchical logic, too:

Main section headings look like this

Sub-section headings look like this
Minor headings within sub-sections look like this

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Language and gender - what is it all about?

When you start to study language and gender, you may find it hard to discover what this subject, as a distinct area in the study of language, is about. You will particularly want to know the kinds of questions you might face in exams, where to find information and how to prepare for different kinds of assessment tasks.

To get you started, here is an outline of part of one exam board's Advanced level module on Language and Social Contexts - there are three subjects, one of which is Language and Gender. The description reads:

In preparing this topic area candidates should study:
  • the forms and functions of talk;
  • gender themes in writing;
  • historical and contemporary changes.
In particular, they should examine
  • conversational styles
  • representations in writing.


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This is unobjectionable but not very helpful - essentially it tells you that you have to study spoken and written data. Very broadly speaking, the study of language and gender for Advanced level students in the UK has included two very different things:

  • How language reveals, embodies and sustains attitudes to gender.
  • How language users speak or write in (different and distinctive) ways that reflect their sex.

The first of these is partly historic and bound up with the study of the position of men and women in society. It includes such things as the claim that language is used to control, dominate or patronize. This may be an objective study insofar as it measures or records what happens. But it may also be subjective in that such things as patronizing are determined by the feelings of the supposed victim of such behaviour. Your patronizing me needs me to feel that I am patronized.

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The second area of study recalls many discussions of the relative influence of nature and nurture, or of heredity and environment. Of this we can note two things immediately:

  • education or social conditioning can influence gender attitudes in speaking and writing (for example, to make speech more or less politically correct), but
  • there are objective differences between the language of men and that of women (considered in the mass), and no education or social conditioning can wholly erase these differences.

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Is it easy or hard?

Studying language and gender is easy and hard at the same time.

It is easy because many students find it interesting, and want to find support for their own developing or established views. It is very easy to gather evidence to inform the study of language and gender. And it is easy to take claims made by linguists in the past (such as Robin Lakoff's list of differences between men's and women's language use) and apply these to language data from the present - we can no longer verify Lakoff's claims in relation to men and women in the USA in 1975, but we can see if they are true now of men and women in our own country or locality.

Studying language and gender is hard, because students can easily adopt entrenched positions or allow passion to cloud a clear judgement - and what I have just written should tell those who did not know it already that this guide is written by a man! Typically, students may mistrust a teacher's statements about language as it is because these show a world in which stereotypes persist (as if the teacher wanted the world to be this way). On the other hand, any attempt to divide the world into two utterly heterogeneous sexes, with no common ground at all is equally to be resisted. As with many things, the world is not so simple - there are lots of grey areas in the study of language and gender. One example is sexuality - how far the speech and writing of gay men and women approximates to that of the same or the opposite sex, or how far it has its own distinctness.

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Remember that the title of John Gray's book, Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus is a metaphor or conceit - we don't really come from different planets. And the differences that linguists have noted can only appear because men and women share a common social space or environment.

Among linguists working in this area, many more seem (to me, anyway) to be women than men. This does not, of course, in any way, lower the value of their work. But it may be interesting - why do women want to study language and gender? Or, why do men who study language have less interest in this area of sociolinguistic theory? Professor Crystal in his Encyclopedia of the English Language gives less than two full pages to it (out of almost 500).

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Where to find out more

I hope that this guide gives a comprehensive treatment of the subject, but it is not exhaustive - and this area of study is massive. So where can you find more?

For the most thorough account of the subject I have seen, go to Clive Grey's Overview of Work on Language and Gender Variation at:

This is not an easy account to follow, but it names all the important (and many obscure) researchers in this area of study, and should enable any student to find leads to follow. For a teacher who is unsure about the subject, and wants something more substantial than this guide, Clive Grey's outline should be very useful. If you wish to use print texts, you might find the following instructive:

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You may search for study materials by using Internet technologies. One very good resource is Susan Githens' study of Gender Styles in Computer Mediated Communication at:

Another good resource is Susan Herring's Gender Differences in Computer Mediated Communication: Bringing Familiar Baggage to the New Frontier. Susan Herring has given permission for this article to be freely distributed. You can obtain a copy by clicking on the link below:

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Using a search engine, you will soon find resources from some of the leading contemporary authorities on the subject - Susan Herring, Lesley Milroy, Dale Spender, Deborah Tannen and Peter Trudgill, for example. Deborah Tannen has done much to popularise the theoretical study of language and gender - her 1990 volume You Just don't understand: women and men in conversation was in the top eight of non-fiction paperbacks in Britain at one point in 1992.

If you have to investigate language for part of a course of study, then you could investigate some area of language and gender. This means that, in an examination, you will be able to quote from, and refer to, the things you have found, while much of your analysis of the language data will be good preparation for the examination.

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The forms and functions of talk

In studying language you must study speech - but in studying language and gender you can apply what you have learned about speech (say some area of pragmatics, such as the cooperative principle or politeness strategies) but with gender as a variable - do men and women show any broad differences in the way they do things?

There are separate guides to pragmatics and speech on this site. Please use these to find out more about these subjects - the current guide assumes that you have done this, or can do so in the future.

Before going any further you should know that the consensus view (the view agreed by the leading authorities at the moment) is that gender does make a difference. And Professor Tannen, for example, can tell you how. But equally you should know that this difference is not universal - so there will be men who exhibit “feminine” conversational qualities - or women who follow the conversational styles associated with men. Computer-mediated conversation (Internet relay chat, for example) is interesting because here people choose or assume their gender - and this may not be the same as their biological sex.

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In Living Language (p. 222), George Keith and John Shuttleworth record suggestions that:

  • women - talk more than men, talk too much, are more polite, are indecisive/hesitant, complain and nag, ask more questions, support each other, are more co-operative, whereas
  • men - swear more, don't talk about emotions, talk about sport more, talk about women and machines in the same way, insult each other frequently, are competitive in conversation, dominate conversation, speak with more authority, give more commands, interrupt more.

Note that some of these are objective descriptions, which can be verified (ask questions, give commands) while others express unscientific popular ideas about language and introduce non-linguistic value judgements (nag, speak with more authority).

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In a teaching group, any one of these claims should provoke lively discussion - though this may generate more heat than light. For example, I am certain that I don't swear, insult other men frequently or give commands, but I do talk about sport and can be competitive and interrupt. I cannot easily understand how one could talk about women and machines in the same way - unless this refers to quantifying statistics.

Your teacher could invite members of your class first to judge yourselves (as I have done above) against the relevant list, then against the list for the other sex. And finally you could attempt to judge others in the group (though you may not know all of them) or simply another male or female friend.

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Robin Lakoff

Robin Lakoff, in 1975, published an influential account of women's language. This was the book Language and Woman's Place. In a related article, Woman's language, she published a set of basic assumptions about what marks out the language of women. Among these are claims that women:

  • Hedge: using phrases like “sort of”, “kind of”, “it seems like”,and so on.
  • Use (super)polite forms: “Would you mind...”,“I'd appreciate it if...”, “...if you don't mind”.
  • Use tag questions: “You're going to dinner, aren't you?”
  • Speak in italics: intonational emphasis equal to underlining words - so, very, quite.
  • Use empty adjectives: divine, lovely, adorable, and so on
  • Use hypercorrect grammar and pronunciation: English prestige grammar and clear enunciation.
  • Use direct quotation: men paraphrase more often.
  • Have a special lexicon: women use more words for things like colours, men for sports.
  • Use question intonation in declarative statements: women make declarative statements into questions by raising the pitch of their voice at the end of a statement, expressing uncertainty. For example, “What school do you attend? Eton College?”
  • Use “wh-” imperatives: (such as, “Why don't you open the door?”)
  • Speak less frequently
  • Overuse qualifiers: (for example, “I Think that...”)
  • Apologise more: (for instance, “I'm sorry, but I think that...”)
  • Use modal constructions: (such as can, would, should, ought - “Should we turn up the heat?”)
  • Avoid coarse language or expletives
  • Use indirect commands and requests: (for example, “My, isn't it cold in here?” - really a request to turn the heat on or close a window)
  • Use more intensifiers: especially so and very (for instance, “I am so glad you came!”)
  • Lack a sense of humour: women do not tell jokes well and often don't understand the punch line of jokes.

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Some of these statements are more amenable to checking, by investigation and observation, than others. It is easy to count the frequency with which tag questions or modal verbs occur. But Lakoff's remark about humour is much harder to quantify - some critics might reply that notions of humour differ between men and women. (For a contemporary view you could look at Janine Liladhar's Jenny Eclair, The Rotting Old Whore of Comedy: A Feminist Discussion of the Politics of Stand-Up Comedy at Teachers should be warned that this article contains lots of profane and sexually-explicit language.)

