Category Archives: Words and language

No such thing as “gender neutral” language – Creating safe spaces in Skepticism

Roman Woman in Pompeii

Roman Woman in Pompeii

I was challenged the other day for stipulating that there should be no “ad hominem or ad feminam attacks” in the Skeptics in the Pub UK and Ireland Facebook Forum.

The challenge was a linguistic one, on the entirely accurate basis that:

There is no such thing as ‘Ad feminam’, and its use displays a mis-understanding of basic Latin. ‘Ad hominem’, although grammatically masculine, is actually gender-neutral.

Here is my response.

Skepticism has earned a reputation for being an “unsafe space” for women. I am not going to go into the rights and wrongs of how it earned that reputation here.

The best way to stop Skepticism being an unsafe space is by setting the lead and making it a safe space, and one way to do that is by sending out strong signals and backing them up.

There are many ways of sending out those signals. In Edinburgh Skeptics, for example, we make sure that women members of the committee or women volunteers are active and visible at every event. (This is easy right now because there’s currently only one male committee member, but the numbers ebb and flow). [This paragraph has been edited for clarity].

Another way to do it is with language. Language frames our thinking (a few of us have additional tools such as mathematics and other modelling tools, most of us only have language). So language that silently writes out half of humanity should be resisted by Skeptics whether we are feminists or not if only so we can think accurately about the situations we are in.

You fell for the equivalent trap to “mankind” means all of “humankind” – technically it may do, but it was almost always men who said so. (I read a book in the 70s that explained that babies were weaned too young, and “when the child grew up he became fixated with breasts” as a result…). Gender neutral language can be bad for your thought.

We do not live in ancient Rome; “ad hominem” may have been gender neutral there and then, but here and now it writes out women.

I chose to add in “ad feminam” because it explicitly says “we will not let women be attacked for being women”.

Given that women who speak out online are regularly the subject of rape-threats and death-threats, and given that skepticism has earned a reputation for being full of straight, white cis-men who are members of the academy and who will stay up late arguing because there is Someone Wrong on the Internet, I wanted to signal very explicitly that – in this forum at least – attacking a woman for being a woman is not ok, and I wanted to put men and women on equal terms.

So, I stand by my linguistic error: it helps us think more clearly as Skeptics and it makes it possible to have safer, more inclusive and more diverse spaces for Skepticism.

Plus, as I said in my first post, [I had replied earlier more light-heartedly] it amuses me. Not only, but also. (I am SO over the binary).

How to annoy an Aphra

I like to observe how people use language, and tend to neither prescribe nor proscribe. However, some new usage does manage to scrape on my nerves. The first two dislikes are business-speak, the third is general. All three seem to be increasing.

  • Prior instead of before
  • Mutiple instead of several, many or some or a straight-forward plural
  • Myself instead of me or I

I hadn’t noticed them prior to this, but they are increasingly used in multiple situations by others but not by myself.

Double bubble

Woo Hoo! A post I can tag both Apostrophes AND Business Analysis!

In fairness, whoever wrote this speaks English far better than I speak any other language. But the sloppy layout in section 1.5 is not “Attention to Details” in any language.

I like “data’s” though.

I really like “data’s”.

I might start spelling it that way myself.

Hotelier than thou

I saw a sign today that said

Thank’s to all our customers

But it was hand-written in felt-tip, and I felt it would be a tad patronising to photograph it and post it here. There’s more kudos to catching the ones designed by one person and authorised and signed off by at least one other.

Here’s a peach from an up-market hotel in Edinburgh.

... selected=

I’m sorry the image is so meh.  I was sober when I took it, but the damn thing’s a mirror in the ladies’ loo and I was using my mobile phone without flash. It’s a wonder it’s legible at all: I’ve just spent half an hour adjusting the perspective and focus.

