Making words count: a review of Christina Dalcher’s Vox

In 2006, a pop-science book called The Female Brain informed readers that the average woman utters 20,000 words a day to the average man’s 7000. This was the latest in a long line of similar male-versus-female-words-per-day claims. Before 2006, one oft-repeated figure was 7000 words a day for women and only 2000 for men. Other sources suggested 12,000 words per day for men and 30,000 for women, or 25,000 for men and 50,000 for women. All these statistics are still floating around the internet, though none of them is backed up by any credible evidence. It’s obvious such wildly varying numbers can’t all be right, but that hasn’t diminished the popular appeal of the basic point they were all designed to make, namely ‘women utter at least twice as many words in a day as men’.

The general belief that women talk more than men is as ancient as it is inaccurate, but this particular variant of it—what the linguist and blogger Mark Liberman once dubbed ‘the sex-linked vocabulary allowance idea’—seems to have originated much more recently. One of the earliest examples Liberman found appeared in a 1993 book about Christian marriage, James Dobson’s Love for a Lifetime, which suggested that God had given men and women different daily word-budgets. The point was (as it usually was in the 1990s, the decade that brought us Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus) that harmonious marital relationships required each sex to accommodate the other’s difference. But there is, of course, another interpretation of God’s wishes in this matter, which is particularly popular among Christian fundamentalists: that a good woman is sparing in her use of words, if not completely silent. And this ultra-patriarchal version of the sex-linked vocabulary allowance idea has now become the premise for a piece of feminist speculative fiction, Christina Dalcher’s novel Vox.

The narrator and main protagonist of Vox is Jean McClellan, a neurolinguist who has made significant advances in the treatment of aphasia. But when we meet her, her career has come to an abrupt halt, following the rise to power of the Pure Movement, which has turned the US into a Christian theocracy. Women have been stripped of their civil rights, placed under male guardianship and sent home to do their Christian duty as full-time housewives and mothers (or in the case of lesbians and other ‘deviants’, shipped off to do hard labour in prison camps).

If you’re thinking this sounds familiar, you’re not wrong: essentially we’re in Gilead without the fertility crisis. The resemblance to The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t stop with the basic scenario (a near-future USA that’s been taken over by religious fanatics). Vox also features a similar cast of characters: there’s the Offred-style heroine who didn’t care about politics until her rights were taken away, the Moira-like BFF (Jackie, a perpetually-outraged feminist who went to graduate school with Jean), the nice-but-weak husband who’s reluctant to rock the boat, and the daughter our heroine would do anything to protect. It’s hard to quarrel with the reviewers who have found the book a tad derivative (one can only hope Margaret Atwood agrees that emulation is the sincerest form of flattery). But what does distinguish it from Atwood’s classic is the use Dalcher makes of the sex-linked vocabulary allowance idea.

In Vox-world, every female over three months of age must wear a bracelet around her wrist which automatically counts the words she utters. Her daily allowance is 100 words (reduced to zero for those sent to labour camps). If she exceeds it by even one word the bracelet will deliver an electric shock, and the higher her word-count climbs, the more intense the shocks become. She cannot get around this by using sign language, which those who monitor the omnipresent surveillance cameras are instructed to look out for. Nor can she resort to writing: books, pens, paper and computers are all locked away, and only the males in each household have access to them. Girls like Sonia, the youngest of Jean’s four children, are no longer taught to read and write. They are schooled only in home economics—cooking, sewing, and as much arithmetic as you need to manage a housekeeping budget.

There is nothing especially startling about a fictional dystopia where women are denied access to literacy, since this is far from unheard of in the real world. Women are also forbidden to read in Atwood’s Gilead. But the rationing of their spoken output to 100 words per day is a much bolder stroke. voxTo put it in context: in 2007, after Mark Liberman had drawn attention to the popular fascination with unsupported and wildly variable words-per-day claims, a team of researchers in Arizona decided to investigate the issue scientifically. They reported that the mean number of words uttered per day was around 16,000. (There were large differences between individuals, but very little difference in the group averages for the two sexes: the female mean was slightly higher than the male one, but the difference was not statistically significant.) If we take this study’s findings as a rough guide, and if we assume people spend eight hours silently sleeping, the average speaker produces about a thousand words per hour. And if you think that sounds like a lot, a normal rate of (American English) speech is somewhere between 100 and 200 words per minute.