William O'Barr and Bowman Atkins

A 1980 study by William O'Barr and Bowman Atkins looked at courtroom cases and witnesses' speech. Their findings challenge Lakoff's view of women's language. In researching what they describe as “powerless language”, they show that language differences are based on situation-specific authority or power and not gender. Of course, there may be social contexts where women are (for other reasons) more or less the same as those who lack power. But this is a far more limited claim than that made by Dale Spender, who identifies power with a male patriarchal order - the theory of dominance.

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You can find more on the O'Barr and Atkins research in Susan Githens' excellent report at Click on the link below to see this article.

This short extract from Susan Githens' report summarizes the findings of O'Barr and Atkins:

O'Barr and Atkins studied courtroom cases for 30 months, observing a broad spectrum of witnesses. They examined the witnesses for the ten basic speech differences between men and women that Robin Lakoff proposed. O'Barr and Atkins discovered that the differences that Lakoff and others supported are not necessarily the result of being a woman, but of being powerless...

O'Barr and Atkins concluded from their study that the quoted speech patterns were “neither characteristic of all women nor limited only to women”. The women who used the lowest frequency of women's language traits had an unusually high status (according to the researchers). They were well-educated professionals with middle class backgrounds. A corresponding pattern was noted among the men who spoke with a low frequency of women's language traits. O'Barr and Atkins tried to emphasize that a powerful position “may derive from either social standing in the larger society and/or status accorded by the court”.

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Any student or teacher can readily test Lakoff's claim about qualifiers and intensifiers. For example, keep a running score (divided into male and female) of occasions when a student qualifies a question or request with “just” - “Can I just have some help with my homework? Can I just borrow your dictionary? Can I just take the day off school?” Over about a year, keeping a (very unrepresentative) score of such comments occurring in language lessons, the uses by female students in my class outnumbered those by males (in the proportion of about 3 to 1). The sample included members of the teaching group (who were aware of the scoring but whose speech habits were not affected, seemingly, by their knowing this), and other students visiting for various reasons.

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Dominance and difference

Studies of language and gender often make use of two models or paradigms - that of dominance and that of difference. The first is associated with Dale Spender, Pamela Fishman, Don Zimmerman and Candace West, while the second is associated with Deborah Tannen.

Dominance theory

This is the theory that in mixed-sex conversations men are more likely to interrupt than women. It uses a fairly old study of a small sample of conversations, recorded by Don Zimmerman and Candace West at the Santa Barbara campus of the University of California in 1975. The subjects of the recording were white, middle class and under 35. Zimmerman and West produce in evidence 31 segments of conversation. They report that in 11 conversations between men and women, men used 46 interruptions, but women only two. As Geoffrey Beattie, of Sheffield University, points out (writing in New Scientist magazine in 1982): "The problem with this is that you might simply have one very voluble man in the study which has a disproportionate effect on the total." From their small (possibly unrepresentative) sample Zimmerman and West conclude that, since men interrupt more often, then they are dominating or attempting to do so. But this need not follow, as Beattie goes on to show: "Why do interruptions necessarily reflect dominance? Can interruptions not arise from other sources? Do some interruptions not reflect interest and involvement?"

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Dale Spender advocates a radical view of language as embodying structures that sustain male power. She refers to the work of Zimmerman and West, to the view of the male as norm and to her own idea of patriarchal order. She claims that it is especially difficult to challenge this power system, since the way that we think of the world is part of, and reinforces, this male power:

"The crux of our difficulties lies in being able to identify and transform the rules which govern our behaviour and which bring patriarchal order into existence. Yet the tools we have for doing this are part of that patriarchal order. While we can modify, we must none the less use the only language, the only classification scheme which is at our disposal. We must use it in a way that is acceptable and meaningful. But that very language and the conditions for its use in turn structure a patriarchal order."

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Fortunately for the language student, there is no need closely to follow the very sophisticated philosophical and ethical arguments that Dale Spender erects on her interpretation of language. But it is reasonable to look closely at the sources of her evidence - such as the research of Zimmerman and West. Geoffrey Beattie claims to have recorded some 10 hours of tutorial discussion and some 557 interruptions (compared with 55 recorded by Zimmerman and West). Beattie found that women and men interrupted with more or less equal frequency (men 34.1, women 33.8) - so men did interrupt more, but by a margin so slight as not to be statistically significant. Yet Beattie's findings are not quoted so often as those of Zimmerman and West. Why is this? Because they do not fit what someone wanted to show? Or because Beattie's work is in some other way less valuable?

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Pamela Fishman argues in Interaction: the Work Women Do (1983) that conversation between the sexes sometimes fails, not because of anything inherent in the way women talk, but because of how men respond, or don't respond. In Conversational Insecurity (1990) Fishman questions Robin Lakoff's theories. Lakoff suggests that asking questions shows women's insecurity and hesitancy in communication, whereas Fishman looks at questions as an attribute of interactions: Women ask questions because of the power of these, not because of their personality weaknesses. Fishman also claims that in mixed-sex language interactions, men speak on average for twice as long as women.

Christine Christie has shown gender differences in the pragmatics of public discourse - looking, for example, at how men and women manage politeness in the public context of UK parliamentary speaking. In Politeness and the Linguistic Construction of Gender in Parliament: An Analysis of Transgressions and Apology Behaviour, she applies pragmatic models, such as the politeness theory of Brown and Levinson and Grice's conversational maxims, to transcripts of parliamentary proceedings, especially where speakers break the rules that govern how MPs may speak in the House of Commons. See this article at .

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Deborah Tannen and difference

Status vs. support | independence vs. intimacy | advice vs. understanding | information vs. feelings | orders vs. proposals | conflict vs. compromise | the male as norm | report talk and rapport talk | interruptions and overlapping | high involvement and high considerateness

Professor Tannen has summarized her book You Just Don't Understand in an article in which she represents male and female language use in a series of six contrasts. These are:

  • Status vs. support
  • Independence vs. intimacy
  • Advice vs. understanding
  • Information vs. feelings
  • Orders vs. proposals
  • Conflict vs. compromise

In each case, the male characteristic (that is, the one that is judged to be more typically male) comes first. What are these distinctions?

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Status versus support

Men grow up in a world in which conversation is competitive - they seek to achieve the upper hand or to prevent others from dominating them. For women, however, talking is often a way to gain confirmation and support for their ideas. Men see the world as a place where people try to gain status and keep it. Women see the world as “a network of connections seeking support and consensus”.

Independence versus intimacy

Women often think in terms of closeness and support, and struggle to preserve intimacy. Men, concerned with status, tend to focus more on independence. These traits can lead women and men to starkly different views of the same situation. Professor Tannen gives the example of a woman who would check with her husband before inviting a guest to stay - because she likes telling friends that she has to check with him. The man, meanwhile, invites a friend without asking his wife first, because to tell the friend he must check amounts to a loss of status. (Often, of course, the relationship is such that an annoyed wife will rebuke him later).

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Advice versus understanding

Deborah Tannen claims that, to many men a complaint is a challenge to find a solution:

“When my mother tells my father she doesn't feel well, he invariably offers to take her to the doctor. Invariably, she is disappointed with his reaction. Like many men, he is focused on what he can do, whereas she wants sympathy.”
Information versus feelings

A young man makes a brief phone call. His mother overhears it as a series of grunts. Later she asks him about it - it emerges that he has arranged to go to a specific place, where he will play football with various people and he has to take the ball. A young woman makes a phone call - it lasts half an hour or more. The mother asks about it - it emerges that she has been talking “you know” “about stuff”. The conversation has been mostly grooming-talk and comment on feelings.

Historically, men's concerns were seen as more important than those of women, but today this situation may be reversed so that the giving of information and brevity of speech are considered of less value than sharing of emotions and elaboration. From the viewpoint of the language student neither is better (or worse) in any absolute sense.

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Orders versus proposals

Women often suggest that people do things in indirect ways - “let's”, “why don't we?” or “wouldn't it be good, if we...?” Men may use, and prefer to hear, a direct imperative.

Conflict versus compromise

“In trying to prevent fights,” writes Professor Tannen “some women refuse to oppose the will of others openly. But sometimes it's far more effective for a woman to assert herself, even at the risk of conflict. ”

This situation is easily observed in work-situations where a management decision seems unattractive - men will often resist it vocally, while women may appear to accede, but complain subsequently. Of course, this is a broad generalization - and for every one of Deborah Tannen's oppositions, we will know of men and women who are exceptions to the norm.

