The Importance of Ethical and Accurate Language

Language and Ethics

As was noted at the beginning of this chapter, language is culturally transmitted—we learn our language from those around us. For most of us this means that we may first learn language from our parents, but as we grow older, other family members, friends, educators and even the media impact our vocabularies and our choices regarding what language we use. Think about a world without language. Quite simply, we’d have no way of participating in our world without it. People constantly produce language to categorize and organize the world.

Think back to our discussion of how language influences your social reality. In my work as a mentor, I tutored a girl in elementary school who had a very difficult time saying the word “lake.” I used the word “lake” as part of a homework exercise. What I had not realized was that she had never seen a lake, either in person or in a picture, or, if she had seen a lake no one had pointed to that body of water and called it a “lake.” The concept of a “lake” was simply not in her reality. No “lakes” existed in her world. This is a key example of how the language that we learn and that we choose to use says something about our social reality.

 

Emerald Bay

“Emerald Bay” by Michael. CC-BY.

 

Consider the above example another way. Let’s say that my young friend had seen a lake and knew how to say the word and what the word referred to, but that she had only been privy to people who used the word negatively. If throughout her life “lakes” were discussed as “bad things” to be avoided, she would have a very different perspective on lakes than most people. Switching this example around a little helps illustrate the fact that language is not neutral. Language carries ideas, and while there is often more than one choice in terms of which word to use, often the words from which you are choosing are not equal in terms of the reality that they communicate.

Think about the difference between calling a specific place “the projects” versus calling that same place “public housing.” Both phrases refer to a particular geographical space, but calling a neighborhood “the projects” as opposed to “public housing” communicates something very different, and more negative, about this neighborhood. Often students use the words that they hear more commonly used, so referring to “the projects” as opposed to “public housing” usually indicates that they have not thought enough about their word choices or thought about the impact of those choices.

By and large, language is a tool for concealing the truth. ~ George Carlin

As this example points out, we have a variety of words from which to choose when constructing a message. Successful speakers recognize that in addition to choosing words that help with clarity and vividness, it is important to think about the connotations associated with one word or the other. When speakers are not careful in terms of word choice in this sense, it is possible to lose credibility with the audience and to create the perception that you are someone that perhaps you are not. If you use “the projects” instead of “public housing,” audience members may view you as someone who has negative perceptions of people who live in public housing when you do not feel that way at all. Clearly, not being careful about language choices can be a costly mistake.

But what do these examples have to do with ethics? For our purposes here, there are two ways to think about communication and ethics. First, ethical communication is that which does not unfairly label one thing or another based on personal bias. So, in addition to choosing “public housing” over “the projects,” an ethical speaker will choose terms that steer clear from intentional bias. For example, pro-life speakers would refrain from calling “pro-choice” people “pro-abortion” since the basic principle of the “pro- choice” position is that it is up to the person, not society, to choose whether or not an abortion is acceptable. That is a very different position than being “pro-abortion.” Indeed, many pro- choice citizens would not choose abortion if faced with an unplanned pregnancy; therefore calling them “pro- abortion” does not reflect the reality of the situation; rather, it is the purposeful and unethical use of one term over the other for emotional impact. Similarly, if a pro-choice person is addressing a crowd where religious organizations are protesting against the legality of abortion, it would not be ethical for the pro-choice speaker to refer to the “anti- abortion” protestors as “religious fanatics.” Simply because someone is protesting abortion on religious grounds does not make that person a “religious fanatic,” and as in the first example, choosing the latter phrase is another purposeful and unethical use of one term over another for emotional impact.

Language exerts hidden power, like the moon on the tides. ~ Rita Mae Brown

A second way to link communication and ethics is to remember that ethical speakers attempt to communicate reality to the best of their ability. Granted, as was noted above, each person’s social reality is different, depending on background, influences, and cultural institutions, for example. But regardless of whether you think that a “lake” is a good or bad thing, lakes still exist in reality. Regardless of whether or not you think rocks are useful or not, rocks still exist. So ethical communication also means trying to define or explain your subject in terms that are as closely tied to an objective reality as is possible—it is your best attempt to communicate accurately about your topic. Sexist and heterosexist language are two types of language to be avoided by ethical speakers because each type of language does communicate inaccuracies to the audience.

