The importance of nonsexist writing
And why, if you’re a good writer, it doesn’t have to make your stuff awkward
My eighth grade English teacher Mrs. (“... no, no, no,” she fumed, “not Ms. ...”) Antoniazzi drilled into the class that in cases of unknown or mixed gender, we were to default to him and his. Always.
That was the prevailing rule in 1968. (Yes, I am that old.) It no longer is, but plenty remain who bristle at having to approach gendered terms with care.
If you happen to be male—odds are roughly 50/50 that you are—it’s understandable if you don’t quite get what the fuss is about. Slights and their sting often pass unnoticed by the non-slightee. For that matter, slightees can become inured, too. More than once at table in the early 70s, my stepmother, hopping-to ere Dad’s coffee cup ran low, would spit out, “Women’s lib! What do they need to be liberated from? Our first mistake was giving them the vote.”
If you will not concede that women suffer negative effects from a default to masculine terms, I shall defer to Mrs. Antoniazzi, who told the unhappy girls in our class, “Rules are rules, and that’s the rule.” If rules are rules, then when rules change, so must we. Defy new rules at the risk of being branded, not altogether unjustly, a sexist dinosaur.*
Many writers recoil at the awkwardness of the his or her construction. But usually (not always), his or her is naught but the lazy writer’s default. In most cases, you can do better with just a little bit of thought and skill. Here are some suggestions.
The Nix the Possessive Pronoun Technique: Instead of the everyone took his or her seat, how about everyone took a seat.
The Find the Neuter Word Technique: Instead of mankind and womankind use humankind. Instead of workman use worker. Instead of chairman use chair.
The Make It Plural Technique: Instead of the customer likes his or her sandwich made fresh you can say customers like their sandwiches made fresh.
The Break Down and Rewrite Technique: For that matter, you can say customers like fresh-made sandwiches.
The Let Go of Your Favorite Cliché Technique: I don’t care if you grew up saying old wives’ tale. It is sexist and then some. Try nonsense, untrue, fiddle-faddle, claptrap, questionable, baloney, myth, hogwash, bull...**
Sexist expressions are good at taking writers unawares. It takes vigilance to recognize them and root them out. When in doubt, find a with-it slightee and ask, “Is this wording sexist?” Don’t argue with the answer.*** Better yet, when in doubt, rewrite. All you need is a little creativity. You’re in advertising. Creative solutions is what you’re about. Oh, and quit pouting about having to do it. Pouting is unbecoming.
*There is no shortage of ways to brand yourself a sexist dinosaur. A friend asked me to review an early draft of a marketing book he was writing. To illustrate the importance of incentive offers, he attempted a humorous take on the Old Testament story of Saul’s having offered a daughter to David as an incentive to kill Goliath. I advised my friend that joking about women being awarded as property was offensive. He retorted, “I hate that politically correct crap.” Hate it he may, but readers who feel otherwise are free to express their ire by not buying his book or retaining his services.
**When my goal is humor and irony, I render it indeterminate-aged significant others’ tale.
***Speaking of rewriting, I originally wrote that sentence, Don’t argue when they answer. But that didn’t agree with the preceding “with-it slightee,” which is singular. And the last thing I wanted was Don’t argue when he or she answers.