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Professor Tannen concludes, rather bathetically, and with a hint of an allusion to Neal (first man on the moon) Armstrong, that:

“Learning the other's ways of talking is a leap across the communication gap between men and women, and a giant step towards genuine understanding.”

The value of Tannen's views for the student and teacher is twofold.

  • First, one can discuss them - to see how far they accord with observations and experience. Though it will be helpful for the teacher to prepare some examples to clarify the discussion.
  • Second, the students can conduct investigations into one or more of these, to see how far they are true of a range of spoken data.

Task: Find any language data (for example, record a broadcast from a chat show or TV shopping channel) that show men or women in conversation - look at each of Deborah Tannen's six contrasts, and see how far it illuminates what is happening. If the contrast seems not to apply or to be relevant, then consider why this might be - is the sample untypical, is Professor Tannen's view mistaken, is something else happening? You can use her six contrasts to record your findings systematically. Make sure you do not try to force the evidence to fit the theory. You need to know if things are changing.

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The male as norm

One of Deborah Tannen's most influential ideas is that of the male as norm. Such terms as “men”, “man” and “mankind” may imply this. The term for the species or people in general is the same as that for one sex only.

But if, in fact, people believe that men's and women's speech styles are different (as Tannen does), it seems that it is usually the women who are told to change. Tannen says, “Denying real differences can only compound the confusion that is already widespread in this era of shifting and re-forming relationships between women and men.” Susan Githens comments on Professor Tannen's views, as follows:

“If we believe that women and men have different styles and that the male is the standard, we are hurting both women and men. The women are treated based on the norms for men, and men with good intentions speak to women as they would other men and are perplexed when their words spark anger and resentment. Finally, apart from her objection to women having to do all the changing, Tannen states that women changing will not work either. As Dale Spender theorized, women who talk like men are judged differently -- and harshly. A woman invading the man's realm of speech is often considered unfeminine, rude or bitchy. ”

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Report talk and rapport talk

Deborah Tannen's distinction of information and feelings is also described as report talk (of men) and rapport talk (of women). The differences can be summarized in a table:

Women Men
  • Talk too much
  • Speak in private contexts
  • Build relations
  • Overlap
  • Speak symmetrically
  • Get more air time
  • Speak in public
  • Negotiate status/avoid failure
  • Speak one at a time
  • Speak asymmetrically

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Interruptions and overlapping

Tannen contrasts interruptions and overlapping. Interruption is not the same as merely making a sound while another is speaking. Such a sound can be supportive and affirming - which Tannen calls cooperative overlap, or it can be an attempt to take control of the conversation - an interruption or competitive overlap. This can be explained in terms of claiming and keeping turns - familiar enough ideas in analysing conversation.

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High involvement and high considerateness

Professor Tannen describes two types of speaker as high-involvement and high-considerateness speakers. High-involvement speakers are concerned to show enthusiastic support (even if this means simultaneous speech) while high-considerateness speakers are, by definition, more concerned to be considerate of others. They choose not to impose on the conversation as a whole or on specific comments of another speaker.

Tannen suggests that high-involvement speakers are ready to be overlapped because they will yield to an intrusion on the conversation if they feel like it and put off responding or ignore it completely if they do not wish to give way. In the British House of Commons, there is a formal procedure for this, whereby a speaker requests permission to take the turn (“Will you give way?”) and the speaker who has the floor will often do so (“I will give way”) - on the understanding that the intervention is temporary (a point of information or of order) and that when this contribution is made, the original speaker will have the floor again (that is, be allowed to stand and speak).

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Peter Trudgill - gender, social class and speech sounds

Peter Trudgill's 1970s research into language and social class showed some interesting differences between men and women. This research is described in various studies and often quoted in language teaching textbooks. You can find more in Professor Trudgill's Social Differentiation in Norwich (1974, Cambridge University Press) and various subsequent works on dialect.

Trudgill made a detailed study in which subjects were grouped by social class and sex. He invited them to speak in a variety of situations, before asking them to read a passage that contained words where the speaker might use one or other of two speech sounds. An example would be verbs ending in -ing, where Trudgill wanted to see whether the speaker dropped the final g and pronounced this as -in'.

In phonetic terms, Trudgill observed whether, in, for example, the final sound of "singing", the speaker used the alveolar consonant /n/ or the velar consonant /ŋ/.
Note: you will only see the phonetic symbols if you have the Lucida Sans Unicode font installed and if your computer system and browser support display of this font.

Trudgill found that men were less likely and women more likely to use the prestige pronunciation of certain speech sounds. In aiming for higher prestige (above that of their observed social class) the women tended towards hypercorrectness. The men would often use a low prestige pronunciation - thereby seeking covert (hidden) prestige by appearing “tough” or “down to earth”.

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Trudgill followed up the direct observation by asking his subjects about their speech. This supported the view of men as more secure or less socially aspirational. They claimed to use lower prestige forms even more than the observation showed. Women, too, claimed to use high prestige forms more than they were observed to do.

This may be a case of objective evidence supporting a traditional view of women as being more likely to have social class aspirations than men. But it may also be that, as social rôles change, this may become less common - as women can gain prestige through work or other activities.Trudgill's observations are quite easy to replicate - you could do so as part of language research or a language investigation.

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Jennifer Coates and Deborah Jones

Jennifer Coates looks at all-female conversation and builds on Deborah Tannen's ideas. She returns to tag questions - to which Robin Lakoff drew attention in 1975. Her work looks in detail at some of the ideas that Lakoff originated and Tannen carried further. She gives useful comment on Deborah Jones' 1990 study of women's oral culture, which she (Jones) calls Gossip and categorizes in terms of House Talk, Scandal, Bitching and Chatting.

  • House Talk - its distinguishing function is the exchange of information and resources connected with the female role as an occupation.
  • Scandal - a considered judging of the behaviour of others, and women in particular. It is usually made in terms of the domestic morality, of which women have been appointed guardians.
  • Bitching - this is the overt expression of women’s anger at their restricted role and inferior status. They express this in private and to other women only. The women who bitch are not expecting change; they want only to make their complaints in an environment where their anger will be understood and expected.
  • Chatting - this is the most intimate form of gossip, a mutual self-disclosure, a transaction where women use to their own advantage the skills they have learned as part of their job of nurturing others.

(The use of these terms shows a new confidence - Deborah Jones is not fearful that her readers will think her disrespectful. She is also confident to use the lexicon of her research subjects - these are category labels the non-linguist can understand.) Coates sees women's simultaneous talk as supportive and cooperative.

Coates says of tag questions, in Language and gender: a reader (1998, Blackwells):

“ is not just the presence of minimal responses at the end, but also their absence during the course of an anecdote or summary, which demonstrates the sensitivity of participants to the norms of interaction: speakers recognise different types of talk and use minimal responses appropriately.

Lexical items such as perhaps, I think, sort of, probably as well as certain prosodic and paralinguistic features, are used in English to express epistemic modality...women use them to mitigate the force of an utterance in order to respect addressees’ face needs.”

For an explanation of face, see the relevant section of my guide to Pragmatics.

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Deborah Cameron and verbal hygiene

Deborah Cameron says that wherever and whenever the matter has been investigated, men and women face normative expectations about the appropriate mode of speech for their gender. Women's verbal conduct is important in many cultures; women have been instructed in the proper ways of talking just as they have been instructed in the proper ways of dressing, in the use of cosmetics, and in other “feminine” kinds of behaviour. This acceptance of a “proper” speech style, Cameron describes (in her 1995 book of the same name) as “verbal hygiene”.

Cameron does not condemn verbal hygiene, as misguided. She finds specific examples of verbal hygiene in the regulation of '"style" by editors, the teaching of English grammar in schools, politically correct language and the advice to women on how they can speak more effectively. In each case Deborah Cameron claims that verbal hygiene is a way to make sense of language, and that it also represents a symbolic attempt to impose order on the social world.

For an interesting and provocative comment on Cameron's ideas, you might consider this from Kate Burridge, in Political correctness: euphemism with attitude.

Not everyone shares my view of PC language. Deborah Cameron (in Verbal Hygiene 1995) prefers not to describe it as euphemism, arguing there is more to political correctness than just “sensitivity”. A term like “sex worker” is not simply a positive expression for tabooed “prostitute”, but deliberately highlights certain aspects of this group's identity. PC language is itself a form of public action – by drawing attention to form, it forces us to sit up and take notice. Euphemisms are certainly motivated by the desire not to be offensive, but they are more than just “linguistic fig leaves”. They can be deliberately provocative too. Think of political allegories like George Orwell's Animal Farm. One of the reasons why such texts are so successful is that they exploit euphemisms to publicly expound taboo topics, while at the same time pretending to disguise that purpose. Like any tease, such disguise may itself be titillating.

