correct usage of pronouns for women
November 2, 2011 10:19 AM   Subscribe

Guy, boy, gal, girl. What's offensively diminutive, what's acceptable?

I am a guy.
When talking about other men, I generally use the term "guy", such as: "that guy over there", or "that group of guys".

When referring to people of the feminine persuasion, I can never decide what word to use.

I usually default to "girl(s)", but I realize that can be diminutive and sexist.

"Gal(s)" feels sort of out-moded, like I'm trying to be a character in a western.

"Woman/Women" feels sort of clunky and doesn't seem to represent people of my generation who seem to be resistant to growing up.

"Lady/Ladies" is one that I sometimes use, but it feels sort of hipstery and somewhat out-moded (though FWIW I have found that a lot of my female friends have taken to referring to their womanly parts as "lady-bits"...but maybe that's just something with my social circle).

Previously, though along a different line.

Also, in reference to that last article, I live in the Northeast USA, but have traveled/lived around the USA and Canada.
posted by aloiv2 to Human Relations (54 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Hello, I am a woman in my early twenties who is obnoxiously preoccupied with Being a Feminist.

I use "those guys"/"those girls". When I'm talking more abstractly, I'll sometimes say "some men"/"some women".

I hate being called a "lady", unless it's a friendly, ironic "hey, lady!"
posted by i_am_a_fiesta at 10:25 AM on November 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

This is why I refer to groups as "folks" or "you-all", ie "those folks over there had some extra plates" or "hey, do you-all have any more spoons?" I also use a gender neutral singular "they" if it's obvious who I'm talking about: "they have some larger glasses. Julia has the little ones."

"That person" is conventional in my circle, too, because it's better practice not to gender people unless you know what gender they prefer. "That person with the red hair brought the coconut cake; those folks over there made cookies; the woman in the purple sneakers brought the punch."
posted by Frowner at 10:29 AM on November 2, 2011 [8 favorites]

From/live in NYC here:

I have never heard of anyone taking offense at "guy" if they identified as, well, a guy. Addressing a mixed-gender group as "guys" is generally innocuous, but there's always a chance someone might take offense. When I worked retail in the Village in NYC, I started using "hi y'all" instead of "hi guys" when I wanted to say hi to a group of people walking into my store.

I hear "girls" pretty rarely these days, and rarer still in mixed company. The context is almost always guys discussing dating among themselves or among good friends.

"Woman/women" is either completely utilitarian or incredibly familiar. On the utilitarian side, it's about one step above referring to someone as "female" except with the added bonus of not having you sound like a jackass. On the familiar side, I have never used it toward anyone outside of very close, old friends and significant others.

I tend to refer to groups of women as "ladies" (as in: "excuse me, ladies") and no one has ever batted an eye at it. But then again I'm not obnoxious or ironic with it. It's outmoded, but if there's an easier way to refer to a group of women without using the word "women," I'm not sure what it is.
posted by griphus at 10:29 AM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

At work, inappropriate to use "girls". In non-work situations, girls is fine in your 20s, and gets weird if you're older.
posted by jeather at 10:30 AM on November 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

"Women" is appropriate. "Girls" is offensive (when used by straight men) because it used to be the usual pair for "men," with all the overtones of superiority intact (in the 80's, we had a men's swimming team and a girls' swimming team at my public high school). "Gal" is just informal girl, and even worse. "Lady" implies either snobbishness or prostitution.

When referring to a minority group you don't belong to, use the most common term unless told to use another term by a member of that group. And even then, you may need to use different terms with different groups.

Women were legally minors until well in to the lifetime of my grandmother. In my mother's youth, women were second class citizens. Those still reverberate in US culture today. This is why there is some touchiness around the issue.
posted by QIbHom at 10:30 AM on November 2, 2011 [7 favorites]

Also, I have never heard anyone use "gal" ever.
posted by griphus at 10:32 AM on November 2, 2011

I mean, it's not as though folks (at least in my circles) are going to get upset at you for saying "hey ladies" when someone you think is a lady is really a dude, or genderqueer, etc etc. But I am told by friends that it isn't especially fun when you're transitioning or working out how you want to non-painfully express your gender to get misgendered over and over and over again in casual interactions.

