Tuesday 17 December 2019

Family Names and Apostrophes

The annual family card can be a minefield of misspellings. Should it be signed from the Jones’s? From the Jones’  ? From the Jones’s family? The answer, of course, is none of the above.

Victorian Christmas Card featuring chicken-headed sledders

Keeping Up With the Joneses

Let’s say you live next door to Dr. and Dr. Smith, their daughter Aya, and their cat Spot. Collectively, they are the Smiths. Like any noun, a surname is made plural by adding s or es.

  • The Chens live in a duplex.
  • The Miłoszes live in Saskatoon.
  • The Davises live in doubt.

Album cover for the Smiths' Complete Works

In the construction “the [name] family,” you would write the Smith family, just as you’d write the raccoon family or the Jedi family. Like raccoon and Jedi, Smith is describing family—it’s a noun acting as an adjective.

  • The Chen family grows vegetables in their yard.
  • The Miłosz family grows Christmas trees.
  • The Addams family grows stranger by the day.

Surnames and the Possessive Case

Now let’s move on to things that belong to the Smiths. Normally, to form a possessive we add ’s to the noun: Aya’s filmography. To make a plural noun possessive (assuming it ends in s), we add just the apostrophe: the twins’ filmography. (For more on apostrophes and possessives, see Apostrophes and How to Use ’Em.)

  • The Chens’ barbecue.
  • The Miłoszes’ time machine.
  • The Addamses’ penchant for the Gothic.

Of course, a single family member would—like Aya above—take ’s:

  • Dr. Chen’s Honda.
  • Professor Miłosz’s lecture.
  • Mrs. Addams’s headless roses.

Some style guides use a different possessive rule for names that end in s: they would write Mrs. Addams’ roses—or Charles’ Pomeranian, or Jesus’ sandals. However, the 2017 edition of the Chicago Manual of Style uses ’s in such cases. Since this system is the simplest, it’s what I follow too.

Painting of three Pomeranians

A Person and Their Place

It probably doesn’t help that we tend to drop the place noun when referring to people’s residences, as in I’m going to Mayumi’s [house]. We do this with stores, too: I’m going to the butcher’s [shop]. On the other hand, you might write that you’re going to [consult with] the doctor, rather than going to the doctor’s [clinic], depending on whether you’re thinking of the person or the place.

  • Can you pick up some eggs at the grocer’s?
  • We’re going to the Chens’ to watch the fireworks.
  • A day at the Addamses’ usually involves at least one brush with death.

Another Reason Family Names Are Confusing

Back when English was a younger language, Jones was a way of saying John’s; that is, it identified someone as a child of John, much like Johnson. A surname that identifies you by your father’s given name is called a patronymic. Lots of languages have them: MacDonald, ap Rhys (Anglicized as Price), Fitzwilliam, and ibn Ali are all examples of patronymics.

So when you write Addams’s (as in Wednesday Addams’s guillotine), in a sense you’re writing a double possessive—something of the person who is of Adam. It’s enough to confuse anyone.

Medieval illustration of Habsburg family tree

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Thursday 18 April 2019

Latin Phrases

Writers often confuse e.g. and i.e. The first means “for example” and the second means “that is.”
  • My parents think I should pursue a more practical career, e.g., bookkeeping or beekeeping.
  • Georg and his daughter always dress up for their favourite annual event, i.e., the Maskbeard Carnival.

Illustration of adult and child in costume from Schembart Carnival in Neuremberg, 1590

Both e.g. and i.e. are abbreviations of Latin phrases: exempli gratia (for the sake of example) and id est (that is). As you can see in the examples above, they should be surrounded by commas. But before you ask yourself if you’re using them correctly, ask yourself whether you need to use them at all. The Chicago Manual of Style argues that e.g. and i.e. should be avoided in formal writing (except in parentheses or notes, where brevity is a plus).
  • Many animals are adept at communicating with humans; for example, llamas will spit in your face if annoyed.
  • Professor Gurira handed out “comestible incentives” (i.e., cookies) to participating students.

A Latin phrase can be a handy substitute for the unwieldy English equivalent—sine qua non, for example, means “the thing without which nothing would be possible” (see below). But sometimes they’re just used to boost snob cred, or to prove in-group status by showing off one’s mastery of, say, legal jargon. Is your use of Latin expressive or just confusing? Consider your readers before you decide to send them, grumbling, to Google.

To Italicize or Not to Italicize

Why do some Latin phrases appear in italics while others don’t? Italics are traditionally used for words in a foreign language, but English has a habit of adopting foreign words as its own (thus its dog’s breakfast of spelling rules). Once, cappuccinos were exotic and only cowboys called people amigo. Now both words are so widely used in English they’re considered part of our language, like emoji, pizza, and eau de cologne.* You can trace this progression in dictionaries: when first introduced, a foreign word is usually italicized, but as its use spreads, the italics disappear. So if you want to know whether to italicize a Latin phrase, check a dictionary (caveat: they may not all agree).

*In this blog I use italics for words qua words, to show I’m talking about the word per se and not what it represents. That doesn’t mean these words should be italicized under normal circumstances. My examples and the entries below use italics only per the Canadian Oxford Dictionary.

American print ad for eau de cologne, 1907

Common Latin Abbreviations

etc. (et cetera): “and others of the same kind.” Usually appears at the end of a list. Don’t use it after only one or two items (you wouldn’t write the fish, and so on), and don’t use it with for example or such as (see Chicago 5.250). In the past commas were always placed both before and after etc., but Chicago has recently relaxed its stance and approved dropping the second comma: The colours red, orange, yellow, green, etc. make up the rainbow.

et al. (et alia): “and the rest.” Mostly used in bibliographies. When you’re citing an article with twelve authors, it’s handy to be able to write Kernecki et al. Note that only al. (short for alia) has a period.

