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A Priority Put on Gender-Neutral Language

"This was going to be the speech of my life, my big break, my chance to bedazzle my audience with my perspicuity and insight. I took a deep breath - it was a long pause, a dramatic pause - and then I began.

‘A writer who cares little about his reader is likely to fail,’ I said.

The audience gasped. There were angry looks. A woman in the front row raised her hand.

‘Excuse me,’ she said in a firm voice. ‘Are you suggesting that all writers are male?’

‘No, of course not.’

‘Or perhaps you believe that the only writers who count are male.’‘No. Yes, I see your point,’ I said. ‘Let me begin again.’ I cleared my throat and tried to regain my equanimity.

‘A writer who cares little about his or her reader is unlikely to achieve his or her goal or win his or her argument.’

I looked up from my notes. There was an awkward silence. Then a man yelled from the back row,’ Hey, Rip Van Winkle, you been sleepin’ for 20 years or what? The year is 2006. Get with it.’

‘Now, just a minute,’ I said. ‘In my last statement, I recognized both genders. My language was impeccably inclusive.’

‘Yeah, it was inclusive,’ said a young woman jumping up on the stage, ‘but as graceful as a penguin doing the Viennese waltz. Move over, buddy. This is no longer a man’s world.’

What happened next is too painful to describe. She was poised, articulate, and devastatingly erudite. Citing ‘The Chicago Manual of Style’ and the ‘University of Minnesota Style Manual,’ she said, if you want to write inclusively without being awkward:

*Use plural pronouns. Rather than ‘A manager should care about people,’ write ‘managers should care about people.’

* Eliminate pronouns. Rather than ‘A smart person makes his plans early,’ write ‘A smart person plans early.’

* Use genderless words such as one, person and individual. Rather than ‘A friend thinks about you. He knows when to call,’ write ‘A friend is someone who thinks about you and knows when to call.’

* Use the definite article the in place of a possessive pronoun. Rather than ‘The ice angler peered down into the black hole and gave his pole a flick,’ write ‘The ice angler peered down into the black hole and gave the pole a flick.’

When she had finished, there was wild applause. She held a book out to me and said, ‘Here, take this. It was published 26 years ago. Read it before you give your next speech.’

It was Casey Miller and Kate Swift’s ‘The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing.’ I opened it at random and read the following passage:

‘Only recently have we become aware that conventional English usage, including the generic use of masculine-gender words, often obscures the actions, the contributions and sometimes the very presence of women. Turning our backs on that insight is an option, of course, but it is an option like teaching children the world is flat.’


Stephen Wilbers, a columnist on Effective Writing. “Feelings get tender over the issue of gender,’ Star Tribune, March 5, 2007, p. D5

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