Gender-neutral Language in EU Secondary Legislation

The Case of the English Language


  • Ornella Guarino



EU legislative drafting, gender-neutral language, corpus-based analysis, EU secondary legislation, English language


English does not have a grammatical gender, thus having an “intrinsic predisposition towards gender-neutral forms” (Poddighe 2020, 3). Most personal nouns do not indicate a specific gender, as in the case of person or engineer. However, there are also personal nouns with lexical gender, such as king or queen (Hellinger 2001). As a result, in English there is a risk of creating sentences that are not gender-neutral.
Within the EU, the promotion of the use of a more inclusive language represents an important objective. For this reason, in recent years, various documents containing guidelines on gender-neutral language have been elaborated to encourage members of the EU institutions to adopt a language that is as inclusive as possible.
This article, therefore, provides a brief overview of gender in the English language. Subsequently, specific gender-neutral language guidelines for English and corpora of EU secondary legislation (directives, regulations, decisions, recommendations, opinions) drawn up in English are analyzed. Data are processed by using WordSmith Tools 8.0 in order to carry out the comparison of word frequencies between the corpora under analysis. The ultimate objective is to perform a diachronic linguistic analysis of the 1982-2022 period to assess whether EU secondary legislation has been drafted in compliance with the recommendations of the gender-neutral language guidelines. Specifically, the following lexico-grammar features are analyzed: the use of gender-neutral terms, the avoidance of the generic masculine pronoun and the use of alternative options.


Audring, Jenny. Gender. Oxford Research Encyclopedia, Linguistics, 2016. Last visited 29/05/2023.

Baugh, Albert and Thomas Cable. A History of the English Language. London: Routledge, 1993.

Bodine, Ann. “Androcentrism in Prescriptive Grammar: Singular ‘They,’ Sex-Indefinite ‘He,’ and ‘He or She.” Language in Society 4.2 (1975): 129-146.

Bradley, Evan D., et al. “Singular ‘They’ and Novel Pronouns: Gender-Neutral, Nonbinary, or Both?” Proceedings of the Linguistic Society of America 4.1 (2019): 1-7.

Corbett, Greville G. Gender. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

---. The Expression of Gender. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2014.

Council of the European Union. Inclusive Communication in the General Secretariat of the Council. European Union, 2018. Last visited 29/10/2022.

Curzan, Anne. Gender Shifts in the History of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Dembroff, Robin and Daniel Wodak. “He/she/they/ze.” Ergo: An Open Access Journal of Philosophy 5 (2018): 371-406.

EUR-Lex website. European Union. Last visited 29/10/2022.

European Commission. English Style Guide: A Handbook for Authors and Translators in the European Commission. European Union, Eighth Edition: January 2016. Last updated: September 2022. Last visited 28/11/2022.

European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE). Toolkit on Gender-Sensitive Communication: A Resource for Policymakers, Legislators, Media and Anyone Else with an Interest in Making their Communication More Inclusive. Publications Office of the European Union, 2019. Last visited 29/10/2022.

European Parliament. Resolution of 8 March 2016 on Gender Mainstreaming in the work of the European Parliament. 2016. Last visited 04/05/2023.

European Parliament. Gender-Neutral Language in the European Parliament. Publications European Parliament, 2018.

/GNL_Guidelines_EN.pdf. Last visited 29/10/2022.

Gastil, John. “Generic Pronouns and Sexist Language: The Oxymoronic Character of Masculine Generics.” Sex Roles 23.11 (1990): 629-643.

Hellinger, Marlis. “English-Gender in a Global Language.” Gender Across Languages: The Linguistic Representation of Women and Men. Edited by Marlis Hellinger and Hadumod Bußmann. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2001. 105-113.

Hellinger, Marlis and Bußmann Hadumod. “The Linguistic Representation of Men and Women.” Gender Across Languages: The Linguistic Representation of Women and Men. Edited by Marlis Hellinger and Hadumod Bußmann. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2001. 1-25.

Hockett, Charles Francis. A Course in Modern Linguistics. New York: Macmillan, 1958.

Hord, Levi CR. “Bucking the Linguistic Binary: Gender Neutral Language in English, Swedish, French, and German.” Western Papers in Linguistics 3.1 (2016): 1-29.

Kastovsky, Dieter. “Inflectional Classes, Morphological Restructuring, and the Dissolution of Old English Grammatical Gender.” Trends in Linguistics Studies and Monographs 124 (2000): 709-728.

Lindqvist, Anna, et al. “Reducing a Male Bias in Language? Establishing the Efficiency of Three Different Gender-Fair Language Strategies.” Sex Roles 81 (2019): 109-117.

Pennisi, Giulia Adriana. “A Linguistic Insight into the Legislative Drafting of English-Speaking Jurisdictions: The Use of ‘Singular They.’” European Journal of Law Reform 22.1 (2020): 3-20.

---. “What Gender-Neutral Legislation Owes to Grammar: The Concept of ‘Gender’ in Legal English and the Italian Guidelines for Use of Gender-Sensitive Language in Legislation.” CERLIS SERIES 11 (2022): 163-189.

Poddighe, Elena. “Il Legislatore (A)sessista: Il Dibattito sul “Linguaggio di Genere” in un Libro Decente.” Il Diritto dell’Informazione e dell’Informatica 36.1 (2020): 1-16.

Prewitt-Freilino, Jennifer L., Andrew T. Caswell and Emmi K. Laakso. “The Gendering of Language: A Comparison of Gender Equality in Countries with Gendered, Natural Gender, and Genderless Languages?” Sex Roles 66 (2012): 268-281.

Quirk, Randolph, et al. A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. New York: Longman, 2010.

Robinson, William. “Gender Neutrality in EU Legislative Drafting.” European Journal of Law Reform 22.1 (2020): 20-38.

Romaine, Suzanne. “A Corpus-Based View of Gender in British and American English.” Gender Across Languages: The Linguistics Representation of Women and Men. Edited by Marlis Hellinger and Hadumod Baußmann. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2001. 153-176.

Scott, Mike. WordSmith Tools Version 8, Lexical Analysis Software, 2020. Last visited 03/05/2023.

Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (consolidated version) Official Journal C 326 of 26 October 2012. Last visited 03/05/2023.

Williams, Christopher. “The End of the ‘Masculine Rule’? Gender-Neutral Legislative Drafting in the United Kingdom and Ireland.” Statute Law Review 29.3 (2008): 139-153.

Whorf, Benjamin. Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writing of Benjamin Lee Whorf. Edited by John B. Caroll. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1956.

Xanthaki, Helen. “Gender Inclusive Legislative Drafting in English: A Drafter’s Response to Emily Grabham.” Feminists@law 10.2 (2020): 1-14.






Articles (general section) - English language and linguistics