How to Avoid Bias in Your Writing

By Mark Nichol

Gender and ability bias in language doesn’t register for many people, but that’s often because many of them do not belong to the classes who have been subjected to the bias. For example, many writers persist in referring to our species, collectively, as man or mankind, even though several reasonable alternatives exist: the human race, humankind, and humanity. Most (though not all) are men.

“Get over it” is a common counterargument to the assertion that because half of mankind is womankind, a gender-neutral alternative is more sensitive to that fact; man and mankind, the reasoning goes, have sufficed for most of recorded human history — sorry, I mean “man history” — and everybody knows it refers not just to the breadwinner, the man of the house, the king of the castle but also to the weaker sex, the little woman, the housewife.

Get my drift? Get over it, indeed. Man up, and join the human race.

One justification for opposing gender-neutral language is that it can be so cumbersome. Why convolutedly change he, as a generic term, to “he or she,” or his to “his or her”? We all know he or his can refer to a man or a woman, and English lacks an inclusive pronoun. (Except that it doesn’t — but I’ll get to that in a moment.)

Yes, repetitious use of “he or she” or “his or her” is ridiculous, but it’s easy to mix it up with it, the magical indeterminate pronoun, or to alternate between he and she or his and her in successive anecdotes, or to pluralize a reference and use they in place of a specific pronoun.

Or — gasp! — you can replace “he or she” with they. Kill the klaxon, switch off the warning lights, and think about it: They has been long used as a singular pronoun as well as a plural one. But not everybody agrees, so be prepared for pushback if you employ this solution.

References to physical disabilities are even more fraught with risks to sensitivity. Such constructions as “confined to a wheelchair” identify people by their limitations, which is discriminatory. It’s more respectful to refer to someone who “uses a wheelchair.”

What about, simply, “wheelchair users,” or “blind people,” or “deaf children”? These phrases violate what’s known as the people-first philosophy, which holds that any reference to a person should emphasize the person, not their disability.

So, refer to “Smith, who uses a wheelchair,” “people who are blind” or “people with visual impairments,” and “children who are deaf” or “children who are hearing impaired.” And it should go without saying that references to a disability are extraneous unless it is relevant to the discussion.

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76 Responses to “How to Avoid Bias in Your Writing”

  • Clare Lynch

    I don’t disagree with much of what you say. In particular, I’m very happy to use “they” or “their”.

    But I’m just wondering whose philosophy is the “people-first philosophy”? Where does it come from? I’ve never heard of it.

    Also, is it possible to “violate” a philosophy? Laws, yes, but isn’t a philosophy by its very nature speculative and open to challenge?

  • Cecily

    As a Brit, I never realised that singular “they” and “their” were contentious until I started frequenting sites such as this. In my experience, it is primarily Americans that dislike such usage.

  • Cecily

    With terms relating to minorities – not just disability, but race and ethnicity as well – the acceptable terms tend to change every few years and also vary between countries.

    For example, Afro-Caribbean is a perfectly acceptable description of many black people in the UK, but I am told that a slip of the finger to use Afro-American, rather than African-American, is regarded as offensive by some.

    So I don’t think there are any answers; one should just look and listen to what terms are used around you and your target audience, without raising objections.

  • Emma

    Fully agree with Cecily about the differences in usage between UK & US uses of ‘they’ (and the use of Afro Caribbean!)

  • Chuck Hustmyre

    “They” is definitely a plural pronoun, as is its cousin “their.”

    Also, how is “confined to a wheelchair” discriminatory? To discriminate means to chose one thing over another. There is no choice expressed in an accurate description.

    Most of these changes are just more of the pointless neutering of our language.

    Why aren’t the PC police neutering Spanish or other Romance languages, in which every noun has gender? Why is it only English that gets the PC thrashing?

    If you wear glasses or contacts you are visually impaired. That’s not the same as being blind. Having to turn up the TV when you’re 50 ain’t the same as being deaf.

    If a person is blind or deaf, don’t you think he or she knows it?

    The actual effect of this these silly language shenanigans is to make our words more abstract, and thus less accurate.

    The PC police have pulled a Lorena Bobbitt on college freshmen, chairmen, and spokesmen, emasculating them and turning them into first-year students, chairs (or chairpersons), and spokespersons.

    Funny how manslaughter hasn’t changed, though, huh?

    According to a business communication consultant, even the term “flip chart” is loaded with racist connotations and needs to be replaced with easel, lest Filipinos take offense. I kid you not.

    I prefer specificity in language. Nor do I see anything wrong with using words that reflect a person’s sex. Why do the language ninnies find insult in any word that is gender specific? What’s wrong or demeaning about being a lady, a waitress, or an actress? Katharine Hepburn was a great actress, not a great “actor in a female role.”

    Why do we torture our language so? Why do we invent abstract non-words with no descriptive power to replace actual concrete words that provide details about the things they name?