QED (quod erat demonstrandum): “which was to be demonstrated.” Traditionally placed at the end of a mathematical or logical proof. Commonly used to say I’ve just proven my point.

q.v. (quod vidae): “which see.” A fancier see also for cross-references.

viz. (videre licet): “it is permitted to see.” Like that is or namely, viz. introduces a gloss or explanation. Beware the hazards of kingship, viz. monkey assassins.

Illustration of a sleeping king, a monkey holding a sword aloft, and another man restraining the sword, from Lights of Canopus, Iran 1847

A Not At All Complete List of Latin Phrases Commonly Used in English

a priori: “from what is before.” Describes a deduction based on theory rather than experience; presumed: a priori assumptions about gender.

ad hoc: “to this.” For a particular purpose: an ad hoc committee.

ad hominem: “to the person.” An ad hominem attack criticizes someone as a person rather than engaging with their arguments.

ad nauseam: “to nausea.” Until you’re sick of it. They discussed hockey ad nauseam.

bona fide: “with good faith.” Genuine; real. In Canada and the US, pronounced “bone-uh fied,” “bone-uh fie-dee,” or “bon-uh fied.”

caveat: “let a person beware.” Used as a warning or proviso.

caveat emptor: “let the buyer beware.”

de facto: “of fact.” In reality, as opposed to the official version. So great was his influence over the tsar, some called Rasputin the de facto ruler of Russia.

deus ex machina: “god from the machinery.” In Greek plays, the plot was sometimes resolved by having a god appear suspended from a crane and wrap everything up by divine intervention. The expression is used for any twist that seems to come from nowhere to resolve the central problem, maybe too neatly. The episode’s deus ex machina, a future version of the Doctor, came and rescued them all from the time loop. Pronounced “day-us ex ma-kin-uh.”

Woodcut of a man in an unlikely-looking flying device, from Through the Air by John Wise, 1873

ergo: “therefore.”

et tu?: “and you?” This is from Caesar’s supposed last words just after he’d been stabbed by a bunch of senators, including his bro Brutus: “Et tu, Brute?” (“You too, Brutus?”) Today it’s an expression of betrayal—the ultimate guilt trip—usually said jokingly. Pronounced “et too Broo-teh” (this isn’t French; there are no silent letters).

ex post facto: from ex postfacto, “in the light of subsequent events.” Retroactively.

extempore: from ex tempore, “out of the time.” Without preparation; off the cuff. She treated her fellow drivers to an extempore performance of “I Will Always Love You.” Pronounced “ex-temp-o-ree.”

habeas corpus: “you shall have the body [in court].” Generally speaking, the legal principle that a person who’s been imprisoned has the right to be brought before the court to hear the charges and to defend themselves. Has nothing to do with corpses.

in camera: “in the chamber.” In private or in secret. The negotiations took place in camera.

in flagrante delicto: “in blazing crime.” Caught in the act of wrongdoing, usually sexual misconduct. The PE teacher and the janitor were caught in flagrante by the soccer team. Pronounced “in fluh-gran-tee di-lick-toe.”

in medias res: “in the midst of things.” Describes a story that begins in the middle of the action. Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs opens in medias res, just after a robbery gone wrong. Pronounced “in me-dee-us rays.”

in situ: “in the place.” In the original or appropriate place. The archaeological remains were cleaned and examined in situ.

in vitro: “in glass.” Specifically, in test tube, as in in vitro fertilization.

inter alia: “among other things.” The accused was charged with, inter alia, trespassing.

mea culpa: “by my fault.” Usually an acknowledgement (like my bad) but also a noun: The supervillain’s public mea culpas were not enough. Brought to us, unsurprisingly, by Catholic confessional prayer. Pronounced “may-uh cool-puh” or “me-uh cull-puh.”

non compos mentis: “not having control of one’s mind.” Not of sound mind. Usually appears in a legal context, e.g., when questioning the validity of a will.

non sequitur: “it does not follow.” Something that has nothing to do with what came before. In the middle of our conversation he threw in a total non sequitur about sloths.

per (or as per): “through.” In accordance with. I hid the package per your instructions. Per can also mean “for each,” as in per annum (for each year) and per capita (for each head [i.e., person]).

per se: “by itself.” The thing itself and no more. Pronounced “per say.”

persona non grata: “person not pleasing.” An unwelcome or unacceptable person. After the argument over the dog, she became persona non grata with the neighbours.

prima facie: “first face.” At first sight or based on a first impression. Pronounced “pry-muh fay-shee,” or in the US “pry-muh fay-shuh.”

pro forma: “for form.” As a formality or for the sake of appearances, as in a pro forma review or he attended pro forma.

qua: “in the capacity of.” As. She had a beautiful voice, but Medusa qua opera singer left audiences cold.

quid pro quo: “something for something.” A favour in exchange for a favour.

sine qua non: “without which not.” Something essential. A memorable title is the sine qua non of podcasting. Pronounced “sin-ay kwah non.”

sub rosa: “under the rose.” In secrecy. Roses have been a symbol of secrecy since ancient Greece, and they’ve been carved into dining-room ceilings to reinforce the confidentiality of discussions at the table below. For more details, see the Merriam-Webster entry “Sub Rosa and Secrecy.”

vice versa: “the position being reversed.” The other way around. The first word can be pronounced either “vice” or “vice-uh.”

