Be a Better Writer -- GENDER NEUTRAL LANGUAGE

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Be a Better Writer -- GENDER NEUTRAL LANGUAGE

Post by glorybee » Sat Jan 03, 2015 10:09 am

Contemporary writing standards in many areas of the publishing industry call for gender neutral language. Before I get into some examples of what gender neutral language looks like and in what circumstances you should use it, I’ll try to head off some possible objections.

1. I’m not talking about (and I’m not in favor of) groups who have taken gender neutral language to the Bible, and have changed God the Father into a more generic “parent,” for example.

2. I’m also not in favor of changing the words of anything in literature that has already been written and published. I know that there are gender neutral hymnals, for example. In my opinion, it’s not right to change the words of a song or a poem that someone else wrote, just to make it gender neutral.

3. This is not a lesson on political correctness (although it’s probably true that the push for gender neutral language is at least partially rooted in something like political correctness). I hope to show that in most cases, gender neutral language is more accurate or less confusing, and thus it is better writing.

This lesson is really for nonfiction writing: everything from devotionals to company reports to blog posts to academic papers for a class you may be taking. Fiction writers—continue to use pronouns just as you’ve been doing. Most of this won’t apply to you.

For the rest of this lesson, I’ll give examples of the “old” way of writing certain phrases, and give gender neutral suggestions. Keep in mind, please, that this is what’s preferred by most publishers, and learning this skill may help your writing to get published. Some publishers, however, do not require (or may even dislike) gender neutral language, so it will be worth your while to do a bit of research. But if you’re trying to get an article accepted by a publisher that requires gender neutral language, then this lesson is for you.

• Instead of using gender specific nouns for occupations, whenever possible, use a word that would apply equally to all people. For example, write police officer instead of policeman. Sometimes there is a word for a female in a certain occupation when the male word could be used just as well; actor, for example, can be both male and female. If the reader needs to know the gender of the person, that can be worked into the sentence:

The police officer pulled her gun from its holster.

Once on stage, the actor turned to address the audience. “Thank you for your gracious applause,” she said.


• Instead of using a masculine pronoun (he, him, his) to apply to all people, re-write so that such a pronoun is not necessary.

Instead of this:

The student should write his answer with a #2 pencil.

Write this:

Students should write their answers with #2 pencils.

Similarly, there are several synonyms for mankind available. Therefore instead of writing this:

All of mankind is waiting for peace on earth.

Write this:

Everyone is waiting for peace on earth.

Or this:

All people everywhere are waiting for peace on earth.

• Do not use the slashed words he/she or him/her, and try to avoid his or her, he or she, and similar phrases. Instead, find a way to re-write those sentences. For example, instead of this:

When your Meals on Wheels recipient opens the door, deliver the meal to him/her with a smile.
When your Meals on Wheels recipient opens the door, deliver the meal to him or her with a smile.

Write this:

When your Meals on Wheels recipient opens the door, deliver the meal with a smile.
When Mr. Jones opens the door, deliver your Meals on Wheels food to him with a smile.
When Mrs. Smith opens the door, deliver your Meals on Wheels food to her with a smile.


Alternatively, if you’re writing something where the issue of pronouns comes up frequently, you could alternate male and female pronouns. Don’t alternate from sentence to sentence, as that might confuse your reader—but perhaps within each new section you could switch pronoun types.

If you’ve been reading these lessons of mine for a while, you may have noticed that I tend to use female pronouns in sentences like You don’t want to confuse your reader; she may not understand that Aunt Doris was a kleptomaniac. I do this for a few reasons: first, because the majority of FaithWriters are women, so using a female pronoun is more accurate, and second, because (I freely admit it) I’m a bit of a rebel. But I’ve always had this lesson in the back of my mind, and have always thought that it was a good thing for readers of these lessons to see alternatives to male-only pronouns when referring to hypothetical or abstract people.

Of course—I actually probably don’t even need to say this—if the gender of the person being written about is known, or if it’s necessary to use one gender rather than the other, by all means, use the gender specific pronoun.