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Gender themes in writing

Sexism | non-sexist usage | guidelines for non-sexist use of language


Language forms may preserve old attitudes that show men as superior (morally, spiritually, intellectually or absolutely) to women. Today this may cause offence, so we see these forms as suitable for change. But people may resist these changes if the new (politically correct) forms seem clumsy.

Non-sexist usage

Personal pronouns and possessives after a noun may also show the implicit assumption that the male is the norm. Many organizations (almost all American universities) publish guidelines for non-sexist usage. These can be very detailed in their examples, but here is a short outline.

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Summary of guidelines for the non-sexist use of language

When constructing examples and theories, remember to include those human activities, interests, and points of view which traditionally have been associated with females.

Eliminate the generic use of he by:

  • using plural nouns
  • deleting he, his, and him altogether
  • substituting articles (the, a, an) for his; and who for he
  • substituting one, we, or you
  • minimizing use of indefinite pronouns (e.g., everybody, someone
  • using the passive voice (use sparingly)
  • substituting nouns for pronouns (use sparingly)

Eliminate the generic use of man:

  • for man, substitute person/people, individual(s), human(s), human being(s)
  • for mankind, substitute humankind, humanity, the human race
  • for manhood, substitute adulthood, maturity
  • delete unnecessary references to generic man

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Eliminate sexism when addressing persons formally by:

  • using Ms instead of Miss or Mrs., even when a woman's marital status is known
  • using a married woman's first name instead of her husband's (“Ms. Annabelle Lee” not “Mrs. Herman Lee”)
  • using the corresponding title for females (Ms.,Dr., Prof.) whenever a title is appropriate for males
  • using Dear Colleague or Editor or Professor, in letters to unknown persons (instead of Dear Sir, Gentlemen)

Eliminate sexual stereotyping of roles by:

  • using the same term (which avoids the generic man) for both females and males (e.g., department chair or chairperson), or by using the corresponding verb (such as to chair)
  • not calling attention to irrelevancies (for example, lady lawyer, male nurse)

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Gender spotting

Here are extracts from six texts published in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Can you identify the sex of the writer in each case? To find the answers, you can either click on the link below each text, or go to the summary after Text F.

Text A
I deny not, but that it is of greatest concernment in the Church and Commonwealth, to have a vigilant eye how books demean themselves as well as men; and thereafter to confine, imprison, and do sharpest justice on them as malefactors. For books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. I know they are as lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous dragon's teeth; and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men. And yet, on the other hand, unless wariness be used, as good almost kill a man as kill a good book. Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God's image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were in the eye. Many a man lives a burden to the earth; but a good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life. 'Tis true, no age can restore a life, whereof perhaps there is no great loss; and revolutions of ages do not oft recover the loss of a rejected truth, for the want of which whole nations fare the worse.
We should be wary therefore what persecution we raise against the living labours of public men, how we spill that seasoned life of man, preserved and stored up in books; since we see a kind of homicide may be thus committed, sometimes a martyrdom, and if it extend to the whole impression, a kind of massacre; whereof the execution ends not in the slaying of an elemental life, but strikes at that ethereal and fifth essence, the breath of reason itself, slays an immortality rather than a life. But lest I should be condemned of introducing license, while I oppose licensing, I refuse not the pains to be so much historical, as will serve to show what hath been done by ancient and famous commonwealths against this disorder, till the very time that this project of licensing crept out of the Inquisition, was catched up by our prelates, and hath caught some of our presbyters.

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Text B
From this time my head ran upon strange things, and I may truly say I was not myself; to have such a gentleman talk to me of being in love with me, and of my being such a charming creature, as he told me I was; these were things I knew not how to bear, my vanity was elevated to the last degree. It is true I had my head full of pride, but, knowing nothing of the wickedness of the times, I had not one thought of my own safety or of my virtue about me; and had my young master offered it at first sight, he might have taken any liberty he thought fit with me; but he did not see his advantage, which was my happiness for that time.
After this attack it was not long but he found an opportunity to catch me again, and almost in the same posture; indeed, it had more of design in it on his part, though not on my part. It was thus: the young ladies were all gone a-visiting with their mother; his brother was out of town; and as for his father, he had been in London for a week before. He had so well watched me that he knew where I was, though I did not so much as know that he was in the house; and he briskly comes up the stairs and, seeing me at work, comes into the room to me directly, and began just as he did before, with taking me in his arms, and kissing me for almost a quarter of an hour together.
It was his younger sister's chamber that I was in, and as there was nobody in the house but the maids below-stairs, he was, it may be, the ruder; in short, he began to be in earnest with me indeed. Perhaps he found me a little too easy, for God knows I made no resistance to him while he only held me in his arms and kissed me; indeed, I was too well pleased with it to resist him much.

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Text C
Dun Buy, which in Erse is said to signify the Yellow Rock, is a double protuberance of stone, open to the main sea on one side, and parted from the land by a very narrow channel on the other. It has its name and its colour from the dung of innumerable sea-fowls, which in the Spring chuse this place as convenient for incubation, and have their eggs and their young taken in great abundance. One of the birds that frequent this rock has, as we were told, its body not larger than a duck's, and yet lays eggs as large as those of a goose. This bird is by the inhabitants named a Coot. That which is called Coot in England, is here a Cooter.
Upon these rocks there was nothing that could long detain attention, and we soon turned our eyes to the Buller, or Bouilloir of Buchan, which no man can see with indifference, who has either sense of danger or delight in rarity. It is a rock perpendicularly tubulated, united on one side with a high shore, and on the other rising steep to a great height, above the main sea. The top is open, from which may be seen a dark gulf of water which flows into the cavity, through a breach made in the lower part of the inclosing rock. It has the appearance of a vast well bordered with a wall. The edge of the Buller is not wide, and to those that walk round, appears very narrow. He that ventures to look downward sees, that if his foot should slip, he must fall from his dreadful elevation upon stones on one side, or into water on the other. We however went round, and were glad when the circuit was completed.
When we came down to the sea, we saw some boats, and rowers, and resolved to explore the Buller at the bottom. We entered the arch, which the water had made, and found ourselves in a place, which, though we could not think ourselves in danger, we could scarcely survey without some recoil of the mind. The bason in which we floated was nearly circular, perhaps thirty yards in diameter. We were inclosed by a natural wall, rising steep on every side to a height which produced the idea of insurmountable confinement. The interception of all lateral light caused a dismal gloom. Round us was a perpendicular rock, above us the distant sky, and below an unknown profundity of water. If I had any malice against a walking spirit, instead of laying him in the Red-sea, I would condemn him to reside in the Buller of Buchan.

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Text D
The great advantages which naturally result from storing the mind with knowledge, are obvious from the following considerations. The association of our ideas is either habitual or instantaneous; and the latter mode seems rather to depend on the original temperature of the mind than on the will. When the ideas, and matters of fact, are once taken in, they lie by for use, till some fortuitous circumstance makes the information dart into the mind with illustrative force, that has been received at very different periods of our lives. Like the lightning's flash are many recollections; one idea assimilating and explaining another, with astonishing rapidity. I do not now allude to that quick perception of truth, which is so intuitive that it baffles research, and makes us at a loss to determine whether it is reminiscence or ratiocination, lost sight of in its celerity, that opens the dark cloud. Over those instantaneous associations we have little power; for when the mind is once enlarged by excursive flights, or profound reflection, the raw materials, will, in some degree, arrange themselves. The understanding, it is true, may keep us from going out of drawing when we group our thoughts, or transcribe from the imagination the warm sketches of fancy; but the animal spirits, the individual character give the colouring. Over this subtile electric fluid,* how little power do we possess, and over it how little power can reason obtain! These fine intractable spirits appear to be the essence of genius, and beaming in its eagle eye, produce in the most eminent degree the happy energy of associating thoughts that surprise, delight, and instruct. These are the glowing minds that concentrate pictures for their fellow-creatures; forcing them to view with interest the objects reflected from the impassioned imagination, which they passed over in nature.
(*Footnote. I have sometimes, when inclined to laugh at materialists, asked whether, as the most powerful effects in nature are apparently produced by fluids, the magnetic, etc. the passions might not be fine volatile fluids that embraced humanity, keeping the more refractory elementary parts together--or whether they were simply a liquid fire that pervaded the more sluggish materials giving them life and heat?)

