January 10, 2013

Weekly Language Usage Tips: Sexist pronouns & around and about

Posted in about, around/about, sexist pronouns at 8:46 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Sexist pronouns

A reader writes:

From the Code of Federal Regulations


§ 2635.102   Definitions.

“The definitions listed below are used throughout this part. Additional definitions appear in the subparts or sections of subparts to which they apply. For purposes of this part:

(j) He, his, and him include she, hers and her.”

JUST in case you ever need to cite that one!

This should definitely be a WLUT!

Talk about politically incorrect. Sigh, our government in action. And it is especially discouraging to note that the site indicates that it is up-to-date as of January, 2013, so we can’t even blame it on old language that has not had time to be updated.

It is true that, historically, the masculine pronoun was used to express both the masculine and the feminine forms, but that has long since changed, and these days, there is really no excuse for it but sexism or laziness. It is actually quite shocking to see this in current documents.

It is unfortunate that the English language does not have sex-neutral third-person singular pronouns, but it does not. And I don’t think that any of the candidates for new neutral pronouns will stick in the long term—at least not in the academic community. According to Wikipedia and other sources, some of the more commonly seen terms include (for he, his, him):

Ne, nir, nem

Ve, vis, vir

Ey, eir, em

Xe, xyr, xem

Ze, zir, zir

I don’t think so. And the fact that I had to go back and forth between pages frequently just to list them, tells me that the word forms aren’t very intuitive.

But, the fact of the matter is that we don’t have to invent a new word to alleviate use of sexist pronouns.

Garner, in his Modern American Usage, has a lengthy and interesting discussion of sexist language including the use of pronouns. He provides multiple strategies for fixing this quandary. Some strategies, I think, are better than others. I’ll enumerate them here with, of course, my thoughts.

1. Garner opposes using ‘she or he’ as it is ‘obtrusive.’

NOTE: I don’t mind this usage as long as it is used only occasionally in the work. I can see that it can become distracting if used frequently.

2. Alternate the gender of the pronouns in alternating sentences, that is, using ‘she’ in one sentence and ‘he’ in the next.

NOTE: I detest this. It is really annoying and confusing, and it makes no sense. The only style I hate more than this is when a male author, instead of using ‘he’ for all pronouns, uses ‘she.’ So patronizing! So annoying! Makes me want to spit!

3. Using another made-up word. ‘themself’ as in ‘the teacher has seen for themself that the test is too difficult.’

NOTE: Wow, I didn’t think I would react so negatively to anything but strategy #2. But in fact, I find this to be worse. It’s ugly and horrible, and we should stay away from it in print or oral discourse. Don’t ever use ‘themself.’

4. Rewrite the sentence to avoid the construct altogether.

Delete the pronoun reference from the sentence.

Change the pronoun to an article (a or the).

Make noun plural, so ‘he’ or ‘she’ becomes ‘they’ (and there is still agreement).

Rewrite the sentence exchanging ‘he’ or ‘she’ for ‘who.’

Repeat the noun instead of using any pronoun.

NOTE: YAY! This is my contention all along—that there is always a way to rewrite a sentence so you can avoid the awkward structure.

5. Use ‘they’ for a sex-neutral singular personal pronoun, as in ‘if anyone can do it, they can.’

NOTE: Man, he was doing so well for in strategy #4. Garner says that this usage has become standard in British English but not in American English. It may become standard here, and it doesn’t make me shriek like some of the other possibilities, but I don’t see it happening anytime soon and certainly not, in any of our work!

There isn’t a sentence in the world that we can’t rewrite if necessary, and that’s what we should default to when avoiding difficult usage or writing.

Tip 2: Around or about 

A reader writes:

Here is a trend that sounds odd to me — using ‘around’ instead of ‘about’ or ‘regarding.’ Is this an evolution of the language? If so, is it a fast change? I first noticed it just a few years ago, and now I hear it all the time.

From a magazine review:

This approachable and fun app raises awareness around pet adoption.

A comment by President Obama on Meet the Press:

We have a huge opportunity around energy.

From a document:

What unites NWMAF certified self-defense instructors is our commitment to framing self-defense teaching around what we call the feminist empowerment model…

From a website:

This campaign came from our work with young people around digital safety and sexual assault prevention.

