You are on page 1of 13

Rubaiya Chowdhury


Final Research Paper

Difference in the Use of Language by Males and Females

Dr. Khawlah Ahmed

ENG 234-01

6th December, 2017

Difference in the Use of Language by Males and Females

Section 1


Strong belief are deep rooted in our culture about how men and women should behave and are

expected to behave. A huge chunk of this based on how we speak which has evolved into a field

of ‘folklinguistic’. These ideologies are brought to light by the huge amount of books on etiquette

such ‘The Woman’s Book: Contains Everything a Woman Ought to Know.’ (Jack and Strauss,

1911) that were highly in demand at the end of the twentieth century which portray people’s

thoughts on a woman’s expected behavior as “male behavior has traditionally been seen as the

norm and in need of no particular advice or attention.” (Goddard & Patterson, 2000).This topic of

Linguistics and the distinction in the use of language by the genders gained sensitivity and

seriousness in the early 1960s with the rise of feminist studies. Writers such as Jesperson (1922)

wrote about women speech and how women are more refined, less coarse and uninventive which

forces men to be constrained in their conversation with women and results in a state of boredom.

(Jesperson 1922).

Newer research was done by Anthony Mulac (1999) where features were presented, and the

conclusion was that there are differences in the usage of words between male and female. Women

use intense words such as “very” or “really” and also tend to involve more questions in general

and hedges. (Braun, 2004) This can be taken as the lack of dominant behavior whereas men are

more direct and competitive in their speech. They usually interrupt and talk more often when in

conversation with women.

This essay will examine and discuss differences in language used by males and females in terms

of assertive and tentativeness, verbosity and cultural dominance.


This research was primarily done with the purpose to investigate the difference in the language of

male and female. As this is a controversial topic in today’s world, previous studies were taken as

a base when reaching a conclusion. For this a study done by James Broadbridge in 2003 was used

where a conversation between two men and two women was recorded for a period of one hour.

This recording was done in full knowledge of the participants and was done in their own

workplace. This helped the author to get an understanding about the style of speech, and

perceptions of the people involved. Broadbridge was able to divide his analysis based on

conversational dominance, swearing and vulgar language, verbosity, and assertive and tentative

speech styles. He was able to realise that men were more likely to interrupt and less likely to be

interrupted. Also the tendency of men to swear and use vulgar language was more during the

conversation. Also men spoke the most and women spoke the least while women used more hedges

which corresponds to tentative speech. Other secondary resources were used to reach the

conclusion of this essay which were obtained from the AUS Library, online library database and

Google scholar.

Section 2

Assertive and tentative speech styles

It is a common belief about language that women are more tentative in their speech. Lakoff

emphasized the use of ‘tag questions to portray this. By claiming that women use tag questions

more than men, it appears that men are more assertive, who use it less. More research uncovered
that tag questions are usually associated with women’s language (Siegler and Siegler, 1976), which

demonstrates people’s attitudes to women’s speech and seeming lack of confidence. However, a

study conducted by James Broadbridge (2003) demonstrated very different results with men

actually using more tag questions than female. Tag questions can have a modal or affective

meaning (Mooney & Evans, 2015). Modal refers to the amount of certainty a speaker is expressing

while affective tags signal speaker’s attitude to the address or even the topic being discussed.

Research shows that though women do use more tag questions, they are more likely to be affective

tags that facilitate conversation (Holmes, 1984). While on the contrary, the majority of the tag

questions used by men were modal which expressed uncertainty.

The use of hedges has also been identified as being tentative speech, for example, kind of, sort

of, etc. In 1975, Robin Lakoff published a powerful interpretation of women’s language in her

Language and Woman’s Place. Lakoff (1975) labelled them as a feature of women’s language

which makes their language more indirect. A set of rudimentary expectations about what marks

the language of women was also published by her. There, she made the claim that women ‘hedge’

using phrases like “sort of”, “kind of”, “it seems like”, and so on. Similar lists of Lakoff’s work

on “women’s language” were also constructed by O´Barr and Atkins (1998) and Holmes (2001).