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Text E
'Above all, my dear Emily,' said he, 'do not indulge in the pride of fine feeling, the romantic error of amiable minds. Those, who really possess sensibility, ought early to be taught, that it is a dangerous quality, which is continually extracting the excess of misery, or delight, from every surrounding circumstance. And, since, in our passage through this world, painful circumstances occur more frequently than pleasing ones, and since our sense of evil is, I fear, more acute than our sense of good, we become the victims of our feelings, unless we can in some degree command them. I know you will say, (for you are young, my Emily) I know you will say, that you are contented sometimes to suffer, rather than to give up your refined sense of happiness, at others; but, when your mind has been long harassed by vicissitude, you will be content to rest, and you will then recover from your delusion. You will perceive, that the phantom of happiness is exchanged for the substance; for happiness arises in a state of peace, not of tumult. It is of a temperate and uniform nature, and can no more exist in a heart, that is continually alive to minute circumstances, than in one that is dead to feeling. You see, my dear, that, though I would guard you against the dangers of sensibility, I am not an advocate for apathy. At your age I should have said THAT is a vice more hateful than all the errors of sensibility, and I say so still. I call it a VICE, because it leads to positive evil; in this, however, it does no more than an ill- governed sensibility, which, by such a rule, might also be called a vice; but the evil of the former is of more general consequence. I have exhausted myself,' said St. Aubert, feebly, 'and have wearied you, my Emily; but, on a subject so important to your future comfort, I am anxious to be perfectly understood.'

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Text F
The progress of Catherine's unhappiness from the events of the evening was as follows. It appeared first in a general dissatisfaction with everybody about her, while she remained in the rooms, which speedily brought on considerable weariness and a violent desire to go home. This, on arriving in Pulteney Street, took the direction of extraordinary hunger, and when that was appeased, changed into an earnest longing to be in bed; such was the extreme point of her distress; for when there she immediately fell into a sound sleep which lasted nine hours, and from which she awoke perfectly revived, in excellent spirits, with fresh hopes and fresh schemes. The first wish of her heart was to improve her acquaintance with Miss Tilney, and almost her first resolution, to seek her for that purpose, in the pump-room at noon. In the pump-room, one so newly arrived in Bath must be met with, and that building she had already found so favourable for the discovery of female excellence, and the completion of female intimacy, so admirably adapted for secret discourses and unlimited confidence, that she was most reasonably encouraged to expect another friend from within its walls. Her plan for the morning thus settled, she sat quietly down to her book after breakfast, resolving to remain in the same place and the same employment till the clock struck one; and from habitude very little incommoded by the remarks and ejaculations of Mrs. Allen, whose vacancy of mind and incapacity for thinking were such, that as she never talked a great deal, so she could never be entirely silent; and, therefore, while she sat at her work, if she lost her needle or broke her thread, if she heard a carriage in the street, or saw a speck upon her gown, she must observe it aloud, whether there were anyone at leisure to answer her or not. At about half past twelve, a remarkably loud rap drew her in haste to the window, and scarcely had she time to inform Catherine of there being two open carriages at the door, in the first only a servant, her brother driving Miss Thorpe in the second, before John Thorpe came running upstairs, calling out,
“Well, Miss Morland, here I am. Have you been waiting long? We could not come before; the old devil of a coachmaker was such an eternity finding out a thing fit to be got into, and now it is ten thousand to one but they break down before we are out of the street. How do you do, Mrs. Allen? A famous bag last night, was not it? Come, Miss Morland, be quick, for the others are in a confounded hurry to be off. They want to get their tumble over.”
“What do you mean?” said Catherine. “Where are you all going to?” “Going to? Why, you have not forgot our engagement! Did not we agree together to take a drive this morning? What a head you have! We are going up Claverton Down.”
“Something was said about it, I remember,” said Catherine, looking at Mrs. Allen for her opinion; “but really I did not expect you.”
“Not expect me! That's a good one! And what a dust you would have made, if I had not come.”

If you want to find the sex of the authors of all six texts, click on the link below:

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Writing for women

Below is an extract from a story, published in the weekly magazine Woman's Own, in June, 1990.

It had been so different three years ago, the night she'd met Stefan de Vaux. There'd been a party. Bella always threw a party when she'd sold a picture because poverty, she'd explained, was a great inspiration. She'd been wearing a brilliant blue caftan, her fair hair twisted on the top of her head, the severity of it accenting her high cheekbones, the little jade Buddha gleaming on its silver chain round her neck.

Claire, pale from England and the illness that had allowed her to come to Tangier to recuperate, had been passed from guest to guest - “Ah, you're Bella's cousin” - like a plate of canapés, she thought ruefully, attractive but unexciting. Until Stefan de Vaux had taken her out onto the balcony and kissed her.

“Well?” he'd said softly, in his lightly accented voice, letting her go at last, and she had just stood there, staring at him, at his lean, outrageously handsome face, his laughing mouth, amber brown eyes. “Angry? Pleased? Shocked?” And she'd blushed furiously, feeling all three.
  • What details of language in the story appear to reflect the writer's expectations about the reader, in your view?
  • Which language features reflect attitudes to male or female gender?
  • Comment on interesting lexis by category: nouns, verbs, qualifiers and so on
  • Comment on features of punctuation
  • Comment on sentence structures (syntax)
  • Comment on stylistic features in the extract
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The text below comes from 101 ways to save money in wartime - a booklet published to give advice to families in the UK. This is part of an article called The “Slip a Day” Scheme.

Supposing that we take an ordinary middle-class family as an example; instead of Father giving Mother her housekeeping always on the same day he hands it over a day later each week. On Friday the first week, Saturday the second, Sunday the third, and so on. At the end of eight weeks she has an extra week's allowance in hand for the purchase of Certificates.

On an allowance of say £3 10s. per week, as much as £20 a year can be saved this way - and all Mother has to do is to adopt some of the economies suggested in Section 2, and make seven days' housekeeping money last for eight days. In a business family, if every adult member did the same, a very large sum could be accumulated without hardship.
Click here to see a larger version of this image

The image on the left is a thumbnail view of the article as it was originally printed. Click on the image or the link below to see an enlarged view.

  • What attitudes to gender can you find in the language of this article?
  • Does the language merely record and reflect the social attitudes of the time, or does it help perpetuate them?

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Historical and contemporary changes

Below is some information about how attitudes to gender in language have developed over time.

In 1553 the grammarian Wilson ruled that the man should precede the woman in pairs such as male/female; husband/wife; brother/sister; son/daughter. Clive Grey comments that:

Even in the Tudor period comments about the kind of language that was suitable for young women to aim at is evidenced. Vives (1523) De Institutione Christianae Feminae (On The Instruction of a Christian Woman) has observations on what appropriate was considered then appropriate language for the time...What is interesting about these early 'handbooks' is the specific reference to women - there are no corresponding publications where men are the audience for a book on “improving” linguistic behaviour, indeed it is men who usually do the suggesting.

In 1646 another grammarian Joshua Poole ruled that the male should precede the female. This was both more “natural”, and more “proper” as men were the “worthier” sex.

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John Kirkby ruled that the male sex was “more comprehensive” than the female, which it therefore included. Nineteenth century grammarians reinforced the resulting idea of male superiority by condemning the use of the neutral pronoun they and their in such statements as, “Anyone can come if they want”. Their argument was an insistence on agreement of number - that anyone and everyone, being singular, could not properly correspond to plural pronouns. Against this Professor R.W. Zandvoort (The Fundamentals of English Grammar on one card, Edward Arnold, London, 1963) allows either the male or plural form for an indefinite pronoun:

“Where sex is unknown, he or they may be used of an adult, he or it of children...”

Clive Grey notes that by 1900 publications tend to fall into two categories:

  • “instructional advice for women wishing to improve their spoken and written English, and
  • the rise and development of sex-specification in the language, of which pronoun usage is one aspect.”

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In 1891 E.C. Stanton published a Woman's Bible in the USA.

In 1906 James published an article in Harper's Bazaar entitled The speech of American women.

In 1922, Otto Jespersen published a book containing a chapter on “women's language”. The Woman describes differences in women's compared to men's speech and voice pitch. He describes women's vocabulary as less extensive than men's and claims that the periphery of language and the development of new words is only for men's speech. Jespersen explains these differences by the early division of labour between the sexes. In his conclusion he claims that the social changes taking place at the time “may eventually modify even the linguistic relations of the two sexes”.

As long ago as 1928 Svartengren commented on the use of female pronouns to refer to countries and boats. (The use of she to refer to motorcars - may seem typically male).

The first specific piece of writing on gender differences in language this century came out in 1944. This was P. H. Furfey's Men's and Women's language, in The Catholic Sociological Review.

