Thursday, March 26, 2015

Words Matter: The Female Question

In the comments section of our last Words Matter post, reader Mel C posed an interesting question: 
Should we let our students get away with calling women, females? (other than the fact it's grammatically incorrect). 
My answer to Mel was twofold. On the one hand, it's perfectly acceptable--and, in fact, preferable--to use "female" in writing about biological, social, or sexual difference, especially in the sciences. As Yateendra Joshi explains, the general rule is that writers should "use female only when the biological distinction is relevant or needs to be preserved, as in female secondary sexual characteristics, female preferences that govern the choice of a mate, or calories required by nursing females." In these examples, using the word female doesn't only work to make the writer's meaning clear; it also ensures that the scientific information relayed isn't too personal. But if you're writing outside of the sciences, that lack of personal sentiment can be off-putting. As Linguist Deborah Tannen explains, she avoids using "female" because "it feels more like describing an animal than a person." Maeve Maddox's reasoning behind avoiding "female" is similar: "as a noun, female has no place in ordinary conversation unless one is speaking of an animal species." So, if you're writing something where double-x lady parts (as opposed to the social connotations different cultures ascribe to said lady parts) matter, or in the fields, like biology, where writers observe and describe humans in much the same way they do animals, feel free to female it up.   

But there are times when using the word female to refer to women is more problematic. It's particularly problematic in one of the discourse communities that I'm a member of (and, I think, the one Mel C was referring to in her original question): speakers of African-American Vernacular English or AAVE. Just like any other dialect of English (like Cajun English, the "Brahmin" dialect of upper-class Bostonians, or the "Engfish" of academic circles), AAVE has its own grammatical and phonological systems as well as its own vocabulary and, though there's a lot of crossover between AAVE and Standard American English (what many people describe as the kind of English that doesn't have an accent, like what newscasters often speak or what many Midwesterners sound like--though in actuality, even the Midwestern accent-that's-not-an-accent has its own particularisms), there are some particular differences. One such difference is the use of the word "female."

In many varieties of AAVE, "female" isn't reserved for scientific or clinical communication. Instead, it's used in casual, everyday communication in quite a few different ways--and none of them are appropriate in academic writing. 

So, what are some of the different ways AAVE speakers use the word female? Because this blog is PG-13, I won't be providing examples here (though if you're interested, a quick search of "females" on Twitter should give you an idea of some of the different usages). Suffice it to say that, as it's used by many AAVE speakers, the word "female" comes with negative, often sexualized connotations. Miss Glamtastic breaks users of "female" in this particular way down into two categories: men who want to demean or denegrate women and use the word female "because it doesn't sound as nasty (but still carries the same sentiment and tone) as calling her something profane" and women who want to "[endear] themselves to men" or put down other women. The Root's Demetria Lucas D'Oyley and Jezebel's Kara Brown both go into more detail about it.

But, if you're an AAVE speaker, how can you check to be sure that your usage of female in academic writing is appropriate? And, if you're a tutor or an instructor who's not an AAVE speaker, how can you tell if an AAVE client or student's usage of "female" is a problematic one? Try Miss Glamtastic's replacement test:

If you can replace the word "female" with the word "b!$$%", or, actually, any other defamatory term used to refer to a woman that is displeasing in some way, and the feeling of the sentence is the same, then be offended [or, in the case of writing, revise to use another word]. If the tone of the sentence hasn't drastically changed, though a profane word is being used instead of "female," then you know what the person is REALLY trying to say.
Or you can do what I do: The Chris Brown Test. On one of my favorite radio stations from home, the radio edit for Chris Brown's 2014 song "Loyal"--with its oh-so-catchy but bothersomely misogynistic refrain--changed the lyric "these hoes ain't loyal" to a more user-friendly one: "females ain't loyal." If the use of "female" in question fits in the song, you've got a problem and need to revise.

So, what's the TL;DR answer to Mel's original question? "Female" can be okay to use in academic writing, but only when it's used thoughtfully and appropriately. Because words matter.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Words Matter: A Series on Thoughtful Language Use

More than four centuries have passed since Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet was first published--and nearly 20 years since middle-school me harangued my mother to drive me across town so that I could watch the Baz Luhrmann film version 6. separate. times (#LoveYouLeo; #SorryMom)--and lots of people still believe Juliet's claim that "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."

But what if Juliet had it all wrong? As it turns out, a rose by any other name might not smell as sweet.

