April 21, 2011

Weekly Language Usage Tips: gender or sex & master’s or masters degree

Posted in masters/master's, sex and gender at 6:09 am by dlseltzer


A reader writes:

I deleted the company’s name to protect the guilty. Which definition do you think the writer had in mind? If the covering or stratum is mud, I’d vote for number 1. On the other hand, the sheer quantity of words argues for number 2.

The overlying strategic purpose of this initiative is to improve business efficiency by strengthening and enhancing our global processes for SAP data entry in order to improve the accuracy and reliability of such data.


–verb (used with object), -lay, -lain, -ly·ing.

1. to lie over or upon, as a covering or stratum.

2. to smother (an infant) by lying upon it, as in sleep.

Tip 1: Sex and gender

A reader writes:

How about when to use sex vs. gender; male vs. men, etc.…we rarely look at chromosomes or genitalia….so the right term is fuzzy at times.

Sex makes people a little queasy I have found. Not the action, but the word. There is a tendency to think that  either 1) there is no distinction in meaning between ‘sex’ and ‘gender,’ or 2) ‘gender’ is more formal than ‘sex’ and so it should be used in our scientific writing, or, simply, 3) gender is more proper, and ‘sex’ should be saved for the bedroom.

Let me clarify a little before I give up and throw in the towel on this one (at least part way in). Sex and gender ARE different. Sex refers to the biological differences that distinguish men from women (e.g., ovaries, testicles). Gender refers to the social or character constructs that we associate with each sex (e.g., women are nurturing, men are aggressive). Here are some examples provided by the World Health Organization (WHO):

Some examples of sex characteristics:

  • Women menstruate while men do not.
  • Men have testicles while women do not.
  • Women have developed breasts that are usually capable of lactating, while men have not.
  • Men generally have more massive bones than women.

Some examples of gender characteristics:

  • In the United States (and most other countries), women earn significantly less money than men for similar work.
  • In Viet Nam, many more men than women smoke, as female smoking has not traditionally been considered appropriate.
  • In Saudi Arabia men are allowed to drive cars while women are not.
  • In most of the world, women do more housework than men.

Regardless. I have written about the difference between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ every year but have had very little success in changing people’s ways. Folks persist in using ‘gender’ when they really mean ‘sex.’

So, I am going to back off a little bit. You can ask for gender in a survey, and I won’t explode. You can use ‘gender’ as a substitute for ‘sex’ in most contexts, and I won’t flinch. There is one striking exception I will make. When you are specifically referring to the biological characteristics of a ‘sex,’ you have to use the term ‘sex.’ For example, you shouldn’t say:

Gender-specific hormones are associated with differences in risk for coronary artery disease. WRONG

Hormones are biological, and they are not specific to gender; they are specific to sex. The correct statement would be:

Sex-specific hormones are associated with differences in risk for coronary artery disease. RIGHT

Okay? Is it a deal?

Let me just add (since the reader mentioned this) that ‘man’ and ‘male’ and  ‘woman’ ‘and ‘female’ all refer to sex; however, ‘male’ and ‘female,’ are sometimes used to describe ‘gender’ traits (e.g., male brain).  Generally, though, if you want to discuss the traits that are associated with gender, the terms would be ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ or ‘womanly’ and ‘manly.’

Let’s see how it goes this time.

Tip 2: Master’s or masters degree

This seems like a very simple issue, and it is,  but mistakes surrounding this issue are ubiquitous, and it is probably the most common error I see in grant proposals. I ran across it again last week, and that gave me the idea for Tip 2.

When writing about a master’s degree, you need the apostrophe in master’s.

That’s it. Use an apostrophe.

I don’t see folks making this error when talking about a bachelor’s degree, and it doesn’t apply to an MD or  a PhD (you’d talk about a doctoral degree), but for some reason there’s a sticking point when it comes to a master’s degree. Just use an apostrophe.

One final point, if you are talking about many people with master’s degrees, you make it plural as I just did, by adding an ‘s’ to ‘degree;’ ‘master’s’ doesn’t change.

Okay? Always use the apostrophe, and make it plural by adding an ‘s’ to ‘degree.’


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: