While visiting another blog, I read a comment about the use of the term mankind. The blogger defended the use of mankind. However, the commenter thinks the term mankind is sexist and should be avoided in politically correct writing. My first reaction to the comment was “Oh, please!” (The blogger is a woman, and she later defended her use of it.) This got me thinking about the term mankind and unintentional sexism in writing.
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Why I Use Mankind
Will I use mankind or some other term, such as humankind? As an editor and writer, I have to think about three things: 1) What I want to communicate (purpose), 2) What the reader will understand (clarity), and 3) How the reader will respond (effect). When I apply these three concerns to my use of mankind, here’s what I get.
- Purpose: I intend to communicate something about all people. Mankind has this meaning, so it is acceptable.
- Clarity: Readers will understand that mankind means all people. I doubt that readers will think I am only referring to male members of our species. Whether or not the reader thinks mankind is a sexist term, the reader will likely understand what I mean to communicate. Based on this concept, mankind is acceptable.
- Effect: This is where it gets tricky. Will the reader be upset by my use of mankind? Will the word mankind be so distracting that the reader will be unable to focus on the ideas being presented? (This is the reason I don’t use curse words in my writing.) Will the reader throw away the document in disgust at my “obvious” chauvinism? Probably not.
So, yes, I will continue to use mankind. Some readers may consider this term sexist, and may think my writing reflects a sexist perspective, but from an editorial standpoint, it passes the test. (My dog just told me that this entire discussion demonstrates my specism and that he refuses to have anything more to do with me–until dinner.)
Anti-Sexist Grammar Problems
Although I try to avoid sexist language in my writing, I do not tolerate he/she or s/he. I also do not tolerate the use of plural pronouns (e.g., they) to refer to singular subjects. For example, I will always correct sentences such as
At recess, EACH child enjoys taking THEIR turn on the swings.
Instead, I prefer to make the subjects plural, which avoids gender problems and allows me to use gender-neutral, plural pronouns without making grammar errors. I would correct this sample sentence as follows:
At recess, CHILDREN enjoy taking THEIR turn on the swings.
(For more on this strategy, see “Sexist Language and Bad Grammar”: http://preciseedit.wordpress.com/2009/11/30/sexist-language-and-bad-grammar/).
Avoiding Categorical Sexism
Also, I try to avoid using he or she when referring to categories of people if the category contains both males and females. For example, if I am writing about doctors, I might simply write the doctors, which avoids gender problems and allows me to use gender-neutral, plural pronouns (e.g., they, their). I don’t want to give the impression that some professions are for men and others are for women.
On the other hand, sometimes I provide anecdotes and need to refer to a single individual. For some anecdotes I will use he, and for others I will use she. What I won’t do is go through the trouble to make sure they are equally represented or that I am alternating between them. Doing so distracts both the writer and the reader.
Some writers may use he/she to refer to an individual, but that doesn’t make sense. A person can’t be both male and female anatomically (extremely rare cases notwithstanding).
Avoiding Sexist Grammar Problems
Politically correct writers can run into grammar problems when attempting to avoid sexist language. Let’s say I want to write the following sentence:
I try not to judge A PERSON by the shape of HIS skin.
This is grammatically correct but may be misunderstood. Perhaps I am only writing about judging men (clarity problem). This seems sexist, right? To prevent the use of his, I could write the sentence this way:
I try not to judge A PERSON by the shape of THEIR skin.
This sentence uses a plural pronoun to refer to a single person (grammar problem) and gives me a fingernails-on-the-blackboard feeling. As a third option, I could write the sentence like this:
I try not to judge PEOPLE by the shape of THEIR skin.
I would choose the third option. It fits my intention (purpose), communicates what I intend (clarity), and is unlikely to upset those who seek opportunities to accuse others of sexism (effect).