Sunday, October 25, 2009

Copy editors and political correctness

Bill Vallicella has some strong words for overzealous copy editors: “Keep your political correctness to yourself. Don't replace the gender neutral 'his' with the abomination 'his/her.' Keep your stinking leftist politics out of my manuscript. And don’t try to be what the Germans call a Besserwisser: don’t presume to know better what I want to say and how I want to say it.”

Amen. To be sure, I’ve had some very helpful copy editors, as I’m sure Bill has. But then, like him, I’ve also had some real fools. My “favorite” was the copy editor who ruined an entire weekend several years ago by filling the proofs of one of my books with something even worse than the abominable ”his/her”: the dreaded ungrammatical “they” and “their” sprinkled liberally and indiscriminately throughout the text wherever I had written “he” or “his.” Hence “Someone might claim that he can conceive…” became “Someone might claim that they can conceive…”; “Someone who puts his right hand…” became “Someone who puts their right hand…”; etc. Standard college student term paper stuff, of course, but something you’d think a professional copy editor would avoid like the plague.

Could such a brain-dead PC automaton get any worse? Yes “they” can. This one also put in “themselves” for “himself” – as in “A certain copy editor proved themselves unworthy of the paycheck they were about to receive” – and (the pièce de résistance) even invented a new word, “themself” (!) – as in “This particular copy editor made a complete ass of themself.” And it got even worse still, as the copy editor in question exhibited as feeble a grasp of English vocabulary as of English grammar : “glossed” (in the sense of “provided an explanation or interpretation of”) was changed to “glossed over”; “conception” was changed, throughout the text, to “concept”; and so forth.

As I say, I had to work day and night over a long weekend to fix up my poor book so that I could get it to the publisher by deadline – all the while trying to avoid a nervous breakdown and to resist as strong a temptation to commit homicide as I’ve ever felt.

At least the PC “non-sexist” stuff is not entirely the fault of copy editors, however. Many publishers of academic books and journals insist on this “inclusive language” nonsense, and it is an outrage. It is bad enough that one has to listen to PC-whipped academics at colloquia and the like gratuitously inserting “she” into their talks and comments wherever they can so as to prove their feminist bona fides. At least there one can just roll one’s eyes, say a quick prayer for the poor soul, and move on to the refreshments. But to have this ideological use of language foisted upon one by an editor is no more defensible than a requirement that all submissions reflect (say) a commitment to direct reference theory or four-dimensionalist metaphysics.

If “inclusive language” is your bag, knock yourself out. Be aware that the results are sometimes jarring. (Two recent and otherwise good books on Descartes’ Meditations consistently refer to “the Cartesian Meditator” of the work as “she.” I realize that Descartes’ meditative exercise is meant to be carried out by any reader, of either sex; but dammit, the guy who actually speaks to us in the book was named Rene, not Renee!)

But again, if a bad, blatantly politicized style is your thing… well, to each his own. As Bill says, just keep your stinking leftist politics out of my manuscript.


  1. I only have the revised Fowler, who is quite happy for the "they" to serve where it is convenient. Does anyone have one of the older editions?

  2. "But again, if a bad, blatantly politicized style is your thing… well, to each his own."

    *Ahem* Surely you meant, "...well, to each *their* own."

  3. "PC-whipped" - now that's a classic, Ed!

    I grin to myself every Sunday as I and a largely female congregation recite the words: "for us men and for our salvation, He came down from heaven". I am grateful to the Church for not updating and "improving" this language (so far), although I shudder at what the future will bring....

  4. I should like to stamp out the very concept of "gender-neutral." In the phrase "Someone has forgotten his umbrella," the pronoun "his" is not in the masculine, and we need not resort of Safire-esque justifications such as "the masculine embraces the feminine." The pronoun "his" in that sentence is in the common gender, because the pronoun "someone" is in the common gender. It just happens that the singular common gender possessive has the same spelling as the singular masculine gender possessive. Adults learn to distinguish the two by context, and healthy adults do not obsess about the "injustice" that made the singular common gender pronouns similar in spelling to the singular masculine gender pronouns rather than similar to the singular feminine gender pronouns. Nor do they try to rectify that "injustice" by declaring that the singular feminine gender pronouns shall henceforth serve as the singular common gender pronouns.