If you can’t read it clearly, here’s what says:

Located in the hear of the hotel, overlooking George St,
the Consort Bistro and Bar offers a great variety of drinks and food
selected to tickle your taste buds’

What I love about this is that someone must have deliberately chosen the phrase “tickle your taste buds”, I’d hate to think it was how they spoke normally. The only thing I’ll add is that a Margarita would be lovely, thank you, so long as I can get to Waverley before the last train home.

Change for change’s sake

It’s all too easy to forget that light is a wave when you spend all day thinking about it as a particle.

Just a quick thought on  business fads and fashions.

You’ve noticed how one year’s wisdom is the next year’s folly?  Of course you have. This applies to language as well as passing management fads:  Problems became Opportunities became Challenges, and so on. A lot of the time we are right to be cynical about these attempts to change how we think, but I surprised myself on Wednesday with the idea that there is real merit in these shifts of language.

Yes, these these changes in terminology are trite: Workers and  Staff become Resources who become Colleagues who become Associates. And so on.  But to some extent this crude rather Orwellian approach to shaping our thinking is effective, for a while at least.

The real benefit doesn’t come from framing a particular concept or relationship in a specific way; I think the real benefit comes from the time when both concepts are in use.  It comes from the  act of changing the language.

I’ve been  on a Lean course this week, and this thought came to me when we were discussing adding value for the customer.

It the unsophisticated past, say the 1970s, ‘the customer’ was the person who paid over their own good money for your product or service.  It was a contradiction in terms for Public sector organisations to have  customers. The Revenue had tax-payers, Railways had passengers, Local Councils had rate-payers, Dentists had patients, and so on.  How quaint that all seems now.

In the mercantile 1980s when ‘public service’ were dirty words these relationships were reframed by asking the question:

Who is your customer?

Suddenly the public sector had customers.  And so did those people deep in the heart of corporates, like IT or HR or Facilities or Planning. If you didn’t deal with actual customers, you treated other departments as ‘internal customers’ and spread enterprise throughout the enterprise.

It worked. It shifted the nature of those relationships and changed how people thought about them.  But in the process, it made it easy for those internal departments to ignore the harsh reality of who actually pays everyone’s wages.  The baby went out with the bathwater. We were so busy thinking of light as a wave we forgot it also behaves like a particle.

So then Lean came along and said:

No, no. The customer is the punter who buys your product or service.  No matter how far back you are in the organisation, everything you do should add value to the external paying customer.

This draws everyone’s attention back to the original rather old-fashioned idea that the organisation exists for one purpose only: to sell things at a profit.


… both views have merit.  And both enable good behaviours as well as fostering bad ones.

The time when an organisation is deliberately changing its language is the time when both views are in the open and being discussed. Once the language settles, the nuances of both terms disappear. So I think there is merit in change for change’s sake, once in a while at least.

As I said, I surprised myself with that conclusion.

And because it’s Friday and this post is about manipulating corporate bullshit, here’s some fun with bullshit and jargon:

Logical advice about wrestling pigs

The maths text book I had when I was 14 had a cartoon and quotation at the beginning of every chapter. The one on the chapter about stats said

Politicians use statistics as a drunk uses a lamp-post, for support rather than illumination.

This is not just the fate of stats of course; many people misuse logic in the same way.  The confusing thing is that they don’t realise what they are doing is an abuse of logic.  Debates between thinkers and feelers or between sceptics and believers become tedious spirals of cross-purposes and often break down into insult and ad hominem attacks.  The only effective way to cut through this is to introduce cognitive dissonance and use the gap created to introduce some logic, which is what happens in the video below:

Logic is highly structured, it follows rules.  It is not metaphorical or allegorical and people whose minds work best with metaphor and allegory do not (can not?) follow a logical argument step by step to the inevitable conclusion. Instead they arrive at their conclusion intuitively and then seek out arguments that sound as if they justify and support it.  The arguments sound like logic, they use the same language and the same semantic structures as logic, but they are being used in fundamentally different ways.1

When these two approaches meet, you get an impasse.