    When your language doesn’t contain the descriptive power necessary to distinguish between a woman who heads a committee and a recliner, something is wrong.

    Chuck Hustmyre

  • Rebecca

    I do use ‘they and their’ a lot in my writing. I’ll be more aware of this when I write. I’ll do my best to avoid bias in my writing. It’s a great way to stretch yourself as a writer.

  • Stephanie

    Your post has offended me. “Human” and “person” are the words of a bigot. There are definitely masculine connotations in those words. I demand you refer to me as a “huwoman” and a “perdaughter.”

    Can you detect the sarcasm?

    I agree with Chuck. This post is not about “writing without bias;” it’s about political correctness. And writing to be politically correct is the path to censorship.

    There is nothing derogatory about “wheelchair user” or “blind man;” as Brad Stine says, if you’re offended by the TRUTH, that’s YOUR problem.

    Also, I’m a woman, and I have no problem with “man,” “mankind,” or “he.” In fact, I generally prefer those terms.

  • Chuck Hustmyre

    “We’re destroying words — scores of them, hundreds of them, every day. We’re cutting the language down to the bone. It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.” –George Orwell, “1984”

  • Cecily

    Chuck:

    I expect everyone agrees that ‘”They” is definitely a plural pronoun, as is its cousin “their.”‘ The debate is whether they are also singular pronouns. Most Brits would be surprised by the question; many Americans would utter a vehment “no”. (I’m unsure about the rest of the English speaking world.)

    It’s not always about political correctness. For example, “visually impaired” is usually more accurate than “blind” because total absence of vision is very rare, but that is what “blind” means to most people. The same is true of deafness.

    It’s a good Orwell quote, but don’t forget that we’re also creating new words all the time (it’s just that it’s often an unpopular process). 😉

  • bad tim

    i suppose that since i’m white and male, my opinion doesn’t count. but i’m also gay and pagan and autistic, and have felt the brunt of discrimination; not as badly as someone whose differences are more obvious, but badly enough that it has hurt. yet i’ve never found mere words to be offensive. it’s the attitude that offends. words are only tools.

    i find that it’s only militants and over sensitive liberals who really care about labeling. i’m not concerned about offending these people, because there’s little i can do to avoid offending them. it’s just in their nature to be offended — they look for it and almost welcome it because it validates their militant or liberal self-imange. [i used to be one of those militants until i gained a better sense of perspective.]

    so, i’m going to continue to use simple and descriptive language, and continue to try to be fair-minded in the process. if somebody finds that offensive, he can just not read what i write.

  • Roberta B.

    Why is the word “Englishman” OK when the word “Chinaman” is considered offensive? Or is that just here in the US? Gender-neutral language for the sake of political correctness is disturbing. As recently spoken by a disparaged awards host – just because someone is offended, it doesn’t mean they’re [sic] right.

  • Chuck Hustmyre

    What is the genesis of this gender-neutrality movement?

    When did it become offensive to be a woman?

    We have a lot of concrete nouns in the English language. A man who serves my dinner at a restaurant is a waiter. A woman who does the same thing is a waitress. Why have they become “servers”?

    Flight attendant? Why not steward and stewardess?

    I heard a male member of Congress refer to a female member of Congress as a “gentlewoman.”

    The word he was looking for, the word he was afraid would offend her, was “lady.”

    When did “lady” become offensive? Now we have to apologize for conferring upon a woman the once socially significant rank of “lady”?

    What is wrong with us? What have feminists done to our language. Why do they hate being women?

    Chuck Hustmyre

  • Frances L

    Reply to Clare: the preference for “people first” wording came from the many nonprofit organizations and individuals who advocate for people with disabilities. It originated long before passage of the ADA.

  • ApK

    >>i suppose that since i’m white and male, my opinion doesn’t count. but i’m also gay and pagan and autistic,<<

    You put your race first, so you're obviously racist.

    Yes, that was sarcasm, too.

    I'm all for being polite and sensitive, but pandering to the knee-jerk over-sensitivities of over-the-top activists is another, and I try to stay between those lines.

    I figure, if I have no malice in my heart and have taken an honest shot at being polite and sensitive, then if I still offend a huwoman (great word, Steph!) or a person-who-is-specially-sighted, then too bad. You can't please everyone.

    ApK

  • Jennifer

    I do not believe the reach of this article can extent to fiction.

    For example, I am currently working on a novel based loosely in medieval times. There are many forms of discrimination and political incorrect phrases in that time period. In my book, women are considered the “weaker sex” despite my personal feminist views. Discrimination based on economic, racial and social differences exists. If I were to write my book taking all of the PC jargon into account, the realism of my characters, setting and plot would be lost.