• English doesn’t really have a gender neutral pronoun that works in sentences like this:

If anybody wants to know where the surprise party is, tell ____________ to text me.

Some people would use them in the blank, but them doesn’t really work with anybody, which is a singular pronoun. Some people would use him in the blank, but him doesn’t work if the person who needs to know about the surprise party is female. And as I wrote in the last bullet point, him or her is awkward. In this sentence, using him or her actually makes it sound as if the person’s gender is unknown.

The solution is to rewrite. There are several ways you could do that:

If you want to know where the surprise party is, text me.
People who want to know where the surprise party is should text me.


***

There are many, many more ways that nonfiction language can be made gender neutral, but I think you probably have the idea. The key idea is this: When it is possible and appropriate to do so, use gender neutral language in nonfiction.

I suspect that this will annoy some of you. You may think that it’s too ‘PC,’ or unnecessary, or feminist, or ridiculous. But the fact is, this is what is required if you wish to conform to contemporary standards of writing, and it is also, in many cases, a more accurate way to write.

HOMEWORK:

Rewrite these sentences or phrases to be gender neutral (there are several correct answers for each item).

1. …to boldly go where no man has gone before
2. A two-year-old usually clings to his mother in unfamiliar places.
3. The stewardess wrote a complaint letter to the chairman of the union.
4. The student should raise his hand if he needs to leave the room during the test.
5. The good news of the gospel is for all mankind.
6. Anyone who is unhappy with his study partner should notify the professor about him or her.


Questions or comments about gender neutral language? I’d love to try to answer them for you.

I’ve noted your ideas for new lessons, and many of those ideas will show up here in the coming weeks. I always welcome more ideas, and I’ll also mention that grammar questions should go to Ann’s forum, which you can find here.
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Re: Be a Better Writing -- GENDER NEUTRAL LANGUAGE

Post by zacdfox » Sat Jan 03, 2015 1:19 pm

Jan, I both enjoyed and appreciated this lesson. Thank you so much for your time and effort! Now, feel free to shred me to pieces;)

1. …to boldly go where no man has gone before
…to boldly go where no person has gone before

2. A two-year-old usually clings to his mother in unfamiliar places.
Two-year-olds usually cling to their mother in unfamiliar places.

3. The stewardess wrote a complaint letter to the chairman of the union.
The stewardess wrote a complaint letter to the head of the union.

4. The student should raise his hand if he needs to leave the room during the test.
Students should raise their hand if they need to leave the room during the
test.

5. The good news of the gospel is for all mankind.
The good news of the gospel is for everyone.

6. Anyone who is unhappy with his study partner should notify the professor about him or her.
People who are unhappy with their study partner should notify the
professor.

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Re: Be a Better Writing -- GENDER NEUTRAL LANGUAGE

Post by glorybee » Sat Jan 03, 2015 1:39 pm

zacdfox wrote:Jan, I both enjoyed and appreciated this lesson. Thank you so much for your time and effort! Now, feel free to shred me to pieces;)

1. …to boldly go where no man has gone before
…to boldly go where no person has gone before

2. A two-year-old usually clings to his mother in unfamiliar places.
Two-year-olds usually cling to their mother in unfamiliar places.

3. The stewardess wrote a complaint letter to the chairman of the union.
The stewardess wrote a complaint letter to the head of the union.

4. The student should raise his hand if he needs to leave the room during the test.
Students should raise their hand if they need to leave the room during the
test.

5. The good news of the gospel is for all mankind.
The good news of the gospel is for everyone.

6. Anyone who is unhappy with his study partner should notify the professor about him or her.
People who are unhappy with their study partner should notify the
professor.
Zac, your corrections are good, for the most part, but some of them could be improved upon. When you re-work a sentence to incorporate gender neutral language, you still need to be sure that the numbers of the pronouns and nouns in the sentence match up. I'll explain more below:

1. Your correction is fine here. FYI, when the Star Trek folks changed this phrase for the second Star Trek series, they changed it to ...where no one has gone before.

2. Since the set of all two-year-olds contains more than one mother, I'd change your version slightly:
Two-year-olds usually cling to their mothers in unfamiliar places.

3. You changed chairman, but you should also have changed stewardess, which is an obsolete term (if you've flown recently, you know that there are many men who work as flight attendants). So this should be:
The flight attendant wrote a complaint letter to the head (or chair) of the union.

4. This one is tricky. Since students have more than one hand between them, one possible way to write this would be

Students should raise their hands if they need to leave the room during the
test.

However, it's possible to interpret that sentence as meaning that Joey or Suzy should raise both hands in a bathroom emergency during the test. However, that's not likely, and to my eye, it's preferable to

A student should raise his or her hand if he or she needs to leave the room during the test.

5. Your answer is fine here.

6. Another problem with making the numbers match. One possible solution:

People who are unhappy with their study partners should notify the
professor.

Does that make sense? Any follow-up questions?
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Re: Be a Better Writing -- GENDER NEUTRAL LANGUAGE

Post by Anja » Sat Jan 03, 2015 1:39 pm

Since I have a comment that is grammar related, I'll comment.

Make sure your nouns are in agreement.
zacdfox wrote: 2. Two-year-olds usually cling to their mothers in unfamiliar places.

4. Students should raise their hands if they need to leave the room during the test.

6. People who are unhappy with their study partners should notify the
professor.
The reasoning is that two-year-olds each have their own mother, not just one for them all, and so on.
Ann Grover Stocking

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Re: Be a Better Writer -- GENDER NEUTRAL LANGUAGE

Post by glorybee » Sat Jan 03, 2015 1:41 pm

Ha! Ann, you beat me to it! :lol:
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Re: Be a Better Writer -- GENDER NEUTRAL LANGUAGE

Post by zacdfox » Sat Jan 03, 2015 2:02 pm

Thank you both so much! This is really helpful!

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Re: Be a Better Writer -- GENDER NEUTRAL LANGUAGE

Post by Cinnamon Bear » Sat Jan 03, 2015 3:18 pm

I rewrote the sentences without first looking at Zac's answers and Jan's corrections. But my answers don't differ greatly from his.

1. to boldly go where no man has gone before
To boldly go where none have gone before.


2. A two-year-old usually clings to his mother in unfamiliar places.
Two-year-olds usually cling to their mothers in unfamiliar places.


3. The stewardess wrote a complaint letter to the chairman of the union.
The flight attendant wrote a letter of complaint to the president of the union.


4. The student should raise his hand if he needs to leave the room during the test.
If you need to leave the room during the test, please raise your hand.


5. The good news of the gospel is for all mankind.
The good news of the gospel is for all people.


6. Anyone who is unhappy with his study partner should notify the professor about
him or her.
If you are unhappy with your study partner, see it as an opportunity to learn to
work with people you don’t like.
(I know, I know—but I just couldn’t resist. :lol: )

Cinnamon Bear

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Re: Be a Better Writer -- GENDER NEUTRAL LANGUAGE

Post by glorybee » Sat Jan 03, 2015 3:51 pm

Virginia, you did a fine job with your gender neutral sentences. The only one that I might take issue with is #3, because the president of a union might not be the same as the chairperson (or chair) of a union. If you were writing that sentence, you'd just want to doublecheck that person's actual title, in order to be completely accurate.

I loved your choice for #6!
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Re: Be a Better Writer -- GENDER NEUTRAL LANGUAGE

Post by Cinnamon Bear » Sat Jan 03, 2015 4:03 pm

Thanks, Jan.

The only union with which I am familiar is the Massachusetts State College faculty union, which uses the titles president, vice president, etc. But I realize that other types of employee unions might be different.

Cinnamon Bear

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Re: Be a Better Writer -- GENDER NEUTRAL LANGUAGE

Post by oursilverstrands » Sat Jan 03, 2015 5:29 pm

Jan, I chose not to read other responses before doing the homework, so I apologize for duplications.

1. …to boldly go where no man has gone before
...to boldly go where none other has gone before.

2. A two-year-old usually clings to his mother in unfamiliar places.
Usually, two-year-olds cling to Mom in unfamiliar places.

3. The stewardess wrote a complaint letter to the chairman of the union.
The flight attendant wrote a complaint letter to the head of the union.

4. The student should raise his hand if he needs to leave the room during the test.
Raise your hand if you need to leave the room during the test.

5. The good news of the gospel is for all mankind.
The good news of the gospel reaches out to all.

6. Anyone who is unhappy with his study partner should notify the professor about him or her.
If you're unhappy with your study partner, please notify the professor.

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Re: Be a Better Writer -- GENDER NEUTRAL LANGUAGE

Post by oursilverstrands » Sat Jan 03, 2015 5:36 pm

Oops! I Should have at least read Ann's post, if none other. I revise:

Usually, a two-year-old clings to Mom in unfamiliar places.

:D Lillian
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I write even when I think I can't, because I must. :-)

I love to write. Nothing escapes the crush I have on the written word. I'm hooked on words!!

"Let words bewitch you. Scrutinze them, mull them, savor them, and in combination, until you see their subtle differences and the ways they tint each other." Francis Flaherty

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Re: Be a Better Writer -- GENDER NEUTRAL LANGUAGE

Post by glorybee » Sat Jan 03, 2015 5:44 pm

lish1936 wrote: 2. A two-year-old usually clings to his mother in unfamiliar places.
Usually, two-year-olds cling to Mom in unfamiliar places.

Lillian
Lillian, this is the only one of your homework sentences that I might edit, if I were editing your work. It has the same problem with number as some of the other responses on this thread--two-year-olds as a hypothetical group of children do not all share the same mother.

In addition, Mom seems to be a tad informal here. It's what a two-year-old might call her parent (Mommy would be more likely), but it's not what the writer/narrator of this article--presumably something about the developmental stages of children--would say. So as is, it sounds almost condescending.

Of course, if using Mom was consistent with the writer's voice in the rest of the article, it would be acceptable just as you have it--except that there's still the issue of number. If you prefer Mom to Mother, you might write something like this:

Usually, two-year-olds cling to their moms in unfamiliar places. (Note the lower case 'm'.)
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Re: Be a Better Writer -- GENDER NEUTRAL LANGUAGE

Post by glorybee » Sat Jan 03, 2015 5:47 pm

lish1936 wrote:Oops! I Should have at least read Ann's post, if none other. I revise:

Usually, a two-year-old clings to Mom in unfamiliar places.

:D Lillian
This is better, and would also be acceptable. As I said in the previous response, if I were editing, I'd check for consistent voice in the entire piece, and I might recommend re-working sentences with Mom. Purely personal preference, though.
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Re: Be a Better Writer -- GENDER NEUTRAL LANGUAGE

Post by oursilverstrands » Sat Jan 03, 2015 5:50 pm

Jan wrote:Lillian, this is the only one of your homework sentences that I might edit, if I were editing your work.

Thanks, Jan. "Mom" sort of nagged at me a bit, but you made me understand why. :D

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Re: Be a Better Writer -- GENDER NEUTRAL LANGUAGE

Post by Allison » Sat Jan 03, 2015 6:30 pm

Okay. I havne't looked at anyone's answers, I promise.

1. …to boldly go where no man has gone before
...to bodly go where no one has gone before.

2. A two-year-old usually clings to his mother in unfamiliar places.
Two-year-old children usually cling to their mothers in unfamiliar places.

3. The stewardess wrote a complaint letter to the chairman of the union.
The flight attendant wrote a complaint letter to the chairperson of the union.

4. The student should raise his hand if he needs to leave the room during the test.
Students should raise their hands if they need to leave the room during the test.

5. The good news of the gospel is for all mankind.
The good news of the gospel is for everyone.

6. Anyone who is unhappy with his study partner should notify the professor about him or her.
Students who are unhappy with their study partners should notify the professor. (side note... do we even need that last part? Isn't it already obvious who the students are notifying the professor about?)
Isaiah 40:30-31 (NIV)

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