I’m a lucky feminist copyeditor: a large chunk of my client base consists of feminists, socialists, progressives, and other authors who are writing to change the world in one way or another. Not only does this mean that I get to work on some fascinating books—on everything from the Black Power movement to Occupy Wall Street to Dalit women’s rights—it also means that my clients are people who like to think about how language can help bring about social change. They’re invested in using inclusive language and seek my help in doing so.
As you might imagine, I spend a lot of time helping clients avoid sexism and gender bias in language. Gender roles are ingrained into us in more ways than most of us realize, so it’s easy, even when you’re an ardent feminist, to do things like referring to men by last name and women by first name or erasing a noteworthy woman’s contribution to history with the simple, insidious phrase “and his wife.”
Probably the most common gender-bias problem most writers run across, though, is the classic problem of the universal masculine. You know the one:
When an activist fights for the rights of man, he must stay the course.
The reader shakes his head and wonders whether the author has lost his mind.
Today this reads as old-fashioned, but it wasn’t so long ago that the universal masculine (a weather-beaten, old hand-me-down from Latin) was considered simple good grammar. The alternatives, though, tend to confound writers. He or she can be unwieldy and awkward, and alternating genders can confuse readers. Many copyeditors rewrite sentences entirely to avoid the problem, often resulting in stilted constructions.
The most common solution, which is ubiquitous in spoken English and has been used for nearly a millennium (though still not accepted by sticklers), is singular they. Despite a great deal of pearl clutching in certain quarters, accepting singular they was a hot topic at the American Copy Editors Society‘s 2015 conference in Pittsburgh, with a majority of the editors and lexicographers who spoke on the topic coming down in favor of its use. I have spoken and written in favor of accepting singular they as well.
When editing academic manuscripts, I tend to tread lightly on questions of usage convention. Scholars in pursuit of tenure are usually less interested in breaking new grammatical ground than in impressing their colleagues, so my practice is to initiate a conversation with each client before making any editorial decisions. Some opt to keep things traditional and alternate genders or use he or she; others enthusiastically sign on to use of singular they.
Sometimes, though, even writers with the best of intentions produce a book in which the usual approaches to nonsexist language simply don’t work. I finished work on such a book recently: Frantz Fanon: Militant Philosopher of Third World Liberation by Cape Town–based scholar Leo Zeilig, forthcoming from I.B. Tauris. Zeilig is a regular client of mine, a prolific author, and a fan of the gender-neutral, trans-inclusive singular they. But the subject of his biography, Fanon, writing in French in the 1950s and early 1960s, had never heard of it. In the next installment of this post, we’ll look at what editors can do to help authors navigate situations where avoiding sexist language entirely just doesn’t work.
Sarah Grey has been a full-time freelance writer and editor since 2011. She specializes in nonfiction in the humanities and in social movements and writes and speaks frequently about inclusive language and other social-justice issues in editing. She is also an activist, a parent, and the force behind Friday Night Meatballs. She lives in Fishtown, Philadelphia.