    Pretend the King in story is completely sightless. How would you accurately describe this in PC terms? Something along the lines of: “The visually impaired ruler of the country stood on the dais, turning their head to and fro, wondering where it all went wrong.” From that sentence, you have no idea what gender the ruler is or what type of ruler they are. You also do not know if they are completely sightless or just have difficulty seeing 20 metres in front of them.

    I will agree, however, that in unbiased reporting, political correctness should be adhered to.

  • MM

    I’v eno pateince with any of this ‘neutral’ approach and thought-police suggested nonsense,they need a life basically and a little common sense would go a long way too. ergo it isn’t what you say, its HOW you say it, or we will end up with writing books with an 5 word intro and the end that’s it… More un-pc stories please 🙂 (Wouldn’t want equality campaigners to go on the unemployment scrapheap)… In the UK they spent £100m (About $120m dollars whatever), on examining issues like “Are cross-gendered being discriminated against on long distance ocean voyages…) Beam us up scotty…. Think I’ll write a book about that…. call it Titanic II the sequel…. (erm can I say Titanic ?….)

  • AmaT

    Thanks, Apk.

    Let’s all just get over it.

  • Daquan Wright

    How and what you write depends on and “always” depends on your target audience. If something is primarily written for men, then “he” is perfectly fine. If the topic is aimed at men and women on an equal footing, then mixing it up with he/she is fine. If the article is mainly aiming women, would the article be using “he” instead of “she”?

    You have to detect the sensitivities of your audience before you can apply them. Being over-sensitive before then will keep your writing from being as effective as it could be.

    Bias in itself is a natural occurrence and it can be used for you, if you know who you’re writing for.

  • Kathryn

    Daquan’s point is very powerful–the focus should be on audience. If you alienate your audience through your choice of language, they will not hear the message you intended to convey. You cannot force them to think like you, or to share your beliefs and attitudes; you can only hope to persuade them by working (if necessary) in the interstices of their beliefs and attitudes.

    If you are writing in your diary, so you are the only audience, your sensitivities are the only ones that matter. If you are writing for–or to attract–a particular segment of the population, their shared sensitivities are what matter. If you are writing for the general population, some awareness of likely hot buttons and flash points can help you choose your language to allow as many people as possible to follow your argument and weigh it dispassionately without being distracted by side issues.

    Years ago our County Bar Association changed the introduction to its By-Laws, describing the Association’s aims and aspirations, by replacing “the spirit of brotherhood” with “the spirit of collegiality.” One member of the committee proposing the changes (the youngest, oddly enough) railed against this change, because it was made in the interests of gender neutrality, which in his opinion was causing “a graying of the language.” “Collegiality” is more gray and nondescript than “brotherhood?” No. In fact, it would have been more descriptive of the sentiment to be fostered even when the by-laws were first written (1917) when all members in fact were male. His knee-jerk anti-PC response was every bit as silly as programmatic PC (personholecover? Please!)

    Mindlessly substituting one term for another term isn’t the answer–as Cecily points out, you need to listen to those around you. But a writer is always making choices among the many thousand words in our language, just as a writer is always making choices about what sentence structure and underlying organizational structure work best right here, right now. “There are nine and sixty ways/Of constructing tribal lays”; it may not be true, with respect to all choices a writer makes, that every single one of them is right–but there are more right choices than wrong ones. And if you are writing carefully, with your audience in mind, your vocabulary choices (PC or deliberately non-PC), will be invisible to that audience.

  • ApK

    >>How and what you write depends on and “always” depends on your target audience.<<

    In this context, what if your audience is "the public?"

  • MM

    “How and what you write depends on and “always” depends on your target audience. ”

    Au Contraire, the true writer writes for his or her own self. Doesn’t let the public dictate what is written… If you just write what you think the ‘public’ wants to read, we would all be writing stuff about celebrities or something. There is a touch of cynicism in targeting to sell copy, I realise some need to make a living, but what writer really expects they can do that ? I look up the ‘top ten’ best-selling books, guess who they are about ? cooks, celebrities who employed ghost writers and they are all coining it… That is’t story telling in my view, I appreciate that is where the money is….

  • Ken

    Another take on this is at this link:
    http://www.dailywritingtips.com/mankind-humankind-and-gender/

  • Daquan Wright

    Public as in newspaper? I’d roll with he/she mixing in the text (based on the specific section of the newspaper/article).

    Public as in technology magazine? He is more appropriate, since men are the primary audience for that field.

    Public as in gardening/hair articles? Probably she more often that not.

    Bias can be used to connect, it’s just a tool. How it’s used it up to the user.

    A text being public (like something on the web) still has a primary audience, even if anyone can see it. You need to know who’s reading your articles, otherwise your persuasion will never be as powerful as it could be. The audience is something relevant to all forms of media, whether it be in print or web. Every aspect of writing should be based around who your content caters to…and any good writer would know that.

  • ApK

    >>Public as in technology magazine? He is more appropriate, since men are the primary audience for that field.<<

    Down this path lies trouble. Send your letters to Daquan Wright, care of….