Also, I remember reading on Racialicious or something that there's some racial baggage around "lady" - I do not remember the details, but it was either that white folks unconsciously tend to call only white women "ladies" or it suggests strongly that there is a hierarchy among women...some women are just women, but some are ladies. I think that this is probably a situation where you should know your group. If you're addressing various people as "ladies", perhaps check on yourself to make sure that you are doing so uniformly?
posted by Frowner at 10:34 AM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

"Gal" drives me up the wall, like someone has been told not to say "girl" and can't think what else to call a female. Please, calling people "women" is not offensive. It's not for a form of address (good morning, women!), but it's a fine form of reference (some women from work are coming over later). Just do it. The more you say it, the more normal it will sound.
posted by aimedwander at 10:38 AM on November 2, 2011 [14 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for the great answers. I grew up with a mother that would use words like "chick" and "titties", in sentences like "that chick has titties the size of my head!" so I've always realized that experience was a little skewed in terms of this sort of thing.
posted by aloiv2 at 10:46 AM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

I use the gender-neutral "people" or "folks" for groups of men, groups of women, and groups of men and women. "On Saturday I went out with some folks from work." If I'm addressing them directly I might also use "guys", or "friends", if, of course, they are my friends: "Hey friends, I think I'll be late tonight."

For singular people, I would use "woman" unless the individual is significantly younger than me, in which case I would use "girl": "I'm friends with this woman at school who's obsessed with Justin Timberlake."
posted by milk white peacock at 10:47 AM on November 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

Yep, there is no longer an informal and yet acceptable word for women that is the equivalent of "guy" for men. "Girl" is diminutive, "gal" is okay if you're at a rodeo, "lady" is what I use to refer to women when I'm talking to my toddler. Even it it sounds awkward, you gotta go with "women".
posted by chickenmagazine at 10:47 AM on November 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

Also, if you are talking directly TO a group of women, "guys" is often fine depending on the audience.
posted by chickenmagazine at 10:48 AM on November 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

I think that women makes more sense for the singular and girls for the plural. I can't tell you why this is, but it definitely rings different to talk about a 28 year old co-worker whose name you don't know as "the girl in workstation 12" (where it should be "the woman") vs talking about a group; "the girls are coming back at 5pm" sounds fine, where "the women" sounds stilted.
posted by mercredi at 10:50 AM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

I find most of the time it's easier to side-step the gender issue altogether, so if I'm talking to friends, I address them as "gang", and if I'm talking about friends, I refer to them as "people from [whatever]". If you're in a work situation, there's really zero need to refer to someone's gender unless you're trying to describe someone you don't know, in which case a more clinical description (i.e. "woman", "man") would serve you better anyway.

Personally, I hate being collectively addressed with terms like "hey girls" or "hey ladies" because they feel condescending and reductionist. I'm fine with being addressed as "hey guys", and have referred to a group of girls as such before, but I do know people who will get up in arms about it.
posted by Phire at 10:51 AM on November 2, 2011

Other side of the atlantic, but possibly still useful, my use of these words is heavily context-sensitive.

'Girl', as QIbHom points out, should not have 'man' as a counterpart. On the other hand, informal social situations over here quite readily use 'girls' to refer to adults, but generally pair it with either 'boys' or 'men'. We also use 'lads' and 'lasses' in the north of England. Same deal.

As well as not pairing 'girl' with 'man', I would also never use 'girl' in a formal or professional situation to describe anyone old enough to vote.

'Lady'/'ladies' only tends to get used over here in formal circumstances - or for the women's toilets.
posted by fearnothing at 10:54 AM on November 2, 2011

ah, crap, correction: generally pair it with 'boys' or 'guys'. I rewrote that post about 4 times and STILL missed something!
posted by fearnothing at 10:55 AM on November 2, 2011

I (36, female, feminist, raised in Texas but now live in the PNW) use "gals" informally, "ladies" politely, and "women" in a corporate, business, or academic context.
posted by KathrynT at 10:57 AM on November 2, 2011

I think people turn this into such a hand-wringing chore for themselves, when really, using "woman" is a simple solution.

