Note: This paper was presented at CLS 40, April 15th, 2004. The presentation is available here (Powerpoint), a recording of the talk here (MP3 4MB), and the presentation handout is available here (PDF). The paper itself will be published in the conference proceedings. Below is the talk's abstract. If you prefer another format of the above, would like a preprint of the paper, or have any questions or comments, feel free to E-mail me.

Guy, Guys, and Gender Neutrality

Sean McLennan

Indiana University

April 15, 2004

Clancy (1999) is probably the most comprehensive analysis of the American English use of the word 'guy' to date. In his paper (entitled "The Ascent of 'Guy'" making a play on book "The Ascent of Man"), he furthers Hofstadter's (1997) discussion and draws an analogy between the meaning schema of 'guy', 'man', and 'he', concluding that all three exhibit the same pattern of gender bias. He notes that there has been little or no response from proponents of politically correct language usage and suggests this is because 'guy' is rarely seen in print.

A corpus analysis was performed that highlights some important differences between the usages of 'guy' and 'man' and 'he' that Clancy fails to take into account and which suggest that the words cannot be meaningfully compared in this manner. The analysis was performed on a corpus of 1879 e-mail messages sent to a closed mailing list of approximately 70 participants (primarily Canadian undergraduate students with a nearly equal gender ratio) between November 1998 and October 2002. E-mail was selected for examination primarily because of its colloquial, more speech-like nature but also because the community is static, restricted in demographic characteristics, and in a known community the speakers' intended referents are more clearly interpretable.

Although it is doubtful that this analysis can be generalized to the population at large in all contexts, the results suggest that we should be cautious in comparing 'guy' to either 'man' or 'he'. Of 526 total occurrences of 'guy' in all forms and contexts, 384 (73%) had mixed gender referents; by contrast, of 112 occurrences of 'man', 106 (95%) had an exclusively male interpretation. These simple facts of frequency must force us to question what the core meaning of 'guy' is within the current community of North American English speakers.

More importantly, this analysis showed the interpretation of 'guy' as masculine or gender neutral is predictable given two factors: number and syntactic context. This can only be marginally said for 'man' and is not true at all for 'he'. This fact, in combination with the frequency statistics found, makes a strong case that 'guy' is truly polysemous with both masculine and gender-neutral interpretations in contrast to 'man' or 'he' whose usage patterns are significantly different and whose status as real generics is debatable.

Furthermore, this analysis of 'guy', seen within a larger movement of neutralizing gender-specific terms (Waksler, 1995), provides us a more meaningful insight into why the word has slipped in under our "cultural radar", and has gone largely uncontested in an increasingly gender-aware society.


Clancy, Steven J. 1999. The ascent of 'guy'. American Speech. 74/3: 282-297.

Hofstadter, Douglas R. 1997. Le Ton Beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language. New York: Basic.

Waksler, Rachelle. 1995. She's a mensch and he's a bitch: neutralizing gender in the 90's. English Today. 42/11: 3-6.