Category Archives: Blogcast

Bias-Free Language

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We’ve long known that using gender-neutral language (aka: gender-inclusive language or non-sexist language) is the basic expectation in everyday communication–written or not. Long gone are the days when masculine pronouns were used by default when no gender was known. And gone, too, are the days of awkward and repetitive he/she and his/her constructs now that the singular “they” is the grammatical norm and formally endorsed by APA Style. But what about other contexts in which bias is evident in the language used? What’s the approach in those situations?

APA Style makes understanding appropriate usage clear by stating on its official website: “Writers . . . must strive to use language that is free of bias and avoid perpetuating prejudicial beliefs or demeaning attitudes. Just as you have learned to check what you write for spelling, grammar, and wordiness, practice reading your work for bias.” 

Indeed, bias-free language is needed to be inclusive of all people, and it may require some effort on the part of writers to rid their work of such usage so as not to offend or demean others. Some of the language bias concerns usage contexts that have been standard for a long time, and in this regard writers need to break those old habits. Unintentional or not, using terms such as policeman, mailman, mankind exclude women who surely serve and protect communities, deliver mail, and walk this planet. There’s no doubt that progress has been made using bias-free language with these examples as police officers, mail carriers, and humankind are not new terms, but what about language bias that doesn’t concern gender?

One classic example is the word “handicapped.” Writing “handicapped” or “hadicapped person” is biased because it makes a statement about the whole person, not the condition. APA Style recommends person-first language in which “the person is emphasized, not the individual’s disability or chronic condition.” With this in mind, phrasing such as “person living with a disability” would be the preferred language. If you are having doubts about the bias–and certainly to some, the offensiveness–of terms like “handicapped” or “disabled,” consider that it wasn’t until the 1970s that the term “crippled” stopped being used. While “handiapped” may be a shade better than “crippled,” it still expresses a bias. 

Some complain about excessive political correctness, but that seems more of an excuse to continue practices that are simply not sensitive to the needs of others. For decades people debated whether the name of the National Football League team Washington Redskins was demeaning to Native Americans, and now that that name has been finally removed, I guess we know the view that most people hold that prompted ownership to make the change. I’ve always been amazed at how strenuously some people will argue a view when it doesn’t affect them personally. After all, most of the folks who saw nothing wrong with “Redskins” as a team name were not Native American.

And I think this mindset gets to the heart of the matter: If certain usage doesn’t impact people personally, then many don’t see the problem. Take for example the word “refugee.” In 2005 my family and I evacuated the city of New Orleans a day before Hurricane Katrina ravaged our city. When it became clear what was happening, we headed to Maine where we had family, and it was along the way that news reports kept speaking of Katrina refugees fleeing the devastated areas. “Refugee”? At a hotel in Pennsylvania, the woman checking me in remarked after I handed her my driver’s licence, “You’re one of the ‘refugees.’” The word was not intended to be used in a demeaning manner, but that is exactly how it felt. After all, “refugee” is usually used to refer to those feeling a country for fear of persecution, not their own country. 

The use of biased language is as American as apple pie and baseball, and according to the University of New Hampshire’s 2015 “Bias-Free Language Guide” that has been removed due to backlash, such bias includes the word “American” because using the word as I have is not inclusive as it makes the assumption that an “American” is someone from the United States when other countries are part of the Americas. To be fair to UNH, its president at the time, Mark Huddleston, issued a statement saying the language guide was not policy and that he, too, was troubled by the guide flagging “American” as a biased word. 

Still, it makes me wonder: Is the word “American” biased? Why do people from the United States refer to themselves as “Americans”? Does someone from Mexico refer to themself as “American” or “Mexican”? Who does “American” include and according to whom? When I fill out an online form and have to select my country, “America” is not an option. Think of the logic: Someone from Italy is Italian. A person from Canada is Canadian. If you are from Greece, you are Greek. Yet if you live in the United States, you are an American.

In APA Style, the aim is not to create controversy but, rather, to guide writers to use language that is “accurate, clear, and free from bias or prejudicial connotations.” Avoiding the use of imprecise and overarching terms and using instead the terms the people being discussed use themselves is a positive step toward inclusivity and precision in language use.

Until next week–

Kurtis Clements

The Singular “They”

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The singular they?!

Yes, the singular “they,” as in Everyone learns “their” ABCs or What one doesn’t know can’t hurt “them.”

While the singular “they” has been a topic of much discussion lately, the Oxford English Dictionary traces its use back to 1375 where singular “they” appeared in a poem titled “The Romance of William and the Werewolf.” In fact, the singular “they” is not new at all and has been used for some six hundred-plus years as a gender-neutral pronoun when the gender of a pronoun’s antecedent (what the pronoun refers to) is not clear, known, or important.

What is new, however, is the use of “they” as a non-binary pronoun–that is, a singular pronoun for those who do not identify with either he or she.

Grammar curmudgeons and language snobs rail at such use because “they” is a plural pronoun and can’t possibly refer to a singular word.