  5. -man is a suffix anyway. Originally: weremann and wifmann for male and female. The prefixes were sometimes used, as in Beolwulf: "wera od wifa". The one gave us "wife" of course and the odd pronunciation of the o in women, I suppose. The wera survives in werewolf and in "virile".

    Grammatical gender has nothing to do with human sex, save coincidentally. The modern use of grammatical "gender" in place of biological "sex" (in aid of the dogma that this is all a cultural construct rather than a scientific fact) merely confuses matters. But too many people do not know any non-English languages. My favorite example is "manliness," which in German is "die Maennlichkeit," a feminine noun.

  6. Ed,

    I've "starred" several of your posts and commented in your blog several times about how right you have been about materialism, rabid atheism, etc. I find myself honestly troubled by this post, because it seems like it's written by a totally different person. The posts I've loved seem to be written by someone with a flair for argumentation and clarity, whereas this post appears to be written by someone who prefers to just assert the truth of non-trivial statements and throw extremely hackneyed political labels around (it had been a while since I'd even seen "PC" used in this manner).

    Since I gather you have people online who attack you for sport, I insist that I mean this all sincerely. I have no settled position on language and gender issues, but surely there is something to be said for the idea that what we read, write and say can have effects on our habits of thought and action. Why shouldn't we be substituting pronouns?

  7. Warren,

    I can't take credit for it. I picked it up from my WWWtW co-blogger Steve Burton, and I gather it's been in use before him as well.


    What exactly do you disagree with in my post? Do you disagree that the examples of copy-editor's changes that I gave are outrageous? Presumably not. Do you disagree with me that editors should not force controversial ideologically loaded stylistic conventions on writers who may not agree with them? If so, it seems to me that the burden of proof is on you to defend this practice rather than on me to show that it is objectionable. (I know it is _in fact_ widely accepted. but that is irrelevant.)

    Other than that, it seems to me that you just don't like the flippant tone I've taken toward certain feminist ideas. But surely it should not be surprising that people with different political views are going to find different things worth taking seriously. It is not reasonable to expect a conservative blogger to recite the case for his views on a particualr issue every time he comments on it, any more than it would be reasonable to expect a left-of-center blogger to do the same.

  8. Roger,

    Good point. It should be a pretty basic point that the gender of a word is not determined by its spelling.


    That's another piece of evidence that the Latin "v" symbol was pronounced like our "w". "Werewolf" was just "vir- wolf" But they were pronounced just as werewolf is now. Also makes sense of how we got "went" from "vent-um" or "win" from "vinct-um"


    No one ever seems to appreciate that to simply change the language we were given by fiat might end up doing more damage to philosophy than the small justice we might attain by correcting it. No science depends as much on the stability of its terms and the givenness of meanings than philosophy does, and to think that these can be changed whenever a group of academics thinks so is not without downsides that need to be taken into account.

  9. One of the oddest of these gender neutral innovations is the use of "Godself" instead of masculine pronouns that refer to God.

  10. I've noticed that BCE/CE has almost completely taken over in academic publishing, including Catholic and (many) Evangelicals.

    -Neil Parille

  11. Last semester, which was my third year as an undergrad, I wrote a paper in my Milton class where, as usual, I used "he" a couple times to refer to the generic third-person singular pronoun. When I got my paper back, I noticed my professor wrote "or she" after all of my "he" pronouns, and "or her" after my "his" pronouns. I asked him about this one day after class, saying that I used "he" in the traditional sense of referring to the gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun, and said that I thought this was the norm. He replied with a laugh, "Sure, in the 17th century maybe." I'm not 100% positive about the century he gave, I think it was the 17th, but it was before the 19th for sure.

    I posted this in the combox at WWWtW a few months back and Lydia was nice enough to give me her thoughts. As usual, I'm interested in opinions. If anyone here would have been in my position, what would you have said to my prof? What should I have said? I wish I knew some references at the time, such as Markos's paper that Lydia told me about, that I could have mentioned.