The Impostor

Finally, a word that’s pronounced like Latin, but isn’t: forte. Used in English to mean “a thing at which one excels,” forte is derived from the French fort, meaning “strong.” Going by French pronunciation, forte should rhyme with port, but most Canadians and Americans pronounce it “for-tay.” According to Merriam-Webster, this is because of the musical meaning of forte (loud), which came to English from Italian—in which it also means “strong”—and influenced our pronunciation of the French-derived word. In any case, the “for-tay” pronunciation is deeply entrenched, so there’s no point worrying about it now.

Poster showing strongman Eugen Sandow lifting two men, 1894

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Wednesday 20 March 2019

Inclusive Language: Class and Income

How do we describe people less well off than us without being insulting? The poor smacks of Victorian condescension. Working class is common in the UK, but a recent poll showed that over half of Brits describe themselves as working class, regardless of income, so the term more often reflects political values than level of income or privilege. The US equivalent is blue collar, but that too is something of a misnomer because it suggests manual labour or factory work, when most of today’s working poor toil in the service industry. Currently, the most widely accepted term seems to be lower-income people (or if you want to be more people-first, people of lower incomes). It carries less cultural baggage and implicit judgment—as much as that’s possible, anyway.

Illustration by Franklin Booth for the 1917 edition of The Prince and the Pauper

The Myth of Good English

Of course, a person’s income level doesn’t necessarily tell you anything about their class. Like class and race, class and income intersect in complicated ways. A person can struggle to make ends meet and still reap the benefits of class privilege when it comes to, say, dealing with law enforcement or navigating government bureaucracy. On top of that, class is conceived of differently in different cultures (for example, middle class means something different in the UK and Canada). One marker of class is education, often signalled by “good” English. The problem with this metric is there’s no such thing as good English.

Before you accuse me of writing myself out of a job, let me explain that what you were taught in school as “correct” English is called Standard English. Standard English, written and spoken, is a dialect. It is no better or worse than any other English dialect, like African American Vernacular English (AAVE), Appalachian English, Chicano English, Cockney, Indian English, Newfoundland English, and so on. (For more on this topic from a linguistics perspective, listen to the podcast The Vocal Fries.)

Certainly Standard English is useful, even necessary. It can be essential for getting a loan, interviewing for a job, or defending a master’s thesis. But nobody uses it all the time, and in some contexts it would be inappropriate (“That goal was very adroitly achieved!”). People of any education level may deliberately choose not to use Standard English in contexts where it would be out of place, like at a family barbecue. As an editor, I don’t correct “bad” English so much as change words that are used in the wrong context. Sometimes that means applying accepted Standard English, and sometimes it means applying a less formal English—by inserting contractions into dialogue, for example.

Illustration from Punch, 1 Sep 1877, of a man at the beach in a striped swimsuit, surrounded by onlookers

Because nonstandard dialects can reveal class, region, and ethnicity, they’re sometimes used in fiction to tell us more about a character. But be very careful when using less privileged dialects not to reinforce stereotypes about any group—especially when that dialect is not your own. (For more about using dialects, read Kai Ashante Wilson’s essay The POC Guide to Writing Dialect in Fiction. For more about avoiding stereotypes when writing characters, see Inclusive Language: Race and Ethnicity.)

Homelessness and Addiction 

Avoid writing the homeless in favour of homeless people, which is more humanizing; homelessness is a condition (one in which any of us could find ourselves), not a type of person. The same is true of mental illness (something that many homeless people are dealing with). Instead of schizophrenics, for example, use people with schizophrenia (see Inclusive Language: Disability and Neurodivergence for more on this).

Since I first wrote this post, another term has come into use: unhoused. A Curbed article from June 2020 calls this a West Coast phenomenon: in LA, the houseless “still have communities and neighbors—and they still have a home in the city”; in San Francisco, unhoused “denotes that people are being pushed out of their dwelling units by inequitable housing policies.” In November 2020 the Oaklandside debated the merits of various alternatives to homeless, using unhoused throughout the article. The most important consideration, they wrote, is what the people you’re writing about want to be called, and when writing in general, to humanize your subjects as much as possible. [Added February 2021.]

Drug addiction often intersects with homelessness, though it is by no means limited to the down and out. More respectful than addicts is people with addictions. Some people describe themselves as drug users or people who use drugs, as in the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU). VANDU is a union that was formed to advocate for drug users’ rights; their activism was central to the establishment of Vancouver’s groundbreaking safe-injection site, Insite. Their choice of drug user is unapologetic—it demands they be respected as human beings regardless of what they choose to put in their bodies. The status of their drug habits (using or sober) is irrelevant to their human rights, and their terminology insists that others recognize this.

Collage of photos from VANDU demonstrations

Global Poverty

The poorer parts of the globe used to be called the third world. This term originated in the Cold War: the first world was the West, the second was the USSR, and the third was everyone else. The hierarchical third world fell out of favour and was replaced by the developing world. But this too smacks of condescension, implying that only “developed” countries have reached full civilization.  

A recently favoured alternative is the Global South, used in contrast with the Global North. This term carries no hint of hierarchy or value judgment. It is geographic (see the map below), but it can also be socioeconomic: the Global South can extend into areas and people in the Global North, and the privileges of the Global North can be found in people living in the Global South. The term’s applications are at once much broader and more specific than its predecessors’.