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Names and titles

What are the conventions of naming in marriage? What are the titles for married and unmarried people of either sex? Why are stage performers often excepted from these “rules” (for example, Dame Judi Dench is the widow of the late Michael Williams - she is not “Mrs. Williams”). In some European countries women are known by their father's name rather than that of their husband - for example Anna Karenina in Russia or Sveinbjörg Sigurðardóttir in Iceland. Is this better than the convention in the UK, or merely a different kind of sexism? (In Iceland, the names of women do not change in marriage, either. A recent law allows any Icelander to use his or her mother's first name as the root of the last name, followed by “-son” or “-dóttir”.) In Russia and Iceland men, too, are known by their father's name - Stepan Arkadyevich or Haraldur Sveinsson.

Early in 2002, Lloyd's List (a newspaper for the shipping industry) announced that it was to change its practice of using the pronouns “she” and “her” to refer to ships. The editor, Julian Bray, said it was time to “bring the paper into line with most other reputable international business titles...I decided that it was time to catch up with the rest of the world, and most other news organizations refer to ships as neuter”. Columnists on Lloyd's List, however, are not obliged to to use neuter pronouns. Pieter van der Merwe, general editor at the Greenwich Maritime Museum at Greenwich, in London, has opposed the decision. He says:

“You actually lose the color of specialist areas if you destroy the language of them. We will continue to refer to ships as 'she' here.”

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Occupational lexis

Look at nouns that denote workers in a given occupation. In some cases (teacher, social-worker) they may seem gender-neutral. Others may have gender-neutral denotation (doctor, lawyer, nurse) but not gender-neutral connotation for all speakers and listeners. Speakers will show this in forms such as “woman doctor” or “male nurse”. Listeners may not show it but you can test their expectations by statements or short narratives that allow for contradiction of assumptions (such as a story about a doctor or nurse depicted as the spouse of a man or woman, as appropriate).

You can try it out with this example story. See how many people find it puzzling.

A man was driving with his son, when the car was struck by another vehicle. The man was killed instantly, but his son, injured, was rushed to hospital. The surgeon came into the operating theatre, gasped and said: “But this is my son”.

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Some listeners may not notice anything odd. If they are truthful some may admit to taking a little while to understand the story, and some may continue to find it puzzling until it is explained. You could vary the noun from “surgeon” to “doctor”, “consultant” or “anaesthetist” and so on, to see if this changes the responses. You could also rework the story thus:

A woman was driving with her son, when the car was struck by another vehicle. The woman was killed instantly, but her son, injured, was rushed to hospital. The theatre nurse looked at the surgeon, gasped and said: “But this is my son”

Consider forms that differentiate by gender, in adding diminutive (belittling) affixes: actress, stewardess, waitress, majorette, usherette, and so on.

My son reports that at his school, 6th form students (many of them young men) are now employed as lunchtime supervisors for younger students. And what do they call themselves? “Dinner-ladies”.

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Semantic non-equivalences

These are pairs of terms that historically differentiated by sex alone, but which, over time, have gained different connotations (e.g. of status or value) and in some cases different denotations. Examples include:

  • Mrs, Ms/Mr;
  • Miss/Master, Mr;
  • Mistress/master;
  • Governess/governor;
  • Spinster/bachelor;
  • Tomboy/sissy;
  • Lady/Lord;
  • Lady/gentleman;
  • Dame/knight;
  • Bride/(bride)groom;
  • Madam/sir;
  • Queen/king;
  • Matron/patron;
  • Husband/wife;
  • Author/authoress;
  • Dog/bitch.

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You can easily explain these distinctions (and others that you can find for yourself). Howard Jackson and Peter Stockwell, in An Introduction to the Nature and Functions of Language (p. 124) do this quite entertainingly:

“A master is in control, but a mistress is kept for sex. Compare old master and old mistress. A bachelor is an approving term, but a spinster is a sad thing to be. Compare bachelor pad and spinster pad. A patron is a business client, but a matron is an old nurse. If a man has a client, he is a businessman; if a woman has a client, she is a prostitute. If a man is a pro, he is competent; if a woman is a pro, she is a prostitute. If a man is a tramp, he is a homeless scruff; if a woman, a prostitute.”

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Patronizing, controlling and insulting

This is not just a gender issue - these are functions (or abuses) of language which may appear in any social situation. But they take particular forms when the speaker (usually) or writer is male and the addressee is female. In some cases the patronizing, controlling or insulting only works because both parties share awareness of these connotations. It is possible for the addressee not to perceive - or the speaker not to intend - the patronizing, controlling or insulting. Patronizing terms include dear, love, pet or addressing a group of adult women as girls. Note that calling men boys or lads is not seen as demeaning. (Why is this?)

Shirley Russell, in Grammar, Structure and Style (pp. 174-5), argues that insulting is a means of control. She quotes Julia Stanley, who claims that in a large lexicon of terms for males, 26 are non-standard nouns that denote promiscuous men. Some have approving connotation (stallion, stud). In a smaller list of nouns for women are 220 that denote promiscuity (e.g. slut, scrubber, tart). All have disapproving connotation. Equally terms denoting abstinence - like the noun phrase tight bitch - are disapproving. In Losing Out Sue Lees argues that men control female behaviour by use of such terms, especially slag. Note that today both dog and bitch are used pejoratively of women. Dog denotes supposed physical unattractiveness, while bitch denotes an alleged fault of character. In the 1970s male chauvinist pig (or MCP) was a popular epithet to describe a man with sexist attitudes - but this term has dropped out of common use today.

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There is a problem in studies that claim that examples demeaning to women outnumber those that demean men - and that is, that the researcher may be missing some of the evidence. For example, submitting to the search engine Google at the phrases "why men are useless"/"why women are useless" gives about 705,000 hits for "men" and about 536,000 for women. This may seem not very scientific, but the search engine can check more examples than human calculation - and it has no tendency to overlook evidence that does not fit. Using the phrase "promiscuous (wo)men" led to some 66,000 hits for men and 65,500 for women.

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Another rather obvious objection to the Russell/Stanley claim is this - it is not usually men who approve other men as stallion or stud but women. Men do sometimes express mild approval of promiscuity in such phrases as "getting your oats", but rarely show direct admiration of the "hunk". More likely the "stud" is an object of fear or jealousy among men. Similarly while men (especially young men) may describe a woman as a slut, tart or slag, it is perhaps equally or more likely that other young women will call her this directly - and may continue to use such insults into adult life. Merely to count the insults is a crude measure - if we do not consider who is using them.

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What Russell and Stanley also overlook is the selectiveness and sentimentality with which men use insulting terms - so that for every bitch there is a princess, queen or Madonna (a mother, sister, daughter, wife). While some men may use insulting language, a balanced account of men's disposition to insult, patronize and control should also take account of men's tendency to insult, patronize and control other men, and to revere, praise and honour some women - though a determined fault-finder will still represent this as men objectifying women (seeing them as sex objects).

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Beauty and appearance

Judging women by appearance is well attested by language forms. Blonde, an adjective of colour, becomes a noun, with connotations of low intelligence. (This is popularised in "blonde" jokes - which often resemble the jokes once told about Irish people, making fun of supposed low intelligence - has "blonde" as one of twenty joke categories; "women" is another, but not "men".) Brunette has a similar origin, as has the compound noun redhead (there is no common term known to me for a woman with black hair) - but these are used to denote appearance rather than character. Red hair in men is more likely to meet disapproval - in East Yorkshire schools a young man with red hair is a ginner (the “g” is soft, as the noun is a derivation of ginger) - and this term has connotations of excitability and ridiculousness. Babe is both approving (beauty) and disapproving (intelligence). More strongly pejorative (about intellect) is bimbo. A male equivalent - himbo - has not passed into common use. (The software on which this guide is written accepts bimbo but not himbo as a known form.) Hunk (approving) and wimp (disapproving) apply to men criteria of strength and attractiveness, but neither has a clear connotation of intelligence. A typical example, from, describing Brad Pitt, follows:

"His role in the movie Thelma and Louise rocketed himself into the hot hunks of Hollywood status and caught the attention of co-star Geena Davis, whom Pitt also dated briefly."