Yet such style guides and publications as The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA), The Washington Post, The Associated Press, Chicago Manual of Style, Modern Language Association, Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the Oxford English Dictionary, and the list goes on, all recognize this new use of and meaning for “they.” The American Dialect Society, a long-standing group of linguists, scholars, grammarians, etymologists, editors, and others, not only voted singular “they” the word of the year in 2015 (as did Merriam-Webster’s unabridged dictionary in 2019), the American Dialect Society also voted singular “they” the word of the decade for 2010 – 2019.

While some are not comfortable with or simply dislike the use of singular “they,” one needs to realize that language is a reflection of culture, and culture, we can only hope, evolves. In Puritan New England in the 15th century flirting was considered a crime. Flirting! If you had too much to drink and wandered about in public, your punishment was to march around town with a sign that read “Drunkard.” And let’s not forget poor Hester Prynne or the

“witches” in Salem. Much as those crimes and punishments changed over time, so, too, has the meaning of “they.”

In fact, language changes all the time. New words are added. Old words fall out of favor. Words take on new meanings or have new shades of meaning. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, 650 new words were added in 2019 alone, bringing the total of words in the English language to around 470,000 words. That’s a ginormous number of words!

At one time the word baseball was written as two separate words, base ball, but over time as the word (and indeed, the sport) caught on, it evolved to “base” and “ball” being hyphenated and then eventually, as use continued and as the sport continued to gain in popularity, “base-ball” became “baseball” to reflect its ongoing presence in American culture. The etymological evolution of the word parallels the way in which the word became a part of American culture. The nonbinary use of the singular ‘they” is essentially following the same trajectory as the word baseball in terms of its general evolution and use in American English. 

So what’s all the hooey?

Perhaps tradition. Perhaps stubbornness. Perhaps just a general resistance to change. One long-standing work-around to the singular “they” conundrum had been the use of a singular masculine pronoun. For many years, such bristle-worthy sentences as “Everybody is entitled to his opinion” or “I do not know who the doctor is, but I am sure he is great” were not only commonplace but they were also correct. In the1960s, such usage of masculine pronouns exclusively began to lose favor because they excluded women and the singular gender-neutral pronoun constructs “he or she” and “his or her” saw the light of day. While gender neutrality is important and using sexist language in one’s writing is not acceptable or correct by today’s standards, the problem with using “he or she” came down to awkwardness.

Listen to this sentence: “Everybody tries to do his or her best but success is determined by how much motivation he or she has and the sacrifices he or she is willing to make in order to reach his or her goal.” Sure, the sentence is an extreme example, but the awkwardness is real, and often several sentences running need to use a “he/she” construct, so the awkwardness continues.

“They” as a singular nonbinary word makes perfect sense for a couple of reasons. First, its initial use was not only an effort to improve the ambiguity of a reference, but it was also an effort at gender-neutral language in the sense that using “they” in the singular could be both masculine and feminine. Second, just as the use of “he/she” constructs was an effort at language inclusivity, so, too, is the nonbinary singular “they” as more and more people do not identify with the pronoun “he” or “she.” Bias-free language is needed to be inclusive of all people regardless of what language purists or traditionalists or stuck-in-the past grammarians advocate is the correct way to use language. While the “rule” may require pronoun-antecedent agreement, if “they” is both singular and plural, then it would agree with a singular antecedent.

To be fair, the singular nonbinary use of “they” is gaining wider acceptance even among staunch grammarians. In addition, the 7th edition of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association–that’s right, APA–has now officially endorsed the use of singular “they,” writing on its blog the pronoun is “inclusive of all people and helps writers avoid making assumptions about gender.”

Thus, we have grammatically correct sentences such as “When someone feels alienated by language that is not inclusive, they feel left out.”

Many people will not even be aware of the difference in usage as “they” in the plural has long been used to refer to singular indefinite pronouns such as “each,” everyone,” “everybody,” and “someone” much to the chagrin of English teachers everywhere. However, the times they are a-changing, and some may even find it ironic that a sentence like “Each person had to make their own decision” that was once grammatically incorrect when they were in school is now grammatically correct.

Some people–even those who recognize the importance of inclusivity in language use–may find using the singular “they” difficult, but the English language does not have a singular pronoun other than “it” that lacks gender identification, and writing a sentence like “The linguist said that it thought any change in language usage would certainly bring about new language problems” just sounds wrong.

While no singular gender-free pronoun other than “it” exists in English, some have used such alternatives as “zir,” “ze,” “hir”–h, i, r–and others, but no particular pronoun substitute has caught on. Other countries without gender-neutral singular pronouns have faced the same dilemma, but so far only Sweden seemed to have solved the problem by officially adding the singular gender-neutral pronoun “hen” to its language.

One way writers resolve this issue is by using the pronoun of choice of an individual when possible. APA says in the 7th edition to “always use a person’s self-identified pronoun, including when a person uses the singular “they” as their pronoun.” Of course it’s not always possible to know an individual’s choice, and a writer should not make assumptions about what someone’s choice might be, so in this regard, the best approach is to either reword the sentence entirely to eliminate any pronoun reference or follow the rule for usage and use the singular “they.”

Until next week–

Kurtis Clements