People *do* hear and take notice when adults refer to female adults as "girls," so just call them women.
posted by yellowcandy at 10:57 AM on November 2, 2011 [4 favorites]

I try to use gender-neutral terms to refer to any group of people, unless their sex is pertinent to the situation.

For addressing: "hey, everybody", "excuse me, folks"

For referring "those folks are eating pizza", or "some people and I are going to the bar"

Demitri Martin notes that "if you want to sound like a creep, just add the word 'ladies' to the end of everything you say"
posted by Jon_Evil at 11:13 AM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

By the way, my friend specifically objected to other people using "women"; she wasn't just explaining why she herself uses "girls."
posted by John Cohen at 11:13 AM on November 2, 2011

Perhaps totally unfairly/hypocritically, I use "girl" and "chick" and don't mind when other women do, but do mind when men do. Come to think of it, I don't mind when my male friends who are gay use "girl," either.

So, I'm probably wrong, but that's my data point.
posted by Pax at 11:27 AM on November 2, 2011

(and my male friends who are gay do use "girl" when talking about women, fwiw)
posted by Pax at 11:28 AM on November 2, 2011

I use 'woman' professionally or when in doubt, like I would say 'man', but it's very much contextual - I'm 29 and a feminist, and I'm not offended if a small child or a friend says "that girl", but my head would explode if I was called it in a professional context. Strangers describing women in public say 'lady' here (Ireland) mostly, I've noticed.

How does any one person commenting in this thread (male or female) get to say how all women feel about different words?

All WomenLadyGirls obviously haven't come to a consensus, but (where gender is known and preferred term is not) it's demeaning to refer to a male adult by the adult term (man) when calling a female adult the term for a child (girl), and there isn't an inoffensive inbetween like 'guy' available in common usage. 'Lady' is very, very widely used in my experience of feminist, activist and/or smart young person circles, but there's a touch of the ironic tone mentioned above for sure.
posted by carbide at 11:28 AM on November 2, 2011

Personally, while I'd cringe a bit at being called 'girl' or 'gal', it is nothing to the white-hot fury I feel when women are referred to as 'females'.

I didn't see that as an option on your list, so no worries, but it is a serious no-go for a lot of people, despite its apparently increasing popularity.
posted by winna at 11:30 AM on November 2, 2011 [5 favorites]

When someone calls me a 'lady', I feel compelled to drop the f-bomb. 'Cause 'lady' makes it sound like I wear petticoats, and lift my pinky when I drink tea.
posted by kestrel251 at 11:35 AM on November 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

This is awfully context-sensitive. You're going to hear something like:

"Women" is appropriate. "Girls" is offensive (when used by straight men) because it used to be the usual pair for "men," with all the overtones of superiority intact (in the 80's, we had a men's swimming team and a girls' swimming team at my public high school).

I.e., "girl" is our word. You're also going to encounter a lot of people for whom "girl" is absolutely standard and unremarkable. What's "offensive" depends on who might be offended.
posted by grobstein at 11:35 AM on November 2, 2011

The thing that needs to be noted is that its different when you're talking about someone, and talking to someone.

If I'm referring to a random stranger/someone whose name I don't know, calling them "that guy" or "that girl" is acceptable to everyone I come in contact with on a daily basis. But if someone was talking to me and referenced me as "girl", I'd be really offended/off-put.

Phrases like "excuse me, ladies" and "have a nice day, ladies" when talking to groups in a non-personal manner are also permitted, imo.
posted by FirstMateKate at 11:38 AM on November 2, 2011 [5 favorites]

It would be nice if people started to use terms that are gender neutral, such as "folks," "y'all," "people," etc. - when referring to any body of people, gender irrelevant. If referring to a group of people who are most likely read as "female" or "female-assigned-at-birth (FAAB)," I *personally* prefer to use other descriptors. For your purposes, I recommend using "women." Everyone upthread already illuminated how diminutive "girl/gal/chick" is.
posted by Ashen at 11:40 AM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

"Woman/Women" feels sort of clunky and doesn't seem to represent people of my generation who seem to be resistant to growing up.

