The question of questions: Beyond binary thinking

Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Date



Department of Humanities


This chapter raises new questions about language which challenge rather than reinforce gender polarization. Feminist scholars have pointed out that although the majority of human beings can be unambiguously classified as either female or male, there are actually more than two sexes. In the past, linguists have used the term gender to refer to grammatical word categories based on, but independent of, sex differences. There is considerable evidence that variables such as race, social class, culture, discourse function, and setting are as important as gender. Although researchers studying language and gender are generally sensitive to the power of language, the traditional questions have tended to reinforce rather than to weaken the prevailing female-male dichotomy. Individuals who fail to fit the strict female-male dichotomy are either ignored or subject to boundary policing. Both language and traditional social practice suggest that there are clear boundaries between biological females and males.

Publisher's Statement

© 1996, Taylor and Francis. All rights reserved. Publisher’s version of record:

Publication Title

Rethinking Language and Gender Research: Theory and Practice