It is noteworthy that some proclamations are easier to verify by study and observation than

others. In their research about “powerless language”, O’ Barr and Atkins (1980) demonstrate that

language differences are not gender based but rather based on power or situation-specific

authority. It is also apparent that there may be social situations where female are in a similar

position to those who lack power. In fact, this claim is more limiting than the one made by Dale

Spender (1980), who recognizes power in a male patriarchal order - the theory of dominance.
Thus, O'Barr and Atkins (1980) established that the cited speech patterns were not typical of

all women and definitely not limited to women either. Hence, the females using the women's

language traits in the least regularity had a remarkably high status. These were women who were

educated professionals with middle class upbringings. The men who spoke with a low regularity

of women's language traits had an equivalent pattern. O'Barr and Atkins tried to accentuate that a

powerful status might originate from either social status in the larger society and/or standing

rendered by the court.

This shows that women are thought to use less powerful language as a reflection of their lower

position in social hierarchy (Mooney & Evans, 2015). Even though women do not actually use

less powerful language, the ideology remain.


The question of whether men talk more or women has been a long standing field of argument.

It is generally accepted that, women are more talkative than men. A very big misconception is

women use 20,000 words a day while men only use 7000 which has no scientific study to support

such claim (Moony & Evans, 2015). Tannen (1990) studied conversations between married

couples and discussed extensively about the stereotypes of wives “who barely stop talking” and of

husbands who come home and refuse to utter a single word to their spouse about work. Some

typical responses are phrases like ‘She never stops talking’ and ‘He never talks to me about work’.

The belief that women talk more than men is a pervasive one. As the proverbs listed above suggest,

many cultures judge on how much a woman talks.

One of the most important things to consider when discussing ‘who talks more’ is knowing

there are different types of talk (Coates, 2004). It is important to consider whether the talk is taking
place in public or private domain as these domains have different qualities. Public talk has the

purpose of informing or persuading and is usually associated with power or higher status while

private talks serve more interpersonal functions like making social connections, developing

relationship and so on (Mooney & Evans, 2015). Thus, some talks are highly valued over others.

According to a research, men do indeed talk more than women (Swacker, 1975). Tannen (1990)

also acknowledged the fact that the same men who remarked that nothing much had happened at

work were the ones to tell interesting stories to their friends. It was concluded from the research

that men do talk more than women, but do it with their friends rather than their partners. For which

the perception of chatty women still prevail due to socialization, which warps our views of how

much a certain person speaks.

Broadbridge’s (2003) research justifies this view as one of the female participant who spoke

the least was perceived by all involved in the conversation to have spoken the most or second most

in the group while one of the males, who had spoken the most was in fact perceived to have spoken

the least. A plausible reason for this impression is the different style of speech used by males and

females. It is evident from the study that the women involved used a larger number of active

listening devices (mmm, yeah, etc.) than the men, where the aforementioned female used them the

most (Broadbridge, 2003). The use of such devices could have made the other participants think

that she was talking more as her involvement in the conversation was more while the above

mentioned male, although spoke the most, used the least of said active devices, and as such the

others perceived him to have spoken the least.

Thus, it is evident that women do not have to truly dominate a conversation in order to be

perceived as doing so. The talkativeness of women has not been compared to that of men, rather

with silence. Women are thus not judged on whether they talk more than men but whether they
talk more than silent women. The use of active listening devices which signal attentiveness in

women are seemingly perceived as a talkative trait as well.

Conversational Dominance

A major difference in the use of language by male and female is the domination that men have

over conversations through the use of interruptions and overlaps, and there is a significant rise in

these conversational irregularities when men are talking to women. In a study conducted by

Zimmerman and West (1975), eleven mixed-sex pairs men were found to interrupt of overlap their

female peers total of fifty-five times, but were themselves interrupted or overlapped only twice. In

contrast, discussions involving single sex pairs had significantly fewer disruptions and overlaps

by men on men. Women were also found to be much more likely to interrupt their own sex.