    Seriously, that's not "knowing your audience," that's the epitome of gender bias.

    I took your original point to mean, say, if you're writing an article about mammograms, you are probably safe with generalizing with feminine pronouns.

    ApK

  • Daquan Wright

    Knowing your audience determines the tone of your message to how simple or complex your vocabulary can be, among tons of other elements.

    It doesn’t mean a particular word has to be used all the time, but that it matches your primary reader base. If you care about being over-sensitive to a less effective writing style, then you probably need to analyze your perspective.

    Providing content always has and always will have bias within it, that’s the nature of selling and connecting.

    Everything doesn’t need to be to cater to all sexes, what appeals to one group does not appeal to another.

    I even said something like a newspaper could be split down the middle based on the particular segment or article (to connect on a deeper level).

    I don’t know what your point is, but whatever it is, it certainly is not effective. To act like bias in itself is a horrible thing….is just blind.

  • Kathryn

    “that’s the epitome of gender bias.” I’m with you on that one, ApK. The only way the “electronics is male and hair is female” thing can work is if you have actual marketing statistics from the publication you are writing for indicating who buys their magazine (and, preferably, why).

    But–consider the blogging market. A political and social conservative who starts out blogging on political and social topics will make different choices of pronouns and descriptive adjectives than will a political and social liberal. . .because each of them is looking to attract a fairly specific audience. If, on the other hand, you plan to market your work to an existing publication, the preferences and prejudices of the editor who selects articles to include are going to determine whether your work is accepted. . .but you can probably make a guess at them by reading past volumes of the publication. If you don’t know exactly who you are trying to sell to, then your audience is the general public, and the less obtrusive your pronoun/adjective selection strategy is, the more likely it will not be noticed.

  • ApK

    We are talking about unfair biases. The word ‘bias’ in this context carries that connotation. It’s important to be aware of that so as not to water down an argument by playing semantic games.

    If you mean MY point, it’s that the attitude that using male pronouns in a tech magazine because the audience is mostly male would reasonably be insulting to all the women in the field, especially since there is nothing inherently male about the industry and any gender disparity is in itself a result of unfair gender bias.

    Sure, you can effectively ‘connect’ with bigots by acting bigoted, and you can ‘connect’ with alcoholics by getting drunk with them, but maybe that’s not the right way to connect.

    ApK

  • ApK

    Kathryn, I agree. And while I do try to live by my “don’t act like a bigot to connect with bigots” concept, it’s true that there are language choices we make just get sold or published. It’s a sales job, after all….

  • Daquan Wright

    “So I don’t think there are any answers; one should just look and listen to what terms are used around you and your target audience, without raising objections.”

    I remember researching an article years back showing the statistics of men’s most popular mags (porn) to women’s (gardening), using bias to connect with your audience is very transparent in the comparison used above.

    If an industry is shifting, language, tone, and writing style can be adjusted accordingly (and it should, to be effective).

    I don’t blindly adhere to people because of how they “feel,” you’ll have to forgive me.

  • Michael

    Absolutely no problem using ‘they’ as a singular pronoun here in Australia. At least, none that I’m aware of! Does the job very well.

    The alternative might be to employ Marge Piercy’s suggestion: in ‘Woman on the Edge of Time’ (1976) she has the people of Mattapoissett, in a future North America, using ‘per’ for ‘her’ and ‘him’, ‘person’ for ‘he’ and ‘she’, and ‘person’s’ for ‘hers’ and ‘his’.

    The problem is, though, that this eliminates gender identity in the language, when it might, on the right occasion, be apt. But for general parlance, maybe it ought to be considered. (I’m not terribly serious here, just musing.)

    Sensitivity and an understanding of your target audience are the rules-of-thumb here, it seems to me. Which is why I would nail my colours to Daquan Wright’s mast. Clear thinking there.

    Thanks for the ‘person-first philosophy’ Mark (should it be a ‘rule’?); I had never heard of it, but instinctively tried to observe the principle. Having it articulated that way is a good aide-memoire.

  • Michael

    @MM: Not sure I feel entirely comfortable with your characterization of ‘the true writer’.

    Firstly, (yes, I can and will bloody well write ‘firstly’, not ‘first’—sorry, that’s another argument/rant altogether)…ahem… Firstly, not all writers write books. I write policy submissions, essays, opinion editorials, research reports, media releases, briefing documents, dissertations, speeches, and discussion papers. Am I not a true writer?

    Secondly, stories are told in each of these with the audience very much in mind. Yes, each bears my signature—figuratively and sometimes literally—to a greater or lesser degree, but if I wrote them in a self-absorbed manner such as you suggest, I would simply lose my audiences’ attention.

  • Dylan

    Or better yet than using he or she, you just use one. Maybe it comes off a little too formal, but its in no way offensive. In any case, using he is acceptable in English and don’t let any crazed angry woman tell you otherwise.

