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Sexist & Biased Language

The ways in which we use language say a great deal about ourselves and our attitudes toward others. Biased language makes unnecessary distinctions about gender, race, age, economic class, sexual orientation, religion, politics, or any other personal information that's not necessary to a text's argument or intent.

Sometimes we take biased language for granted, like when we use the masculine pronoun "he" to refer to both men and women.

Example
A president must keep his congress on task.

Notice how in this example, a generic category, presidents, is characterized by the masculine pronoun, assuming that the presidency is a role only for men. Some critics of "political correct speech" might argue that it's customary to use the pronoun "he" to refer to both men and woman, that such usage is normal.

But think about this: If it's normal to use the masculine pronoun to refer to both men and women, does that mean the female pronoun is somehow abnormal?

Writers also must be sensitive to the possible connotations of specific patterns of language use.

Examples
I'll have my girl get you a cup of coffee.
I'll ask my assistant to get you a cup of coffee.

In the first example, the speaker's sales assistant is referred to as a girl, which diminishes the status of the role. In the second, the sales assistant is referred to by job title, which indicates that gender is not an important prerequisite for the role that the sales assistant plays.

It's relatively easy to avoid sexist constructions. Essentially, there are two basic strategies.
  1. Use plural subjects...
    Teachers must keep their students on task.
  2. Use both the male and female pronoun...
    A teacher must keep his/her students on task.
Of the two techniques, the first tends to be the less intrusive.

As for biased language, cut all unnecessary references to personal background and character traits unless they are absolutely necessary for the understanding of your message.

For additional discussion on sexist and biased language, see page 450 of the Little, Brown Handbook (6th ed.).

Exercise

Revise the following paragraphs to eliminate all sexist and biased constructions.
  1. The finishing plant was the scene of a confrontation today when two ladies from the morning shift accused a foreman of sexual harassment. Marilyn Humphrey, a black inspector, and Margaret Sawyer, an assembly-line worker, accused Mr. Engerrand of making suggestive comments. Mr. Engerrand, who is 62 years old and an epileptic, denies the charges and said that he thought the girls were trying to gyp the company with their demand for a cash award.

  2. Mr. Watkins argued that the 62-year-old Kathy Smith should be replaced because she doesn't dress appropriately for her receptionist position. However, the human-resources director, who is female, countered that we don't pay any of the girls in clerical positions well enough for them to buy appropriate attire. Mr. Watkins did acknowledge that the receptionist, who is a paraplegic, is well suited for her receptionist job. He added that he just wished she would dress more businesslike instead of wearing the colorful clothes and makeup that reflect her immigrant background.
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