Marked and Unmarked Terms

Have you ever wondered why some words are deemed as the ‘default’? Why do we use certain words more than others? This all relates to using marked and unmarked terms, which is the topic of this article!

Marked and Unmarked Terms Marked and Unmarked Terms

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Table of contents

    We will begin by exploring the definition of marked and unmarked terms and how they relate to gender. This will explain how different genders are represented. We will also look at some other ways marked and unmarked terms can be used to differentiate between things.

    Marked and Unmarked Terms Definition

    As you might have guessed, there are two definitions we need to take into account here, but they are closely linked. Let's start with 'marked terms':

    Marked terms are words that are changed in some way (e.g. different affixes added) to express a different meaning.

    On the other hand:

    Unmarked terms are not changed, so they are often referred to as the ‘default’. These terms are usually realised as pairs, for example, work (default verb) vs worked (past tense verb).

    Fun fact: The concept of 'markedness' derives from the work of linguists Nikolai Trubetzkoy and Roman Jakobson. It was a way to characterise binary oppositions.

    Marked and Unmarked Terms in Gender

    The language we have used - and continue to use - to represent different genders carries an unfair bias towards men. Even humans are collectively referred to as ‘mankind’. Marked and unmarked terms have been used to distinguish between words associated with men and women. The words associated with men are typically seen as the default terms, reflecting men's power in society and implying that we only change our language if we refer to terms associated with anyone other than men. It means that men and things men do are seen as the norm, whereas people who are not men deviate from these supposed 'norms'.

    It could be argued that even the terms ‘man/men’ and 'woman/women’ themselves are unmarked and marked, respectively, portraying men as the dominant default and women as subordinate and different from what is normal.

    Marked and Unmarked Terms Marked and Unmarked Terms and Gender StudySmarterTraditional gender roles have significantly influenced the language we use to describe the different genders.

    Marked and Unmarked Terms Gender Examples

    In the pairs of terms, the unmarked terms often refer to men, whereas the marked terms refer to women:

    Unmarked Term

    Marked Term









    Notice how the marked terms have suffixes, such as -ess, added to change the meaning and make the term feminine.

    In some cases, unmarked terms can be used to refer to both men and women. But, the marked term will refer only to the female. For example:

    • ‘Actor’ can often refer to both men and women; it is more commonly used to refer to both in today’s society than in the past. However, when ‘actress’ is used, it refers only to women (you'd never hear the phrase 'male actress' after all!).

    The same can also be true for animals. For example, the word ‘lion’ can be used to refer to both male and female lions, whereas ‘lioness’ is used only for females.

    Sometimes, the word 'female' could also be placed in front of an unmarked term to indicate the gender difference. For example:

    • Female doctor instead of doctor.
    • Female lawyer instead of lawyer.

    This implies that, unlike men, women are not usually seen in such roles. It is assumed that men are in these positions, so it is more unusual or surprising if a woman happens to be too. Thus, they are referred to as 'female' not to be mistaken for a man in a male-dominated profession.

    Marked and Unmarked Terms Marked and Unmarked Terms Examples StudySmarterReferring to a woman who is a manager as a 'manageress' is an example of a gendered marked term.

    Gender-neutral terms

    It is important to note that, in today’s society, more gender-neutral terms are being used - these can refer to anyone. This is more inclusive towards all genders and limits the need to change the language and deviate from the ‘norm’ to fit anyone who is not male. For example:

    • Instead of either postman or postwoman, more people are opting for the gender-neutral ‘postal worker’, instead of policeman or policewoman, people can use ‘police officer', and instead of fireman, we can say 'firefighter' instead.

    Marked terms that refer to men

    In unusual cases, some marked terms are used to refer to men. For example, the term ‘nurse’ is usually used to refer to women. However, we know that there are also nurses that are men. The difference is, when referring to them, we often use ‘male nurse’. In this case, it is a marked term as the word ‘male’ is placed in front of ‘nurse’ to indicate the gender of the person. This can also be applied to animals. For example, the word ‘cow’ can be used to refer to either males or females, but ‘bull’ refers only to males.

    Doctors and Nurses, Marked and Unmarked Terms, StudySmarter'Male nurse' and 'female doctor' are both marked terms.

    The Relationship Between Marked and Unmarked Terms and Gender

    Marked and unmarked terms can carry different connotations, affecting how different genders are perceived in society. The unmarked terms mostly associated with men tend to show men more positively, whereas the marked terms mostly related to women hold negative connotations. This relates to the work of Deborah Tannen. In her essay titled Marked Women, Unmarked Men (1993)1, she argues that women are more likely to be marked by societal expectations than men, suggesting that women are judged more for who they are and what they do.

    Tannen (1993) states that 'gender markers pick up extra meanings that reflect common associations with the female gender: not quite serious, often sexual. This is an unfair representation as it highlights the negative stereotypes and inequality faced by women, who are seen as lesser than men as they do not fit the male-centred norms of society.