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Example texts

  • “A strapper - a real strapper, Jane: big, brown and buxom...” (Mr. Rochester describes Blanche Ingram); 1847; Brontë, C , Jane Eyre, Chapter 20.
  • Perhaps I'll be a Mrs. Mopp,/With dusters, brush and pan./I'll scrub and rub till everything/Looked clean and spick and span." 1979; Twinkle (comic for girls) Annual.
  • Girl Group seeks very attractive slim, fifth Member/Image a must. Age 18-22 only./ Vocals important./ Open auditions on/ Tuesday 12 January at Pineapple Studios. 1999; newspaper advertisement.
  • ATTRACTIVE ACTRESSES/required for/DENTAL PROMOTIONS. 1999; newspaper advertisement.
  • So Nick Harvey “is the son of a civil servant” (Poll for successor; January 21). What does his father do? 1999; Smithson, Philippa; letter to The Guardian.
  • The Rev Margaret Jones (Letters, January 25) should know that when the word “man” appears in Holy Writ it refers to both genders. An instance appears at the commencement of Lent: “Remember, man, that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return”. The insistence of differentiations between (sic.) gender only serves to tear man asunder. 1999; Reed, A.J.; letter to The Guardian.
  • [Ellen McArthur, second in the Vendée Globe Challenge] is to sail up the Thames to a hero's welcome. 2001; BBC Radio 4, Today news, February 21st
  • An item like this (an ATM machine) helps a local shopkeeper bring people into his shop. 2002; Post Office senior spokesperson (male); BBC Radio 4, Moneybox, March 24th
  • Basically the guy has to decide whether he wants to stay with his pot-smoking French lingerie model girlfriend…or go with a boney neurotic criminal [the female lead, played by Courteney Cox] who's stalking him. Tough call. Review of feature film The Shrink Is In, in The Guide, Guardian listings magazine, January 2003.
  • A married woman with a cat…on average lives the same length of time as a single woman without a cat. Single women with cats live the longest of all. Hmm...SKIP MARRIAGE!!! I'm getting a cat!!! Are Men Really Necessary? Glowing Maid Rant #9, (this site uses taboo language forms and may be disallowed by some Internet filtering software)

Read these examples carefully, then talk (or make notes) about any of the following:

  • how far they are typical of the ways men or women use language?
  • what attitudes they reveal explicitly or implicitly to gender
  • the importance of the context in which the reader/listener sees or hears them

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Specimen exam questions

Question 1

Explain what you understand by the term "sexist language". How far do you think this term is still applicable to ways in which people use language in society today? In your answer you should refer both to examples and to relevant research.

Question 2

Describe some of the differences between the language used by male and by female speakers in social interaction. Explain why these differences might occur.

Question 3

Texts A and B are extracts from two conversations between a male and a female speaker. In Text A two friends are talking over a coffee at the home of one of them; in Text B the participants are strangers at a camping ground where the man is attempting to tune in to a weather station on his radio.

To what extent are these conversations representative of the way men and women talk with each other?

In your answer you should refer to any relevant research and also make use of some of the following frameworks, where appropriate:

  • lexis
  • grammar
  • semantics
  • pragmatics
  • discourse structure

Note: M = Male participant; F = Female participant; () indicates a brief pause; (-) indicates a slightly longer pause; words within vertical lines are spoken simultaneously.

I have not shown the texts used in this example question - for two reasons:

  • they come from a book which is protected by copyright, and
  • some teachers will want to use the question (it was on a real exam paper in 2001) for practice exams in school.

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Sample texts for practice questions

Text 1 | Text 2 | Text 3 | Text 4

These texts and the commentary that follows show how to analyse texts in relation to language and gender.

Text 1

This comes from a posting on a message board, found on the men's portal MenWeb at, listing reasons why It's Good to Be a Man.

  • 15. People never glance at your chest when you're talking to them.
  • 16. New shoes don't cut, blister, or mangle your feet.
  • 17. One mood, ALL the damn time.
  • 18. Phone conversations are over in 30 seconds.
  • 19. A five-day vacation requires only 1 suitcase.
  • 20. You can open all your own jars.
  • 21. You get extra credit for the slightest act of thoughtfulness.
  • 22. Your underwear is $10 for a three-pack.
  • 23. If you are 34 and single, nobody notices.
  • 24. You can quietly enjoy a car ride from the passenger's seat.
  • 25. Three pairs of shoes are more than enough.
  • 26. You can quietly watch a game with your buddy, for hours without ever thinking "He must be mad at me."
  • 27. No maxi-pads.
  • 28. If another guy shows up at the party in the same outfit, you just might become lifelong friends.
  • 29. You are not expected to know the names of more than five colors.
  • 30. You don't have to stop and think of which way to turn a nut on a bolt.
  • 31. You are unable to see wrinkles in clothes.
  • 32. The same hairstyle lasts for years, maybe decades.
  • 33. Your belly usually hides your big hips.
  • 34. One wallet and one pair of shoes, one color, all seasons.
  • 35. You can "do" your nails with a pocketknife.
  • 36. Christmas shopping can be accomplished for 25 relatives, on December 24th, in minutes.
  • 37. The world is your urinal.

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Text 2

The following is part of a discussion thread on a forum for women. This thread concerns computing. I have shown people's user names as XXXX to preserve their anonymity:

HTML - can somebody please explain (2 Replies)
Posted by: XXXX on 15/01/03 at 08:00 PM
what this is?

Yes you're looking at it! (0 Replies)
Posted by: YYYY on 15/01/03 at 08:09 PM

HTML - HyperText Markup language is the code that most web pages are made of.
to give you an idea (0 Replies)
Posted by: ZZZZ on 15/01/03 at 09:16 PM
At the top of the browser choose "View" from the menu - then click "source". The window that comes up is the HTML source code for the page you are looking at. This is what gets sent over the net - your browser (internet explorer, netscape etc.) then interprets this text and shows you it in an understandable form (usually..).Hammy

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Text 3

This is part of a posting on a message board for men. I have preserved the non-standard grammar and spelling.

I've told my wife that if she didn't sign our divorce decree, as is, by Friday morning, that I would kill the goose that lays golden eggs by quitting my job.

This women is extremely greedy. She will end up with about $30K cash in the first year, while I will assume about the same amount as debt. She has interfered with my phone calls and emails to my 2 beautiful girls.

She is acting totaly bonkers right now - I'm sure some of you know what I mean. No logic, all emotion, attack, attack, attack. The thing is, she left me! I gave her no reason to do so, she just decided that since her best friend moved away that she wanted to leave me and be with her friends and family at the other end of the country.

She is making me pay her large sums of money, and then using it to fight me with a lawyer. I've spent $5K for my lawyer, and I have to pay for hers too!

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Text 4

The text below is advice on how to solve Fashion Dilemmas from a UK-based Web site at

Dear X,

As jeans seem to be the lynchpin of your wardrobe I suggest you find clothes to work with them.

An easy daytime look could comprise slimming dark indigo jeans which can be dressed up with white cotton shirts, blazers and heeled ankle boots or down with a crewneck top and suede trainers. Mix in a chunky leather belt to add polish to your look and keep a pair of jeans in a lighter wash for bombing around in at weekends.

The chunky cardigans that are still in the shops make a good alternative to a jacket when the weather warms up. Also try one of those cotton canvas military-styled jackets for something a bit more fashionable - one in khaki or stone will co-ordinate with your jeans.

Keep your colour palette simple with black, white, camel and blue, mixing in khaki and a brighter colour, for example red or orange to flatter your hair colour, as hi-lights.

The best way to disguise your stomach and deal with your high waist at the same time is to find a pair of low-waisted jeans (or trousers) that sit on your hips rather than your natural waistline. Gap, Topshop, Diesel, and French Connection are best for these jeans. The low waist will lengthen your torso while also sitting below the bulge - then wear a shirt or top over (not skin tight mind) and hey presto, tummy is disguised.

Last summer's gypsy tops were the perfect stomach cover-up and for spring it looks like there will be more of the same on the rails. Also look out for wrap tops and kimono-sleeved tops as they too will look great with your jeans.

Evening wear follows the same rules - fitted blouses (not tucked in) and wrap tops with dark jeans or black trousers but in more luxurious fabrics such as silk and satin. Throw in a bit of glitz with a sequinned bag and shoes and you're away.

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Commentary on sample texts

Guidance from the AQA examiners often suggests that answers should make use of some of the following frameworks, where appropriate:

  • lexis
  • grammar
  • semantics
  • pragmatics
  • discourse structure.

However, comments in examiners' reports suggest that they do not like students to do this mechanically, simply working through the list point by point - they want to see answers that are joined-up and coherent. Of course, some students will wish to use the checklist quite methodically, as this is the only way they can be sure of covering all the points.

