Monday 4 November 2013

Gentlemen before ladies?

     Does word order perpetuate outdated images about women and men?                             

You probably say pots and pans, not pans and pots, and lords and ladies, not ladies and lords. Why, though? What makes us always produce one of the words in a pair first?

A previous post on this blog discussed ordering in word pairs in general (which way round?). Heiko Motschenbacher, though, argues that pairs involving personal nouns like lords and ladies need special treatment since, unlike pots and pans, pairs that refer to females and males can reflect and perpetuate power differences in society. The term that comes first in the pair is usually thought to represent the social role with the higher social ranking. This is why guidelines for non-sexist language often recommend placing the female term in first position, to symbolically reverse the traditional order.

Motschenbacher analysed 30 frequent mixed-gender word pairs in the 88 million word written part of the British National Corpus. These pairs occurred a total of 8, 156 times. In addition to general terms denoting men and women such as girl/boy, he/she, the pairs included address terms (ladies/gentlemen), nobility terms (lords/ladies), occupational terms (actor/actress) traditionally heterosexual role terms (husband/wife) and kinship terms (aunt/uncle).  She found that the order of the words in the pairs perpetuated images about the social roles of women and men that now seem outdated. Men came first in general, especially in pairs referring to professions (doctors and nurses) and the nobility. The conventional ordering in sons and daughters reflects, she claims, previous traditions of sons being more important than daughters. The ordering in word pairs related to marriage reflects traditional gender discourses: men dominate during marriage (husband and wife) but women come first when they are not yet married (bride and bridegroom), no longer married (widow and widower) or when raising children (mum and dad).

Other factors affect word order too. Just as with non-personal nouns, words with a smaller number of syllables tend to come first (hence, perhaps, ladies and gentlemen). This tendency is more common, though, when it is the male form that is shorter. The form of the word is also relevant, with less complex words occurring first (prince and princess, for example). The sex of the author had a small effect, with male authors using man and woman more often than woman and man, compared to female authors and mixed sex (co) authors. Male authors also had the highest rates of father and mother, preferring this to the more usual mother and father. The sex of the target audience also had an effect: higher female-first rates were found only in writing stereotypically targeted towards women (for example, in a book entitled The Art of Starvation).

In most cases though, the strongest factor overall was whether the word referred to a male or a female. This corresponds to research on word pairs in general, which finds that conceptually more salient semantic features prevail over other factors as far as the ordering of terms is concerned. Male-first predominance is not absolute though: as we have seen, there are some domains where females come first, reflecting traditional views about gendered social roles.

Motschenbacher does not want to make suggestions for language reform, arguing that for some pairs it would be hard to find gender-neutral alternatives and that in any case most recommendations are likely to be biased in some way. She is in favour instead of raising awareness of the fact that no linguistic choices are neutral. Individuals have the choice of shifting away from a traditional ordering that perpetuates harmful discourses about socially ‘appropriate’ roles of the two sexes; we need, therefore, to make up our minds about which messages we wish to convey. We should bear in mind, though, that putting females first is not necessarily the best way forward, since it can entrench domain-specific female stereotypes (in mother and father, for example). Word pairs that specify the two genders, she points out, are almost invariably connected to gender inequality.  

It’s much easier talking about pots and pans, isn’t it?!


Motschenbacher, Heiko (2013) Gentlemen before ladies? A corpus-based study of conjunct order in personal binomials. Journal of English Linguistics 41 (3): 212-242.

doi. 10.1177/0075424213489993

This summary was written by Jenny Cheshire


  1. I wonder if "ladies and gentlemen" is just the shortened form of "lords, ladies, and gentlemen"...

  2. It's to do with phonetics, not discrimination. We say "pots and pans" and not "pans and pots" because the 's' in pots is unvoiced and so is the 'p' in pans, whereas the 's' in pans is voiced.

    In general when there are two words, we say the shorter word before the "and" and the longer word after. Bread and butter, salt and pepper, cops and robbers, ladies and gentlemen, men and women. Gender has nothing to do with it, it's all to do with phonetics and euphony.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.