When to stop correcting sexist language?

From a reader:

I teach students in my courses (all undergrads) how to avoid the use of gender-exclusive language. I’ve seen lightbulbs go off when I share techniques for avoiding awkward constructions, and I think many students readily absorb the idea that their writing should be aimed at everyone, not just at men.

Here’s the dilemma: A former student (now in the workforce) has asked for feedback on his personal statement for grad school applications.  His statement is chock-full of gender exclusive language–the kind of language which assumes all philosophers are men. I’m torn about whether to correct it or not.  I have loyalty to this student who once took a course with me, but there’s loyalty to my colleagues, whom I may have never met, but who have to deal with a lot of low-level sexism of the kind that drives us all nuts. I wouldn’t want them to exclude him from academe but his wording could be relevant data for someone. It’s his personal statement, not mine. His wording is sexist, and although mine wouldn’t be, I’m not the one asking for inclusion in this community.

My intuition is that the reader should offer advice, not editing new choices into the document but suggesting in one’s email-reply that the language is gender-exclusive.  If he doesn’t take the advice, that’s his affair, but if he does then good, because doing so possibly indicates a corrigible future colleague.

26 thoughts on “When to stop correcting sexist language?

  1. Yeah, I don’t see why this is a dilemma. If you think that the language in the personal statement is sexist, then you should definitely make the young philosopher aware of this. First, because if you think it is sexist then others will too, and that will hurt his job prospects. Second, as you rightly note we could all use a little less sexism in the profession.

    That said, be sure you’re not just commenting on matters of style and are truly targeting objectionable language. It’s hard to know what you’re looking at absent some examples. But for example, while I would never use as construction like “no one thinks that they have to go to store” (I would use “he has” or “she has” instead), on grounds of ungrammaticality, I also would never object to a student using a construction like that, which seems to be a legitimate style choice.

  2. HP: There’s absolutely nothing ungrammatical about that sentence. What would be ungrammatical is “One doesn’t need to think that they have to go to the store.” “No one” changes things, grammatically speaking.

  3. I do get the impression from the OP that this alum is quite possibly not amenable to correction. If he’s referring to philosophers as men, if he casually refers to them in gendered ways (such as assuming they have ‘wives,’ for example, in heteronormative America), then I suspect as torn as the OP feels, she won’t change his ways.

    I also sense larger implications lurk in the background when, more generally speaking, being asked by alums to give feedback on personal statements. There is an extent to which we are all limited in our time and priorities, and perhaps we don’t owe anyone a reminder of a lesson we know we’ve gone over before, such as a lesson on gendered language. At some point, we must be allowed to say, “I’ve gone over this more than once, and I’m done.” But maybe that’s just my tiredness speaking, as I just got out of teaching. :-)

  4. Rachel, to my mind there is something ungrammatical about it, since “no one” is singular (i.e. we say “no one wants”) and “they” is plural. Some people believe that “they” can be used singularly. I do not, but that is a stylistic choice so I treat it as described above.

  5. I think people’s responses here are missing the point. The OP says ‘I have loyalty to this student who once took a course with me, but there’s loyalty to my colleagues, whom I may have never met, but who have to deal with a lot of low-level sexism of the kind that drives us all nuts. I wouldn’t want them to exclude him from academe but his wording could be relevant data for someone.’ I really can’t see how this could be read (maybe I’m making some kind of mistake though; I mean this sincerely not sarcastically) other than as saying that she’s worried that if she gets him to take the gender-exclusive language out, it will enable the student in question to represent himself as less sexist than he actually is to admissions committees, thus depriving them of relevant information about whether they should or shouldn’t admit the student. Yet none of the responses take up this issue, which seems an important and interesting one.

    Am I just missing something here?

  6. David, I thought that issue was addressed in the first reply included in the post. The idea seems to be that if the OP suggests to the student that his language is gender-exclusive and he changes his statement in response to this advice then it may indicate that he is open to becoming less sexist than he currently is. If he’s not open to change then he’s less likely to take the advice regarding gender-exclusivity seriously. Of course, there’s always a possibility that he would change it only so as to appear less sexist, but that seems to me like it would be about half the battle. Once someone thinks the right thing to do is to appear less sexist, soon they will begin to act in fewer sexist ways, and so on.

