Thursday, October 20, 2005

Avoid sexist language.

Sexist language is language that gives priority to the male, usually disregarding the female. Since language is what we think with, and since language enters the brain to affect how we think, the widespread use of sexist language causes sexism. But notice the difference between using sexist language and being a sexist. By itself, writing in sexist language isn't sexism. Indeed, most writers using sexist language aren't sexists. Many use it inadvertently or because they were taught to. Including many women.

Yet, since the thirteenth century, in everyday speech, native speakers of English have customarily used nonsexist language. In fact, you don't hear sexist language used in face-to-face conversation with women or in mixed company. This is the way we learned to speak English from the moment we began learning to talk. This custom grows out of the very purpose of communication and common courtesy. So, don't treat your readers differently in writing than you would face-to-face.

Yes, this means that occasionally you will have to break a "rule" pontificated by grammar teachers. But grammarians don't own a language: the population of its native speakers do.

If you are writing a cover letter, synopsis, or book proposal, more than half your readers will be women. If you are writing a book or novel for a general audience, more than half your readers will be women. Many women and men notice sexist language. But nobody notices nonsexist language, because it's natural and easy to write.

Here are the reasons why you should use nonsexist language:
  • It's the standard, so you'll have to self-publish if you don't.
  • It doesn't pay to offend some customers, alienate some customers, or both with your product.
  • Even women not offended by sexist language are disengaged by it, so it's bad for business.
Notice that THIS IS NOT A MORAL ISSUE. If it upsets you, you're probably not cut out to be a professional writer, because your writing is all about your ego instead of about the reader.

Sexist language boils down to using the false generics, or "he/man" words, as though generic. These are the word he and its derivatives (him, his, himself) and the word man and its derivatives (such as workman, spokesman, chairman). These derivatives of the word man are a special case, because we have no choice but to use them unless a gender-neutral substitute is available. Also, in fiction, to avoid calling attention to the writing, you'll use a familiar old man-word instead of a new gender-neutral replacement -- till that new word has come into widespread usage.

But you should nearly always avoid sexist language in the use of man, he, him, his, and himself.

More on some easy ways to do this in later posts.

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