by Barbara Kamienski
Published at 2015-08-19
Since the term political correctness entered mainstream usage in the 1990s, it's been richly scorned and lampooned. Maybe this is because to some, the word correctness smacks of rules, rigid and arbitrary ones enforced by language police.
Of course, there is no official body governing the use of the English language. Dictionaries and style guides merely document and codify how the language is used. So it's up to editors to act as "linguistic gatekeepers" and ensure that words are used as "tools, not unwitting weapons," as the online Conscious Style Guide puts it.
At this year’s international Editing Goes Global conference, Sarah Grey of Grey Editing gave an excellent presentation on inclusive editing. Inclusive editing, as she pointed out, goes beyond political correctness to look at not only what’s on the page but also what’s between the lines. It embodies a fundamental respect for a text’s subject, author, readers, and publisher. It is basically a matter of etiquette, said Grey, quoting Emily Post: “Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use.”
Eliminating bias from language can be fairly straightforward, as easy as changing singular to plural. For example, “A doctor should take time to listen to his patients” becomes “Doctors should take time to listen to their patients.”
But what about cases of bias or “othering” that we often don’t even notice, simply because they’re so common that we don’t even think about them? Google “women versus people” for some interesting examples. (My favourite one shows signs in a toy store: Building Sets and Girls’ Building Sets—ouch!)
We need to be alert to the more subtle instances of language that excludes or denigrates, often hidden behind the smokescreen of familiarity. This means bringing vigilance and thoughtfulness to every text we work with and, of course, staying up to date on social changes occurring all around us—they will inevitably be reflected in linguistic changes.
As one example of how hard it is to make linguistic changes, read former TECian Jessie Hale’s blog on “they” as an inclusive pronoun (“The Tyranny of ‘He or She’”).