When Man First Came Down From the Trees… He Decided to Own the Language

CMP Resolution Blog by Lesley Allport and Katherine Graham.

I am disappointed by the media’s return to the generic ‘he’ and ‘man’. What happened to respect and dignity? I certainly don’t feel respected when I’m told that ‘mankind’s first dwellings were…’ or that ‘a doctor feels he needs to…’. I feel my dignity is under attack when, on challenging this, I am told that a generic masculine is ‘understood’ to ‘include’ women, and that really I am making a silly, outdated fuss about nothing very important.

But it is important. If we really mean to treat people with respect, then this is a simple choice. Either use the generic knowing it upsets people, in which case you’re being deliberately inflammatory, or make a tiny effort to reframe your language.

So let’s try that sentence again, this time using a generic catch-all masculine, and see how the generic just does not wash: ‘If we are really to strive to treat man with respect…’.

It isn’t hard.

Avoid the generic ‘man’ – studies show we think ‘male’ when we hear this. Try for yourself: what does the sentence ‘Man’s vital interests include life, food and access to females’ really mean?
Avoid the generic, ‘he’. Don’t use a disclaimer that masculine pronouns are to be taken as referring to both genders, as this is likely to offend, and make for sloppy male-assumptions when writing.
Instead:

Change singular to plural – ‘A person with an allegation of bullying needs to keep a diary of when he feels he is being bullied’ becomes ‘People with allegations…’
Use ‘they’ as a singular pronoun – Shakespeare did, even though your teacher may have taught you not to!
Use the second person – ‘Each candidate should write his name…’ becomes ‘Write your name…’
Use ‘the other’ – ‘Each person in turn gives feedback to his partner’ becomes ‘Each person in turn gives feedback to the other.’
There is a great book called the A-Z of Non Sexist Language, written by Margaret Doyle if you want to know more.

 

                        author

Katherine Graham

Katherine Graham has worked in the field of dispute resolution for over 15 years’ as a mediator and trainer. She has mediated on the BBC Learning Zone and has given keynote speeches on conflict management and mediation for The MOD’s Equal Opportunities Conference, Women in Business Annual conference and “Getting Beyond… MORE >

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