That's because of the way our minds make meaning--the way we attach symbolic attributes to random sounds to make language. And it's a pretty big deal. As Benjamin K. Bergen explains, we are "constantly, automatically, tirelessly" making meaning. It's just what humans do. And we're so good at it, we don't even realize we're doing it.
What’s perhaps most remarkable about it is that we hardly notice we’re doing anything at all. There are deep, rapid, complex operations afoot under the surface of the skull, and yet all we experience is seamless understanding.
 It's rare that we stop and think part of the reason I like this cheese is because I'm calling it cheese. It'd be a lot less appealing if I called it congealed bovine mammary secretion.

Dan Piraro's take on cheese's etymology

But there is one context in which thinking about the words we use is especially important: when we're labeling groups of people. Just like the word "cheese" can erase problematic associations between a food product and coagulated udder-ooze, the words we choose to refer to particular human groups can erase--or highlight--problematic associations, assumptions, and connotations that have become imbedded in our language. Many of those imbedded connotations are holdovers from our not-so-pretty (and, sometimes, not-so-distant) past: legacies from colonial thinking; lingering sexism; leftovers of deep-seated racism and xenophobia.

And, of course, we don't *want* to use language in ways that reinforce historic injustices--we're not jerks--but it's often the case that we aren't even aware of the baggage that comes along with words we use.

So, how can we keep it PC and avoid problematic language when there's a pretty good chance we're blind to so many of the problems?

For the rest of the semester, we'll be bringing tips that can help us overcome our blindness. So be sure to stop back by for discussions of writing race (Should we write black or African American? Why?), gender (Transgender or Transgendered?), and ability (Is it okay to write about "autistic people"?). And if you've got a specific question on PC language, leave it in the comments--we'll do our best to address it.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Four Reasons to Join (or Form) a Writing Group

Few settings can inspire writers more—or make them even more bitter and resentful—than a writing group. So, what do they have to offer that makes me say that writing groups are worth the risk?

1. Audience

Never mind the practical help you could receive—sometimes it’s nice just to have access to a second pair of eyes and ears. And knowing that you will have to face your audience can be a big motivator.

2. Affirmation

My first writing group experience was when I wrote bad knockoffs of bad fantasy in third grade. We shared in class every week, and I received glowing reviews . . . from my best friend, my teacher, and a girl with a crush on me.

All these people had plenty of reasons to lie to me or patronize me, but that little trinity really did help my writing. They motivated me and supported me when I wanted to call it quits. And, even more importantly, they made me believe I was a writer because that’s how they saw me.

3. Advice

You may not want advice at first, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the Writing Center, it’s that we all sometimes find ourselves stumped. When that bell tolls for you, remember that other writers can help you see opportunities for improvement. Let your readers know exactly what type of help you need, and you will walk away energized to write.

4. Deadline

The biggest benefit, to me, is just the fact that you have to turn something in. Deadlines help me focus on what desperately needs attention to make my document readable.


Of course, a Writing Center consulting session appointment can also provide you with an audience, affirmation, advice, and a deadline. Give us a call (581.5929) or drop by Coleman Hall 3110 and let us know what you would like to focus on.

Monday, March 2, 2015

In Conclusion

Writers have such a complicated relationship with that tricky last paragraph, and conclusions probably tie with introductions for the most closely read sections of papers. Yet they’re so often unrevised. I’ve left many a conclusion stranded at a dead end, hit “Submit,” and then hidden behind a moat of Snickers wrappers.

But I gave up too soon, mostly because I felt like I didn't have anything more to say, so anything I added would be pure B.S. Turns out that's not true.

Here are some generally accepted forms of conclusions to help you squeeze an ending out of a topic that you think you have already bled dry:

  • Ask some questions. It’s a classic technique to conclude a paper, particularly if the information and ideas in your body paragraphs don’t add up to a conclusive conclusion. Provide readers with a reasonable tentative conclusion, then talk about the next-step questions that your paper raises.
  • Provide a call to action. Rally the troops! If your paper isn’t political and your argument doesn't suggest a clear battle plan, you can call for more research on this important topic.
  • Use the Austin Powers Method. Describe some of the most interesting or important implications of the information and ideas you have provided. This is what a conclusion really is, not a restatement of your “three main points.” You’ve proven your thesis with all those killer quotes and examples, so what’s the larger point? Channel your inner Austin Powers.

Or just don’t write one. In some genres, you can let readers draw their own conclusions. Especially if you have nothing to add...