  12. Isn't there a chance that you're committing something like the etymological fallacy here? "He" might have originated as a gender neutral term, but in language as it is actually used, and interpreted, I think the feminists have a point in saying that it establishes the norm as male. Which is all to say, I don't really see anything leftist about using "he or she". Why not consider it chivalrous and therefore conservative? And it's better than the godawful s/he...having said all that, I don't think anyone should be criticised for sticking to the old-fashioned usage.

  13. " Avoid sexist language : this can be done with s/he, he/she , or, preferably put it into the plural 'they ' "

    Quoted from an essay checklist provided by my English tutor last week . As a 1st year undergraduate this phenomenon is completely new to me. I'm considering not changing anything in my essay where I deem it detrimental to the flow of the work . ( Even though English is my second language! )

  14. Aaron, I remember your comment from Lydia's post at WWWtW. I don't have much to add to her response, which is great.

    Your professor may have picked a relatively distant time (whether the 17th or 18th century) in an attempt to show that the supposedly changed meanings and norms that he meant for you to recognize and adopt are well-established. Markos' point about this being a recent attempt to change thought patterns is helpful here.

    Your professor was able to "correct" you because your meaning was plain to him--not because he's familiar with 17th century usage but because people today actually use the generic third-person singular pronoun (he, him) just as you do, and your professor is familiar with this usage.

    Roger, thanks for your response. I'm guessing that you responded to Lydia's post, the one that Aaron mentioned, as "Roger D". Either way, I found these responses helpful and if I ever find myself teaching English, I will keep your point in mind.


  15. Awesome post! Couldn't agree more.

  16. That "inclusive" 'she' is a trope I loathe ... and I lose respect for those who intentionally use it. For, after all, how can *I* respect a person who respects himself so little as to allow himself to be "PC-whipped?"

  17. "I've noticed that BCE/CE has almost completely taken over in academic publishing, including Catholic and (many) Evangelicals."

    Ah, yes: Before the Christian Era, and the Christian Era. ;)

  18. ::sigh::

    hey guys, im a professional copyeditor (and editor) and im going to make a few comments (and yes youll noticed im not cap'ing or adding all my puncuation, live with it, its the internet and yall understand me dont ya?):

    first, since bill has gone all political as of late, his blog posts have really suffered in terms of philosophical-ness, which has been sad. they've just turned into party line and platitudes.

    second, professional, since i do think in many situations, "he" should be changed, but "s/he" or using she sometimes feels silly to many readers, i opt to often use "one" and then strip the possessive pronoun when possible, eg "humanity loves cats. when a person says that he loves his cat..." to "humanity loves cats. when a person says that one loves a cat..."

    i tend to hear both sides crying on this issue, but do agree that when writers of *today* claim humanity is a "he", we have a problem of coherency, and youd be surprised at how often i get stuff like that. however, obviously, old writing, where the author uses "he" or "his" should be preserved for historical reasons.

    id love to get yalls feedback on this one and the way ive been handling it. give me something to think about, not just more party lines. this directly deals with my line of work, and if there is a better way, id love to find out, bill's childish ranting aside.

  19. This comment has been removed by the author.

  20. meant to say professionally not professional

  21. Anonymous,

    By changing "humanity loves cats. when a person says that he loves his cat..." to "humanity loves cats. when a person says that one loves a cat...", you've changed the meaning of the statement.

    First, it's now more ambiguous. Is the person in question referring to himself or some hypothetical person when he "says that one loves a cat"? With the original, the reader can clearly tell that the person in question refers to himself; "person" is the obvious antecedent for "he."

    Second, the sense of "cat" is now broader. In the original, it was "his cat," meaning the cat of the person indicated. Now it is "a cat," which might mean any ol' cat.

    Not only does the new version express a different meaning that lacks clarity, but it also reads more poorly than the original. If you're looking for a better way, leave the original alone.

    I now agree even more strongly with Bill when he writes, "My advice to editors: stick to questions of formatting, and to the correction of obvious spelling and grammatical errors. Keep your political correctness to yourself."