  • Kathryn

    Michael–Bravo and thank you!
    I would add that although we are all only human, and thus prone to error, it is nonetheless hard to take seriously an opinion about writing expressed (in a blog devoted to improving writing skills) by someone who demonstrates little concern for the constraints of either grammar or usage.

  • Thomas

    I agree with Stephani. Political correctness proves a man’s role as a puppet. It is dull and most definitely does lead to censorship.

  • Janelle

    Okay, I’m blind. No PC rubbish – I’m just blind. Every other blind, or vision impaired person I know doesn’t add person to the beginning, because it doesn’t help us be more accepted in society, or get us employment or make ‘sightees’ think we are first a person with thousands of abilities, and secondly a person with one disability. Adding person just emphasises my disability.
    The National Federation of the Blind wrote an article on the topic, link:
    http://www.nfb.org/images/nfb/Publications/bm/bm10/bm1005/bm100509.htm
    I’m not a blind writer though – I’m just a writer. My blindness makes no difference to my writing. I was sighted for the first 29 years of my life and went blind because I’m a diabetic – that’s not a ‘person experiencing diabetes’ as I’ve been told I must say!
    Oh, and in Australia and the UK we use the term ‘vision impaired’, while it seems most Americans use ‘visually impaired’. Doesn’t the latter insinuate my visual is impaired – you think blind people look ugly?
    I’m not vision impaired though, I can’t see even a wisp of light, I’m blind, and no PC policeperson can force me to use vision impaired when I’m not! My dad wears glasses, he’s vision impaired. I see nothing, nichts, nullo!
    I’m just blind – if I can cope with labelling myself blind,then it’s time everyone else copes with using the fobidden words too!

  • MM

    If you are writing an an autobiography, would you ‘tailor’ that ? historical ? would it not ALTER the point and context ? Be a little false ? artistic licence ? If you are writing pulp novels then, blockbusters are those that buck trends and go at things differently, that suggests ‘tailoring’ your writing is not really the way to go. Who do you write FOR ? and Why ? I could raise my profile in my area by tailoring what I write, but I never do, because that isn’t why I do it. I Just need to write.

  • Emma

    Many writers insist on referring to our species, collectively, as “humankind”, even though existing, reasonable alternatives exist: “man” or “mankind”.

    I am not a man, but I belong to the race of mankind. I protest the use of any word that means exactly the same thing as an existing word unless it actually makes our lives easier in any way, and “humankind”, with its additional one syllable and two letters, does not do that. The same applies to adding the “wo” syllable in the middle of words that end in “man” to get such clumsy constructions as “chairwoman”, “saleswoman”, and worst of all, “markswoman” (which is actually in my dictionary).

    I do agree that “they” can be used as a pronoun of indeterminate gender, but if I were to choose between always referring to a person of indeterminate gender as “he”, or alternating between “he” and “she” between examples, I would hands-down choose the former. If the context is such that the subject is (or is most likely) a woman, then of course using “she” is fine. But using “it” to refer to a person older than about twelve months? That’s just ridiculous.

    I agree with Stephanie whole-heartedly: this post is not about avoiding bias, but being politically correct, and I have always been more concerned with being correct than politically correct. I also concur with her statement that “writing to be politically correct is the path to censorship.”

    Moving on, I see no problem whatsoever with referring to someone as a “blind man” any more than I would have a problem with someone referring to me as “a brown-haired girl”, because that’s what I am. Maybe you need a bit of a refresher: the adjective goes BEFORE the noun in English. Constructing a phrase specifically so that goes the other way around is ridiculous and clumsy.

  • Kathryn

    “I protest the use of any word that means exactly the same thing as an existing word unless it actually makes our lives easier in any way, and “humankind”, with its additional one syllable and two letters, does not do that.”

    Your protest is over 350 years too late. “Humankind” first appeared in print as early as 1648, according to the OED. Possibly it was coined at that point to make easier the lives of those to whom the amibiguity of “mankind” was puzzling: “mankind” can mean EITHER “humankind” OR “the male sex; persons of the male sex,” the latter usage appearing in print as early as 1526.

    I gather, by the way, that you also use the OED as your dictionary–it gives markswoman as having appeared in print as early as 1802; “chairwoman,” of course is roughly a century older, as is “saleswoman.” All of those were created, one suspects, precisely because “man” CANNOT be used in English when one is referring to a specific identified female.

    I do agree that “it” does not work well as a substitute for the personal pronoun; E. Nesbit used it that way in her wonderful classic children’s books, and it is always a bit off-putting. But if you pay attention to what you are doing, you can recast most sentences to avoid having to use a specific gender. Just takes a little effort, is all.

    One of the great beauties of English is the richness of its vocabulary–there is almost always more than one word to use to refer to any thing, any action, any abstraction, and the joy of wordsmithing is to choose the word that works best in the place where you are using it.