And yet it's the only choice that is the least likely to cause any real offense. So if you must use any gendered collective noun, then women is what I would choose. If someone objects, then you ask them what they would prefer to be called. Simple as that.
posted by inturnaround at 11:45 AM on November 2, 2011 [3 favorites]

, it is nothing to the white-hot fury I feel when women are referred to as 'females'.

I agree. I have an instinctual uck feeling when I hear that (from men or women) I saw a comment that explains the reasoning behind this, but I can't remember it now and would certainly screw it up, but I do think it's offensive to say "females."

I'm in my thirties and don't care if people call me a girl, also just because a lot of people think I'm much younger anyway. However, I try not to do it to other people, and definitely not at work.
posted by sweetkid at 11:52 AM on November 2, 2011

I actually refer to men as "boys" all the time, at least boys my own age (35) and younger. I mean, not professionally. But when we're out with a group of friends, I have totally said, "hey, where did the boys go?"

But when in doubt, OF COURSE go with "women." With people you are friends with, however, I think you'll know if they're offended by the moniker you choose.
posted by Countess Sandwich at 12:08 PM on November 2, 2011

I like 'folks', too. Or 'peeps'. 'People'. 'Gang'. It depends, as almost everyone has noted, on the context.

I call a group of closeish female friends 'gal pals' because I'm not dating them ['girlfriends'] and because we're an informal bunch. Though I don't usually call them 'girls' sometimes I might tell them that we needed to have a 'girl talk' or 'get our girl on.'

If it's two or three women I'm addressing, like in an e-mail, and I know them fairly well, I'll use 'Ladies.' If I don't know them well, I might write their names, or say Hello all!

If it's a formal/professional/brand new context, I most likely say 'folks,' 'people', or 'colleagues', this last looks awkward in type but is so seldom spoken that it can actually be charming in speech.

And if it's a woman I need to refer to without addressing, I'll say 'woman.' It doesn't feel weird at all. "Do you know the woman who runs that blog? I'd love to meet her."
posted by emilycardigan at 12:10 PM on November 2, 2011

I think "female" is an adjective used to describe the sex of an animal, eg, "the female zebra had no idea..." When you use "male" or "female" without a noun afterward, you are still implying that you are talking about the female of whichever animal you are already discussing: "Turkeys are so interesting: did you know that the females will eat their young if it gets too cold?" So for someone to call a group of women "a group of females" or to say that there are "a lot of females in the bar" just makes that person sound like they are thinking of women as animals... which they probably are.

I find that the guys who call me and my friends "ladies" to our face are the same guys who call us "attractive females" to their buddies before approaching us (Southern and/or elderly men excluded).

Female human beings of (what I assume is) our generation do tend to be uncomfortable with growing up and being considered as adults and therefore as women vs girls. But, that's what they are! So it might feel awkward, and might not be their preferred term, but you won't be incorrect or offensive if you call women women. I'd bet that you actually have a pretty good feel for when it's appropriate to use "women" vs "girls," so I'll just say that you should err on the side of "women."
posted by thebazilist at 12:11 PM on November 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

Referring to people as females makes you sound like you're in the military (where men are also referred to as "males", so you know, at least it's relatively equal).

Dude is a gender-neutral term in casual contexts for me. So that will be my little option I'll toss out there for you.
posted by kavasa at 12:13 PM on November 2, 2011

Peeps. I am also personally okay with dudes and guys. Girls is okay to use if boys is regularly used (and in my office boys gets used very frequently, by the boys - so I'm fine with it in that context). Ladies makes me think of Leisure Suit Larry and always makes me silently crack up. When I hear females I always think of Attenborough and wonder where the zebra are. Its use also tends to enrage me for some reason.
posted by mleigh at 12:26 PM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

I agree with Mercredi.

I have actually heard "gal" used by women born after 1970, which astounds me.