Sexist and Heterosexist Language

One of the primary means by which speakers regularly communicate inaccurate information is through the use of sexist language. In spite of the fact that the Modern Language Association deemed sexist language as grammatically incorrect back in the 1970s, many people and institutions (including most colleges and universities) still regularly use sexist language in their communication.

An argument I regularly hear from students is that language has “always been sexist.” This is, in fact, not true. As Dale Spender notes in her book, Man Made Language, until 1746 when John Kirkby formulated his “Eighty Eight Grammatical Rules,” the words “they” and “their” were used in sentences for sex-indeterminable sentences.[1] Kirkby’s rule number twenty-one stated that the male sex was more comprehensive than the female and thus argued that “he” was the grammatically correct way to note men and women in writing where mixed sexed or sex-indeterminable situations are referred to.[2] Women were not given equal access to education at this time and thus the male grammarians who filled the halls of the academy and had no incentive to disagree with Mr. Kirkby, accepted his eighty-eight rules in full.

Interestingly though, the general population was not as easily convinced. Perhaps because they were not used to identifying women as men in language or perhaps because it did not make rational sense to do so, the general public ignored rule number twenty-one. Incensed by the continued misuse of “they,” male grammarians were influential in the passing of the 1850 Act of Parliament which legally asserted that “he” stood for “she.”[3] Yes, you read correctly. Parliament passed legislation in an effort to promote the use of sexist language. And it worked! Eventually the rule was adhered to by the public and thus we have the regular and rarely challenged use of sexist language. But this use of language was not “natural” or even “normal” for many millennia.

Pretending that we haven’t learned about the work of Dale Spender, let’s assume that language has “always been sexist.” Even if language was always sexist, that does not make the use of sexist language right. We wouldn’t make a similar argument about racist language, so that argument isn’t any stronger with regard to language that is sexist. It simply isn’t acceptable today to use sexist language; and by learning to avoid these common mistakes, you can avoid using language that is grammatically incorrect, unethical, and problematic. See Table 10.1 for examples of sexist and non-sexist language.

Table 10.1: Comparison of Sexist and Gender-Neutral Terms
Sexist Terms Gender-Neutral Terms
Actress Actor
Ballerina Ballet Dancer
Businessman Business Person
Chairman Chairperson
Fireman Firefighter
Fisherman Fisher
Mailman/Postman Mail/Letter Carrier
Male Nurse Nurse
Policeman Police Officer
 Stewardess Flight Attendant
Waitress Server
He (to mean men and women) He or She, He/She, They
Example:
If a student wants to do well, he must study.
Examples:
If a student wants to do well, he or she must study.
If students want to do well, they must study.

Is your remarkably sexist drivel intentional, or just some horrible mistake? ~ Yeardley Smith

First, you should avoid the use of what is called the generic “he” or “man,” which is the use of terms such as “mankind” instead of “humankind” or “humanity,” or the use of “man” or “he” to refer to all people. A common response from students with regard to the use of “generic he” is that the word is intended to represent men and women, therefore when it’s used it is not used to be sexist. If it were really the case that people truly recognized in their minds that the term “man” includes women, then we would talk about situations in which “man has difficulty giving birth”[4] or the “impact of menstruation on man’s biology.” Of course, we do not say those things because they simply wouldn’t make sense to us. Perhaps you can now see why the people of the 1700s and 1800s had trouble switching from non-sexist to sexist language—it defied their own common sense just as discussing how “man gets pregnant” defies yours.