Don’t wrestle with a pig, you get muddy and the pig enjoys it.

These arguments are un-winnable.  If someone validates their beliefs intuitively then they are  not going to accept the validity of a logical argument.  And vice versa.

What makes this situation even worse is the Dunning-Kruger effect.  Put very crudely, this is unconscious incompetence in action.  At the lower levels of incompetence, people do not even have the ability to recognise competence in others. Think of David Brent (anti-hero of ‘The Office’, played by Ricky Gervais).  He is so inept it is painful, but he doesn’t recognise his own ineptness and he doesn’t recognise the abilities of others who far outshine him.  Me too: for example I cannot play chess though I know the moves, and I wouldn’t recognise skillfull chess playing if I saw it, though at least I don’t think that I’m any sort of chess player.

Theramin Trees gives a neat summary of the Dunning-Kruger effect below, and I urge you to watch it:

The thing that I find really odd though, is not the persistent failure of the illogical to acknowledge a good argument when it’s presented.

No, what I find really odd is the persistent attempts to flog the dead horse by those who do understand logic.  If someone is not convinced the first time that you say “there’s no evidence base for homoeopathy” then they won’t be convinced the 30th time or the 300th time.  Simply doing the same thing again and again won’t work.

As I have said, what does work is introducing cognitive dissonance, which brings us back, as so often, to the power of finding the right question and asking it.

1:  I was going to link to the episode of Beyond Belief broadcast on 28th December about Angels, but for some reason it is not available.  It was even more barking than the rest of the series, which I rather like in an outside-the-comfort-zone sort of way.  The reason I like it is because I listen to so many Sceptical podcasts which lazily make a virtue of scorning believers, and this makes a refreshing change without proselytising on behalf of anyone’s specific imaginary friend.

Back to post.

Damned Apostrophes

My sister, knowing my fondness for misplaced and missing apostrophes, sent me the following two emails:

Yesterday the conversation got onto dancing in church, [and then] onto religious dance in general and David dancing before the ark and being despised by his wife Michal for unbecoming behaviour, and I was skimming through 1 Samuel for the bits dealing with David’s relationship with Michal and and in Chap 25:42 I saw

And Abigail hasted, and arose, and rode upon an ass, with five damsels of her’s that went after her…

I couldn’t cross-check immediately because I didn’t have another edition of the KJV [King James Version] to hand, but there was one from the Gideons in the Sunday-school cupboard so I looked up the verse this morning and it appears that the error lies with my edition rather than King Jimmie’s translators.

I have two copies of the aforesaid edition, published to commemorate the third jubilee of the British and Foreign Bible Society 1804-1954.  Edited by John Sterling with line drawings by Horace Knowles.

Not as memorable as breeches or adultery, but it seems that the printer’s devil tradition of giving rise to special editions of the bible is still alive and well.

Followed by:

Checked another edition of KJV while Christmas shopping and the apostrophe was in there as well, so it isn’t a case of the BFSBS Jubilee edition getting it wrong but of Gideons having corrected it.

Bible Gateway and Biblos don’t show the error in their King James texts, however Google gives two valid links with that spelling.

Incidentally, how come there is no apostrophe in “King James Version”?

Interactive Mapping – too cool a tool?

Some years ago, my friend Justin showed me a copy of Visual Thesaurus. I squealed with delight, which is always embarrassing at work. Click on the image below to see why.  (All the images in this post link to the examples, by the way).

Visual Thesaurus

Visual Thesaurus

Recently I came across an open source version of the technology underlying Visual Thesaurus at

What am I talking about?  Well, this is a way to present information so that people can explore it in a naturalistic way by clicking from concept to concept in an interactive ‘map’.  But seductive though it is, it’s  not always the best way to present information.

The Good

This approach is helpful when you want to hide the options you reject.  This can be with a rich and complex subject (the Visual Thesaurus) or a simple tree structure, as with the catalogue below.   It may not be the best choice for a catalogue but in this case I think it works.

