Proofreading and gendered language

Chinese wedding figuresI have been happily tapping away on Pages for a while now but only used the proofreading function recently. I already had the spell checker turned on so my pages are decorated by red dotted lines where I resist the opportunity to correct/’Americanize’ my spelling (note to self: change dictionary language).

Running the proofreader on my current writing project yielded a slew of suggestions to help me avoid being clichéd, too wordy and gender specific. While I was amused/embarrassed to have a computer point out my infelicities of language, the policing of gendered language was of particular interest.

Here are some of Apple’s suggestions (all of which I ignored since what I am writing is very deliberately gendered):

  • wife/husband: Gender-specific expression. A gender-neutral word like ‘spouse’ may be appropriate.
  • housewife: Gender-specific expression. Consider replacing with ‘homemaker’.
  • lady: Gender-specific expression. Consider omitting this word or replacing with ‘woman’, ‘person’, or ‘individual’. [There seems to be some confusion here, last time I checked, ‘woman’ was also gender-specific. Of course, lady can be used to be derogatory, or, to be polite.]
  • postman: Gender-specific expression. Consider replacing with ‘letter carrier’ or ‘postal clerk’.

I have mixed feelings about the presence of this advice in a word processing programme. It should not take a piece of software to point out that excluding over 50% of humankind by omitting the ‘hu’ is not acceptable in contemporary society (Pages also offers ‘humanity’ or ‘people’ as alternatives to ‘mankind’). I would like to think this was well understood, but I do see many transgressions of this. For example, I read a recent newspaper article about academic publishers in which the (male) author referred to the industry’s ‘man hours’, unthinkingly neglecting the no doubt also ‘countless’ ‘woman hours’. Perhaps if the writer or newspaper editor had used this proofreader, they might have been shown the error of their ways.

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