  • Cecily

    Kathryn: Re ‘I do agree that “it” does not work well as a substitute for the personal pronoun.’

    I don’t think it works at all as a personal pronoun!

    But then I’m a Brit and most of us are entirely happy to use “they” and “their” as singular or plural, so I just don’t understand why many people in other English-speaking countries dislike it so much.

    Having read around the subject quite widely, it seems undisputed that the prohibition was first documented, and probably invented by Anne Fisher, an 18th-century British schoolmistress who wrote a grammar book that became very popular. There is nothing wrong with that except that it didn’t reflect even educated usage at the time, before or since. Chaucer, Austen, Byron, Thackeray, Eliot, Trollope, Dickens and many others have used it routinely. I presume they did so because it was (and is) useful, widely used and unambiguous. In fact it’s so common, I expect that those who abhor it must find it very distracting reading anything other than a few newspapers that have very rigid style guides. (The PC/feminist angle is a red herring. It’s not like chairman/chairperson, but a longstanding and useful form.)

    The only objection that I can see is to avoid apparent lack of verb agreement, e.g. “The jury was [singular] out for three hours, before they [plural] reached their verdict”. But surely one can strive to avoid that without banning ALL uses of singular “they”?

    If “you” and “your” can be singular or plural, why the objections to “they” and “their”?

  • ApK

    @MM — “the true writer writes for his or her own self.”
    @MM — “I could raise my profile in my area by tailoring what I write, but I never do, because that isn’t why I do it. I Just need to write.”

    I’m going to take a guess that at least some of the many readers here who write professionally to communicate with and influence others — speech writers, journalists, technical writers, copywriters, etc — are, if not outright insulted by your comments, then at least amused by the notion of someone who doesn’t (or is it ‘can’t?’) make a living at their craft dismissing all those who do as something less than ‘true writers.’

    ApK

  • ApK

    @Cecily — If “you” and “your” can be singular or plural, why the objections to “they” and “their”?

    Maybe it’ just familiarity, but I think of ‘you’ as more collective than plural. Like “audience,” doesn’t matter if there is one person there or many.

    Also, living where I do, I’m just please I escaped the apparently common notion that the plural of ‘you’ is ‘youse.’ Grr!

    Where my wife comes from, the plural is “y’all.” 🙂

    Personally, I habitually use “they and their” in gender neutral constructions, because it flows, and people understand it, but I’ve always been told it’s wrong. I tries to use “one and one’s” but that always sounds pretentious.

    And as noted above, it’s usually not to avoid gender bias, but to avoid calling a specific unknown person by the wrong gender.

    ApK

  • Kathryn

    MM: You can add lawyers to that list. When my audience is a judge, I’d best be tailoring what I write to my audience as carefully as possible. And, in concert with your observations: I’d sure like to know in what area of writing one can have any respectable profile by failing to adhere to simple rules of construction such as the expectation that sentences will ordinarily contain a subject and a verb. . .

  • Kathryn

    Sorry–haste makes error. That last was addressed to ApK, but about his observations concerning MM.

  • Maeve

    Perhaps it doesn’t matter what we write. A publisher can always come back after the fact and change what we’ve written to please the sensitivities of the moment: http://americanenglishdoctor.com/wordpress/?paged=2

    🙂

  • Maeve

    wrong address: http://americanenglishdoctor.com/wordpress/?p=1720

  • ApK

    Maeve,

    Sad.

    That reminds me of this:

    “An item in Thursday’s Nation Digest about the Massachusetts budget crisis made reference to new taxes that will help put Massachusetts ‘back into the African American.’ That item should have said ‘back in the black.'”

  • Maeve

    @ApK
    Priceless!

  • Kathryn

    Thinking about the whole issue of substituting words reminded me of the existence of the Google Books NGram tool–if you’ve never played with it, this is a good one to mess with. If you follow this link you will find a comparison of the incidence of use of the three words mankind, humankind and humanity in books in the Google Books database that were printed in English between 1800 and 2008: http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/graph?content=mankind%2Chumankind%2C+humanity&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=0&smoothing=3

    The base page for the viewer is here: http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/

    You can play with the body of books (it’s interesting to run that search on American English books, then British English books), the period, and of course different words or phrases.

    Of course, there is a limit to what conclusions can safely be extrapolated from the graphs–this charts only against the books Google has digitized to date, and there’s no way that I can see (at this point–who knows what capacities they’ll develop in future) to examine the extent to which the terms are being used in like contexts. This point is easier to see if you try running a search on “chair, chairman”–it tells you virtually nothing because “chair” can be used in any number of contexts where “chairman” would be meaningless. Similarly, because “humanity” can be used as a stand-in for charity/kindness (“In common humanity, we had to offer them shelter.”), you can’t assume a one-to-one replacement. All the same. . .the graphs are thought-provoking

  • Michael

    ApK,

    Sounds painful!