A good example of the tool, used as a catalogue

This catalogue works well

It helps if the subject matter is well understood: this example covers the solar system and seems to have been abandoned, which is a shame.  If you click Sun > Mars > Phobos you realise what a neat explanation of the solar system this could be.

Solar System

Providing information on a familiar subject

The technology also lends itself to certain forms of artistic endeavour, I like this one in particular:

Poetry Site

A poetic journey

It’s also been used with reasonable success to  deliver Haiku

I think the technology lends itself to this sort of artistically guided happenstance, and I can certainly imagine an artistic installation along these lines.

The Bad

I looked at well over a hundred of these maps, and those the best. The worst are dreadful.

Do not use this technique if your users are likely to want to step backwards and forwards through the navigation.  This is how people navigate when they want to be sure they”ve not missed anything.  SpicyNodes own home page shows how exasperating this approach can be.

Spicy Nodes Home Page

Spicy Nodes own home page

Don’t use it when a simpler tool would do.  Whoever created the example below was on top of their data, but their information would be much better presented in the form of bulleted slides. Using the interactive map just makes it unnecessarily fussy:

Migrating Sales Online

A bulleted list would be better

Here we see how important it is to get the hierarchical structure right. The map below is an A-Z of the world’s nations. But wouldn’t it have been more interesting to have them organised by geographical region? If you want an A-Z list, then I think a simple A-Z list would be better and would take up less space.

A-Z of Nations

A-Z But is this the best use of the space?

And this is the worst scenario of all: a navigation tool for a web-site.  It actually subtracts value, because it takes up the whole page and makes it hard to view the content of the site in a logical sequence. It’s a relief to know the organisation concerned has a traditional side and top navigation structure.

Site Navigation

Site Navigation - high on gimmick and short on benefit

Finally, I wasn’t sure how to categorise this map (which I found fascinating, by the way).  It would make a good teaching aid but it’s not particularly good for conveying information.

Study Notes

Teaching Aid

So where does that leave us?

Firstly it’s clever but not necessarily helpful. In fact mapping something this way is only useful when people know what they want to find out and want to ignore everything else: if they need an even view of the whole subject matter then this is not the tool to use.

Secondly it’s good for a certain type of artistic expression; it wouldn’t surprise me to see something like this in a gallery.

And finally, creating this sort of map is time-consuming and you really have to understand your data well, and so do your users.

I struggled to think of a situation where this would be the best tool for presenting data so I decided to go the artistic route, and see if it added anything to the experience of the sort of poem with repeated lines.

Vilanelle - Dylan Thomas' Do not go gentle into that good night

Dylan Thomas's Villanelle - Do not go gentle into that good night

I have to conclude that it doesn’t, but it was fun trying.

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Separated by a common language

We are used to language and geography indicating cultural differences, and it’s easy to forget that cultural differences exist just fine even when linguistic and geographical boundaries are removed.  There’s a shock of surprise when people whose entirely understandable words are only a click away turn out to have different assumptions, different beliefs, different attitudes and different cultural references.

One of the things that’s still cool about the web is that it gives us un-mediated access to other people.  Quite literally so.  It lets us find other people’s words without filtering them through TV or Film or News or any other medium.  Simply clicking around WordPress here gives me access to all sorts of people with all sorts of attitudes and all sorts of beliefs. But because they write in English, it’s all to easy for me to assume that we have far more in common than in fact we do.  It’s only when I read what they have say that I realise that one of us is barking. The apparent transparency of the internet shows us just how culturally fractured the English-speaking world actually is, but we have to be paying attention to notice it.

