Thinking About Academic Writing for #AcWriMo: Personal Writing vs. Academic Writing

A thought provoking post on academic writing.

Source: Thinking About Academic Writing for #AcWriMo: Personal Writing vs. Academic Writing


Happy 100th birthday to the Women’s institute (gendered language in English)

Today is the 100th anniversary of the WI (Women’s Institute)  in the UK. This very stereotypically British organisation was actually originally founded in Stoney Creek Ontario in 1897.

Our local branch is just outside the Historic Roman and Saxon cities of Winchester.

WI House from Google Streetview

In Honour of the centenary let’s look at gender in the English Language.

English is less inflectional and less gendered than many other European languages. However, there are some areas where English is still quite gendered and one area is our pronouns.

He/She/It (the 3rd Person):

It’s annoying when students assume that because someone is an academic, and a professor that they are male. Especially as more and more women are staying in academia longer and more successfully. Keep in mind that the only person to ever win two Nobel prizes in different fields was Marie Skłodowska Curie.  So claims that “language hasn’t caught up yet” and “it’s only a recent phenomenon” are hollow and puerile.

There remains some debate about how to talk about lone (or hypothetical) individuals of neutral or neither gender. Using “he” is problematic because the person may or may not be a “he”. Statistically speaking in the UK despite the fact that slightly more male children are born than female this indefinite person is more likely to be female.  Using “she” is just as problematic. Historically, there was a bias towards using “he” but switching to “she” is overcompensating and when traditionally masculinity, roles, and identity are undergoing changes already this could only worsen the impact for many.

If you find “(s)he”, “she or he”, and “he/she” or my personal bête noir “it” awkward, clumsy and generally lacking in style and flair. You wouldn’t be alone. There have been numerous attempts to insert a gender neutral third person singular pronoun into English. The fact that there have been so many attempts should tell you something; they failed. Whether it is “X” “Xe” (incidentally this would be pronounced ‘she’ by speakers of some languages) “ ‘e” or even the Greek letter sigma “∑”. None of them were widely adopted, remained persistent within certain groups, or even consistently applied within the originating academic disciplines and/or schools of thought.

The problem is inventing a new word isn’t easy. Inventing a new word in a closed syntactic category is next to impossible. One thing all the examples above lack is pronounceability. A novel word needs to be pronounceable or it won’t catch on. Another is that English already has words which (in almost all situations) meet this need. What is this magical expression you ask “they”. Yes traditionally they and there are associated with plural 3rd person usage. But, English would not be alone in using a plural for a singular in certain situations. Additionally, this use is already fairly widespread and in most situations does not introduce any ambiguity.

Consider this sentence. “Sam said they’re still coming this morning but they’d be late; they have to drop their children off at school.” We don’t know in this case whether Sam is short for Samantha or Samuel (or perhaps just Sam. But, we do know who “they” and “their” refers to.

Women’s / Men’s magazines:

The glossy press is one area where gendering is still particularly strong. But, both the terms “men’s magazine” and “women’s magazine” are quite dismissive. Perhaps this is because they are being defined by their target audience and assumptions about them as a group rather than their content.


We’ve probably all heard the joke that “90% of chair people are women” the punch line is that “it’s still only 10% of chairmen that are chairpersons”. Chairperson is one of the terms thought of collectively as political correctness and perhaps because of this not as widely used as it might be. In academia there was already fairly wide use of “Chair” as a role before chairperson became common. However, this remains persistent Google has 24 million hits for chairperson, and 249 million for chairman (more than 10 times as many) so we still have a lot of work to do. And that’s not all, there is still a huge pay gap.

Marginalisation through child terms:

Women are still much more likely to be called girls, than men are to be called boys. Where men are collectively referred to as boys it’s usually an affectionate closeness. While this does cover some uses of girls the term is applied much more broadly.

Personnel Access Conduit Sealing Device:

Image under creative commons from The Tire Zoo on twitr

Image under creative commons from The Tire Zoo on twitr

This is the politically correct term for what was historically referred to as a “Man Hole Cover”. So perhaps correctness can go a bit far. When nobody knows what you mean any more; you’re not using language effectively.

Penny for the Guy.

This Thursday November 5th is Guy Fawkes Day, also known as bonfire night. It’s one of a few occasions where large numbers of fireworks are set off annually in the UK. Remember if you are going to have your own fireworks to do so safely and responsibly. But, you might prefer to go to a display hosted by a local organisation and managed by professionals.

Bonfire Night via creative commons on Flikr

Bonfire Night via creative commons on Flikr

Not so long ago it wasn’t unusual to see chuggers, Love them or loath them, raising funds for their organisation by displaying their ‘guy’. (Although the term ‘chugger’ postdates the popularity of the tradition of parading “a guy”.) A guy in this sense was much like a scare crow  old clothes filled with straw or rags. The guy would then be ceremoniously put on top of a fire, or even thrown in once the fire was going. Unlike most people whose names are associated with days Fawkes did not get a day named after him for being popular. Guy Fawkes was in some senses probably a fall guy  for a plot to blow up the houses of parliament with the MP’s Lords and monarch inside. He was executed by the state he sought to destroy. Since then Brits have annually braved the autumn temperatures to celebrate his failure, and burn him in effigy, more recently accompanied by fireworks.

More recently the mask of Guy Fawkes has become associated with the anonymous hackers group, as well as several protest movements around the world.

Via Wikimedia

Via Wikimedia

And then there is the children’s rhyme.

Remember remember the 5th of November

Gunpowder treason and plot

Fireworks Selina Rowe via creative commons on Flikr

Fireworks Selina Rowe via creative commons on Flikr

Let’s look at some of the language connected to guy, fireworks and the celebration of the day.

An etching of Guy Fawkes no attribution via bbc

An etching of Guy Fawkes no attribution via bbc

Penny for the guy – a call used to solicit donations for the guy, the fireworks, and sometimes charitable organisations hosting them.

To guy could also mean to carry the guy through the streets, either to collect money or on the way to the bonfire.

Fall Guy – (some suggest this comes from elsewhere but it fits) – someone who gets the blame for something, usually unfairly or they get blamed entirely when they were only partly at fault.

Go to Guy – idiomatic use for someone with special skills or connections making them invaluable in certain circumstances. “Simon’s the go to guy for anything to do with new technology in our office.”

Guys – informal collective noun often used gender inclusively although originally indicating males.

Some Guy – an individual but not a specific or fixed one. A perhaps deliberately vague reference to someone else. “Some guy’s finished the milk and not replaced it.”

Buddy Guy – a colloquial slang version of ‘some-guy’. Used as a stage name by George Guy.

Fireworks – literally the colourful explosives let off during the evening of Guy Fawkes day but it can also be figurative. Often for someone losing their temper: “There must have been some fireworks when you told Lydia that you we’re leaving.” “Yes she was furious; I wonder why she has to take everything personally.” But occasionally for a feeling of great excitement/happiness: “When I collected my degree, it was like fireworks going off.”

A guy wire can provide a guide or an anchor for something, typically an Arial or a mast. Within fairly technical jargon you might even guy the mast before a storm to stop it blowing over. This can often be misunderstood and you’ll find lots of references to guide wires as well.

The oldest use of guy as a verb dates to the 1300s (OED) meaning to conduct or lead away. “We were guyed round the church by the verger.”

Round about the same time guy could mean a conductor or leader. “The guy of the left Corbyn continues to alienate some of the centrists in his own party”. But, these last two usages are obscure and quite old fashioned now.