  • Cecily

    Kathryn: I love the ngram viewer. Yes, it has limitations, but one can happily while away hours with it, and even consider it vaguely educational. What struck me most about your example, is not so much the relative popularity of mankind, humankind and humanity, but the preciptious fall in the use of any and all of them. There must a sociology thesis in that!

    Janelle: It’s interesting to read such a personal view on what is often a delicate subject. Thank you. Out of interest, if you were registered blind, but had some limited vision, would you still prefer the label “blind” to “vision impaired” or similar?

  • Cecily

    Kathryn: If you add “human” to the pot, you get a very different picture. It has increased to take up almost all the slack left by the other three: http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/graph?content=mankind,humankind,humanity,human&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=0&smoothing=3
    Bang goes my sociology thesis!

  • Kathryn

    Cecily–Oh, interesting. And, yes, the drop in usage of the three original terms combined was interesting although that could have something to do with the increase in number of books being printed; I haven’t spent any time looking at the size of the various data groups. And, because “human” could appear in any number of contexts other than as a replacement for one of the other three, I think your thesis might still be on. Hmmmmm. Lemme go take a look at something. . .

  • Kathryn

    Yeah–if you use “human race” or “human species” in place of “human,” the yellow line drops to almost nothing. On the other hand, if you use “humans”. . .
    http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/graph?content=mankind%2Chumankind%2Chumanity%2Chumans&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=0&smoothing=3

    You’re right. HOURS I could waste playing with that!

  • Cecily

    Yep, ngrams are addictive.

    Here are some more comparisons of the rise and fall of potentially biased terms in AmE and BrE.

    The decline of “chairman” started in AmE well before BrE (~1950 compared with ~1980):
    Graph for AmE books: http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/graph?content=chairman,chairwoman,chairperson&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=5&smoothing=3
    Graph for BrE books: http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/graph?content=chairman,chairwoman,chairperson&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=6&smoothing=3

    “Chairwoman” barely features in either, so I suspect the slack has been taken up with “chair”, but searches for that would include furniture, so not be much use.

    You get a very different pattern with “headmaster”, “headmistress” and “headteacher”. (Writing them all as two words produces similar patterns, but with the change starting earlier.)

    In BrE, the huge decline in “headmaster” from ~1970 is almost completely replaced with “headteacher”: http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/graph?content=headmaster,headmistress,headteacher&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=6&smoothing=3

    In AmE, the decline of “headmaster” is earlier (~1960), but smaller, and the other two words have stayed level, so I don’t know what word is being used instead – perhaps “principal”? http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/graph?content=headmaster,headmistress,headteacher&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=5&smoothing=3

  • Thomas

    What reallllly kills me is when congress refers to speakers as “gentle lady.”
    Ughhh.

  • Michael

    Yonks ago, there was an interesting episode of the American sit-com ‘Becker’ in which they rather cleverly discussed and debated the notion of political correctness. You may recall, the ‘hero’ of the story is not renowned as a champion of liberal dogma. At a little over four minutes, it’s worth watching.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ohXEV1A1Rg

    (‘Yonks’, by the way, is an Australian expression for ‘years and years’.)

  • Michael

    Kathryn,

    The Ngram thingy is my new favourite toy! Ta!

  • ApK

    @Michael
    “Yonks ago, there was an interesting episode of the American sit-com ‘Becker’ in which they rather cleverly discussed and debated the notion of political correctness. You may recall, the ‘hero’ of the story is not renowned as a champion of liberal dogma.”

    Holy Moly, that was great! have a new TV idol! I’m off to see if ‘Becker’ is available on Netflix now.

    By the way, like a sheep, I started doing the “@username” thing to quote because I see others do it here, but I realize I have no clue why. I’ve never seen it done before.

    What does the @username mean? Is it just some quoting convention, or does it mean “this comment is directed at this person” or what?

    ApK

  • Michael

    Dear ApK/@ ApK/ApK,

    I’m not sure which one to use, so I *tend* to emulate that which the other person seems to prefer, though I’m hardly consistent. Not sure what the convention is to be honest. If I had a preference I suppose it would be to use ‘Dear…’ to start with and then switch to the username only for familiarity’s sake. The ‘@’ symbol grates on me a little, but I’m of the generation introduced to the Internet in their twenties, so perhaps I’m a little old-fashioned.

    Can anyone shed some light on this?

  • Maeve

    @ ApK and Michael
    I started doing it because Daniel does.

  • Kathryn

    Michael–According to Dick Francis, the correct response would be “No sweat.” Anyway–you’re most welcome. It really can be a fascinating exercise. You’ve probably already noticed, but. . .at the bottom of the results page they have buttons that allow you to go LOOK at all the instances of each word. Now, THAT is a time-suck!

    And, I think “yonks” may be British as well–I’m pretty sure I’ve encountered it in British children’s books in the past. Cecily?