World map showing North-South divide

Avoid the phrases tribal warfare and ethnic conflict. They’re often used to dismiss foreign fighting as irrational, unsolvable, and uncivilized (unlike national warfare and white conflict, presumably). They ignore any political, historical, social, and economic contributors and implicitly deny the role of outside global forces. In the Rwandan genocide of 1994, for example, the division between Hutus and Tutsis was not truly ethnic or tribal: it had been created and reinforced by colonial governors as a means of controlling the indigenous population. To ignore this history, and the other social and political factors that led to the killings, and dismiss it as “ethnic violence” is to seriously misrepresent the situation.

Be aware of your language choices any time you’re writing about a less privileged group—any group. Now that blatant racism is socially unacceptable, there’s a tendency to make fun of white people with lower incomes and less formal education. Criticize unethical behaviour all you want, but don’t mock someone’s dialect or make fun of their teeth because they can’t afford a dentist. Comedians talk about the rule of “punching up,” by which they mean it’s okay to joke about people more privileged than you, but it’s never okay to joke about someone less privileged than you. In other words, pick on someone your own (metaphorical) size.

This is the last post in the Inclusive Language series. I hope you found it useful, and I encourage you to visit the sites I’ve linked to for a more in-depth discussion of these topics than I could hope to provide.

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Friday 15 February 2019

Inclusive Language: Race and Ethnicity

In the introduction to this series, I talked about race and terminology (e.g., African American vs. Black, Indigenous vs. Native American), so in this post I’m going to focus on issues that come up when you’re writing characters of a different race or ethnicity than your own.

Photo from 1911 of a Japanese woman in a kimono writing on a paper roll, by Elstner Hilton

How Not to Write Stereotypical Characters

Stereotypical characters usually happen because a writer grabbed the nearest conception of a particular group without really noticing or thinking about what they were doing. You need an IT guy in your office scene, and you automatically make him South Asian. You want your main character’s funny best friend to be Black, but you don’t bother to give her any goals or motivations of her own. Your high school student is a Type A overachiever, and it just seems obvious she should be Asian. You need some terrorists to thicken the plot, and Muslim jihadists fit the bill. And so on and so on.

This is a really easy trap to fall into, because we’re bombarded with these stereotypes in our media every day. And the more a stereotype is seen, the more it’s reproduced, in a vicious circle of self-replication. As a writer, it’s part of your job to ask yourself questions like, Why did I choose to write that character that way? Was that an informed, conscious decision, or was I just following the path of least resistance? You might not even realize you’re repeating the same assumptions other people have made. Try googling your character’s race and “common stereotypes” to get an idea of what to avoid. Or visit the excellent blog Writing with Color and check out their lists of stereotypes and tropes.

How Not to Describe a Character of Colour

Painting of a man made entirely of vegetables, fruit, and flowers: Vertumnus, by Giuseppe Arcimboldo, 1590

So you’ve decided to make your cast of characters diverse—when and how do you tell the reader that the character you’re introducing is a character of colour? Most of us have been trained to treat whiteness as the default setting. You can introduce twenty white characters without mentioning race, but as soon as a character of colour pops up, they’re immediately described in terms of their race; this “others” them from the rest of the characters and from the (presumed) reader. On the other hand, if you don’t mention race at all, you risk readers assuming all your characters are white.

If your narrative is tied closely to one character’s point of view (POV), you can describe other characters in the language that character would use. For example, say your close-POV character is a Chinese Canadian man. He might not mention his Chinese neighbour’s race (especially if they live in a largely Chinese neighbourhood), but he might describe his daughter’s teacher as, say, “a white lady in a sparkly scarf.” However, this approach isn’t a solution if your POV character is white, because then you’re just reinforcing the white-as-default position.

Some writers use physical description instead of baldly stating a character’s race. This can work well, but there’s a lot of “chocolate skin” and “cafe au lait complexions” out there, not to mention “almond-shaped eyes.” Food terms are objectifying and carry creepy connotations of consumption. And Asian people’s eyes come in lots of shapes besides “almond” (have you ever seen almond-shaped used in any other context?). (Besides, the fixation on eye shape as a defining racial characteristic seems to be more of a Western thing; historical Asian art is full of Westerners with big noses.)

Portrait of Jan Cock Blomhoff, the director of the Dutch trading colony in Nagasaki, and his infant son in the arms of a Dutch nursemaid, by anonymous Japanese artist, 1817

Even worse, from a craft point of view, these foodlike descriptions are all tediously clichéd. They tell us nothing about the characters as individuals. Are they tall or short? Plump or lanky? Do they wear glasses? (What kind?) Is their posture hunched or regal? Do they have tattoos? Acne? Freckles? Piercings? All of the above?

Other Descriptive Options

There are better ways to clue in your readers without stating a character’s race outright (though some readers will insist on picturing white characters unless explicitly told otherwise). Afros, braids, dreadlocks, and other hairstyles can tell readers a character is Black. Skin colour can be mentioned as long as you avoid food metaphors (wood, gemstones, and other natural elements are usually acceptable) and you give white characters parallel treatment. Characters’ names can show they’re Asian, Jewish, South Asian, or Hispanic (but don’t forget Hispanic people can be white too). On the other hand, a biracial character or a woman married to a man of a different ethnicity might not be revealed by their surname.

Characters’ dialogue can also be a cue, but be careful when using a language you don’t speak yourself. The interaction between language and identity is complex, and if you’ve never lived in a bilingual household, you may have misconceptions about how other languages are used, whether instead of, alongside, or mixed with English. (The Vocal Fries podcast has discussed this in several great episodes.)

