Monthly Archives: May 2015

How to Avoid Sexism in Writing

Most writers know that it is no longer acceptable to use “he” to refer generically to both males and females. The trouble is that you may not know how to replace it. Most people, instead, fall into this trap:

An elven archer carries an unlimited supply of arrows in their quiver.

That is, when referring to a person of unspecified gender, we tend to replace the unacceptable “he” with the seemingly neutral “they” or “them.” The trouble is that that is wildly grammatically incorrect.

What to do? You have two options.

Your first option is to use the clunky but correct “his or her,” as in, “An elven archer carries an unlimited supply of arrows in his or her quiver.” As a one-off sentence, you can do this without loading down the text. But if you intend to write several more sentences like this, the result is distracting and pretty much atrocious.

An elven archer carries an unlimited supply of arrows in his or her quiver. He or she also is fleet of foot, and he or she prizes his or her bow.

Horrible! Your option in this case is to just pick a gender. You can say, “An elven archer carries an unlimited supply of arrows in her quiver” with no repercussions. You could also say “his.”

Alternately, in some cases, you can rewrite a few of the sentences to eliminate the pronouns completely. For example, you can write,

An elven archer carries an unlimited supply of arrows in his or her quiver. Such an archer is also fleet of foot, and all elven archers prize their bows.

Some of our older words to describe professions, however, are inherently sexist. These professions have been renamed to avoid sexism. Here, a short list.

  • Policeman is now police officer.
  • Salesman is now salesperson.
  • Fireman is now fire fighter.
  • Anchorman is now anchor.
  • Chairman is now chair.
  • Congressman is now member of Congress.
  • Mailman is now letter carrier.
  • Workmen is now workers.

Others have been eliminated altogether, so that stewardess is now flight attendant, actress is now actor, and hostess is now host.

Some words, of course, do not brook changes. For example, what would you use in place of manpower? In cases like these, where no known alternative is available, you’ll simply have to use the word.

Note: No grammar rules exist that I know of to cover non-binary genders. If you know of a consensus on any of these, please drop me a line and let me know so that I can add to this article! Thanks!

Quick and Dirty: The Colon

Ah, the colon. After the comma and the semicolon, the colon is probably the most misused punctuation mark we have. Today, I present a quick and dirty lesson on this strange little mark.

Colons are generally used in order to introduce a list. Thus, if you want to tell what items the evil sorcerer carries in his man bag, you would write,

Enfido always carried the following necessities: his grimoire, a vial of fast-acting poison, and a bottle of uisce.

What you should also notice about the above sentence is that I did not use the colon to separate the verb (carried) from its object (necessities). The clause preceding a colon must always, always be a complete sentence. Thus, though I might have wanted to shorten the sentence to read, Enfido always carried: his grimoire, a vial of fast-acting poison, and a bottle of uisce, this would be incorrect, leaving carried without an object.

A colon can also be used to introduce a clause, phrase, or sentence that summarizes the preceding clause. For example, if Enfido recognizes his old nemesis Bawdler despite his disguise, I might write,

Enfido saw through the beggar’s disguise: the “beggar” bore the tattoo of the Brotherhood on his inner wrist, just as Bawdler did.

In the above sentence, the colon introduces how Enfido recognizes his old brother-in-arms, thereby summarizing the first clause.

That’s it! Those are the two uses of the colon. Not so mysterious after all, is it?

Addressing Captains, Headmasters, and Evil Overlords: Capitalization

You probably know that Captain James T. Kirk is capitalized, but did you know that James T. Kirk, captain of the Enterprise, is not? The same goes for Doctor Thorndyke, but not Thornedyke, the sadistic doctor.

What’s up with this? Well, individual titles are not capitalized in writing unless they precede the bearer’s name. Neither do you capitalize a title when it stands on its own, as in,

The captain thrilled to see so many green, alien women aboard the Enterprise.

The same rule applies to titles separated from the bearer’s name by a comma, as in “the headmaster, Albus Dumbledore.”

You would, however, capitalize a title when it is used as an address independent of the bearer’s name. So, for example, if a character is pleading with an evil overlord not to burn anyone at the stake this week, your character would say,

Please, Master! Too few minions are left for you to burn Hildreth and Edric!

The exception, in my opinion, is the deliberate capitalization of a title that stands on its own, independent of its bearer’s name, when you want to indicate self-importance. For example, say you are writing a story about an extremely arrogant professor. He thinks of himself as indispensable to his university’s lab experiments, and so, when you are referring to him, you might write,

The Professor, of course, knew that the chinchilla experiments could not continue without his expertise in chinchilla psychology.

Now, what are the titles that you should capitalize? Here follows a quick list.

  • Civil titles (judge, mayor, governor, and so forth)
  • Military titles (captain, admiral, lieutenant, and so forth)
  • Religious titles (pope, archbishop, presbytera, and so forth)
  • Academic titles (professor, doctor, and so forth)

See? Not much to remember, and even easier to properly introduce your evil overlord. After all, we wouldn’t want him to burn you at the stake.

When You Find An Adjective, Kill It

You’ve heard it said that when you find an adjective, kill it. The maxim is difficult to follow, however. In fiction, it’s so easy to write sentences such as the following:

The café was deserted except for a lonely old man.

Why is this a weak sentence? Doesn’t it get the point across? You know he’s lonely and that the café is empty. Except that by resorting to the adjectives deserted, lonely, and old, you haven’t painted much of a picture.

Using adjectives such as those I used above are sort of a shortcut to good writing. Instead of adjectives and adverbs, you should use strong verbs and nouns that convey the same meaning: slammed instead of shut angrily, purred instead of said seductively, obscured by shadows instead of shadowed face.

Try the same sentence that I cited above – with two of the adjectives replaced.

Everyone had left the café except an old man who sat in the shadows.

This image conveys the same meaning, but without resorting to multiple adjectives. You understand that the man is lonely, that he has nowhere to go, that he might be hiding, and that the hour is probably late. The scene is much more effectively set.

Try this one:

Three hungry vultures sat near the man, who lay alone on the harsh, dry plain, his breathing ragged.

How does it read if I replace some of these adjectives with stronger writing?

Three vultures squatted in a circle around the man. The woman had gone away, and the plain stretched out around him. No rain had fallen for a month. His breathing caught in his throat each time that he inhaled.

Certainly draws a better picture, doesn’t it? It’s much more difficult to write this way, but also much more vivid. Try it and see if your own writing isn’t livelier!