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PC language

Mon Jan 25 13:40:12 EST 1993

I feel that I have to weigh in again here and join the substring on
PC language (PC itself being a term with perjorative connotations) and
various persons' perceptions of the use/non-use; necessity/uselessness of
"gender-free" writing.  I was raised in the writing traditions of 1) science
is objective ==> write in the third person/passive 2) the accepted generic
is "him, his, man...   ." The first of these two is disappearing as scientists
discover that first person/active is better journalism and makes for clearer
communication.  The second is more of a problem. Some people (like one of the
correspondents in this EDG) sees the choice of language as evidence of mind
set/perspective of the speaker and that certainly is a valid point -- though
we could argue about deliberate use versus habit and how the use of language
may reinforce, consciously or not, a certain view of the world and a certain
set of expectations. For the "strong constructionist" of the force of
language and implications of word choice, the answer is usually the
rhetorically clumsy "his/her, " "s/he" or maintaining the specific noun
as referent rather than substituting the pronoun.  All of these produce, as
near as I can tell, less well crafted prose. Others, and I put myself in this
category, recognize the need for "gender-fair" language (at the least) and
tend to use male or female pronouns randomly (though without changing gender
in midsentence). We view the issue as one of "equal visibility," perhaps. I
tried this most recently in an article on competition and secrecy in genetics.
I received from the editorial office of "Science, Technology & Human Values" a
lengthy paper on how to write "gender-free" prose ["gender-fair" was not
acceptable]. It was difficult and made the sentences more clumsy, but that
was the editor's prerogative.

Some may be reacting to the extremes of "gender-free" language construction --
perhaps as it introduces political/emotional overtones into writing where it
was not intended and may be obtrusive -- the term "herstory" comes to mind. I
am a Univerian-Universalist.  A number of years ago, we began using a
revised "gender-free" hymnal with a coding scheme in the back identifying
those hymns acceptable if you didn't mind the mention of God (though not God
the "Father"), those that still maintained references to Jesus (though not
as the son of God), or male pronouns in general, etc.  Of course, Christmas
carols were still acceptable ..... At what point do you change the words of
a song with a known, identified author to make them "gender-free" and thus
lose the poetry and (perhaps) the author's intent? I don't know.

Never-the-less, words have power.  What am I supposed to think when I am
rereading (for my PhD seminar in Scholarly Communication) the Coles' 1973
book on "Social Stratification in Science" and there are NOTHING but male
pronouns in the discussion.  I felt like grabbing the current Provost of
Columbia by the throat and saying "listen here, bozo, I'm a scientist, too!!"

There's no perfect solution. We need to find a middle ground between the
perception that the issue is *crap* and the perception that gender-free
language overrides all other considerations. Pounding on tables and heads
may change the language in a journal article, but may have the opposite
effect on perceptions. We all need to lighten up a little.

Kate McCain                        "die Gedankenexperimente sind frei"
College of Information Studies
Drexel University

mccainkw at duvm.ocs.drexel.edu

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