Category Archives: 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.

Interesting prepositions

Something odd is happening to the way that prepositions are used in English, and I think I may be the only person noticing it.

Prepositions are small words that add nuance, usually by modifying the verb or adjective that comes before them, or else by modifying the noun that comes after. It is simplest to give you examples. Please consider the differences between:

  • gone to seed
  • gone with the wind
  • gone down hill
  • gone up in the world
  • gone off with the milkman
  • gone along with the idea
  • gone by Saturday
  • gone across to France
  • gone over it again and again
  • gone off in the heat
  • gone over to the dark side
  • gone in a jiffy
  • gone on the train
  • gone for good
  • gone off white wine
  • gone off of the edge of the cliff (hmmm)
  • gone out of control (as demonstrated)

I hope this list shows what prepositions are, and how powerfully they do their job. These examples are unusual because most words that need a preposition are associated with just one or two and not with a myriad of the buggers.

However I have become increasingly aware of prepositions being chosen seemingly at random. I find the whole thing interesting, so I decided to make a space where I could keep a list of odd prepositional usage out there in the wild. It says something depressing about my listening habits that so many examples come from Radio 4: I guess I could print this out in green ink and post it to the BBC.  Or start listening to podcasts again.  I add more to the top of the list as I hear them.

What they said Who said it What I expected Comment
All sharps boxes must be returned to the pharmacy where patient picked them up from My local GP’s surgery, July 2007 … where patients picked them up Oddly I quite like this – “where patients picked them up” is so much better than “where they were dispensed” or any of the other horrors which could have been inflicted on us.  All that’s wrong with this is the extra “from” on the end.
… please keep [your belongings] with you while on or around the station Train announcer, East Coast Mainline, July 2007 in the station Nothing really wrong with this, he just said the same thing twice.  To my ear, “in” sounds more purposeful than “around” which sounds as if you are just hanging out with da boyz.
… that has the potential to be absolutely transformative of this area David Cairns MPthe World this Weekend, 08/07/2008 … that has the potential to absolutely transform this area Actually I think that the problem is the choice of ‘transformative’.  I’ve no idea what preposition I’d expect with that.
… we made a promise with her … Radio Wave Morning Show, Sunday 08/07/2008 … we made a promise to her …. or …. we promised her that … I rather like the usage here. I’ve used ‘talk with’ in preference to ‘talk to’ for a couple of decades and I hope it hasn’t made me sound insincere. It very rapidly became habitual.
… in anticipation to Michael Simkins in A Good Read, 01/07/08 … in anticipation of One would expect Simkins to have a good ear for language because he is an actor and author so this example in particular suggests that this is about language shifting and not a matter of education.
Your character, Lucy, how different is she in this film than she was from the first film? Natalie Barrass, Go for it, 29/06/08 I was taught that something was ‘opposite to’ and ‘different from’ but I’ve certainly heard ‘different than’ before. And of course I was expecting ‘in this film …. in the first film’. Barrass seemed unaware of just how difficult it was to start a question with the words ‘Your character, Lucy…’.  She’d have been better with a simpler formation altogether: ‘how different is Lucy in the two films?’ or ‘how much does Lucy change between the two films?’  It is interesting to hear someone using two completely different usages within seconds: ‘in this film / from the first film’.
There’s a real apathy to this kind of thing My boss Amazing work Aphra; have a pay rise Nah, just kidding. I expected ‘a real apathy about this kind of thing’.
I am absolutely fascinated in British behaviour … I am still fascinated by [it] Lee Campbell, Midweek 25/06/08 … fascinated by Again, it is interesting to hear someone using different prepositions in the same context within about 15 seconds – did Campbell genuinely not know which one to use, or was the second time a correction?  Incidentally, Campbell’s an artist rather than a writer.
… I have no intention to do so David Benioff, Front Row 25/06/08 … I have no intention of doing so Presumably a corruption of ‘I don’t intend to do so’.  Benioff is a playwright, and one would expect him to be aware of the language he’s using.
Point of Inquiry is … recorded from St Louis, Missouri D J Grothe, Point of Inquiry, 21/06/08 … recorded inor
… recorded at
Possibly a confusion based on ‘broadcast from’?. Interestingly, Grothe said ‘Point of Inquiry is produced from‘ in another edition.
since many years I have not seen a rifle in your hand… Abba – Fernando – This is a little unfair, because Bjorn and Bennie were not writing in their first language. Apart from the fact you hold a rifle in two hands? Either: … for many years I have not seen …. or … it’s been many years since I’ve seen …. For some reason since/for is a common mix-up for speakers of English as a second language, and one you hear from a wide variety of people with a wide variety of mainly European first languages.  I guess the since/for choice is confusing.

