When to use “gender,” when to use “sex”

Are the words “gender” and “sex” interchangeable? We hear and read “gender” often these days. We talk about “choosing a baby’s gender” or “instituting gender preferences for college admission.” Is this a choice of prissy puritans who don’t like to talk about S-E-X or of demanding feminists who want to expunge sexist terms from the language?

Some usage experts, like Theodore H. Bernstein in “The Careful Writer,” say that “gender” refers only to grammar, as in the gender of pronouns. But Bernstein’s book is older (1965), and today, some usage experts recognize the use of “gender” for other purposes.

In “The Gregg Reference Manual,” William A. Sabin makes this distinction: “Use gender to refer to social and cultural characteristics of males and females; for example, gender gap. Use sex to refer to biological characteristics.” (Page 327, 10th edition) That seems to be the best rule to follow.

If I ran across “choosing a baby’s gender” in copy, I would change “gender” to “sex.” We are referring there to biological characteristics. If I ran across “gender preferences in college admission,” I would leave “gender.” “Sex preferences,” as Bill Walsh’s “Lapsing Into a Comma” points out, sounds too much like “sexual preferences,” which has another meaning entirely. I might write of “gender differences” in politics or language and “sex differences” in health. Most of the time, it appears, “gender” is best employed as a modifier, rather than as a noun.

Professor Jack Lynch’s Guide to Grammar and Style has an interesting entry on gender. The American Heritage Book of English Usage also has an entry on gender.

This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.