Themes around gender and how language – and life – have changed have surfaced twice in my work recently. It’s a tricky area; as an editor I need to keep the author’s ‘voice’ and retain the attitudes and spirit of the day and the characters in it – in these cases a 1970s housewife, and a group of lads in the late eighties – but also be aware of today’s conventions, and not upset or confuse readers by language that is now inappropriate. How things have changed in a short time!
In 1975 – the year International Women’s Day was first celebrated by the UN, though its beginnings date to the early 1900s – my fictional housewife is a stay-at-home mum. She gave up work when children arrived, never to return. The proud owner of a hostess trolley and a Teasmade (a little machine which automatically brews a cup of tea by your bedside) – how many people have these things any more? Housework is a major occupation, she spends whole days on it, regularly cleaning windows, dusting ornaments, shampooing carpets and washing curtains. While her husband is busy on some DIY project, she will be preparing prawn cocktail, steak and trifle for dinner parties.
Life in the late ‘80s
While this book highlighted the way women’s lives have changed in the last fifty years, another one gave me a different challenge: finding a way for the author to express the language and behaviour of the late eighties. Some of the characters in this book were criminals, some were lads out on the town. The main character was a likeable young man, and we want the readers to sympathise with him, not be turned off by an occasionally sexist attitude which to our ears is unacceptable but was commonplace then.
So, what do writers and editors need to look out for? Language can be alienating and can trip up the reader. While we need to stay true to the era (in fiction), we also need to know the audience and be aware of gendered terms, pronouns, exclusivity and racism in all writing.
Gendered words are so common in English usage they mostly go unnoticed, unless the reader is tuned in. Phrases such as ‘boys and girls’ or ‘ladies and gentlemen’ don’t represent every group, but can be reworked using other terms such as ‘guests’ or ‘friends’. Then there are the ‘invisible’ gendered terms that we use a lot but have already changed to an inclusive alternative – ‘police officer’, ‘flight attendant’, ‘server’. But what about those that might escape notice: ‘manmade’, ‘masterful’, ’manpower’?
Where once we only used ‘she’, ‘he’, ‘it’ or ‘they’, we now have neopronouns – a category of new (new-ish – some are actually years old) alternative pronouns that are increasingly used by transgender, non-binary people – and indeed by cisgender people – that give inclusion and accuracy for someone who doesn’t identify by the male/female gender classifications. While ‘they’, as a nonbinary singular pronoun, is probably the most commonly used and has become the pronoun of choice if the antecedent is unknown or irrelevant, there are many other neopronouns to choose from.
Even in our natural-gender language, gendered language is prevalent. How we use gendered words subconsciously expresses belief about gender and the way we see the social world. Language has the ability to alter our perception of gender, and to subconsciously indicate who is the most important. Most conjoined phrases put the male first and female second: ‘his and hers’, ‘kings and queens’, ‘men and women’. The use of ‘his’, if the gender of the person in question isn’t known, automatically – understandably – evokes an image of a man.
Blog reach far greater than a book…
While this may be about book editing, it is relevant in all writing and editing. Today, the reach of a blog post is so much further than that of a real paper book, and you never know who will read it. It matters because for some, gendered language is a reminder that they are excluded, or different, or invisible. It matters that we use sensitive, inclusive language because we don’t want to hurt or alienate readers. Language can be invalidating and hurtful, but it can also be powerful, positive and inspirational.