  22. ::sigh:


    first, underneath your comments, i hear the typical platitude given by most writers: "an editor changes what i mean and is therefor bad, i dont need no stinkin editor" or something thereof. your last comment seems to betray this when you say "leave the original alone". for some odd reason our culture has been pushing the view for a long time that editors are bad people who will change the sacred meaning of your words: chalk it up to romantic ideas of originality and genius, i dont know. though i actively play around with philosophy, i greatly respect the opinions of philosophers who have spent their lives dealing with the complexities of the issue, complexities i may never fully understand or tackle. somehow when it comes to writing, everyone thinks their opinion counts for something, as if they had much experience in dealing with the publishing market and readers and linguists and....

    sorry i get a little pissed about this sort of thing, mostly because i dont give a rats ass about political correctness, yet my opinion as a professional editor seems not to carry any weight, merely because i am an editor.

    on to the stuff...

    your comments are mostly off mark for the following reasons:

    first, of course my edits changed the meaning of the sentence, what edit doesnt?

    one is supposed to be ambiguous, since person isn't referring to the author, but toward a hypothetical member of the human species.

    if possession is absolutely needed for the sentence, which in my example it could be but in many sentences isn't needed at all, one can say "the cat which one owns", making it more specific

    lacks clarity? reads more poorly? as a professional, i think it now reads more clearly to all audiences without glaring ideological hangups from either side. i dont even know what you mean by poorly.

    agree al you want with bill, but let me repeat: I DONT CARE IN THE SLIGHTEST FOR POLITICAL CORRECTNESS, bill's ideological ranting aside.

  23. further, think about it this way:

    my job as an editor is to get a truce between you and the readers, so that your audience gets what you mean.

    first thing we are taught as editors is too try NOT to intrude to heavily and to keep with the authorial intention, even when the author is mudding things up. we are taught NOT to tow party lines.

    there are good editors and there are bad editors, some will have no idea how language works, some do. just like there are good marriages and bad.

    i labor to work with you to suggest ways i feel are going to best get your message across to an audience. to cry about all editors is a silly platitude. remember, we've spent our lives mucking with these issues, and are trying to work with you, not against you.

  24. Anonymous,

    Thanks for your comments. If I understand you correctly, you seem to be saying that, whatever was true in the past, it just so happens that under current circumstances the traditional inclusive use of "he," "his," etc. is not going to be read as inclusive, but is instead going to be read by most people as referring exclusively to males. Therefore (again, if I understand you correctly) your view is that, PC concerns aside, we should defer to this new sensibility. Is that right?

    If so, the problems I see are these. First of all, I don't think your premise is correct. If someone uses a sentence like "No writer likes having his work tampered with," I don't think any reader seriously assumes for a moment that the speaker has some strange belief that there are no female writers. All readers surely know what is meant. Yes, some readers might still object to the use of "his" here, but that would be, not because they don't understand the sentence, but rather for PC feminist reasons -- which you've said you don't care about.

    Second, even if there were some change in reader comprehension, it would have come about precisely because of all the PC propaganda to the effect that the inclusive use of "he," "her," and the like somehow makes women "invisible." And in that case it is surely risible to suggest that going along with the new usage does not reflect any PC concern. What you're really saying in that case is "The PC forces have won, so let's not fight it." Why not? If they have indeed changed the ordinary readers' comprehension, and in the process introduced some linguistic barbarities and misunderstanding of older texts, etc., then why not try to correct this situation by returning to the older usage? Or is it only that the PC side should be allowed its way, but not the anti-PC side? -- I assume not, since you've said you don't care about PC.

    Finally, can I assume that you agree with my main point, which is that the PC usage, whatever one thinks of it, should not be foisted upon writers who disagree with it? If not, why not? Why isn't this on a par with any other attempt to enforce a party line in academia?

    Aside from all that, let me reaffirm that I do value the work copy editors do. I've been saved many times from errors and stylistic infelicities by good copy editors. And I agree that we writers like to whine too much. But we do _sometimes_ have a point!

    I also disagree with you about Bill. I don't know what your politics are, but it does seem to be that many left-ish readers manifest a double standard with conservative academic bloggers. When a lefty academic blogger tosses off some polemical political post, no one makes a peep. When a right-winger does it, liberal readers express -- always more in sorrow than in anger and all that -- how "disappointed" they are that one has descended into "ranting," suddenly changed from being thoughtful to being "simplistic," etc.