Use “bad” or “broken” English judiciously; it’s easy to slip into stereotypes. If English is your character’s second language, consider letting them use their first language sometimes—as the author, you can “translate” it into English. When using in-group slang or dialects, like African American Vernacular English (AAVE), for example, be sure you don’t veer into cultural appropriation territory. Are you choosing words authentic to who the character is, or just trying to sound cool? (See also author Kai Ashante Wilson’s excellent post on Tor.com about using dialects in fiction as a writer of colour.)

Writing About Racism

Is it okay to show bigotry in your stories? Yes, but recognize there’s a difference between showing bigotry and replicating it. Are you dwelling on degradation for its own sake, or are you showing your characters’ reactions to it? Even when writing about historical atrocities, you still decide what part of the story, and which people, to focus on. There is never oppression without resistance: the history of slavery is full of slave rebellions, many successful; plenty of Jews fought the Nazis, and some WWII concentration camps had uprisings and mass escapes. My point isn’t to make light of oppression but to warn against casting oppressed groups as helpless and passive. People, no matter who they are, have always fought to have agency over their own lives. Don’t deprive your characters of agency in their stories.

A painting of the Haitian Revolution: Battle of San Domingo by January Suchodolski, 1845

Also, beware of making your character’s story only about dealing with racism (or homophobia, sexism, ableism, etc.). Not only is it reductive (nobody’s life is about just one thing), it would be presumptuous of you to think you can encompass a type of oppression you’ve never experienced. Don’t build your story on another group’s struggle. It’s okay to include it, but if it’s the heart of the story, then that story is probably better told by someone else.

As with all the posts in this series, my advice boils down to 1) do your research, and 2) ask yourself, Am I the right person to tell this story? Once you’ve done what you can, write your story. People may criticize your choices; listen to them. If they have a point, apologize and do better next time. That’s all any of us can do.

This is the fourth post in the Inclusive Language series. The others are the introduction, Gender and Sexual Orientation, Disability and Neurodivergence, and Class and Income.

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Saturday 15 December 2018

Inclusive Language: Disability and Neurodivergence

We’ve all read something like this:
  • Despite being confined to a wheelchair, Michonne is the world’s foremost expert on aquarium snails.
It may seem inoffensive, but a number of ableist assumptions are packed into that sentence.

Photo of wheelchair users in Atlantic City, 1898

Burdened by Glasses

First, the phrase confined to a wheelchair suggests something akin to a prison sentence. Like any assistive technology, a wheelchair is a tool. I am very short-sighted and would have considerable difficulty navigating the world without my glasses, but I’d never describe myself as confined behind eyeglasses or glasses-bound. A good rule of thumb is, if you wouldn’t say it about glasses, don’t say it about wheelchairs (or prosthetics, hearing aids, white canes, etc.).
  • Despite using a wheelchair, Michonne is the world’s foremost expert on aquarium snails.

Second, the sentence opens with Michonne’s disability, as if that’s the most important thing about her. What, if anything, does it have to do with her being a snail expert? Why mention it at all?
  • Michonne is the world’s foremost expert on aquarium snails.

Now if, for example, you were writing a piece about people with disabilities in the sciences, then Michonne’s wheelchair use might be relevant. Or you might choose to include it as a way of broadening the representation of disabled people in the media.
  • Michonne, who is the world’s foremost expert on aquarium snails, uses a wheelchair.
  • America’s thirty-second president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, used a wheelchair.
This phrasing informs the reader of the subject’s disabled status without elevating it above their accomplishment or personhood.

Photo of FDR in wheelchair from 1941 at home with dog and child

Inspiration Porn

In the first two example sentences, the word despite points to another ableist pitfall: the “overcoming disability” narrative. You may have seen those posters of anonymous Paralympians or cute disabled kids, blazoned with What’s your excuse? In other words, “If I can run a marathon on prosthetic legs, then you can do whatever you set your mind to!” In this genre, dubbed “inspiration porn” by disability activists, the raison d’être of people with disabilities is to inspire the non-disabled. As such, they are expected to be overachieving, uncomplaining, and preferably photogenic. Slackers need not apply.

Of course disabled people do have to overcome obstacles that non-disabled people don’t: inaccessible spaces, inadequate transportation, and high medical costs, to name a few. But these societal inequities don’t fit neatly into the you-can-do-it, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps narrative our culture prefers.

“Inspirational” stereotypes not only objectify disabled people, they penalize anyone who, for whatever reason, can’t superhumanly transcend their disability. No amount of determination and positive thinking will wipe away a chronic illness or magically summon an entrance ramp.

Variation Is the Norm

There are as many experiences of disability as there are disabled people.

Among deaf people, some use the term hard of hearing while others identify as Deaf—that is, part of the Deaf community and culture. Whether someone signs or speaks, uses hearing aids or doesn’t, calls themselves hard of hearing, deaf, or Deaf—all this is highly individual.
  • Beethoven famously went deaf by age forty-four.
  • The Deaf storyteller signed and her interpreter translated for hearing audience members.

And just as there are multiple spoken languages, there is more than one sign language: American Sign Language (ASL), langue des signes québécoise (LSQ), Australian sign language (Auslan), British Sign Language (BSL), Navajo Sign Language, Ghanaian Sign Language (GSL), and so on—around 300 altogether, according to Wikipedia.

Photo of ASL fingerspelling class, probably late 19th century

Similarly, visually impaired can mean anything from partially sighted to completely blind. Many people with limited vision use assistive technology such as screen readers or Braille displays, so when you’re adding visual content to your writing, be sure to include descriptive text below your images or in the alt tags.