From a website:

What are your values around sharing information about sex and safety?

Yes, this is a recent change. So recent, in fact, that I have had a hard time finding anything at all on the topic. Even my trusted Garner only wrote about the American preference for ‘around’ and the British preference for ‘round.’

We walked around the garden.

We walked round the garden.

And when people have written about ‘about’ versus ‘around,’ they are writing about whether either can be used to mean ‘approximately.’

The party starts at about 9:00.

I am planning to go around 9:30.

NOTE: ‘Around’ and ‘about’ can be used this way BUT only in informal communication. They should never replace ‘approximately’ in formal or scientific writing.

The only source I could find on the reader’s subject is something called BeeDictionary.com in a column on ‘Common Errors in English.’ Unfortunately, I could not find any information on the authors of the site, but this is what they said about ‘around’ and ‘about’:

About around vs. about

Lots of people think it’s just nifty to say things like “We’re having ongoing discussions around the proposed merger.” This strikes some of us as irritating jargon. We feel it should be “discussions about” rather than “around.”

On the whole, I am in agreement—although, I’m not sure I would call it jargon—it’s not specific to a particular field or group of people. I was going to call it idiomatic, but it is not a phrase—just a word.

And, remarkably, I was unable to find a single dictionary definition that used ‘around’ to mean ‘about’ or ‘regarding’ or anything of the sort.

So I am left to tell you this: It’s really an error of definition. It is being used incorrectly. But its use is becoming so frequent and so widespread, I expect that it will start showing up in dictionaries and will be considered standard one of these days.

For now, though, let’s eschew this use of ‘around’ especially in our academic writing.

That’s really all I have to say around using around.



  1. Frankie said,

    Here you say the following:

    “NOTE: ‘Around’ and ‘about’ can be used this way BUT only in informal communication. They should never replace ‘approximately’ in formal or scientific writing.”

    However, back in September 2008, you said that “These days, I opt for simplicity and clarity, and tip 2 is this: When you mean “about,” use “about.” “Approximately” adds nothing but additional letters.”

    Have you changed your mind again?

    • dlseltzer said,

      Wow! You got me! And I think I was right in 2008, and I didn’t think it through carefully enough when I was writing today’s wlut. Thanks for letting me know. I’ll write a mea culpa for next week.

  2. Frankie said,

    I noticed because I had read the other post recently. I had taken heed because I also tend to prefer “approximately” but for no good reason! In a paper that I’m correcting today, I’m trying to decide how to change the author’s use of “values around x” (values of approximately x or values of about x).

    • dlseltzer said,

      Would it work just to say ‘values of x’ or ‘approximate values of x’? Without context, it’s hard to say what is intended here, but these are certainly more graceful than the others.

  3. Frankie said,

    By the way, about the sexist prepositions, perhaps whoever wrote the regulations (surely a man) needs to get in touch with their feminine side!

  4. Frankie said,

    Sorry, that wasn’t clear. The author gives the values (not x), as in “values around 0.9”. Maybe values close to 0.9 would be better?

    On another note, I’m still not sure about the use of “using” that we discussed about a month ago. I’ve just found this in a style manual that I sometimes use (Scientific Style and Format The CBE Manual for Authors, Editors, and Publishers. 6th edition):

    “…That a participle is dangling may not be apparent when it is not at the beginning of a sentence.
    The county was surveyed using a Wehrtopf altimeter. [Who used the altimeter? Possible revision: The county surveyor used a Wehrtopf pocket altimeter.]”

  5. Warsaw Will said,

    I’m British and a big fan of ‘singular they’; for us, at least, it’s natural sounding and unobtrusive. I teach English to foreigners, and it’s standard practice to teach the use of singular they after words like ‘anybody, somebody’, etc. And I’ve noticed that it’s used in some UK government documents, such as the passport application form. I’ve even written a defence of singular they on my blog.

    But what I really wanted to say is how much I agree with you about alternating ‘he’ and ‘she’. It’s so obvious, and it’s like shouting out ‘Look at clever non-sexist me!’

  6. ekvnyc said,

    I work a lot with Latin American authors and see “discussions around…” all the time. I have always presumed this to be one of those things you get in translation and always change it, just as I always change “last month’s sales were timid” to “…were weak.”

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