    It's really quite ridiculous. Any blogger is coming from a certain point of view and has strong views about certain issues, and it simply is not fair to expect them always to rehearse all the detailed arguments for their views on (say) feminism, race issues, religion, taxes, or whatever, every time they want to make a brief comment about them. I don;t see any change at all in the quality of Bill's bog over the years, and it has been consistently good. Yes, I'm sure there's the occsasional mere rant, but that's true of any blog. People tend not to get upset about this when it comes from their own side, though.

    So, it seems to me people should lighten up about this, and try to have a sense of humor and perspective.

  25. Alright Ed, i think we are moving in the right direction...

    you almost read me right, but not all the way:

    my solution doesn't go with the new sensibility, but provides a solution to appease both ideologies, **and it happens to be grammatically correct by current standards** (we could always argue all day about if "their/they" is really grammatical or not)

    i do think some readers interpret "his" and "he" (especially in the example i used) as saying the author believes there are no legitimate female writers, etc. Some young readers have a difficult time, given their lack of tools, of interpreting it any other way. so, i disagree that ALL readers surely know what is meant. are they interpreting wrong? i have a hard time accepting that they necessarily are, since as a professional, i dont necessarily give authorial intention the highest slot.

    whether or not it's because of pc propaganda or not (or even propaganda from the non-pc'ers on the other side), a large portion of the public (probably) interprets "he/his" in a negative way, and instead of worrying about prescriptive demands, ive chosen a descriptive solution that satisfies both parties. given that shakespeare would be rolling in his grave about many of our current grammatical rules, i dont see the issue; i fail to see what linguistic barbarities could even be.

    as i mentioned, i do not think older english texts should be rewritten to adhere to any current decision on the rule, but should remain as they were historically written.

    finally, yes i will agree, that if im your editor and we discuss it, and you still want to disagree and make a point of it in your next book about "cooking for dummies" or whatever subject, ill explain the marketing considerations, insist my solution is ideologically-neutral (or at least with this issue), but would let you have control of your text. i think, however, that like in any good relationship we'd try to respect each other and make things work, but id have to ask why you hired me and my years of professional experience if not to make your book more readable and more accessible.

    thank you for the nod to editors, bill was not as generous, and frankly, he burned me up a little. it has seemed to me, and i tend to lean conservative, that bill's posts on politics and now on copyediting, unlike his philosophical posts, leave out complex histories and considerations to instead tow a party line and mostly to evoke emotional satisfaction. i subscribe to over 200 rss feed, and these opinions of his are so typically uninteresting, that where as he has a right to voice them, i probably wont read them (and have in fact been skipping over those particular posts). his post on copyeditors is little more than "get your pc hands off my pretty words", and trust me, the history of this argument is far more complex and rich; he sounds like richard dawkins on religion or something.

    your further thoughts are appreciated.

  26. Hi again Anonymous,

    Well, I think that the possibility of misunderstanding depends on both the sentence in question and on the audience. So, for example, if I said "I believe that all men are created equal" to an audience of 60-year-olds, they would all know that I am talking about women as much as men. Maybe a feminist among them would hear it otherwise, but then it would be the ideology speaking. But an audience of 20-year-olds, in a college classroom, might well really think I meant to refer only to men. I'd bet you cash money, though, that that is only because they've had this silly idea put into their heads by people who've told them that this expression was meant to exclude women, etc.

    Take a sentence like "Any student who wants to pass this class had better study his butt off." Here I think the 20-year-olds and the 60-year-olds would understand me equally well. The former might find it a little odd sounding, but they'd still know exactly what I meant, and that I was not implying that the female students did not need to study. And why would they find it odd? Again, I'd bet cash money that it would be because they've been taught that such usage is sexist, tries to make women invisible, etc.

    The point is that the cases in which people find such usage confusing are plausibly only cases where it is not their understanding of grammar, but rather their (at least vague) knowledge of feminist-inspired theory, that is generating a sense of oddness. They aren't thinking "What the hell does he mean? What is that gibberish?" They're thinking instead "Huh? I thought decent people weren't supposed to talk that way anymore!"

    So, especailly if one objects to the theory behind this tendency -- and I certainly object to it! -- there is good reason to resist it as far as one can.

