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  • What Are Editors For?
  • Denis Dutton

There may be a need for an intelligent guide through the sex/race/ethnicity/disability/etc. minefields of current English usage. Unfortunately, it’s not Guidelines for Bias-Free Writing (Indiana University Press, $15.00 cloth, $5.95 paper), by Marilyn Schwartz and the Task Force on Bias-Free Language of the Association of American University Presses. The task force is a committee of nineteen women and two men; I’ll call them collectively the Bias Persons. They have elaborated their usage recommendations with examples of prejudiced prose scattered about the text in little boxes (all of the Bias Persons seem to be university press editors). Most of these examples of error and prejudice have been culled from “manuscripts submitted to a university press”—presumably these passages never survived into print in their corrupt form, if they were published at all.

The Guidelines results from a ringing declaration adopted in 1992 by the Board of Directors of the Association of American University Presses: “Books that are on the cutting edge of scholarship should also be at the forefront in recognizing how language encodes prejudice. They should also be agents for change and the redress of past mistakes.” A book that comes with such an important imprimatur as this one should not be dismissed or laughed off by writers and editors who disagree with it. I believe this book threatens the quality and honesty of academic writing in the United States. It deserves detailed analysis.

Let it be said straightaway that some passages of these Guidelines are quite useful, especially those dealing with potential sexism. The book sensibly recommends going plural wherever possible as the solution for pronoun problems. While the Bias Persons do not go out of their way to [End Page 551] discourage neologisms like laypeople, they do at least recognize individual taste may not welcome such solutions. I wish I’d had the Guide-lines in hand a couple of years ago when a student demanded I rewrite my class handout of Hume’s “Of the Standard of Taste” because it contained sexist language. Prefeminist sources should be left as is, according to the Bias Persons: “Warning labels, elisions, and bracketed substitutions in quotations predating contemporary standards of nonsexist usage are gauche.” Elsewhere, the book approvingly quotes a long passage (unacknowledged in the preface and uncredited in the text) from Martha Nussbaum’s The Fragility of Goodness on the thorny difficulties of using masculine and feminine pronouns in discussing Greek literature generally and Plato and Aristotle in particular. The Bias Persons recommend against the use of she as a generic pronoun in place of he: “Some readers may find this usage exhilarating; others may perceive it as bizarre or confusing or may interpret it as reverse-sexist.” (In the past we’ve allowed authors the consistent use of the generic she in this journal; we’ve now gone off it on the ground that it is both reverse-sexist and a form of preening, of please-notice-how-feminist-I-am self-congratulation. The Guidelines lend support to this policy.)

However, rather much of what the Guidelines recommends is too obvious to be useful. Just in case you need to be told, the Bias Persons advise against using jew as a verb. Be careful with those pesky metaphors, too: they note that writing things like “He worked like a slave to become the first African American to graduate from his class” is a bad idea. And I for one heartily endorse the Bias Persons’ caution about referring to research in pesticides as a search for the “final solution” to bug problems—this latter little beauty produced, with quotation marks in the original, by some blundering entomologist. (Near where I live there is a coffee shop whose chef is named Sophie. Thinking the phrase has a nice ring to it, the manager—though he knows neither book nor movie—calls the daily special “Sophie’s Choice.”)

Notice, however, that while using the verb “jew” advertises the speaker’s prejudice, “worked like a slave,” like “Sophie’s Choice,” is merely a gaffe, rather than evidence of racism. This develops into a major problem with...

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