Clearly, 100 words is a negligible number: most of us could get through it in less than 60 seconds of continuous talk. Of course it’s true that most everyday speech is conversation rather than monologue. But an allowance of only 100 words a day would rule out any kind of sustained interaction. There would be no chatting with friends, helping the kids with their homework or arguing with your spouse. If, like Jean, you had a husband and four children, you could easily use up your entire daily ration saying things as banal as ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘stop that’ and ‘it’s in the fridge’.  Even then, you’d have to weigh every word with care before you committed yourself to speaking it aloud. When your budgeting could be derailed by a cry of surprise, a false start or a self-correction, spontaneity would soon become an unaffordable luxury. Would this level of self-monitoring ever become second nature, or would women end up feeling that it would be easier not to talk at all?

Though I’d probably have read this book for the same reason I went to see Arrival—just because its central character is a linguist—it was the 100-words-a-day conceit that really piqued my interest. It’s a brilliantly simple ‘what if?’: what if men’s age-old complaints about women nagging and scolding and gossiping and chattering were rendered obsolete at a stroke, using a device not much more complicated than a Fitbit? It raises interesting questions taken on its own terms (how would women cope, and what would the long-term effects be?) while also prompting reflection on our own attitudes to women’s speech. As an idea I still think it’s inspired; I just wish that Dalcher had allowed herself to really run with it.

One theme I think she does handle well is the way women are made complicit by their desire to protect their daughters. Before Sonia is old enough to understand the concept of a word limit, Jean uses behaviourist techniques to train her to stay within it. She models ‘good’ behaviour by speaking minimally or not at all, and systematically rewards the same behaviour in her daughter with praise, affection and treats. But Sonia doesn’t know her mother is trying to spare her the pain of an electric shock. The lesson she is learning is that the less a girl speaks, the more she will be loved. One day she comes home from school bursting with pride because she has won a competition for the pupil with the fewest words on her counter (her tally is a paltry three). She can’t understand why Jean does not seem to share her joy.

There are uncomfortable parallels here with our own world. Our aims may be less explicit and our methods less crude, but as a society we also teach girls to mind their language and reward them for complying with gendered expectations (be quiet, be nice, be a good listener). And while we don’t dole out electric shocks to girls and women who express themselves too freely, we certainly have ways of punishing them, which cover a spectrum from disapproval and shaming to threatened and actual violence.

But other questions you might expect to be explored are either raised and then quickly dropped, or else bypassed altogether. One of these concerns the long-term social consequences of reducing women to near-silence. Following their expulsion from the workforce, women have become, to an even greater extent than before, the primary carers for young children, while conversely fathers have become even less hands-on (getting rid of all the women forces the men to work punishing hours). But normal linguistic and cognitive development does not take place without adequate input, as we know from case-studies of abused and neglected children. How will children acquire language in future if their daily input during the crucial early years is limited to the 100 words their mothers are allowed to utter?  The leaders of the Pure Movement (not unlike most politicians in our own world) overlook the extent to which all functioning societies depend on the unpaid care work done by women, including and especially the work of socializing new humans. Will the attempt to stop women talking end up destroying language itself?

Another question is whether people deprived of articulate speech would develop compensatory strategies and alternative modes of communication. VOX-cover-683x1024The abused child known in the literature as ‘Genie’, who spent her early years in isolation and enforced silence, and whose verbal abilities remained very limited, had a remarkable ability to communicate without words—to the point where total strangers would approach her carers in shops, offering items which they said they had somehow intuited her desire for. The urge to communicate is strong in most humans: it seems odd to me that the women in Vox have not become as adept as Genie at communicating nonverbally, or devised codes exploiting the semiotic resources they do still have access to–like non-linguistic vocalisation (e.g. wordless singing or humming), head movements, or touch.

One reason Dalcher doesn’t follow up on all the questions she might fruitfully have explored is that she doesn’t stick to the conventions of the dystopia genre for long enough. The book gradually turns into a thriller, building up to a climactic showdown between the good guys, a team of scientists led by Jean, and the bad guys of the Pure Movement.  This part of the story begins when the government approaches Jean to work on a secret project that requires her expertise. As the work progresses, she discovers two important things: one is the Pure Movement’s real plan for her aphasia cure (which is, it goes without saying, of the dastardly variety), while the other is the existence of an organised resistance movement. Helped by the latter, she embarks on a mission to foil the former.

