September 30, 2010
Weekly Language Usage Tips: gender/sex & regardless/irregardless
Tip 1: Gender or sex
A reader writes:
I just encountered the following sentence while editing for Annals:
Patient preferences may account for gender disparity seen in the management of ACS.
While this is a commonly encountered usage of “gender” I suspect that it is wrong. We are not talking about the masculinity or femininity of words here.
I rewrote this as:
Patient preferences may account for the disparity between sexes seen in the management of ACS.
Can you shed light on this?
We have addressed this topic before, and I was actually going to give up on this as a lost cause, but this email gave me new reason to hope, so let’s try it again.
This is important:
SEX IS NOT A DIRTY WORD.
Let me repeat that:
SEX IS NOT A DIRTY WORD.
Gender and sex are not the same thing, and gender is NOT a more genteel way of saying ‘sex.’ Let me give you some background.
The word, ‘gender’ comes from the Latin ‘genus, meaning ‘kind’ or ‘sort.’ It originally was a grammatical term referring to whether certain words were considered masculine, feminine, or neuter. (I know neuter sounds funny, here, but that’s the grammatical term.) In the 50s, researchers studying hermaphrodites and transsexuals, adopted the word to describe characteristics of the people they were studying. In the 60s and 70s, feminists, such as Kate Millet and Germaine Greer popularized the term the researchers had been using and promoted its use to refer to the masculine or feminine traits of people regardless of their biological characteristics.
The World Health Organization laid out the difference between ‘gender’ and ‘sex’ nicely (http://www.who.int/gender/whatisgender/en/index.html):
“Sex” refers to the biological and physiological characteristics that define men and women.
“Gender” refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women.
To put it another way:
“Male” and “female” are sex categories, while “masculine” and “feminine” are gender categories.
Sex refers to biology, and gender is a social construct.
There is nothing inherently erotic about the word, ‘sex.’
But we are inherently puritanical and prudish, so we have a tendency to use the word, ‘gender’ when talking about men and women.
While I wince a little, when I hear ‘gender’ used incorrectly to refer to people, I don’t go off the deep end because it is so commonly used that way, now. And, as I said before, it may be a lost cause.
But I draw the line in grant proposals and scientific writing and presentations, when ‘gender’ is associated with a physical trait or biological characteristics. There is no such thing as a gender-specific DNA sequence (at least that I know of). There is, on the other hand, a sex-specific DNA sequence.
When you develop a survey and you want to know whether the respondent is female or male, you are not asking for the subject’s gender, you are asking for the subject’s sex.
I read this online recently:
A study in rats has revealed striking gender differences in the brain’s stress response that could shed light on women’s proneness to mood and anxiety disorders.
Since ‘gender’ is a social construct, and the study was about rats, I suspect that it was ‘sex’ rather than ‘gender’ that drove the findings, here.
If only an editor had the courage to talk about the sex of the rats…
As scientists and investigators, it behooves us to strive for accuracy in our communication. So give ‘sex’ a chance. Okay?
Tip 2: Regardless or irregardless
I was attending a talk, not too long ago, and the speaker said ‘irregardless.’
I hope it was an oversight, and the speaker was thinking of ‘irrespective’ or ‘regardless,’ each of which would have been correct in this situation.
But ‘irregardless’ is not a word.
Patricia O’Connor put it well, when she said about ‘irregardless,’
This isn’t a word-it’s a crime in progress!
My sentiments exactly.