Gender neutral language is just polymorphism in human communication.

Please note, this post is a work in progress.

In computer science, there’s a concept called “polymorphism”. It’s a complex topic that discusses methods by which programs can accept (and return) a variety of sets of values, rather than a singular set. In a programmer’s day to day life, however, polymorphism can be pretty simple. Let’s take a look at a bit of C++ code to help explain it. We’re going to try and write the “simplest” program (technically a function) possible - one that takes a value, and returns the same value that it was given:

int identity(int value){
	return value; 

We can use his program like this:

int main() { 
    int a = 10; 
    int b = identity(a); 

All this does is assign the value 10 to a variable a, then use our identity program to assign the value from a into b. Let’s ignore how unnecessary identity is in this program.

Unfortunately, our customer has changed their requirements for our program - they’ve decided that they no longer want a and b to be integers, they want full strings now so that they can pass text around their programs:

int main() { 
    std::string a = "ten"; 
    std::string b = identity(a); 

Great! We’ve changed our program so that we use strings now. Let’s try and compile it:

<source>: In function 'int main()':

<source>:9:30: error: cannot convert 'std::string' {aka 'std::__cxx11::basic_string<char>'} to 'int'

    9 |     std::string b = identity(a);

      |                              ^

      |                              |

      |                              std::string {aka std::__cxx11::basic_string<char>}

<source>:3:18: note:   initializing argument 1 of 'int identity(int)'

    3 | int identity(int value){

      |              ~~~~^~~~~

Compiler returned: 1

Drat! Errors! These errors are extra C++-ish, but (in brief) they state that we can’t use a std::string (aka a string) when the function identity is expecting an int.

This is because our identity function is too “monomorphic” for our use case. The way it’s currently written it, it can only accept or return int values, so when we try and use it with a string value our type system rejects it. We can fix this, however, by modifying our identity function to be “polymorphic” and accept and return sets of values:

template <typename T>
T identity(T value){
	return value; 

Although this function looks a little more complicated, it’s really just syntax. What is says is that our identity function can now take a value of “type” T. In our first example, T would be set to int, while in our refactored code, it would be set to string, and our function would still work in both cases.

So how does that relate to gender neutral language?

Well, gender neutral language is language that is /polymorphic/, i.e. it’s language that works with any gender, and is not constrained to any gender in particular.


Posted on September 13, 2018
Last modified:
Tags: programming languages, teaching, language, people