We all know it when we see it. A writer is reading aloud their paper, and something about a sex or gender or racial term just sounds…off. If asked to say why (and we should definitely point it out, and say why, if this happens) we might not be able to say what exactly about the word sounds so wrong, or what we would suggest as an alternative. In what instance would we use “female” instead of “woman,” and should it be “blacks” or “black people” or “African-Americans”? As writers we know that misuse of an identifying term can put the writer at risk of sounding biased or even ignorant. It can take away the credibility of a whole argument. So how do we bring it up, and what can we offer for an explanation? By no means am I an authority on the topic, but here are a few tips to keep in mind.
Don’t let it slide
As a tutor, it might be awkward to suggest to a writer that their use of a term may be incorrect, especially if they are unaware of any mistake (as they usually are). However, that doesn’t mean that you, as a tutor, should ignore it. What about the next paper the student turns in? What if they have a job, or an internship, riding on this paper someday and are still obliviously misusing terms? It really is better for you to help them out here and alert them to their mistake.
Appeal to an outside authority
After all, it’s not just your opinion that matters here. Remind the student that professors and their peers may be reading this paper, and may have different backgrounds or experiences that they should be sensitive to in their writing. We all make mistakes in our writing, but a more thoughtful view of the audience can help to correct those mistakes. This works the other way as well, though; ask the student what terminology their professor uses in class, or if their professor has given any guidelines on how to deal with these terms.
Advocate person-first language
The Chicago Manual of Style has a great section on “bias-free language” that both explains the importance of sensitivity in language, and offers some options for avoiding terminology that could be misinterpreted. Much of it boils down to keeping the “person” in your description of a person, something that many advocacy groups have also adopted in recent years (i.e. “a person with disabilities” rather than “a disabled person”).
Know your adjectives and nouns
Sometimes, the problem isn’t even one of preferred terms but usage. I commonly see “females” or “males,” even in professional writing, but “female” and “male” are actually adjectives, and often unnecessarily clinical-sounding ones at that. Unless your writer is writing a biology paper on non-human “females” and “males,” I would question the usage and probably offer “man” and “woman” as alternatives. In this case, the problem can be presented as grammatical, not ideological. Pay attention to context as well, and think about what sounds most natural in that type of paper.
As always, show some sensitivity yourself in addressing these topics. It’s far more likely that the student doesn’t know how they sound than that they are willfully abusing language. Suggest, refer to best practices, and explain, as far as possible.