    But you raise an interesting question with the cookbook example. I was thinking of academic contexts, where I think my point is very strong precisely because academics are supposed to value intellectual independence. My claim was just that academic publishers and journal editors shouldn't require writers to adopt a PC house style any more than they'd require them to adopt some other party line. But you are quite right that for-profit trade publishing is very different. And I can certainly understand the situation of a publisher who says "Look, Mr. Writer, the 'Cooking for Dummies' readership is mostly in Manhattan and Marin County, and this sentence 'A beginning cook should know his limitations' ain't gonna fly there. So your intellectual integrity be damned!"

    But this seems to me part of a much larger problem for any conservative trying to do business in a marketplace increasingly dominated by liberal social mores. Here I think my advice would be less general and more case-by-case, but my own tendency would be to advise resisting the PC modes of speech as far as one can even here. But I can see why a publisher might think it not worth the fight in some cases.

    But even here, surely they can at least avoid "they/their"! Oh the horror, the horror... ;-)

  27. Great post, Ed. Glad I saw it.

    I can't believe we are being subjected to lectures from a self-styled copy editor who doesn't know how to spell "therefore" or "all right." Or are egregious and apparently ignorant misspellings also just Internet things that we are supposed to ignore? God spare us all from a copy editor who can even bear to write like that, much less one who thinks saying "a person says that one loves a cat" is a legitimate substitute for "a person says that he loves his cat." I am beginning to think that a tin ear is a prerequisite for getting a job as a copy editor.

    By the way, all the publishers I have ever dealt with, including those who say they require PC language, have backed down when confronted with a resolute author. Young philosophers and academics, just stand up to political correctness.

  28. Yeah, LG, even though I've made a conscious point to try to ignore these mini-lectures, I still noticed (and winced at) some of the very things you mention.

    A typo is one thing, but if one simply can't be bothered to get it right ....

  29. lyndia and llion,

    youve hit the mark: i dont bother to spell check or edit my posts much when posting them here. its an internet argument, how much time do you think i spend making things perfect? in yalls own words: ya understanded me didnt ya?

    ive been an editor and writer for ten years, and i make a decent amount of money a year doing it. i also have a good deal of things in print. your remarks are typical ideological crying: "resist! fight!". gimme a break, yo.

    and by the way, i wasnt lecturing, merely adding to the conversation, and asking if there was a better solution than mine.


    again, i appreciate your serious engagement in this matter.

    though i am not particularly an academic editor, i basically see the issue the same in both markets.

    no matter how the interpretation got out there, because it is now evoked in the minds of many readers, i consider it a valid interpretation (philosophically and literarily speaking), which means a solution must be found.

    really the best i seem to be getting from yalls side is, "language changes and shouldnt! waaaahhhh!". again, im not agreeing with either side, because of the particular time period i grew up, i find both sides' solutions to read a little weird.

    i see little difference between yalls ideologically-driven interpretation and the feminists interpretation: both are ideologically driven for the most part and clearly highly political and even morally driven... id even venture to say a little naive in concerns of philosophy of language and hermeneutics.

    *in the end, since my solution appeases both sides, can't we adopt it or do we have to keep drawing lines in the sand over linguistic practices?*

    i stand by my edit:

    "humanity likes cats. a person says he loves his cat..."

    is edited to be clearer, more coherent, and more grammatically sound as follows:

    "humanity likes cats. a person says that says 'one who loves a cat which one owns'"

  30. Edward,

    Agree completely. Unfortunately, some universties put a lot of pressure on their students to use gender-inclusive language. Such was the case at my own. I attended a private university where many of my classes were concerned with theology, and prior to one of my classes we were told that it may even be well to use gender inclusive language in reference to God. Refering to God as She rather than He. I did not ask whether we should also speak of our Mother in heaven, though it would seem to send a mixed signal if we were to follow "She" with "Father". In any case, I chose to forsake this extreme PC attitude as concerning theology, but we were still given the impression that if we were pursuing academic careers (rather than ministerial of missionary vocations), then gender inclusive language was a necessity. I wonder how many young scholars have recieved the same impression as I, and use PC language because they have been told they must if they want to publish.

  31. illion,

    you said:
    "impositional, too"

    is your comma grammatically correct there?

    i mean a typo is one thing.

    i winced.