Let me stress again that I’m not saying these usages are wrong, I have a distressingly post-modernist view that language is by definition local and that it’s ok to say just about anything so long as it works.  It’s also noticeable that all these examples come from unscripted conversations.

But am I the only one who finds these usages odd? If you find this sort of thing odd too, then please add your examples.

To boldly split infinitives

Have you ever noticed that Stephen Fry will never split an infinitive?

In the 1920s Fowler commented in ‘Modern English Usage‘ that there were four groups of people when it came to the vexed question of whether or not it was acceptable to split and infinitive: those who knew what an infinitive was and avoided splitting them, those who knew and discriminated, those who neither knew nor cared and those who didn’t know what an infinitive was and cared deeply.  It was a fair comment in those days of fearful snobbery based on arcane rules.  These days no-one apart from Stephen Fry cares, though some of us do know.

Star Trek provided us with the classic split infinitive ‘to boldly go …‘   This is a useful example because it shows us the different nuances suggested by where you place the adverb:  ‘… boldly to go …’ suggests that it was bold of them to do it even if they were actually shivering in their boots at the time.  On the other hand ‘… to go boldly …’ implies puffed out chests and strutting strides.  The split version blurs both meanings together.  Thus we have a choice of three different nuanced meanings, and most of the time I find my meaning is served best by splitting the infinitive.  After all, there is no rule to say that ‘they boldly go‘ is wrong.  Stephen Fry seems to put the adverb before the infinitive, but if I have to avoid splitting an infinitive for some reason I find I usually prefer to put the adverb after the verb.

However I think the whole thing is an irrelevance.   The idea of not splitting an infinitive came about when the rules of Latin were applied to English by the classics-obsessed grammarians of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.  But English is the bastard love-child of Germanic and Romance languages and all the more vigorous for that.  Latin grammar is irrelevant to English.  The key feature of Latin is that words were modified by changing their endings, so it was physically impossible to split an infinitive in Latin because it was just one word.   We do still do this to some extent in English:  he / his / him, me / my / mine, change / changes / changing / changed, and so on.  But the real work of modifying meaning is achieved by word placement and by tacking words together with those very hard-working but almost invisible two or three letter words which help us out so much in Scrabble.

So though I delight in the way that Stephen Fry writes and reads English, and am impressed by the deftness with which he avoids splitting his infinitives, I personally fall into Fowler’s category of those who know but discriminate.  These days, thankfully, just about everyone else falls intot the group of those who neither know nor care.

Who needs thought when you’ve got jargon

A friend of mine who knows my weakness for jargon and my aspirations to critical thinking sent me a couple of texts the other day which he’d garnered from his work.

The WhizzyDooDad is designed to provide customers with a variety of resources that, when used as part of a learning program that incorporates learning courses, will effectively apply professional competencies and reinforce learning content from those courses.

Desired Outcomes

  • Application of e-learning to real business situations and needs
  • Increased competency and productivity through the application of new skills and knowledge
  • Leveraged investment made in learning and classroom training
  • Increased use of learning/training programs
  • Projects or initiatives can be related to and/or integrated with a blended solution.
  • Learners have increased potential for actualizing new skills and behaviours “on the job”.
  • Learners take on new roles as facilitators and/or observers of skill transfer
  • Promotion of a learning environment/culture.

I’ll spare you the rest; I’ll even spare you my sarcastic analysis.  You’re intelligent.  You can supply your own.

