Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Do you use non-sexist writing in your speeches?

Do you use non-sexist writing in your speeches? It's not tough--most of the time, you'll improve your sentences by doing so. That was the magic that Kate Swift and Casey Miller offered in The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing: For writers, editors and speakers.

I'm sorry to say that Kate Swift died Saturday at age 87. That handbook helped me start my writing career on the right foot, and that footprint is all over this blog--and the rest of my writing and speaking. Swift and her co-author wrote that, once they realized that the use of all-male pronouns was coloring our view of women, they could hear "the implicit biases in spoken and written English, highlighting the time-honored phrases 'all men are created equal' and 'land where our fathers died,' the persistent identification of women by Miss and Mrs., and the journalistic habit of describing women as divorcées or blondes, who might be pert, dimpled or cute." (Back in the day, we were taught that the male pronouns were "universal" ones, and could be used to refer to any gender or to both genders. Seriously.)

Her obituary notes that some of their suggestions took--we don't call flight attendants stewardesses anymore--and some didn't. But there's no doubt her work changed the landscape. Speakers and speechwriters can still use many of the book's suggestions to good effect. If you aren't thinking about using non-sexist language, it's easy. Try these tactics:

  • Rewrite all-male pronouns out of your sentences: You can reorganize them out of the sentence: Instead of "Ask each person what he wants," try "What do your readers want? Ask them." 
  • Alternate to even the gender balance: Alternate female and male pronouns, and put the women first. If you're talking about what CEOs should do, some of them should be "she."
  • Check your adjectives: If you're referring to women with diminutive descriptors or talk about their appearance, but not about how the men look, even things up.

Looking back, I feel certain the seeds for this blog were sown when I picked up that book--I still have the first edition. Thank you, Kate Swift. (A hat tip to the Hello Ladies blog for sharing the sad news.)

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