Avoid awkward coinage

Some people feel strongly that a writer should avoid using words that are gender-specific when the roles that they denote are not gender-related. These purists have gone so far as to coin new words for any term that is gender-specific, as in substituting parentboard for the computer's motherboard. In the words of Dupre (1998), "even if the word is awkward, it shows your reader you are sensitive."

Or does it simply make you look silly? Experimental ways of making English more neutral have not caught on very well. Many commentators vehemently argue against artificial tampering with words. So-called political correctness, an attitude that carries language sensitivity to an extreme, has come under a great deal of public ridicule. Our advice is to take the middle ground. Use gender-neutral words when they are appropriate, be aware of nuances in our changing language, and avoid awkwardly coining new words.

Exercise 6.2. Handling language sensitively

Improve the word choice in these examples.

1. A researcher must be sure that he double-checks all his references.

2. The sample consisted of 200 Orientals.

3. The depressives and the epileptics reacted differently to the drug.

4. The chairman confronted the female for plagiarizing.

5. The ten ladies in the study included one who was afflicted with cerebral palsy.

6. Breast cancer is one of the oldest diseases known to man.

7. We need 14 females willing to man the project.

8. A scientific writer's point of view must be clearly stated by him at the beginning.

Choose the right word

The difference between the almost-right word and the right word is really a large matter - it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.

- Mark Twain, in an October 15, 1888 letter to George Bainton

The list of almost-right words is endless, and computer spell checkers and grammar programs are little help with this problem. To rid your own writing of such mistakes, there is no easy alternative to learning what the right word is.

Some would like to believe that any widespread practice of writing or speech will become acceptable in time, and thus conclude that there is no cause for criticizing anything if it occurs regularly in the writing of educated people. If everyone confuses affect and effect, won't the dictionary eventually allow them as synonyms? And if so, can't we use them now? In a word, no. Good scientific writing is conservative.

Remember, the function of writing is to permit communication across time and space. Most of us would have trouble speaking Shakespearean English today, but we can understand the King James edition of the Bible, even though the English was written 400 years ago. Americans, Jamaicans, and Australians may have difficulty with each other's speech, but they have almost no problem with each other's writing.

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