It is not an offensive word, but it's just stupid. Save it for the buffalo boys/guys/men to use.
posted by jgirl at 12:29 PM on November 2, 2011

I'm a 31 year old female. You can call me and my group of female friends whatever (except bitch/bitches... but hey, that could be fine, too).

I personally use "girl(s)' if they look under 35 or so.

Sometimes I just say "them/they/those"

People who get bent out of shape over this seem a little over the top, if you ask me
posted by KogeLiz at 12:30 PM on November 2, 2011

the bazilist explained my objection to "female" in regard to humans well. I laughed this weekend because I was explaining differences I've noticed in male and female cats and inadvertently used the phrase "women cats..." haha, too far.
posted by sweetkid at 12:39 PM on November 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

Mod note: bunch of comments removed - take it to email unless you can have this conversation without calling people names. Thank you.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 1:12 PM on November 2, 2011

"Gal(s)" feels sort of out-moded, like I'm trying to be a character in a western.

Gal is a perfectly cromulant word and a natural corollary to guy. I don't know why more people don't use it.

Girls does have a sexist history, so I think you're right to work towards replacing it as your go-to word. Unless you're referring to minors and would use boys in a similar context to refer to male people, it's best to treat the folks you're referring to as adults by not calling them children

But whatever word you decide on, it's going to feel weird at first because you are trying to change behavior that has been rote your entire lifetime. It will sound affected to you and probably others because it is affected. You will be catching yourself saying "those gir...err gals|women|ladies" and it will seem unnatural. But if you are committed to changing your language as part of on ongoing recognition that you were raised in a sexist society and you want to grow out of it, then it's worth it to work through the unnaturalness until you get to a place where your new word feels more normal.
posted by Dano St at 1:25 PM on November 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

South-eastern Canadian here.

I agree with Frowner that "that person" can be useful.

"Guys" seems to have become quite normal when addressing any group of people who are relatively young (35ish and younger), whether it's all male or all female or mixed. Sometimes I've use "folks" when talking to older people but I'm not sure how it sounds to them.

As an aside, in Atlantic Canada the word "boys" is used all the time to address a group of men.
posted by beau jackson at 1:32 PM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

I is the term guys in reference to one or more humans. I do not use different terms based on what may or may not be between their legs of the gender they consider themselves.
posted by Brian Puccio at 1:35 PM on November 2, 2011

Seems like the folks in this thread are doing a great job speaking for others, so I'll just tell you about myself: I'm female. I get an unpleasant jolt of incongruity when someone calls me a woman. (For example, "I'm thinking about how lucky I am to be with such an amazing woman.") I feel warmth and friendship when someone calls me dude or man. ("Hey, man, how have you been?") I have no reaction and don't give it a second thought when someone calls me a girl, a person, or part of "they," "folks," "those guys over there."

There is no way you could know this about me without me explicitly telling you.

It's important to do your best to avoid being offensive, and I appreciate that that's where you're coming from with this question -- but you just ain't gonna please everyone when it comes to stuff like this.
posted by Pwoink at 1:45 PM on November 2, 2011

I'm a girl and I couldn't care less what people call me though I find 'folks' pretty annoying. Going out of your way to use forced, 'gender neutral' terms seems ridiculous to me and would merely draw attention to the social awkwardness you're trying to conceal.
posted by joannemullen at 3:10 PM on November 2, 2011

Not gonna lie, I call everyone "guy".
posted by sarastro at 3:21 PM on November 2, 2011

"folks," "y'all," "people,"

See, these might be gender-neutral, but they're not neutral in any other way. I know it's crept into more people's speech, but "y'all" is slang that I'm personally not going to ever use, and certainly not at work. Folks has the same issue to a lesser degree, it's folksy, if you will. The problem with "people" is that you're going to have to pair it with something, like "those". Now think about saying "those people". There could be a lot of unintended subtext when referring to others as "those people", especially if they are people not like yourself.

Technically, "ladies" is most appropriate, it being the analoge of "gentlemen" which appropriate enjoys widespread currency. ("Ladies" doesn't imply you wear petticoats anymore than "gentlemen" implies you plan badminton.) A lot of women object to it, however, some women, used in a way that softens it, is probably your best bet.
posted by spaltavian at 4:26 PM on November 2, 2011

You can call me and my group of female friends whatever (except bitch/bitches... but hey, that could be fine, too).