The shift into thriller mode is another reason why the book has attracted criticism from reviewers. As the Washington Post commented, the trick with speculative fiction is to maintain plausibility within the parameters of a basically implausible situation, and the final chapters of Vox are not remotely plausible. Characters we thought we knew turn out to have been fooling us all along, unlikely coincidences abound, and science starts to look like magic. I’m not a neurolinguist myself, but I suspect the neurolinguists I know would agree with the Post that ‘Jean’s against-the-clock medical research makes MacGyver look like Francis Crick’.

I’d thought Vox might challenge Suzette Haden Elgin’s Native Tongue for the title of Most Memorable Feminist Linguistic Dystopia, but in the event I found it disappointing. Which is not to say you shouldn’t read it: it’s good in parts, and a page-turner even when it isn’t good. It just doesn’t develop its central idea enough to give the reader what I think of as the full dystopian experience–a sense of total immersion in an alternative reality.  As a number of reviewers pointed out, though, the current state of the real world has given this genre a noticeable boost (the Washington Post‘s review was headed ‘Donald Trump has made feminist dystopias great again’). So, while Vox may not have done full justice to its subject, I’m sure it will not be the last word.

 

One word, two words, pink words, blue words

girl words

Once upon a time, someone had the bright idea of making sets of fridge magnets for young children learning to read and write. All the children were following the same school curriculum, but since the designers knew they came in two distinct varieties–some were girls and some were boys–they decided to make two different versions of the product. The girls’ version featured words like ‘make-up’, ‘bunnies’ and ‘love’, while boys were given words like ‘money’, ‘car’ and ‘dirt’.  boy wordsTo make sure everyone would know which words were suitable for which children, the designers mounted the magnets on colour-coded pink and blue card.

Parents expressed their gratitude in the reviews they posted on Amazon. ‘Thank goodness for this product!’ wrote one:

For a while now I’ve been concerned about my little girl – she has been showing an increased interest in things which are clearly just for boys, such as monsters and climbing. I have even seen her on occasion use money, ride a bike or go swimming. This product has been a godsend as it has allowed me to say to her once and for all: “These are boys’ things and they do not concern you.”

Another declared himself ‘relieved that the [boys’] set excludes any words that might relate to any form of intellectual pursuit or emotion (other than fear)’.

Not all the reviews were so sarcastic, but almost none of them were positive: most people who left comments were critical of the magnets, and some called on Amazon to stop selling them. The crude stereotyping struck many as particularly out of place in a product that was meant to be educational. As one commenter put it, ‘Words are universal. Vocabulary is not gender-specific unless we make it so’.

But in reality, of course, we do make it so. By repeatedly using certain words about certain kinds of people, we create patterns which are more or less strongly gender-marked. The words are not ‘gender-specific’ in the sense that they can only be used by or about girls and women or boys and men. It’s more that we’ve learned to associate them with either femininity or masculinity. The adjectives ‘feisty’, ‘petite’ and ‘shrill’, for instance, are so strongly coded as ‘feminine’ words, applying them to a male may be taken as a comment on his (lack of) masculinity. In most cases the gender-coding is subtler, but it’s still part of our tacit knowledge.

You can test this out for yourself by looking at the wordlists I’ve reproduced below:

List 1

active, adventurous, analytic, assertive, battle, boast, challenge, champion, confident, courage, decision, decisive, defend, determine, dominant, driven, fearless, fight, force, greedy, headstrong, impulsive, independent, individual, intellect, lead, logic, objective, opinion, outspoken, persist, principle, reckless, self-confident, self-reliant, self-sufficient

List 2

agree, affectionate, collaborate, commit, communal, compassion, connect, considerate, cooperate, depend, emotional, empathy, enthusiasm, feel, gentle, honest, inclusive, interpersonal, interdependent, kind, kinship, loyal, modesty, nurturing, pleasant, polite, quiet, responsible, sensitive, submissive, support, sympathetic, tender, together, trust, understand, warm

There are no words on either of these lists which could not, in principle, be used in reference to either sex. But the words on List 1 have more masculine associations, while the ones on List 2 are more associated with femininity. If I described some gender-unspecified person as ‘dominant, driven and fearless’ you would be likely to imagine a man; if I described them as ‘nurturing, pleasant and polite’ you would be likely to imagine a woman.

One striking difference between the two lists is that a lot of the ‘masculine’ words seem to be describing leaders, achievers and rugged individualists, whereas most of the ‘feminine’ words describe helpers, supporters and carers. This contrast figures so prominently, you might suspect me of taking the words straight from the pages of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. But in fact, I took them from a webpage explaining a piece of software called the Gender Decoder for Job Ads. And the source from which the software designer took them was a 2011 article in a psychology journal, entitled ‘Evidence that gendered wording in job advertisements exists and sustains gender inequality’.