Demonstrating how “women are concerned not to violate the man’s turn but to wait until he has

finished.” (Coates, 1986). This leads us to explore the recently coined term, Mansplaining. The

term consists of two words; ‘man’ and ‘explaining’ and describes the phenomenon of a man

interrupting a woman to explain to her something she already knows in a way of exerting the power

of the male gender over female gender at an androcentric level that leads men to be taken more

seriously than women.

The term Mansplaining became popular recently after the infamous incident of American

writer Rebecca Solnit being explained by a man the content of a book he believed she should read,

that he had not read and which in fact was written by Solnit herself. This event was the inspiration

for Solnit to write the book Men Explain Things to Me in 2008 when the term ‘mansplaining’ was

first coined by Solnit. The term consists of two words; ‘man’ and ‘explaining’ and describes the

phenomenon of a man interrupting a woman to explain to her something she already knows in a
way of exerting the power of the male gender over female gender at an androcentric level that

leads men to be taken more seriously than women.

Mansplaining is a part of the androcentric rule that causes women to be more interrupted

then men. Women are interrupted by both men and women more often than men are, according to

a study published in the year 2014 in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology. In that

review, Adrienne Hancock, a researcher at the Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences, and

Benjamin Rubin, a Master’s student at George Washington University gave an account of a test

where they put 20 ladies and 20 men in sets, then recorded and interpreted their discussions. The

outcome: Over the course of every three-minute discussion, ladies interrupted men only once, on

average, however interrupted other women 2.8 times. Men interrupted their male discussion

accomplice twice, on average, and interrupted a female about 2.6 times (Hancock & Rubin, 2014).

This proves that females are on average interrupted more by both men and women than their male

counterparts. Not only are they interrupted more, but also are subjected to explanations of the

topic, sometimes about topics that they were themselves explaining.

One of the characteristics of mansplaining is the phenomenon of re-explaining or re-stating

something that a woman has already stated. Due to subverted gender roles, a man’s statement will

be considered more important even if the exact same thing has been stated by a woman. There are

many examples of this occurrence, like the female FBI agent whose warning about Al Qaeda was

ignored or women who need a male witness to verify their rape (Solnit & Fernandez, 2015). In the

article “10 Simple Words Every Girl Should Learn”, journalist Soraya Chemaly (2014) talks about

how she constantly finds herself in mixed-gender environments where men interrupt her and also

how she is usually ignored in a male-presence situation. She states that:

“These two ways of establishing dominance in conversation, frequently based on gender,

go hand-in-hand with this last one: A woman, speaking clearly and out loud, can say

something that no one appears to hear, only to have a man repeat it minutes, maybe seconds

later, to accolades and group discussion.” (Chemaly, 2014)

How different groups of people should use language varies across cultures and what can

be found in the detail of these assumptions is that women are thought to use less powerful language

as a reflection of their lower position in the social hierarchy. Even though women do not use ‘less

powerful’ language, the ideology still remains and it is a reflection of the lower rank women hold

in the social hierarchy, and hence the less importance given to their language.

To further explain the mansplaining phenomenon, one can look at the differences in use of

language by men and women and what it means to be a woman or man in linguistic contexts.

Linguist Robin Lakoff argues that women’s language is characterized by a number of features

including the avoidance of swear words, the use of hedges or fillers (‘you know’, ‘sort of’), the

use of tag questions, empty adjectives, intensifiers, specific color terms, more standard syntax,

rising intonation on declaratives and high levels of politeness (Lakoff, 1975). This is born off the

social expectation of women to be more polite and attain submissive habits which is associated

with uncertainty and lack of power. On the other hand, men are more assertive in their statements

which is linked to confidence and authority. This subjugates women to a lower position to men in

language and leads them to interrupt women more and make them think it is okay to reassert the

stated statement that establishes it as a stronger argument.