Mental Illness and Neurodivergence

Avoid using words like crazy or psycho, which are dismissive at best and hurtful at worst. And disregard myths about violent behaviour: people with mental illnesses are much more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators.

Try to keep your language focused on the person rather than the illness.
  • Schizophrenics may show a variety of symptoms. 
  • People with schizophrenia may experience a variety of symptoms. 
  • Her sister Trinh is bipolar. 
  • Her sister Trinh has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. 

Avoid struggles with as a general description; save it for situations of actual distress.
  • Branislav struggles with depression. 
  • Branislav lives with depression. 
  • Branislav manages depression. 
  • During that year, Branislav struggled with depression off and on. 

Melancholy by Edvard Munch, 1894-96

The adjective neurodivergent is used to describe people with autism, dyslexia, attention deficit disorder, Down syndrome, and other conditions. It means “neurologically different from the majority,” and its opposite is neurotypical. The advantage of this term is that it casts people as acceptably different rather than “defective.” In the same vein, avoid phrases like suffers from or afflicted with in favour of has or lives with.
  • My teacher, who has cerebral palsy, sometimes comes to class in a wheelchair.
  • Diana shares a house with six other people with intellectual disabilities.

There Are No Perfect Words

In this post I’ve mostly followed the “people first” rule of thumb (e.g., people with chronic illness instead of the chronically ill ), but many people consider their disability part of their identity. For them, disabled people is preferable to people with disabilities, and I’m autistic (or Autistic) is more empowering than I have autism.

If you’re writing about a real person, always ask what terms they prefer. If you’re inventing a character, then you’ll have to do your research to determine how they would describe themselves. Follow blogs by disabled writers and read articles by disability activists. Since the popularity of different terms changes over time (as in all corners of English), your research is never really over.

Illustration from England circa 1790 of a Black disabled flower-seller driving a mule-drawn cart and selling his wares

This is the third post in the Inclusive Language series. The others are the introduction, Gender and Sexual Orientation, Race and Ethnicity, and Class and Income.

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Thursday 15 November 2018

Inclusive Language: Gender and Sexual Orientation

There’s a lot to cover here, from avoiding sexism to gender identity to the LGBTQ rainbow. So let’s get to work!

Photo of women wielding firehose, Pearl Harbor, WWII

Sexism in Language

Most writers nowadays understand they should use humanity instead of mankind, synthetic instead of man-made, firefighters instead of firemen, and so on. But even if you avoid sexist language, it’s still easy to let sexist assumptions creep into your writing. Quick: think of an animal. Is it male or female? Why?

When I write example sentences for this blog, I like to notice which gender immediately springs to mind—and then choose the opposite. Or I don’t specify gender at all.
  • The little dragon’s father picked her up from school every day.
  • We infiltrated the soirée by posing as “Dr. and Mr. Opeyemi.” 
  • The chef’s swearing could be heard in every corner of her restaurant.
  • Never come between a grad student and their coffee.
  • The Rampaging Rabbit rode her trusty snail, Sparkles, into battle.

Illustration of rabbit with spear riding giant snail, Netherlands, 1650

You can find more examples of nonsexist language at the Canadian Style website.

She, He, and They

It used to be that he was considered acceptable for all situations; obviously, that is no longer the case. Some writers use he or she or he/she, but these are verbally and visually awkward. Another choice is to alternate between she and he, either paragraph by paragraph or chapter by chapter, which is better but not ideal. One can come across as too formal or just clunky: One should always clear one’s browser history after one has finished one’s transactions on the dark Web.

Then there’s they. Most guides to formal writing insist they should be used with plural subjects only. To avoid gendered pronouns, they advise, you should make your sentence’s subject plural, or address your reader directly, as you.
  • Each student must bring his own wand. X
  • All students must bring their own wands. 
  • You must bring your own wand. 

But while it’s frowned upon by formal style guides, the singular they is gradually gaining acceptance (see How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Singular They). Unless your audience is particularly fastidious, this is the most natural-sounding choice, since English speakers use it all the time in conversation.
  • Each student must bring their own wand. 
  • Someone left their superhero costume in the phone booth.

Another reason to embrace the singular they is that it doesn’t exclude nonbinary people. A nonbinary person doesn’t identify themselves as purely male or female. While a variety of alternative pronouns have been coined, they is probably the most widely used. (That said, you should favour whatever pronouns the person themself uses.) The most recent edition of The Chicago Manual of Style has approved the singular they—along with themself—for this purpose.
  • We’re going out for drinks to congratulate Sloane on their promotion.
If you find yourself getting confused or flustered by this concept, take a deep breath. It’s really not that hard. You’ve been using the singular they in speech all your life; this is just a slight expansion of its application.

Caricature of the Chevalier d'Éon dressed half in women's clothing and half in men's, London Magazine, 1777

Transgender Terminology

Transgender (sometimes shortened to trans) is the appropriate descriptor, not transgendered. Its counterpart for people who are not transgender is cisgender (or cis). Use transgender as you would any other adjective.
  • Jim is a tall man.
  • Jim is a trans man.
  • The woman leading the sensitivity workshop is South Asian.
  • The woman leading the sensitivity workshop is transgender.

A transgender person hasn’t changed their gender—they’re expressing the gender they’ve always been. The only change is between living as the gender they were mistakenly handed out as a baby and living as the gender they actually are.
  • Tony was born a girl. X
  • Tony was assigned female at birth. 
  • At four years old, our son told us he was really a girl. X
  • At four years old, our daughter, who we’d believed was a boy, told us she was really a girl. 