The authors of this study began by looking for gender-marked vocabulary in the job ads on two popular Canadian listings sites. Their sample included ads for both male-dominated occupations like plumbing, engineering and computing ,and female-dominated occupations like nursing, early childhood education and HR. Their analysis showed that the male-field ads used significantly more masculine-coded words.

So far, you might think, so unsurprising: but the kicker is in the second stage of the research, which involved presenting male and female subjects with ads for various positions (they included male-dominated, female-dominated and ‘neutral’ fields) which had been manipulated to make the wording either strongly ‘masculine’ or strongly ‘feminine’. For instance, one version of an ad for an administrative assistant stated that the company was looking for someone ‘dependable and reliable’, while the other specified that the applicant should be ‘independent and self-reliant’. Subjects were asked to say how appealing they found each position, and whether they felt they belonged in the role.

The main finding was that women saw jobs as less appealing, and were less likely to think they belonged, when an ad relied heavily on masculine-coded vocabulary. (Men’s perceptions were less affected by the choice of words: they did find ‘feminine’ ads less appealing than ‘masculine’ ones, but the effect was very slight.) The researchers concluded that the wording of job ads is a factor affecting women’s willingness to apply. The issue isn’t just that women see themselves as unsuited to particular kinds of work: even when they have the right qualifications, the perception that they won’t fit in cropped-c47620c5e92a01104c2e9b60258cc3fb.gif is reinforced by ads that use masculine-coded language (e.g. ‘we are looking for a self-reliant individual who is driven to achieve results’), and can be countered by ads that substitute more ‘feminine’ terms (e.g., we are looking for a committed, responsible team-member who is sensitive to clients’ needs)

This finding prompted the development of the Gender Decoder for Job Ads, a tool designed to help organisations avoid gender bias in recruiting. It works rather like the Gender Genie, which I discussed in an earlier post: if you paste the text of a job ad into it, it will calculate the relative proportions of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ words, and on that basis tell you whether your ad has an overall bias. I came across it on a blog maintained by the UK Parliamentary Digital Service, which published a guest-post earlier this year entitled ‘Breaking the bro code‘. The writer argued that ‘removing masculine words from job adverts is a quick and easy step to attract more women’. This view seems to be gaining ground: Iris Bohnet, for instance, the author of an influential book called What Works: Gender Equality By Design, describes the wording of job ads as ‘low-hanging fruit’ for those who want to reduce bias and build diverse, inclusive workplaces.

My own feelings about this approach are mixed. I certainly don’t dispute that there are bits of the ‘bro code’ which we could and should dispense with: they hang so low their knuckles are dragging on the ground. For instance, according to the Harvard Business School’s recruitment blog, the use of ‘ninja’ as a job title in the tech sector increased by 400% between 2012 and 2016.  By all means let’s stop advertising for ‘ninjas’ (unless they’re being employed as role-players in an exhibit about feudal Japan). And while we’re at it, we could cut out the kind of meaningless guff which so many job ads are full of–corporate clichés like ‘we strive to be competitive in a demanding global marketplace’, which increase the masculine vocabulary quotient without adding anything of substance. cropped-job_ad_buzzwords2.jpg

But while I’m all for getting rid of what’s unnecessary and offputting (or in the case of ‘ninja’, idiotic), I’m always wary of approaches to sexism which treat changing language as a panacea. Language is rarely the root cause of the problem: it’s the outward and visible symptom of a deeper cultural disease. In this case, for instance, the problem that has to be tackled isn’t just that the language of job ads is inadvertently alienating women. The deeper problem is the gender-code itself: it’s the fact that words like ‘analytic’ and ‘logical’ are generally understood (by women as much as men) to denote ‘masculine’ qualities. That’s got nothing to do with the words themselves, and everything to do with our cultural beliefs about what men and women are like (‘these are boys’ things and they do not concern you’).

Just substituting ‘feminine’ for ‘masculine’ words in job ads does nothing to address this deeper problem. Even if it persuades more women to apply for jobs in male-dominated fields, it does so in a way that leaves the codes themselves intact. It says to women, in effect, ‘you may think you don’t belong in this job, but actually you do, because it isn’t really about leadership and competition, it’s about stuff women are good at, like teamwork and collaboration’. Is that challenging gender stereotypes or is it pandering to them?

