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The New Age Of Pluralism In Publications
By Orvel Ray Wilson   Printer Friendly Version

We were entertaining neighbors for an evening of pizza and TV when one of those awful ads came on. You know the ones with the fast-talking pitchman and those knives that will slice up a brick. "Call now," he said. "Operators are standing by."

I turned to my friend Gail and joked, "Standing by? Why are they 'standing'? Why don't they give these women chairs?" She glared at me and asked "So what makes you think they're women?"

The next day I heard about a listener who wrote to 'National Public Radio in response to their story about New York's St. Patrick's Day parade. The correspondent informed them that the term "paddy wagon" was based on the turn-of-the-century slang "paddy," a derogatory vernacular for "Irish." I'm sure the editors meant no offense, and from the letter's tone, I'd judge that none was taken, but the message is clear. There is a growing public sensitivity to the use of language in the portrayal of women and minorities. As industry leaders we must reflect this new sensitivity, and pay particular attention to these issues in our publications, newsletters, and particularly our marketing materials.

When our language does not reflect social realities, we risk driving away potential clients, customers, and members. While you may not even notice the occasional slip, it can send a subtle sting. Worse yet, it reinforces obsolete attitudes. It would be far better to use socially (and linguistically) correct forms in the first place.

My offense was perhaps the most common, often made unconsciously, of reinforcing sex-role stereotypes. Make an effort in your writing to show women participating equally with men. Women can be computer programmers or engineers, and men can be nurses, receptionists, or even operators standing by. Avoid occupational terms containing the suffix "man" when the job could be held by either gender, A "businessman" is referred to as an executive, entrepreneur or manager. The "fireman," "mailman," and the "policeman" become the "firefighter," "mail carrier," and "police officer." Instead of being approached by a "salesman," you'll buy from an "agent," "sales representative," or "sales clerk." And never use "chairperson" or similar forced compounds. The "chairman" is replaced by "the chair," the "coordinator," "moderator," or "presiding officer."

Also watch for the semantic exclusion of women when the intent is to mean adult human, male or female. In place of "mankind," refer to "humanity," "human beings," or just plain "people." The "best man for the job" may not be a man at all, but the "best person for the job." "Man-made" products are "synthetic," "manufactured," or "artificial." These differences may seem trivial to the "common man" but "ordinary people" will often take notice.

Another common trap is the use of the masculine pronoun when referring generally to a member of a mixed-gender group. Because of the shortage of common-gender singular pronouns, writers often make this mistake by referring to students, executives, authors, etc. as "he." For example, your conference brochure might say, "A delegate can take advantage of many hotel amenities. He can enjoy golf, swimming or tennis. . ." Some writers resort to "he/she" or "s/he" but these are artificial and awkward and should be avoided. One solution is to pluralize these references: "Delegates can enjoy golf, swimming or tennis. . . They . . ." Better yet, restructure the sentence to avoid the situation: "Golf, swimming and tennis are all available right at the hotel."

Avoid demeaning references such as "lady lawyer." If the adjective specifying gender is inconsequential, leave it out. Use "attorney" or "counselor" instead. Never say, "I'll have my girl do it." Delegating to a "secretary" or an "assistant" is far more appropriate. Even when trying to be polite, referring to a group of "ladies" can sound condescending. Use "women" instead, except in the context " . . . and gentlemen."

Finally, give some of your characters ethnic identities by using Hispanic or Oriental names, but even here, avoid racial stereotypes like Jose the janitor or Ahmed the 7-11 clerk. Portray both women and minorities in positions of authority, responsibility and power. Follow these guidelines and your writing will be more believable and more convincing. And you're right. It should have been "announcer" not "pitchman." No offense.

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