Moreover, women prefer a shared floor in a conversation where more than one speaker talk

at once without any participants of the conversation expressing an objection to that. Women

provide small utterances and minimal response like ‘mmm’, ‘yeah’ without disrupting the current
speaker and the speaker does not consider these minimal responses as interruption, rather a form

of encouragement. However, men prefer holding the floor to be esteemed and that is why there

might be competition for it. For women silence may signal a breakdown of communication, for

men it appears to be acceptable (Pilkington, 1998). So, when a man decides to interrupt a woman

he does so with the intention of taking the floor and a woman apprehending it as an encouragement,

lets the man speak but by then the conversation dynamic shifts towards the man stopping her


Mansplaining has become a part and parcel of our society and something so embedded in our

language that it sometimes becomes hard to notice it. It is a blaring example of how inequality

between males and females is still an important issue in the society and how women continue to

be considered to have less status than men.


Although this research has aimed to determine the differences between male and female

language and while generalizations are highly discouraged it does refer to the certitude that in

certain areas conversation styles vary greatly. The notion of sexual equality and women’s right

has been existing for quite some time now and is now lodged into our daily life that it is a part and

parcel of our society and is difficult to notice it. All conclusions derived lead to the verdict that

discrimination between males and females is still a prominent issue in the society and women

continue to be deemed to have less stature than men.


Braun, Friederike, 2004, “Reden Frauen anders? Entwicklungen und Positionen in der

Linguistischen Geschlechterforschung”, in Eichhoff-Cyrus, Karin (ed), Adam, Eva und die

Sprache. Mannheim: Dudenverlag 9-26.

Broadbridge , J. (2003). An Investigation into Differences between Women’s and Men’s

Speech. The University of Birmingham . Retrieved from



Chemaly, S. (2014, May 06). 10 Simple Words Every Girl Should Learn. Retrieved October 12,

2017, from


Coates, J. (2004) Women, Men and Language: A Sociolinguistic Account of Gender

Differences in Language, 3rd edn., London: Routledge.

Goddard A. & L.M. Patterson (2000) Language and Gender The Eihosha LTD.

Hancock A. B. & Rubin B. A. (2014). Journal of Language and Social Psychology Vol 34, Issue

1, pp. 46 – 64.

Holmes, J. (1984) ‘Hedging your bets and sitting on the fence: some evidence for

hedges as support structures’, Te Reo 27: 47–62.

Holmes, J. (2001) An Introduction to Sociolinguistics, 2nd ed. Harlow: Pearson Education

Jack F.B. and R. Strauss (1911) The Woman’s Book: Contains Everything a Woman Ought to

Know T.C. & E.C. Jack, London.

Jesperson, O. (1922) Language: It’s Nature, Development and Origin Allen & Unwin, New York.

Lakoff, R. (1975) Language and Woman’s Place, New York: Harper and Row.

Mooney, A., & Evans, B. (2015). Language, society and power: An introduction (4th ed. ed.).

Florence: Taylor and Francis.

Mulac, Anthony, 1999, “Perceptions of women and men based on their linguistic 53 behavior: The

Gender-Linked Effect”, in Pasero, Ursula, Braun, Friederike (ed), Perceiving and

performing gender. Opladen/Wiesbaden: Westdeutscher Verlag. 88-104.

O’ Barr, W. and Atkins, B. (1998) “Women’s language” or “powerless language”? In J. Coates

(ed.) (1998) Language and gender: A reader. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Pilkington, J. (1998) ‘“Don’t try and make out that I’m nice!” The different strategies

women and men use when gossiping’ in J. Coates (ed.) Language and Gender:

A Reader, Oxford: Blackwell: 254–69.

Siegler, D and R. Siegler (1976) “Stereotypes of males’ and females’ speech”

Psychological Reports 39: 167-70.

Solnit, R., & Fernandez, A. (2015). Men explain things to me (Updated edition with two new

essays ed.). Chicago, Illinois: Haymarket Books.

Spender, D. (1980) Man Made Language, London: Routledge.

Swacker, M. (1975) “The Sex of the Speaker as a Sociolinguistic Variable.” In B. Thorn and

N.Henley (eds) (1975)

Tannen, Deborah (1990). You just don’t understand. Women and men in conversation. William

and Morrow Company.