Iris Bohnet, the author of What Works, might respond that I’m missing the point here. The evidence suggests that changing the language of job ads ‘works’: it helps to diversify the applicant pool for jobs. So what if people still mentally put words, and the attributes they denote, into pink and blue boxes? ‘It’s easier’, Bohnet says, ‘to de-bias organizations’ practices and procedures than to de-bias mindsets’.

As I said before, my feelings about this are mixed: it’s not that I can’t see the force of Bohnet’s argument. But in the end I think feminism does have to be about changing mindsets rather than just devising procedures to work around them. And while I realise there’s no quick fix for sexist thinking, I’ve been alive for long enough to know that change is possible. Back in 1962, when I was learning to read, no parent would have objected to those pink and blue fridge magnet sets. Today, many parents find them objectionable. It’s been a long, slow process, and it isn’t finished yet. But if researchers 100 years from now discover that ‘logical’ is still a blue word and ‘compassionate’ is still a pink word, my ghost will be seriously disappointed.

 

 

 

Do women and men write differently?

The title of this post is a question I’m frequently asked. Usually, what the questioner wants is (a) confirmation that there is, indeed, a difference, and (b) a list of the main stylistic features that distinguish women’s writing from men’s. If you’ve read this blog before, though, you won’t be surprised to hear that my actual answer is not that simple.

When people ask questions about male-female differences, they’re rarely motivated just by idle curiosity. They may formulate the question as a neutral inquiry into the facts of a given matter (‘how do men and women do X?’), but often the underlying question is more like ‘why do women have a problem doing X?’, or ‘what are women doing wrong when they do X?’ In relation to language, that last question is perennially popular: it’s the starting-point for all those ‘521 Verbal Bad Habits Women Really Need To Fix’ pieces. Recently, the critics who write this stuff have been preoccupied with the way women speak. But there’s also a long tradition of criticism which focuses on the way women write.

One commentator who has managed to link the two is Naomi Wolf. In the article she wrote last summer criticizing young women’s use of uptalk and vocal fry, Wolf suggested that these ‘destructive speech habits’ had also infected women’s writing. Among university students, she claimed,

Even the most brilliant [women] tend to avoid bold declarative sentences and organize their arguments less forcefully [than men].

As I pointed out at the time, this claim does not stand up to scrutiny. But it’s exactly the kind of claim that doesn’t usually get scrutinized, because it repeats something we’ve heard or read a million times before. The (spurious) connection Wolf makes with women’s speech gives her argument a modern twist, but essentially she’s just recycling a very traditional view of women’s writing–that it differs from men’s in being less forceful, less daring, less logical in its structure and less individual in its style.

That view was already familiar in 1922, when the Danish linguist Otto Jespersen made one of the earliest attempts to survey what was known about gender differences in language-use. Women, according to Jespersen, were linguistically less innovative and less adventurous than men:

Women move preferably in the central field of language, avoiding everything that is out of the way or bizarre, while men will often coin new words or expressions. …Those who want to learn a foreign language will therefore always do well at the first stage to read many ladies’ novels, because they will there continually meet with…everyday words and combinations.

Jespersen also had doubts about women’s capacity to organize an argument using the complex syntax which is typical of formal writing (21st century readers should note that the word ‘period’ in this quotation means ‘sentence’):

A male period is often like a set of Chinese boxes, one within another, while a feminine period is like a set of pearls joined together on a string of ands and similar words.

What he’s saying is that men use subordinate clauses which allow them to specify the logical relationships between points (‘because…’, ‘however…’, ‘therefore…’), whereas women just string their points together in any old order using the all-purpose co-ordinator ‘and’. Actually, Jespersen seems to have thought that any kind of sentence-construction posed a bit of a challenge to the average female mind:

Women much more often than men break off without finishing their sentences because they start talking without having thought out what they are going to say.

If you’re wondering what evidence Jespersen had for these sweeping statements, the answer is, very little, and none that would pass muster today. But then as now, dodgy propositions about male-female differences often went unquestioned so long as they resonated with popular sex-stereotypes. And if they seemed to be at odds with the stereotypes you could always find a way to make them fit–as Jespersen ably demonstrates in this comment on an experiment which found that women read faster than men:

But this rapidity was no proof of intellectual power; some of the slowest readers were highly distinguished men. …With the quick reader it is as though every statement were admitted immediately and without inspection to fill the vacant chambers of the mind, while with the slow reader every statement undergoes an instinctive process of cross-examination.