My friend rewrote the thing entirely, without any reference to the original. Here’s an excerpt from the new version:

The introduction of WhizyyDooDad means that those of us who work in the department can easily find someone to give practical advice on whether or not an app [ie a software application – AB] is the best choice for a particular task. It also makes it  easy to find out what apps we already use and save money by choosing the ones we already have licenses for, instead of going out and buying something entirely new which does the same thing. We are no longer limited by what we know as individuals and in our local teams – we all share our knowledge.

The second paragraph isn’t particularly elegant, it still includes jargon and the last sentence is fluff, but it is at least clear fluff.

When I pointed out that the two texts say completely different things – the first talks about customers and training courses and the second talks about finding experts and reducing license costs – he shrugged, so far as you can shrug on Instant Messenger. “That’s what happens when you substitute jargon for thought”, he said. Which is a fair point well made. It is still one hell of a leap from Text A to Text B.

Rebranding illness

Lady Doctor by John WoodwarkIs it just me who gets the giggles about all those cattle with Blue Tongue disease?

It’s wrong of me to giggle, I know, but I love the directness of the nomenclature of animal diseases: Blue Tongue, Foot and Mouth, Mad Cow, the Staggers, Licky End. Actually the last one was made up by Terry Pratchett, but it is all too plausible isn’t it?

Human diseases used to have accessible names too: St Vitus’ dance, St Anthony’s fire, quinsy, dropsy, Bells palsy, tennis elbow, housemaid’s knee, sleeping sickness, shaking sickness, elephantiasis, croup, scurvy, rickets, whooping cough, cow pox, (any kind of pox, really), the Black Death. Those were names to conjour with.

These days we just have a bunch of bloody acronyms: SARS, AIDS, ADHD, HIV, SIDS.


I was looking for a picture of a medieval doctor to illustrate this post, when I found this painting by John Woodwark; her bottom is just too splendid for me not to share the image with you here.

POP QUIZ – which two words have very similar meanings, one is a six letter word of one syllable the other is a four letter word of two syllables, and the last four letters of the six letter word are the the whole of the four letter word?

Fish, barrel, gun

Ethical Living MagazineI do wish my nice organic box scheme wouldn’t assume that I’d like to read a copy of Ethical Living Magazine just because I am too lazy to buy my veg in a supermarket.

It’s a very nice, well-meaning magazine, printed with organic dyes on paper made out of recycled hippies but the poor darlings really cannot think. Ok, I am lying about the dyes and the paper, but the printers apparently have a wormery and a cycling initiative, and I couldn’t make that up.

Here are a few gems:

Lily Lolo Mineral Foundation is “made from pure crushed minerals [and] contains no dyes, harsh chemicals, fillers or oil”. Oh no. It’s made from soft minerals like, er…. well not the nasty harsh sort like flint or caustic soda.

From the letters page, a correspondent quite reasonably describes the difficulty in dealing with the increasing levels of carbon in the atmosphere, saying: “the carbon cycle is fixed and the influx of hydrocarbons [into the atmosphere – ? – AB] cannot be reversed by planting trees”. This is certainly what some of the current research suggests. However the editor replies: “where emissions are unavoidable we use carbon offset projects to help balance out the impact” quite missing the point that her correspondent is making. Planting trees is nice in all sorts of ways and probably a Good Thing. Some of my best friends are trees. However a worrying amount of current research suggests that trees do not, in fact, reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The editor does go on to “accept that the terminology may be misleading”. Bless.

I was rather struck by the jeans made from 99% certified organic cotton and 1% spandex. Oh, and they are £134. Which kinda sums it up really. Being green is really expensive. And if we are going to get the kids interested, we’ll have to use spandex.

However, it’s not the ludicrous cost of the things they advertise which irritates me, it’s the abuse of language. Oh, and the fact that saving the planet is going to require lots and lots of really coherent thinking and a damn good evidence-base.

On t’other hand, they do have an advertisement for which appears to be an organisation selling handbags made by women who have escaped from human traffickers. Since I’m not immune from woolly thinking myself, I intend to get my next bag from them.