  7. Wouldn’t helping him see this in his personal statement also help him with his applications? He would probably not have got into my (really excellent) graduate school with a statement like that – at the very least, I imagine that it would have thrown up a huge red flag to many of the people on admissions.

  8. “I wouldn’t want them to exclude him from academe but his wording could be relevant data for someone.”

    Do you think the fact that, without your correction, he would use gender-exclusive language in his personal statement gives your colleagues sufficient reason to exclude him from the profession? If yes, then I must say I disagree with you, and would hope you’d reconsider this stance. If no, then why does it matter whether this is “relevant data FOR” someone? If X would exclude Y for reasons that are insufficient, you shouldn’t enable X to do that.

  9. ‘David, I thought that issue was addressed in the first reply included in the post. ‘

    Ok, maybe I made a mistake not reading it that way.

  10. No.9: That’s a false dichotomy. You could use something like this as a tie-breaker in a very competitive set of good candidates, without thinking that it’s somehow constitutive of not being a minimally decent enough person to be allowed on to a PhD program or anything like that. In fact, it’s not clear to me why all things being equal it couldn’t sometimes be a tiebreaker (though it’s not like the person won’t just go and be equally sexist somewhere else, if they really are more sexist than the average guy, if what you care about is sexism in general.) I guess there might be a consideration of fairness to the student here: Most professors don’t try and ensure that their students personal statements accurately reflect how good a bet admitting them to a particular grad program would be, not even by omission, and not even by not helping the student not to hide moral failings (except perhaps in very extreme cases, which I guess this one may be, despite the understated original post). So there might be a worry that the student is being unfairly disadvantaged relative to his peers.

  11. David Mathers — I don’t think it’s a “false dichotomy”, exactly, but I take your point.

  12. Rachel: Other authorities disagree (e.g. http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/qanda/data/faq/topics/Pronouns/faq0018.html).

    It’s not an “important gender neutral singular pronoun” in my opinion. It’s a brute error, a stylistic mistake, and it shows a lack of respect for one’s readers. I am NOT going to use it. I recommend to my students that they NOT use it as well.

    But, as I noted above, if one elects to use it, perhaps for the reasons you note, I would never hold it against her. I consider it a legitimate stylistic choice. You would do well to extend that same respect to persons who disagree with you about these debatable matters of style.

  13. If I recall, HappyPhilosopher and Rachel have gone back and forth on just this point at least a couple of times previously. I’ve got to admit again that I find HappyPhilosopher’s perspective here difficult to understand. Words get appropriated/changed/modified for all sorts of reasons all the time. As long as a person is using a word consistently and transparently, I really don’t have any beef with what they’re doing and can’t, for the life of me, understand why other people would.

    That said, if HP wants to continue not using “they” singularly, sure, why not? But I do wish HP would stop pretending that this is due to its “ungrammaticality.” The reasons seem to be personal stylistic choice.

  14. OH, HP is that person? Oops, I shouldn’t have engaged at all.

    I agree Matt: if one doesn’t want to adopt it oneself as a stylistic choice, then fine…but don’t pretend it’s ungrammatical.

  15. Perhaps I am explaining this poorly, or perhaps something else is going on. Let me try again: Some authorities DO view the use of the singular they as ungrammatical. Perhaps most do (I don’t know, ask a linguist.) This is perfectly compatible with MD’s comment that “words get appropriated/changed/modified for all sorts of reasons all the time”. Of course. But this does not give one carte blanche to mutilate a language to serve one’s own personal tastes. I can’t start using a construction like “Walks Matt to the store” simply because language changes for all sorts of reasons all the time.

    Your beef, MD, seems to be with Rachel and not me–given that I’ve been arguing that we ought to let people choose in these matters as they see fit. You’ll see in my first post that “I also would never object to a student using a construction like that, which seems to be a legitimate style choice”. My style is to avoid constructions that have generally been regarded as ungrammatical, have been avoided in the history of philosophy, and remain subjects of controversy among authorities.