Second, you should avoid using man-linked terms, which are terms such as “fireman” or “policemen.” It is appropriate to use these terms when you know that the people you are speaking about are men only, but if you do not know for sure or if you’re talking about groups generally, you should avoid using these types of terms and replace them with “firefighters” and “police officers.” Colleges and universities should replace “freshman” with “first-year students” and so should you. Other, non job-oriented words also suffer from this same problem. People often note that tables need to be “manned” rather than “staffed” and that items are “man-made” instead of “human made” or “handmade.”

A final common use of sexist language occurs when people use spotlighting when discussing the occupations of men and women. How often have you heard (or used) a phrase such as “he’s a male nurse” or “that female lawyer?” When we spotlight in these ways, we are pointing out that a person is deviating from the “norm” and implying that someone’s sex is relevant to a particular job. According to Peccei, in the English language there is a very strong tendency to “place the adjective expressing the most ‘defining’ characteristic closest to the noun.”[5] Thus, as Turner points out, a phrase like the “old intelligent woman” violates our sense of “correct,” not because there’s anything wrong with the word order grammatically, but because it contradicts our customary way of thinking that values youth over age.[6] If you talk about a “male nurse” or a “female cop,” you risk communicating to the audience that you believe the most salient aspect of a particular job is the sex of the person that normally does it, and some audience members may not appreciate that assumption on your part.

The use of sexist language is not just grammatically incorrect; its use is also linked to ethics because it communicates a reality that does not exist—it is not accurate. Man-linked language communicates male superiority and that there are more men than women because women are regularly erased linguistically in speech and writing. Man-linked terms and spotlighting communicate that some job activities are appropriate for men but not women and vice versa by putting focus on the sex of a person as linked to their job or activity. Finally, the use of the generic “he” or “man” communicates that men are the norm and women deviate from that norm. If all humans are called “man,” what does that say about women? Sexist language can also limit what young males and females believe that they can accomplish in their lives. Ethical speakers should therefore avoid using language that communicates these sexist practices.

Speakers who choose to continue to use sexist language are not only speaking in a manner that is grammatically incorrect, they are also risking communicating negative ideas about themselves to audience members. Often the use of sexist language is because of a careless error, so be careful about language choice so that you don’t accidentally communicate something about yourself that you didn’t intend or that isn’t true. Remember that if one person in your audience is offended by some aspect of your language use, they may share their opinions with others in the room. If that one person is a leader of the larger group or is someone whose opinions people care about, offending that one audience member may cause you to “lose” many other audience members as well.

Heterosexist language is language that assumes the heterosexual orientation of a person or group of people. Be careful when speaking not to use words or phrases that assume the sexual orientation of your audience members. Do not make the mistake of pointing to someone in your audience as an example and discussing that person with the assumption that she is heterosexual by saying something like, “Let’s say this woman here is having trouble with her husband.” When thinking of examples to use, consider using names that could ring true for heterosexuals and homosexuals alike. Instead of talking about Pat and Martha, discuss an issue involving Pat and Chris. Not only will you avoid language that assumes everyone’s partner is of the opposite sex, you will also better your chances of persuading using your example. If the use of sex- specific names doesn’t ring true with members of your audience that are homosexual, it is possible that they are not as likely to continue to listen to your example with the same level of interest. They are more likely to follow your example if they aren’t confronted immediately with names that assume a heterosexual relationship. There are, of course, ethical considerations as well. Because it is likely that your entire audience is not heterosexual (and certainly they do not all hold heterosexist attitudes), using heterosexist language is another way that speakers may alienate audience members. In reality the world is not completely heterosexual and even in the unlikely case that you’re speaking in a room of consisting completely of heterosexuals, many people have friends or relatives that are homosexual, so the use of heterosexist language to construct the world as if this were not the case runs counter to ethical communication.


  1. Spender, D. (1990). Man Made Language. New York: Pandora.
  2. Spender 1990
  3. Spender 1990
  4. Spender 1990 p. 156
  5. Peccei, J. (2003). Language and age. In L. Thomas et. al., Language, society, and power, 2nd Ed. New York: Routledge
  6. Peccei 2003