Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Grammar and Sexism: Why the Little Things Matter

So, I know there are all kinds of things that are more immediately life threatening than sexist language, but this is my space to bitch and this has become one of my top ten pet peeves, so listen up:

Lesson #1

"Woman" is a noun, not an adjective; therefore the phrase "a woman doctor" is ungrammatical.

This particular example of bad grammar is also insulting. Whether you mean for it to be or not, the manner of grammatical error ensures that it is. Like the ungrammatical placement of "boldly" in "To boldly go where no man has gone before" using "woman" rather than "female" places the emphasis on the modifier. She is no longer a doctor who is female, she is now a woman who is a doctor. Plus, it sounds odd (as it should) and makes the basic premise of a female doctor sound odd as well.

So, unless you actually mean to bring people's attention to the fact that a woman is a doctor, rather than simply clarify that the doctor in question is a woman, knock it off.

(Try saying "man doctor" if you don't believe me, and then think about how often that particular phrase isn't used while the other one is used quite often - and why that might be so.)

Lesson #2

The fact that "female " and "females" can be used as nouns as well as adjectives does not makes them the interchangable with "woman" and "women."

"Female(s)" can be used to mean female(s) of any species, but women are always both adult (physiologically if not legally) and human. Using "females" when talking about pick-up lines and dating norms is not exactly ungrammatical, but it's certainly less precise than "women." It's not as if you were going to proposition a cat, a dog, or an insect (or, one would hope, a girl so young "woman" is physically innaccurate). Using "female" when "woman" will work just as well is insulting and dehumanizing.

So, unless "female(s)" is more accurate than "woman(en)" - or unless you mean to convey the idea that women are sub-human - knock it off.

Lesson #3

Language does matter: many sexist arguments reveal a belief that women are not simply different from men, they are less than them - but people often get away with such arguments because they choose their words carefully.

The purpose of South Dakota's recent abortion ban - as written in the law itself - includes "fully protect[ing] the rights, interests, and health of the pregnant mother." Rep. Roger Hunt explains that he supports the ban, however, simply because "the goal is to prohibit the killing and the termination of life of all of those unborn children." "The unlawful killing of one human by another" seems to very much fit pregnant women who abort, according to Hunt's words - but who ever heard of a murder law written to protect murderers?

This is why South Dakota plans to punish doctors who perform abortions, but not the women they claim murder their own unborn children. The only way these different treatments under the law can be anything other than a contradiction is if one believes that women are either children or not quite human - and therefore not subject to legal prosecution. Instead the legal ramifications for performing abortions are structured as though all abortions are a form of criminal malpractice perpetrated on the mother, not the "killing...of unborn children." Digby, of course, says it best: "If fetuses are human and have the same rights as the women in whom they live, then a woman who has an abortion must logically be subject to the full force of the law. It would be a premeditated act of murder no different than if she hired a hit man to kill her five year old. The law will eventually be able to make no logical moral distinction. Is everybody ready for that?"

In this the authors of South Dakota's recent abortion ban have something in common with many murderers: the need to dehumanize the person they are hurting. Unlike pro-choice advocates who are actually quite up front about the belief that they don't consider a fetus to be quite a person (even though such a belief is often beside the point in a society that does not legally compell parents to donate blood to their own children) the South Dakota legislature cannot admit in clear language that they consider women incapable of being moral agents. Instead they abuse language in order to justify treating woman as children without being so blatant as to call for the reppeal of the 19th amendment.


Using "woman" as an adjective is stupid and rude.

Using "female" where "woman" would work just as well is dehumanizing.

Language is purposely abused even in legal settings - so don't tell me what you say doesn't matter. They can get away with the subtle misuse of language because you get away with even the blatant stuff.


Tucker said...

Er, hi. I am apparently too lost to find an "email the blogger" link, so comments will have to do. I saw your comment on how lesbians are the answer at Pandagon, and thought "Mickle. Hm." Noticed that your blog was at westmark.blogspot, thought "Hm." Clicked through. Read the title and was overjoyed. (I was a bookslave for just over three years, so I completely recognise both the customer frustration and the joy of finding good books for people.) So, yeah. Happy.

Also, re the post: Yes. And yes again.

Mickle said...


thanks - and I'm not sure I have a link :(

Yeah, so, I got all over-excited about writing the posts and have sorely necglected the site design.

It's at the top (er, well, near the top) of a very long to do list.

I think you can get to it by going to my (mostly blank) profile, but in case you can't - it's QMickle at gmail dot com

Ken S. said...

I must nitpick:

Splitting inifinitives is only wrong to those who believe in arbitrary rules for grammar. Yeah, it's wrong by the standards of Standard Written English, but it's a dumb rule for a dumb reason. The reason? Latin doesn't split inifinites. And it can't, since they're a single word. Dumb rule made by dumb people.

As far as "man doctor" goes-- right you are. Male is usually the unmarked case, and it's root sexism in our language. I don't have much else to say, other than to agree.

Mickle said...

One of my brother's teachers explained the importance of learning the rules of grammer to him thus:

It's not so much that you need to always follow them, but that you need to learn them so that you can break them with style.

Splitting infinitives isn't "wrong" in the sense that you should never do it, it's "wrong" in the sense that people rarely do it, so when it is done, it tends to shift the emphasis of the phrase. So it's important to understand that it's "wrong" so that you can be sure that you want that shift, not because rules are never made to be broken or because grammer rules are static.

Ken S. said...

I agree in principle, however:

Generally, when somebody splits an infinitive unconsciously, the effect is greater clarity or impact. The avoidance of a split infinitive when the impulse in there to split it generally leads to awkward sentences.

Check out wikipedia for a good summary of the issue. Search "split infinitive."

I'm more of a descriptivist grammarian than prescriptive grammarian, so I may be biased-- but this is a case where the rule is forced an arbitrary, and the only reason to know it is to be able to avoid uptight prescriptivists, whose purpose is generally elitism and exclusion based on class and education.

Mickle said...

Ok, so split infinitives was perhaps not the best choice of grammer rules, but the basic priniciple is still there. How we use language changes it's meaning, and "to boldly go" means something different from "to go boldly."

(Which means that the split inifnitive example would have been better for describing when to use "females/males" and when not to, rather than urging people not to use "woman/en" as a noun.)

Liz Henry said...

Well, I like of like saying "women poets" rather than "female poets"... no one ever says "male poets" any more than they say man poets. It sounds better than lady poet or poetess.

Why not instead call for the use of "man" as an adjective? And then use it... as in "man doctor" or "the worst man president in the history of the United States".

p.s. it's "grammar"...

Anonymous said...

To say "the worst male president of the USA" would indicate there have been female presidents.

I could say "the worst male president of ireland" because the last three terms of president have been women.

I could not say "the worst male taoisach of ireland" because there has not been a female one yet.

Saying one thing suggests the other.

"the worst male president of the 20C from a rich background" suggests there have been ones from a poor background.

Saying a white US president suggests there have been non-white.

Though "white" is a word I hate so I dont use it in language anyway.

Candace said...

I vote for dropping the marking of nouns through the use of man/woman or female/male. These perpetuate the binaries that so many feminists have been trying to stretch. Not everyone is easily slotted into one category over the other.