    It is important in philosophy to take care to understand the opinions of your peers, and to treat them with respect even if they disagree with you.

  16. “But this does not give one carte blanche to mutilate a language to serve one’s own personal tastes. I can’t start using a construction like ‘Walks Matt to the store’ simply because language changes for all sorts of reasons all the time.”

    This seems to be a red herring. No one has here suggested giving anyone carte blanche, nor is the case you present analogous to the central cases which are here under dispute. If you think gender inclusivity is not a sufficient reason to modify our language in this way, so be it–but that seems to be the reason for which some in the discussion here are wiling to reject historical trends in our grammar. It is not so arbitrary as to be a matter of mere personal taste or ‘carte blanche’ to do whatever one likes.

  17. Right, Daria–so we agree.

    I think you’re missing the point of the argument I make against MD. What I have a problem with is this:

    “Words get appropriated/changed/modified for all sorts of reasons all the time. As long as a person is using a word consistently and transparently, I really don’t have any beef with what they’re doing and can’t, for the life of me, understand why other people would.”

    The second sentence does not follow from the first. Just because (1) words get appropriated/changed/modified for all sorts of reasons all the time does not imply that (2) we can’t have a beef with someone who uses a word “consistently and transparently”. (1) is true, let’s assume. But now let’s consider a person who uses weird grammar consistently and transparently–who says, for example, “Walks Matt to the store”. That’s ungrammatical and worthy of criticism even though (1) is true.

    Note, though, that this is not analogous to the case at hand, as you rightly note.

  18. HP, I’m not going to engage too much, but I just wanted to make sure I understand your issue with the singular ‘they’. In your original comment, it seems like your objection is due to some mismatch between the singular ‘no one’ and the so-called “grammatically plural” pronoun ‘they’.

    However, if this is your beef with ‘they’, I’m utterly puzzled as to why you seem happy to employ the singular ‘you’, which is grammatically plural in just the same sense, rather than the grammatically singular ‘thou’. Certainly the fact that the former is more popular in the modern era shouldn’t justify mutilating our language by eliminating the latter.

  19. Look–

    You’ve made a logical error. My objection is the standard one given by grammarians: “one” is singular, “they” is plural. (If you are a philosopher, my usage is the standard, but not universal, one in the literature. It has become less prevalent.)

    It’s true that the fact that “you” is more popular than “thou” in the modern era shouldn’t justify mutilating our language by eliminating the latter. (This is not a great example, though, since they-as-singular remains a minority view in academia, it seems to me.)

    But that doesn’t mean that NO grounds exist to eliminate “thou”. Here’s one great ground: No one will have any idea what the hell you are talking about when you use “thou”. It will strike the modern ear as bizarre, wacky, and impossible to understand. So you’ve mistaken a sufficient condition for a necessary one.

  20. Singular ‘they’ is not a grammatical error. It may never have been; it certainly hasn’t been for centuries. Jane Austen, William Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde all used it with frequency and aplomb. (Singular ‘you’ was once a grammatical error — as LookItsZee gently reminded you [and sorry, Zee, for stomping where you had tread so lightly].)

    The Chicago Manual of Style is… a manual of style. It is no authority on English grammar; its compilers aren’t qualified to tell you what is grammatical English (and they don’t pretend to). To find out what is grammatical English, you can ask a syntactician, or consult, for example, the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language.

    I read this blog for arguments about whether and why we should encourage pronoun change, having no confident view of my own, but that’s not really the question in this case.

  21. Okay, it’s been well-established that HappyPhilosopher will continue to aver singular-they is ungrammatical, and it is clear that most of us will continue to counter-argue that it is neither ungrammatical nor do we find arguments against it on other bases very compelling. HP is not changing their mind. (<– See what I did there?)

    I think we're done here.

  22. HP, I do admit that it’s pretty absurd that you won’t change your mind given everything that’s been said here and in earlier discussions.

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