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The lexis in these texts varies - while the guidance on fashion has an extensive special lexicon of colour and clothing (which may be seen as more typical of a female speaker or writer with a mostly female audience), the question and answers on HTML use a special lexicon of computing, which we may think more typical of male language users. The two articles from the men's portal make more use of the common register, though at points the writer of the list (Reasons why it's good to be a man) uses more typically male lexis - like "buddy" and "guy". The writer refers to "underwear" (rather than "lingerie"). He or she uses the compound maxi-pads (but without giving any indication of knowing what these are for). If the lexis in a text seems unremarkable and mostly in the common register, this is still worth remarking. It would be odd and highly unscientific if we selected example data that exhibited the kind of lexis that we wanted to find, to "prove" our theories.

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In fact, the lexical choices are clearly connected with pragmatics - the writers may have a sense of what is appropriate to their readers in a public context. So in the case of the fashion guidance, the writer can assume that, because someone has asked for help, then she will expect some detail in the response, and the special lexis is mostly there to name things - so we find lexis of colour (indigo, khaki, stone), of materials (cotton, leather, silk, satin), of garment types (crewneck, jeans, gypsy top, blouses) and of designer brands (Gap, Topshop, Diesel, French Connection - note that all of these are proper nouns, and capitalized). Where the writer of the list in Text 1 can refer to "belly and big hips" (which may seem indelicate for someone sensitive to body image), the fashion writer is concerned to present natural features positively: "disguise your stomach and deal with your high waist", and "flatter your hair colour". We do not see the taboo word, "fat". The writer does not ignore features that worry the reader ("perfect stomach cover-up"), but uses some euphemism in referring to the "bulge" and in the infantile "tummy". In contrast to the list, which defends a simple choice of clothes, not changing with fashion, and a hairstyle that lasts for years (or decades), the fashion guide thinks of what women call accessories, such as the "heeled ankle-boots", "chunky leather belt", and the "sequinned bag and shoes".

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The verb phrases in the fashion article ("bombing around" and "throw in a bit") imply a sense of fun, not merely in wearing the clothes as cover, but in displaying them. Colours are not simply listed, but the reader is expected to understand the notion of a palette, and how colours coordinate. Few people notice, or challenge, the idea that the idea of colour coordination reverses the male-as-norm rule, disregarding colour combinations that men find acceptable - or, indeed men and women in other times or other cultures. "Coordinated" colours are not something objective and unchanging (they are not usually derived from optical physics or simple biology, in the way that some insects find yellow attractive) but from ideas that change from year to year. This is well illustrated by the idea of "the new black" - which supposedly identifies whatever is the current colour of choice (an idea determined by designers and fashion journalists, and changing over time).

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Special lexis always implies an understanding of semantics and pragmatics. "Gypsy", to denote a member of the community now usually known as "travellers", is considered taboo (it comes from "Egyptian", reflecting a historical belief that this people originated in Egypt). But as a description of a garment it is acceptable in "gypsy tops". Without contextual clues, we might think of "camel, khaki" and "stone" as nouns denoting an animal, a cloth and a mineral - but all have become adjectives of colour by grammatical conversion.

The writer of Text 3 uses his own private lexis (part of his idiolect) when he refers to "my 2 beautiful girls" - the context suggests that these may be daughters, now living with their mother, who prevents the father from speaking to them by telephone or sending e-mail messages. We can imagine that he would use this phrase in conversation, or in contexts where their identity is not in doubt or can be verified by a listener. That is, we can imagine that a friend or relation, having heard this noun-phrase many times, will know who the "beautiful girls" are. The writer does not think to give more precise information to qualify the description. The text is written but resembles the talk that guests produce on confessional TV shows, in that the writer does not wish to conceal the details of his failed relationship, and may be seeking sympathy in depicting himself as victim. This may in turn reflect a change in male attitudes to language use - in earlier times a man would be expected to keep such things inside, and show the so-called "stiff upper lip".

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The writer of Text 3 appears to assume that the users of a men's portal will accept a stereotype of women as irrational and over emotional. This is expressed in terms of mental illness, as "totaly (sic.) bonkers" - though the writer appeals to an idea that he expects his readers already to hold: "I'm sure some of you know what I mean". The writer of the fashion guide similarly makes assumptions about her readers - that they will know what Gap, Topshop, Diesel and French Connection mean. Some of the names are interesting - "Topshop" contains a simple pun (a place where you may buy "tops" [itself a fairly new noun to mean various kinds of garment] and "top" as in "best"). "French Connection" suggests the familiar idea that France is a home of both high and classic fashion, but echoes the name of the classic film - since the "French Connection" in the film is route for hard drugs (via Marseille), this may be a risky name. "Diesel" is perhaps more ironic - in associating something seen as soft or feminine with powerful machinery, rather as Caterpillar (originally known as a manufacturer of earth-moving and road-building machinery) has become a fashionable brand of footwear. The writer of Text 1 (the list) assumes that the reader is male, as he (or she) uses second-person "you" in most cases, where this obviously (because of the rest of the statement) refers to a man, or the sex in general. Or rather, he writes so that the list will appear to include, or speak to, men who read it, while any women who find their way to the text will feel that they are excluded. The postings on the forum (Text 2) do not make any reference to the sex of the contributors - and there is no reason why any man should not join the forum and post a message or reply. The user names (not shown here) do not indicate the sex of the contributor - and, anyway, the forum allows users to assume a gender identity that is not the same necessarily as their biological sex. (It is possible that people in both the men's and women's forums are impostors as regards sex, or use the anonymity of the medium to adopt, in good faith, a gender identity of their choice.)

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These are all written texts, but they exhibit different approaches to grammar. All are addressed to one or more imagined readers, but these vary from the fashion article (aimed at one questioner, but, by extension, to other women who share the questioner's wish for guidance) to the letter from the man hoping to divorce his wife (aimed at anyone who will trouble to read it). The question on HTML is not very clear - the questioner does not indicate what kind of question this is (does she want to learn how to write HTML, does she want to write Web pages, is she merely curious for a snippet of information or something else?).

The two respondents to the HTML query interpret the question differently. The first one gives a rather flippant answer - as if she is writing in order to respond, even where she has nothing (informative) to say. So this message may exhibit support and fit Deborah Tannen's idea of women as concerned with expressing feelings where men give information. The second response is very different, and gives clear information, without being unduly technical. The parenthesis "(usually..)" and the signature "Hammy" express a sense of a friendly communication. The fashion guide may show some sense of the writer's considering the reader's feelings (in the delicate reference to the stomach bulge), but is also very detailed in giving information.

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An interesting point of grammar is the way in which the writers use grammatical person, mostly through pronouns, to suggest a relationship with the reader. Text 4 is particularly skilful in moving between second person "you" (addressing the particular questioner) and third-person general statements: "Evening wear follows the same rules" or "Last summer's gypsy tops were the perfect stomach cover-up". We can see this alternation at work in the paragraph that opens with a general statement about "chunky cardigans", then, in the next sentence uses a second-person imperative verb form: "try one of those cotton canvas military-styled jackets..."

The structure of each (even allowing for the fact that these are extracts from longer texts) is fairly clear - and helps the reader in knowing how to approach them. The fashion guide has the most explicitly conventional structure - it is an extended description, organized in paragraphs much as in a print publication, such as a general interest magazine. Text 1 is a simple list - a currently fashionable form of discourse, which may have its origins in oral tradition and things like lists of teachings in religion. Text 3 resembles a private letter, being more or less a loosely organized series of personal reflections. Text 2 looks messy, but the presentation on the Web site indicates the status of messages, of replies to the original message (and of replies to the replies), and gives a heading and the text of the message. In one sense this is by far the most consistently organized of all the discourses, since it derives wholly from the way the computer software and the database of messages presents the postings to the visitor who is viewing the site. The message writer is free to choose the content of the posting (within rules - some imposed by the software, some applied by a moderator: if you write a message that is too long, it won't be posted; if you use certain expressions, the forum may edit them automatically; if you slander another user, the moderator will ban you, and so on). But the structure and organization of the forum determines in advance how and where the users' messages will appear.

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Can I print this guide and photocopy it?

This guide is free for individual users - for example, teachers or students working from home - in any part of the world. You can print out the guide, but it is not ideal for printing and photocopying, and may run to many more pages than you expect.

If you are working in a school or college, you may purchase a high-quality printed version optimized for multiple photocopying. The cost of the printed version includes permission for unlimited reproduction within your institution - if you expect to make multiple copies, this will probably save on your bulk photocopying and printing costs. To obtain the printed guide, contact:

  • ZigZag Education and Computing Centre Publications
  • Greenway Business Centre
  • Doncaster Road
  • Bristol
  • BS10 5PY
  • Tel: +44 (0)117 950 3199

Click on the link to go to the ZigZag Education Web site:

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