    Master vs mistress

    Master is the unmarked term used to refer to a man, whereas mistress is the marked term used to refer to a woman. Unlike master, mistress holds negative connotations as it is often used to refer to a woman in a sexual relationship with a married man.

    More marked and unmarked terms examples

    Marked terms can be used to indicate differences in tenses. The infinitive form of a verb is seen as an unmarked term. If you add suffixes to infinitive verbs, they become marked terms, changing the tense. For example:

    Unmarked Term

    Marked Term











    Marked terms can also be used to show the plural of something/someone. This is usually done by adding the suffix ‘s’ or ‘es’ at the end of a word. Here are some examples:

    • House (unmarked) → Houses (marked)

    • Elephant (unmarked) → Elephants (marked)

    • Box (unmarked) → Boxes (marked)

    • Brush (unmarked) → Brushes (marked)

    Or, the whole word can change its form, for example:

    • Mouse (unmarked) → Mice (marked)

    • Leaf (unmarked) → Leaves (marked)

    • Scarf (unmarked) → Scarves (marked)

    • City (unmarked) → Cities (marked)

    Marked and Unmarked Antonyms

    Marked and unmarked terms can also be used to show the antonyms of words (the opposite). This is usually done by adding a prefix to the beginning of a word. Examples of marked and unmarked antonyms include:

    • Predictable (unmarked) vs unpredictable (marked)

    • Approve (unmarked) vs disapprove (marked)

    • Capable (unmarked) vs incapable (marked)

    • Fair (unmarked) vs unfair (marked)

    Antonyms without added prefixes or suffixes

    In some cases, it is not always easy to spot which antonyms are marked or unmarked as they do not always include apparent differences. According to Adrienne Lehrer, there are different ways to tell whether antonym pairs are marked or unmarked. These include:

    1. Frequency of the words used in different contexts - unmarked terms are the words that are more commonly used. Lehrer gives the following example, using the antonym pairs tall/short and old/young: 'expressions like five feet tall and eight years old are normal, but five feet short and eight years young are odd' (Markedness and Antonymy, 1985)2.

    1. Positivity vs negativity - unmarked terms tend to have more positive connotations, whereas marked terms are more negative. For example, ‘happy’ is unmarked but ‘sad’ is marked.

    1. More vs less - unmarked terms tend to indicate more of something, whereas unmarked terms indicate less. For example, ‘old’ is unmarked as it indicates more age, whereas ‘young’ is marked as it indicates less age.

    Marked and Unmarked Terms - Key Takeaways

    • Marked terms are words that are changed in some way (e.g. different affixes added) to express a different meaning, whereas unmarked terms are not changed.
    • Unmarked terms are usually associated with men, whereas marked terms are usually associated with women.
    • Unmarked terms often carry more positive connotations of men, whereas marked terms often carry more negative connotations of women.
    • Marked and unmarked terms are also used to: differentiate tenses, plurals and antonyms.
    • Antonym pairs that are not obviously identified as marked or unmarked can be identified by: how frequently they are used, how positive or negative they are, if they indicate more or less of something.


    1. D. Tannen. Marked Women, Unmarked Men. 1993.
    2. A. Lehrer. Markedness and Antonymy. 1985.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Marked and Unmarked Terms

    What are some examples of marked and unmarked language?

    Some examples of marked and unmarked terms in language include:

    waiter (unmarked) / waitress (marked)

    hero (unmarked) / heroine (marked)

    talk (unmarked) / talked (marked)

    house (unmarked) / houses (marked)

    approve (unmarked) / disapprove (marked)

    What does it mean to be marked or unmarked?

    Marked words have been changed in some way (such as affixes added) and deviate from the norm, whereas unmarked words have not been changed and are seen as the default.

    What are marked features?

    Features of marked words include:

    • added suffixes
    • added prefixes
    • less familiarity/use in certain contexts

    (but not all marked terms are obvious)

    What are marked and unmarked antonyms?

    Marked and unmarked antonyms are pairs of words that are opposites. The unmarked antonym usually contains no prefixes, whereas the marked antonym contains a prefix - e.g., worthy (unmarked) vs unworthy (marked). However, not all antonyms have prefixes (e.g. hot vs cold). In this case, unmarked antonyms can be determined by the following:

    - used more frequently

    - are more positive

    - are used to indicate more of something.

    What is the difference between the marked and unmarked infinitive?

    In English, infinitives are usually considered to be unmarked. However, they can sometimes be marked to show differences in tense or voice.

    For example:

    To hug (unmarked)

    To be hugged (marked to show passive voice)

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    According to Deborah Tannen, which gender is more likely to be marked by societal judgement and expectation?

    Does adding a suffix to an infinitive verb make it a marked or unmarked term?

    Which of these words is the unmarked term? oldyoung


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