Sarah Grey talks about inclusive language

sarah-grey-headshotSarah Grey
is a freelance writer, editor, and indexer based in Philadelphia whose work has appeared in
Best Food Writing 2015, Saveur, Serious Eats, Lucky Peach, Spoonful, Edible Philly, Roads & Kingdoms, and more. This year, Sarah was honored by the American Copy Editors Society with the 2016 Robinson Prize for Excellence in Copy Editing

CMOS: When we talk about using inclusive language, who are we talking about including?

SG: Everyone—but especially readers from groups that have historically been excluded by the conventions used and the assumptions made in publishing. One of the earliest and most obvious examples would be the universal masculine pronoun. I remember, as a child, running across constructions like “Everyone has his favorite book” and thinking, You don’t mean me. I guess I’m not supposed to be here.

So, in part, it’s about asking, “What is this text meant to do and what does it assume about its readers?” It’s also about making sure that we represent the people discussed in the text in ways that are fair and accurate and don’t do harm—say, by justifying violence or reinforcing negative stereotypes.

CMOS: It’s easy to think of examples of blatantly sexist or racist language, but our readers are not likely to be confused about that kind of thing. Could you give a couple of examples where exclusion is subtler?

SG: It often comes in the form of lumping people together: for example, when a writer is careful to distinguish different European countries, but refers in the same context to “Africa” as if it’s one country rather than a massive and diverse continent. Or when someone writes of “the Native American word for X” as though there’s only one Native American language rather than hundreds. In those cases, readers in the majority aren’t likely to notice the exclusion because the writing shares their own viewpoint.

Robinson PrizeThere are also ways of assuming that one category is the “default” and anyone outside the default needs a label—I was shopping online recently for a travel bag for my laptop and was confronted with the categories “laptop,” “travel,” and “women.” Do I shop by my gender identity or my actual stuff-carrying needs?

CMOS: That “masculine default” is something editors have long been trained to recognize, such as in words like poetess and female doctor, which convey the assumption that a real poet or doctor is a man. But the gender issues under discussion these days are much more varied and complex than in the past. Language writers have been tackling the challenges of gender-fluid pronouns for some time now, but the general public—not to mention the style guides they use—are several steps behind.

SG: That’s right. Misgendering people who are transgender, for example, is still common, as are constructions that assume gender is a simple he/she binary rather than what we now know is a wide spectrum.

I think exclusion can also come in terms of what we focus on. There was an interview in the New York Times a while back with the Scottish politician Nicola Sturgeon. They asked her how she felt about having her fashion choices scrutinized, and, no kidding, this is how they quoted her: “‘I wish it wasn’t an issue for women but it is,’ she said, wearing a fitted apricot-colored dress and beige patent-leather heels.” You don’t see that in interviews with male politicians.

I was shopping online recently for a travel bag for my laptop and was confronted with the categories “laptop,” “travel,” and “women.” Do I shop by my gender identity or my actual stuff-carrying needs?

CMOS: Oh dear—if we didn’t know better, we would think that was tongue-in-cheek!

You mentioned earlier the problem of language that justifies violence or reinforces negative stereotypes. Can you explain more specifically what you meant by that?

SG: Certainly. I think it’s important to talk about how word choices are affected by stereotypes we might not even realize we’ve internalized. A good example is the outcry over some of the Associated Press coverage after Hurricane Katrina. There were photos of survivors wading through chest-deep flood water with bags of supplies, and the captions of photos of African Americans labeled them “looters” while the captions of photos of white people described them as “finding” food. Those are the kinds of stereotypes that get people shot. They do real harm.

CMOS: So inclusive language isn’t just about writing for all readers; it’s also about the writer’s open-mindedness in not making hasty assumptions about the readers.

On the other hand, are there contexts where inclusive language would be counterproductive or pointless?

SG: Well, it wouldn’t always make sense to use inclusive language in, say, fiction, where the characters’ language choices are meant to give us a sense of who they are. You’d gear their voices to the level of sensitivity that’s appropriate to each character and the setting. But here’s the thing—even if you’re writing characters who are deliberately offensive, you still need to understand how language includes and excludes, so that you can be certain you’re pushing the right buttons and pushing them on purpose.

CMOS: But presumably there are times when a writer is on purpose addressing a delimited group. For instance, someone writing about how to apply for a retirement pension needn’t worry about addressing readers of all ages.

SG: Of course. Sometimes it’s reasonable to make certain assumptions about your readers. If I’m working with Canadian Engineer magazine, I can probably assume that the reader lives in Canada and has a certain level of knowledge about engineering, perhaps even an advanced degree. What I can’t assume is that the reader is, for example, male or white, that they were born in Canada, or that they are attracted to women.

20140721-lucia-serving-meatballs-carinaromanoIn general, this kind of awareness doesn’t always mean trying to be as neutral as possible—you might be working with text that takes a very strong position on something. That’s fine! But you still need to be conscious of all of the connotations of the terms you use. If you aren’t aware that a specific idiom derives from slavery, say, or that one term is considered pro-Israeli and another term pro-Palestinian, you’re not fully understanding how readers will engage with the text. Monitoring that kind of thing is part of our job as editors.

CMOS: What do you say to those who shrug off inclusive language as “political correctness”?

SG: The term “political correctness” was popularized in the nineties as a way to dismiss as oversensitive whiners people who were speaking out about language and asking to be included in public discourse. It is, of course, very much a political act for someone who’s been marginalized to claim a say over what people call them. But in another sense it’s not political at all—it’s a question of correctness as in simple accuracy. If you’ve been using a term that doesn’t accurately describe its referent, why wouldn’t you want the people who know that best to tell you, so you can replace it with a more accurate and up-to-date term? We do that in science and technology without a second thought, so why wouldn’t we do it in discussing people?

You can find Sarah Grey’s writing online at Sarah Grey Writes and at Friday Night Meatballs (her site about food and community), and her editing business at Grey Editing. She’s also on Twitter as @GreyEditing and on Instagram as @fridaynightmeatballs.

Photos: (top) Karolina Heggaton; “Robinson Prize,” Mark Allen; meatball dinner, Carina Romano

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