Transitioning is the process of altering one’s birth sex. This may involve hormone therapy, surgery, both, or neither. The details are personal and irrelevant to anyone else; when someone tells you their gender, that’s all you need to know. Using someone’s name or pronouns from before they transitioned is disrespectful, even when you’re writing about the past.
  • Before Selena became a woman, he was a male tennis player named Alfonso. X 
  • Before Selena transitioned, she won several trophies in men’s tennis. 

Just as we need to unlearn the cultural myth that there are only two, rigidly defined genders, we need to let go of the idea that sex is dictated by biology. As much as 1.7 percent of people are born intersex, with chromosomes or genitalia that don’t correlate with either sex as it’s usually defined. The choice of “male” or “female” is often made by parents and doctors before the child can have any say in the matter.

Given the variation in sex and gender, it’s important to make sure your language includes all possibilities. For example, don’t assume only women menstruate or get pregnant.
  • On the bus, always give up your seat to pregnant women. X
  • On the bus, always give up your seat to pregnant people. 

For more on trans-inclusive language, visit The Radical Copyeditor’s Style Guide for Writing About Transgender People.

Illumination of cross-dressing saints, from Legenda Sanctorum, Germany, 1362

Sexual Orientation

LGBTQIA2S (or LGBTQ+) stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (or questioning), intersex, asexual, and two-spirit. It’s a broad term for a community that includes more than just gays and lesbians, and it’s not only about sexual orientation—transgender and intersex people may identify as straight.

The LGBTQ acronym is the term most commonly used when discussing this group, as it’s much more inclusive than, say, gay. Another broadly inclusive word is queer, which is preferred by lots of people whose identities straddle one or more categories.

Two-spirit, a translation of an Anishinaabeg word, is an umbrella term coined in 1990 to describe Indigenous members of the LGBTQ community. A person can be two-spirited in terms of their gender, sexuality, or spirituality. While each Indigenous language has its own words to describe such people, having 2S in the LGBTQIA2S acronym reminds us that binary ideas of gender and sexuality were imposed on Indigenous cultures by colonialism and don’t reflect their traditional views.

Using inclusive language means not assuming your reader is straight. Spouse is preferable to husband or wife not just because it avoids sexism but also because it makes room for same-sex couples.
  • The mad scientists usually bring their wives to the supervillains gala. X
  • The mad scientists usually bring their spouses to the supervillains gala. 

Other options are partner and significant other, both of which include long-term couples who aren’t married.
  • Husbands should discuss major criminal decisions with their wives. (excludes same-sex and unmarried couples, assumes roles based on gender)
  • Men should discuss major criminal decisions with their spouses. (excludes unmarried couples and still gives primacy to men)
  • Couples should discuss major criminal decisions together. (includes same-sex couples, unmarried couples, and nonbinary people, and doesn’t assume roles based on gender)

When you’re writing for or about young people, who may still be figuring out their sexuality and gender (or working up the courage to express them), it’s important to leave room for multiple possibilities.
  • Are there any boys you have a crush on? X
  • Is there anyone you have a crush on? 

Such possibilities include asexuality. Asexuals, who make up about one percent of the population, don’t experience sexual attraction to others, or they feel no desire to act on such attraction. Try not to perpetuate sad-sack stereotypes about people who prefer not to pursue sex and/or relationships.
  • Though successful as a painter, Marie-Victoire Lemoine never married. X
  • Single all her life, Marie-Victoire Lemoine successfully supported herself with her painting. 

Even when you’re writing about an opposite-sex couple, don’t assume they’re straight. One or both of them might identify as bisexual; dating or marrying a person of the opposite sex doesn’t negate someone’s bisexuality. Or they might be asexual, or genderqueer, or nonbinary, or . . .
  • Women swooned over Cary Grant. (not inclusive)
  • Women and gay men swooned over Cary Grant. (more inclusive)
  • Women, gays, and bi men swooned over Cary Grant. (even more inclusive)
  • Filmgoers swooned over Cary Grant. (most inclusive)

Assume nothing.

Photo of Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, and Jimmy Stewart in The Philadelphia Story

This is the second post in the Inclusive Language series. The introductory post can be found here. Still to come are Disability and Neurodivergence, Race and Ethnicity, and Class and Income.

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Friday 19 October 2018

Inclusive Language

Using inclusive language, also called bias-free language, means choosing words that don’t exclude any marginalized people. We like to think standard English is neutral, but that’s very far from the case. If it feels neutral to us, it’s because we’re not one of the people being left out, erased, or unconsciously denigrated. Either that or we’ve become so used to it we don’t notice.

Japanese woodcut illustrating fashionable English words, 1887

Why Use Inclusive Language?

Ethical imperatives aside, bias undermines credibility. If you’re not willing to go to the trouble of considering other people’s points of view, why should readers consider yours? Writing for an audience made up exclusively of people whose experiences mirror yours is just preaching to the choir. It may feel good, but what’s the point?

Of course, most of us use exclusionary language without being aware of it. We all have blind spots, dictated by things beyond our control, such as our birthplace and ethnicity. But those of us in the majority can sail through life without noticing these blind spots, because our stories are loud enough to drown out everybody else’s.

In the same way Canadians know a lot about the US, because we’re constantly exposed to US media, but many Americans don’t know much about us, people in minority groups are well informed about the dominant culture (they don’t have a choice) but people in the dominant group may know very little about them. Or what they do know may be based on stereotypes and clichés. That’s why it’s up to us to educate ourselves. This isn’t a one-time info dump but an ongoing learning process, since people’s preferred terminology naturally changes over time, just like the rest of language.