Oh! I forgot to say: I refer to my friends as "bitches" or "my bitches" all the time. You, however, may not refer to me or my friends as "bitches".
posted by i_am_a_fiesta at 4:48 PM on November 2, 2011

Woman/women stops bbeing weird when you force yourself to use it. It's also respectful. Girl is ... not.
posted by bluedaisy at 5:21 PM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Gal is a perfectly cromulant word and a natural corollary to guy. I don't know why more people don't use it.

"Gal" can be considered offensive when used in reference to a Black woman, particularly in the southern U.S. It harkens back to slave times and is the equivalent of referring to a Black man as "boy". Although there are Black women who don't consider it offensive (or only offensive in certain contexts) it's probably better to err on the side of caution.
posted by fuse theorem at 5:31 PM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

"You guys" as a gender neutral term is a regional thing, so acceptability is going to vary depending on where you are.

In Michigan where I grew up it is absolutely standard. "Guy" in other contexts is still taken to refer to men, but "you guys" just the default second-person-plural pronoun, the way "y'all" is further south. It's not even seen as especially colloquial or slangy or whatever. You could use it to address a convent of nuns and nobody would bat an eye.

Here in Texas where I live now, people are sort of vaguely aware that "you guys" has this gender-neutral use, but you don't hear it nearly as much and I get the sense that it makes some (mostly older and more conservative) women uncomfortable. Luckily "y'all" is available as a totally normal nobody-would-bat-an-eye option here, so I just switched over when I moved.
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:58 PM on November 2, 2011

Thinking about it more, I think there's also sort of an age lag in adjusting to this stuff.

When I was in my early 20s, being referred to as "a man" made me vaguely uncomfortable — like I'd just been mistaken for someone much older and more important, and the right thing to do would be to correct the misunderstanding right away — and calling myself "a man" would have felt just unbelievably pompous and stuck-up. Now, going on 30, both feel perfectly normal, and being called "a boy" would make me cringe.

The thing is, if you're going to make a "mistake," you might as well err on the side of saying "I see you as a respectable adult." So "man" and "woman" strike me as pretty safe, since the worst case scenario is that someone with low self-esteem will feel like they've been given more respect than they deserve, and boy/girl/gal seem socially riskier.

It's a little like how it's better to risk being all "oh I didn't notice you were pregnant" than to risk asking a possibly non-pregnant woman when she's due. You go with the option that creates the least possible offense in the worst-case scenario.
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:08 PM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

guys, friends, people, person, woman/women. Y'all is very useful. Girls are 18 and under. Gal is ironic-only. Ladies is used by cheesy, awkward or sexist people. Babe, bitch, chick, and other terms - you better be a very close female friend.
posted by theora55 at 7:00 PM on November 2, 2011

To me "guy" singular is a man. "That guy over there is my brother."
But "guys" plural can be men, a mixed group of men and women, or only women. "Hey guys, what do you think about this?" "Those guys are going to meet us at the restaurant."
In the office I work at it's the convention to address emails to multiple people as "Hi guys", even if all the "guys" are women. I'm a woman and find it completely fine being addressed like this.

If "guys" seems too informal or you need the singular, I'd go with "women" or "woman". "Ladies" seems a bit old-fashioned and sometimes I feel it carries a tinge of condescension, depending on how it's used. "Gal" is something I rarely hear and sounds awkward to my ear. "Girl" or "girls" I think of as a term that can only be used by good friends, otherwise it's irritatingly diminutive. In an informal situation I might use "y'all" or "folks". It's really too bad there's no good female singular equivalent to "guy".
posted by asynchronous at 9:05 PM on November 2, 2011

I like "gals." I think the only negative connotation there is the implication that the referents are too old to be called "girls."

"Girls" is really only appropriate for under 16. Then they become young women.

I'd never heard objections to "females" before but then the only.people I could see using the term would be cops or soldiers.
posted by mrgrimm at 10:00 PM on January 12, 2012

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