“If a man is alone in the woods – is he still wrong?” I will venture into some heavy thicket today, knowing peril awaits. But sexist language has been an interest throughout my professional life, and a Jan. 4 MoveOn.org video circulating in the past couple of weeks has reawakened a keen desire to write with accuracy and fairness toward all.

Beyond the generic pronoun

Gender linguistic conversations often address “the generic pronoun” as editors grapple with the use of “he” when a gender cannot be determined. “The writer does best when he follows his personal instincts.” As we liberate ourselves, we understand the writer could be Truman Capote or it could be Ann Lamott – he or she. So, for 25 years or so, we have tried to find a gender-neutral substitute, substituting a generic pronoun. “He/she” has been used, and we often see the plural pronoun “they” used with a singular subject. The easiest workaround is to put the whole sentence in plural. “Writers do best by following their personal instincts.”

The generic pronoun has a number of good blogs, articles and research posted around the web. I will put a few links covering the topic at the end of this post.

From whence it comes

Awareness of gender-neutral linguistics surged in the early 1970s as feminism began teaching us a less male chauvinist approach to, well, everything. In 1975, I emerged from two years as a Public Information Specialist in the Army to begin journalism classes at San Antonio College. Dub Daugherty and Lynell (Jackson) Burkett (along with Chet Hunt, Jerry Townsend and Kay Sharp) conducted an award-winning course that produced a generation of improved editors. They taught us to pay very close attention to what we were writing, and the discussion of gender-neutral language was part of our study.

One of the best edits to our language involved repair to occupational titles. “Mailman” became “postal carrier.” “Fireman” became “fire fighter” (since 911, and in tribute to the diverse service provided by these men and women, the broader “first responder” has emerged, applying as well to EMTs, law enforcement officers and others). Similar changes cascaded through colloquial English. In each case, the description was more accurate and complete, as well as recognizing that either gender can fulfill most, if not all, roles in society. I am particularly fond of “chairperson.” I like to use “chair” instead, as in, “The chair called for a motion,” but if there was ever any hope of acceptance, Clint Eastwood’s performance piece at the Republican National Convention kind of ruined it.

Beyond linguistics

The MoveOn video doesn’t have anything to do with gender-neutral language – it hits on the way women are marginalized and segregated by chauvinist attitudes in the media. The most telling excerpt for me is Barbara Walters, the Edward R. Murrow interviewer of our age, talking with Hillary Clinton, one on one.

“So I have to ask you this very personal question…your hair…” Walters says. No one would ask Henry Kissinger about his hair, his choice of clothing, his age or any other irrelevant characteristic related to his gender.

My example may be one of the mildest examples from the MoveOn video. They, of course, have an agenda, and women were brutalized by news media – and legislatures, societies around the globe – not just last year, and not likely to stop.

A writer’s responsibility

Everyone writes everyday, and it’s important to pay attention to what we put in our sentences. It’s easy enough to learn and apply good style (accurate and consistent usage) to the words we put on the screen, and we want to be as inclusive as possible when we write.

In addition to gender-neutral language, we need race-neutral, orientation-neutral, sometimes even species-neutral linguistics. When we refer to a diverse group, we can take care to use words that apply to all.

The words of our mouth

We talk more than we write and that’s where I need a lot better editing. In an attempt to establish emotional or cognitive intimacy, I find myself being more personal than I should be. It may not be the worst habit, and certainly in the American South I can get away with it, but I am known to over use the word, “Darlin’” in conversations with women. Paula Dean is rarely admonished for “Sweetie,” but she uses it to apply to both genders, and it’s part of her character. I want to have better character.

I have wandered into this territory, and I recognize I am over my head. In the 1990s, I shared an office at Inmar Communications with Denise Walker, an excellent writer and well-read editor, and she taught me a lot about the attitudes I expressed in my writing. My partner, Cat Lee, edited feminist newspapers in Boston some years ago. I am going to ask them to comment, and I’m going to ask you to weigh in as well. How do we need to moderate our discourse to stop discriminating against people?

How can we recognize diversity without segregating and rudely differentiating? Every single person has unique characteristics. They can be singled out for being fat, or they can be recognized for being smart. Everything we communicate contributes to the tenor of our society – let’s make every word count.


Grammar Girl

Historical perspective – All Things Linguistic

Scott Herron

San Antonio copywriter gary s. whitford is half of Extraordinary Words, providing effective communications for business and non-profit development. You can find Extraordinary Words on Facebook, LinkedIn and its website. You can read more of gary’s writing on his personal blog and by searching The Rivard Report for “Every Word Counts.”

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gary s. whitford

San Antonio copywriter gary s. whitford is a partner in Extraordinary Words, providing clear, compelling content for business and non-profit communications. gary has lived in San Antonio for 2/3 of his...