    I think the @username thing comes from Twitter, but I never managed to get the hang of Twitter.

  • Michael

    Kathryn,

    I’m British as well as Australian but in this instance choose to give my loyalty to God’s Own Country or ‘GodZone’, so will assert on the basis of the flimsiest of evidence that, as we cured the King of his stutter, so we gave the Mother Country ‘yonks’.

    This was, of course, yonks and yonks ago.

    🙂

  • Michael

    ‘the basis of’ is probably redundant.

  • Kathryn

    Michael: Ah! Well, I’ve no basis from which to dispute it, and the explanation has a certain charm. So, good to know!

  • Cecily

    Kathryn et al: I can confirm that “yonks” is common in BrE. The Concise OED says it’s BrE informal and dates from the 1960s.

    Regarding @, I’ve encountered it in lots of online groups, so I adopted it. However, in one group, several people said they found it unpleasantly abrupt, so now I don’t use it.

  • Michael

    Back on topic (though I enjoy the tangents very much): What are the forum’s thoughts on using ‘she’ to refer to a ship or a country? For my part, I’m apt to keep with tradition on this one.

  • ApK

    I didn’t know “she” was used to refer to countries. Even “fatherlands?”

    For ships, I stick with tradition. They are ‘she’.

    (And that for all the GOOD reasons, not because they are hard, fickle mistresses that cost a fortune to keep.)

    I have, however, accepted the relatively recent change to name hurricanes after both men and women alternately.

  • Michael

    ApK: Well, certainly in British/Australian English countries have traditionally been referred to in the feminine. Yes, even ‘fatherlands’. For instance, this was the first wartime speech of then Australian Prime Minister R. G. Menzies (1939):

    ‘Fellow Australians, it is my melancholy duty to inform you officially, that in consequence of a persistence by Germany in her invasion of Poland, Great Britain has declared war upon her and that, as a result, Australia is also at war. No harder task can fall to the lot of a democratic leader than to make such an announcement.’

  • Kathryn

    My type of writing doesn’t call for (and in fact would discourage) the personification of ships or countries, so I’d use “it.” And I think I’d extend that to any form of expository prose–why wade in those waters if you don’t need to? Fiction and poetry are a whole different question because the language used depends on many factors, the very least of which are time period, who is speaking, and narrative point of view.

  • Peter

    I’m British as well as Australian but in this instance choose to give my loyalty to God’s Own Country or ‘GodZone’,

    You’re British as well as Australian, but choose to give your loyalty to New Zealand? Interesting…good on ya, mate 🙂

  • Michael

    Peter: I also have strong family connexions in New Zealand so am quite accustomed to the Kiwis’ amusing if feeble attempts at humour and one-upmanship.

    Baaaa.

  • Peter

    Michael: I’m not a Kiwi…but I bought a tee-shirt in NZ, about 30 years ago, that featured a list of local icons and phrases, one of which was “GodZone” (I didn’t know what it meant for the longest time!); you reminded me of it…but I Googled it, and the wisdom of the Internet is that it means New Zealand. (My Kiwi office-mate tells me Aussies are always claiming NZ things…but insists I point out that you’re welcome to Russell Crowe)

  • Michael

    Peter: Are you trying to goad me sir?

    The ‘wisdom’ of the Internet can go hang.

    Russell Crowe is definitely a Kiwi, they’re welcome to Pavlova, and if their bands do well we adopt them as Australians. This is the natural order of things.

    I have three brothers, two aunts (one Maori), and six nieces and nephews, two grand-nieces and a grand-nephew in Aotearoa (look it up); I don’t like hokey-pokey ice cream; and they *think* they invented powered flight before the Wright Bros! So I—more than most—have every reason to be biased *against* the country that ‘glistens like a pearl, at the bottom of the world’. 😉

    (I do favour the All Blacks over the Wallabies though. Shhh.)

  • Michael

    Oh, and they talk funny.

  • Asa’adSIEO

    i speak to a specific audience and by logic, i will avoid discriminating. but hey , what i will be avoiding is discriminating against this particular audience. the problem is we get tangled with a bigger and much more serious problem. is discriminating occur just when you say it in my face? I think the best solution to all the problems is that to be honest with using words. words are meant to describe facts. what we are doing is describing words that describe facts.
    by the way, the links to ngrams open with an error: “You are accessing this page from a forbidden country.” why??
    am from syria by the way

  • Bill Adams

    My comment is not intended to attack the English language at all as it is a very dynamic language and borrows/adapts words from many others. Historically, it has been the male sex which has dominated it as can easily be noted by its “foreign” continental contemporaneous languages such as Spanish, French, German, etc. These languages, although nominally used in male dominated cultures, have nouns that have gender, number, and case. The English language today can also be modified to incorporate the other half of the population in every sentence to which “humankind”, both men and women, apply.

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