Friday, July 15, 2011

How to get your paper accepted: Orshee

In today's installment of how to get your paper accepted, we shall discuss gender inclusive language.

Back in my days of blissful ignorance, I didn't notice gender use in language very much. "John Doe" and "He" were pretty much par for the course.

At some point, I was reading an article and it was positively littered with "him or her" "he or she" "his or hers", and I wanted to pull my hair (short or long) out. While I appreciated the sentiment it was completely distracting from the prose.

I once was given a Parenting 101 book, and it alternated between male and female examples per section (i.e., every few pages). I liked this approach a lot better, because it made for much easier reading while still being gender inclusive.

Gender exclusive language has no place in scientific writing, unless the author is describing a single case study (i.e., "When Patient M. first came to the hospital, he..."), a gendered-exclusive event (i.e., The Society for Women Engineers summer camp for fourth grade girls), or is somehow written in the third person from the perspective of one of the authors.

It's very easy to use anonymous, gender-neutral subjects in sentences to give examples of people. For example, "the student", "the user", "the agent", "the engineer", "the scientist", etc.

It takes practice to write in active voice while remaining gender neutral; sometimes the writing can get a bit bogged down when you start. Sometimes writing they or them can feel awkward. But like any sort of writing, practice makes perfect. After awhile it becomes second nature.

Unlike those days of blissful ignorance, as a reviewer I am now very distracted and occasionally annoyed by both gender exclusive language (of either gender), as well as by too many Orshees. In some particularly egregious cases of the former I have politely reminded the authors to be more sensitive to their use of language. I know it is often a result of English being a second language.

Google, however, really should know better. Check out this error message I just got in Chrome (emphasis mine):
In this case, the certificate has not been verified by a third party that your computer trusts. Anyone can create a certificate claiming to be whatever website they choose, which is why it must be verified by a trusted third party. Without that verification, the identity information in the certificate is meaningless. It is therefore not possible to verify that you are communicating with  XXX.YYY.ZZZ, instead of an attacker who generated his own certificate claiming to be XXX.YYY.ZZZ. You should not proceed past this point.
If I was a man I might be offended. I'm sure there are plenty of female hackers out there. (Heck, even that attack is poorly named - "man in the middle". I guess it's catchier than "person in the middle", but still).


  1. I used the alternating-gender approach for a while, but eventually it started to feel awkward. My writing tends to alternate between hypothetical researcher/developer and hypothetical user, and I had to be careful that I wasn't making all of the former one gender and all of the latter the other: when all the researcher/developers are male and all the users are female, it looks sexist, but when it's reversed it tends to look like someone trying too hard to not look sexist.

    Now I just use "they" and "them" as gender-neutral singular pronouns. Interestingly, I've never had a reviewer complain about it. I thought they would, since this seems to be a mortal sin among internet commenters (even though it goes back at least as far as Shakespeare).

  2. I am a fan of using "they" in lieu of a genderless singular pronoun, although grammatical puritans roll their eyes at it (because "they" is a plural pronoun). But it sure beats "he/she", "he or she", "s/he", "ze", as well as alternating between he and she when one works with a small amount of text.

  3. Yes, Google ought to know better, but can we stop chasing and chastising the good guys when they slip up and focus on the bad guys who do it on purpose?

    It is self-defeating to attack your friends.

  4. Dood or Doodette,

    Is Google our friend, then? I doubt it. No friend would have inflicted that ugly new Google News interface on us. That's practically an act of war. :-)

  5. Anon @9:48 - When it comes to language, I hold everyone to a high standard, especially my friends. I'm not sure Google is my friend, but they are a fairly women-friendly company, I'll grant.

    It's amusing that you called Google good "guys", though. (And before you reply that 'guy' is gender-neutral, see: )

  6. "When it comes to language, I hold everyone to a high standard, especially my friends. "

    You might, but why?

    In my experience, most of my friends with such an attitude seem more motivated by an I'm-more-sensitive-than-you-to-discrimination game of one-upmanship than truly righting any wrongs.

    A while back, Female Science Professor went into a truly bizarre and byzantine discussion on the possible sexist origins of the word seminal.

    Really? That's what you guys fight for? Pardon me, but over here I'm still trying to get my university to ensure we have enough daycare spaces for faculty with children.

    Or closer to the subject at hand is Google with several corporate women vice-presidents a good target of your efforts? why not focus instead on the Augusta Golf Club, the Virginia Military Institute or Rush Limbaugh?