Illustration showing readers on a train, c. late 19th century

Some General Principles of Inclusivity

There are no “bad” words; everything depends on context. But just because you’ve heard a Black person reclaim the n-word, or a feminist use the c-word, that doesn’t mean you can use it. Be aware of your own position within the structures of power, and choose your words accordingly.

If you’re not sure what words are okay for you to use, consult a style guide (e.g., The Chicago Manual of Style or the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association). The Canadian Style, for example, will tell you that the words Indigenous peoples and First peoples are currently preferred to Native people. As I said, language changes, so be sure the sources you consult are up to date. Most guides will also provide examples of gender-neutral wording and “people-first” language.

  • Each dragonet must finish his dinner. X
  • All dragonets must finish their dinners.
  • My uncle is a schizophrenic. X
  • My uncle has schizophrenia. 
  • A Muslim starred in the film. X
  • The star of the film was Muslim. 
  • Our party’s wizard is transgendered. X
  • Our party’s wizard is a trans woman. 
  • Very few old women actually eat children. X
  • Very few women over seventy actually eat children. 
  • The spy was confined to a wheelchair. X
  • The spy used a wheelchair.  

Who decides which words are best? The people they describe. Everyone should be able to say for themselves what they’d like to be called, and to have that choice respected.

Of course, no group of people is a monolith, and there may be different preferences depending on who you ask; but it’s generally not hard to find out which term is preferred by most of the group’s members. The word Gypsy, for example, is used to self-identify by some people in the UK, but the majority of people belonging to this ethnic group consider it offensive—a racial slur—so most official organizations in Europe have chosen to omit it from their documents. Instead they use Roma, which is the term preferred by the international Roma community.
  • My grandfather was born into a Gypsy family in what was then Czechoslovakia. X
  • My grandfather was born into a Roma family in what was then Czechoslovakia. 
  • Claudette was a gypsy—an artistic type who never stayed long in one place. X
  • Claudette was a free spirit—an artistic type who never stayed long in one place. 

Photo of Roma family at Bondy by Henri Manuel, France c. 1910

But it’s not enough just to learn the right word—context still matters. A number of US journalists have called Star Wars actor John Boyega “African American,” probably thinking it’s more respectful than Black. But Boyega is British, so in this case Black is more appropriate.

How Do I Avoid Ever Being Offensive?

You can’t. Accept it: you’ll make mistakes. I’ll make mistakes. The only thing we can do is take criticism graciously (i.e., listen), and try to do better next time.

You can start by doing your research: if you’re writing about a group you don’t belong to, google the most common stereotypes so you don’t unconsciously repeat them. Read writings by members of that group. Consult friends, family, or colleagues who belong to that group—remembering that they don’t owe you their time or opinion. Take an online workshop from an organization like Writing the Other. Hire a sensitivity reader, someone you pay to review your manuscript and point out anywhere you might be courting offence.

But before you do all that, ask yourself, Is this my story to tell? A good rule of thumb is that telling a story about a character who belongs to another group is fine; telling a story about the experience of belonging to that group is problematic. For example, it’s fine for a white writer to write a story with Indigenous characters (assuming they do their due diligence), but when white writers write about The Indigenous Experience, they’re continuing a long colonial tradition of putting their words into other people’s mouths.

More Posts to Come

Because this topic is such a broad one, I’m spreading it out over several posts, all of which will include links to sites I’ve found helpful. Topics will include gender and sexual orientation, disability and neurodivergence, race and ethnicity, and class and income.

“That’s Just the Way It Was Back Then”

Before I go, I’m going to talk about a pet peeve of mine: the “that’s just the way it was back then” excuse. If a story is set in historical Europe—or a close analogue—its characters can’t be diverse, right? As a reader of fantasy and historical fiction, I’ve encountered this misconception a lot (and once laboured under it myself).

In fact, historical Europe was quite diverse—there were people of colour, there were trans people, there were people with disabilities. Certain people were often oppressed, yes, but that doesn’t mean none of them ever had agency or did anything interesting. There were women who defended castles and ran businesses; there were peasants who started political movements and rioted for their rights. In short, history is much, much more varied and complex than our popular representations would suggest.

Have a scroll through the excellent blog People of Color in European Art History to see an abundance of carefully sourced images showing all kinds of people playing a variety of roles in Europe’s past. Or take a look at Pocket Miscellanies, short guides to the representation of various marginalized groups in the medieval era. You’ll find it eye-opening, I promise.

Two-page spread from Pocket Miscellany: Transgender

But you don’t need to prove historical realism in order to include marginalized people in your stories. A fantasy setting can include anything you want. Why is it so much easier for us to accept a world with dragons—animals that breathe fire without scorching themselves—than a world without sexism, racism, ableism, or homophobia? Why is one considered more realistic than the other?

If you’re writing something that sticks closely to history, consider whose perspective you’re choosing. There’s no reason they have to be an average representative of their place and time—someone whose views your readers are probably already familiar with anyway. Why not write about early Scotland from the perspective of a Roman soldier from Africa stationed at Hadrian’s Wall? Or why not write about medieval France from the perspective of a queer abbess wielding considerable power from the head of her wealthy nunnery? History is full of fascinating people, and they’re not all white dudes on horses.

Medieval illustration of Jael hammering a spike through Sisera's head, France, c.1290

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