The Son of Roj Blake commented on how easy it is for cultural references to just whizz past in his remarks about the opening credits of The Watchmen:

how many 18 year olds (or anyone, for that matter) would recognise or be able to explain the significance of (in order):
– the Enola Gay at 0:51
– the subversion of an iconic photo from Times Square at 1:11 (in our universe, that nurse was kissed by a sailor, and the photo made the cover of Time magazine. You can see the sailor in the background…)
– would they know who the guy shaking Dr. Manhattan’s hand at 2:28 is? Would they recognise his wife on the left?…

He’s right: those references are accessible and inaccessible at the same time. They are accessible because it is a globally released English-language film and they are inaccessible because they are culturally specific to one nation and one generation. I finally understand the point that George Bernard Shaw was making when he said: ‘England and America are two nations separated by a common language’.

This separation is invidious because we don’t expect it.  We try harder when there are linguistic barriers because we actively expect differences in attitudes and beliefs and cultural references and we cut some slack accordingly or make an effort to bridge the gap.  As Obelix says so often in the Asterix books:

These Germans / British / Spanish / Romans are crazy…

Take those linguistic barriers away and all sorts of odd things happen.  We can miss cultural references without even knowing we are missing them as SoRB observed with the Watchmen trailer. But we assume a greater similarity than there is, which is one of the reasons that Sarah Palin seemed unreal to Britons, like some kind of bizzare caricature.  She was almost impossible for us to understand: we had no concrete cultural references for her. If her foreignness had been signalled by a foreign language we might have recognised the cultural differences for what they were.  We would have realised that she was real and not some engineered cross between Barbie and Lara Croft.

As with so many things, Douglas Adams put his finger deftly on it when he described that instantaneous and universal translator the Babel fish:

Meanwhile, the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.
The Hitch Hikers’ Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams.

I’m still thinking this whole thing through, but the long and the short of it is that the world is a whole lot more multi-faceted and culturally fractured than we think.  The internet appears to break down barriers and boundaries, but in fact as any comments thread on YouTube shows us those barriers and boundaries are alive and well.

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How to improve your writing – 2

This the second of my occasional posts on writing simply and clearly, and here we consider how to tidy up a piece of text once you’ve got something written down. Examples are drawn from How to improve your writing 1 – the first part of this two-parter.

Work out what your verbal tics are, and edit your text to remove them

Make this a habit.   Here are some examples:

  1. Remove all adverbs and adjectives and see what is left
  2. Adverbs and adjectives are words that describe or qualify other words (the red balloon burst loudly). The following text won a Golden Bull in 2008 from the Plain English campaign:

    ‘Our goal at Balfour Beatty is to deliver consistent, long-term growth to our shareholders ... By becoming the partner of choice tosophisticated owners in our chosen disciplines and geographies, we believe we will achieve secure, industry best margins in ourcontracting activities and substantial, sustainable equity returns from our long-term investment portfolio.’

    As you can see, this isn’t much better but it has helped us work out if the text contained anything of substance and how to re-organise it.

    Our goal is to deliver long term growth to our shareholders, and we believe we’ll achieve this by becoming the partner of owners in our disciplines and geographies.

    Sometimes, when you do this you’ll discover that what you’ve written goes round in circles.  If it does, cut it out.

  3. Turn the passive voice into the active voice.
  4. Making up an example was quicker than finding one.  The passive voice is considered to be particularly bad in process documentation because it is easy to forget about an actor who is never mentioned.

    This becomes:

    I found it quicker to make up an example than find one.  I particularly dislike it when a writer or analyst uses the passive voice in process documentation (the mat is sat upon) because I have no idea who is doing the sitting (the cat, presumably).

  5. Look out for and eliminate any personal tics you may have.
  6. I have a fondness for -ing verbs.  Here are some that I’ve cut out from an earlier version of this post:

    This is about getting across information or ideas  …  anything which is just expanding or supporting the main points … the most important point you are making …  preparing our audience with subsidiary points and building up to a conclusion …

    You have already seen how I got rid of those.

Don’t worry that you’ll  squeeze all the character out of your writing because you won’t: it is more important to be clear than quirky and you can be quirky and clear at the same time.

Have fun.

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