In 1977 the researcher Mary Hiatt attempted a more systematic study of male-female differences in writing style. She picked 100 passages from works of popular fiction and non-fiction produced by male and female authors, and subjected them to linguistic analysis, plus a bit of basic number-crunching. Her main conclusions were that women used shorter, less grammatically complex sentences, had a less ‘authoritative’ style and were less likely than men to write in a way that stood out as ‘noteworthy’ or individually recognizable. In other words, she basically agreed with Jespersen. But this being the 1970s, she favoured a different explanation:

The chief reason is doubtless that women are a minority group, more likely to conform than to dare. …they seem unsure that anyone will believe them, reluctant to arrive at conclusions, a bit over-determined to present a cheerful face…

Hiatt’s methods don’t meet today’s standards either, most obviously because her data sample was so small. Since the 1980s, technological advances have enabled linguists to work with much larger samples. And I mean MUCH larger. One resource that’s often used by linguists in the UK, the British National Corpus, contains a hundred million words of authentic English, and was designed to offer a ‘balanced’ sampling of written genres, from scientific articles to tabloid editorials.

But even with massive amounts of data and powerful computers to process it, the question of whether men and women write differently is not a straightforward one to answer.

The methods used in corpus linguistics are pretty good at identifying what’s distinctive about the writing of a specific individual. It was these methods which revealed that ‘Robert Galbraith’, the obscure author of a moderately successful crime novel, was actually J.K. Rowling writing under a pseudonym. The analyst compared features of the Galbraith text to the way the same features were used in texts already known to be by Rowling. The match was close enough for him to conclude that ‘Galbraith’ must be Rowling (a conclusion Rowling then confirmed).

But it’s easier to identify an individual’s linguistic ‘signature’ than it is to do the same thing for a whole social group—especially one as large and internally diverse as ‘women’ or ‘men’. That diversity means that any generalization based on group averages will be false for large numbers of individuals.

The question is also complicated by the fact that the relationship between gender and language is often not direct, but mediated by something else. For instance, since writing is something people typically learn through formal instruction at school, men and women may write differently because they didn’t have the same access to education. If so, it’s somewhat misleading to call this a ‘gender difference’: there’s a connection with gender, but what’s producing the differences isn’t gender as such, it’s the related educational inequality.

Another thing that influences writing style is the genre someone is writing in (and, relatedly, the subject they are writing about). You don’t find the same linguistic patterns in academic articles and novels; you don’t find exactly the same patterns in history and physics articles, or in romances and action adventure stories. This kind of variation may also have a gendered dimension, in that many written genres are either male or female-dominated. If you find differences between men and women in a sample of fiction where the male texts are mostly thrillers and the female texts are mostly romances, it can be hard to disentangle the effects of gender from those of genre.

In one study of the language of blogs, the researchers found what appeared to be differences between male and female bloggers; but on closer inspection they turned out to be more closely related to the distinction between ‘diary’ blogs, containing the author’s personal reflections, and ‘filter’ or content-sharing blogs, where the author comments on the links s/he recommends. This looked like a gender difference because more women in the sample produced diary blogs, and more men produced content-sharing blogs. Of course that in itself is a gender difference; but it’s not a gender difference in writing style, it’s a gendered preference for different kinds of blogs.

The blog study was partly inspired by some research from the early 2000s which claimed to have found a way to determine an unknown writer’s sex with 80% accuracy. The researchers took a 25 million word chunk of the British National Corpus and counted the frequency of a large number of linguistic features, looking for the features whose relative frequency most reliably distinguished male from female-authored texts. They found that some of the best discriminators were

  • personal pronouns (especially forms of ‘I’, ‘you’ and ‘she’)
  • the articles ‘the’ and ‘a’
  • quantifying expressions like ‘a lot of’ and ‘fifty-seven’
  • phrases containing ‘of’, like ‘a shelf of books’.

Higher frequencies of pronouns correlated with female authorship, while higher frequencies of articles, numerals and ‘of’ phrases correlated with male authorship.

You’re probably thinking: but what does it mean, and why does it matter, if women use more pronouns and men use more articles? When someone claims that women ‘avoid bold declarative sentences’, or use more commonplace vocabulary or fewer subordinate clauses, we know why that’s meant to be significant. Anti-feminists can interpret it the way Jespersen did, as evidence of women’s intellectual limitations, while feminists can interpret it the way Hiatt did, as evidence that women’s potential has been limited by sexism. It’s not so obvious what deeper truth about men and women we might infer from differing frequencies of articles and pronouns.

But the researchers had a theory. They speculated that male writers were most interested in specifying the properties of objects precisely, while female writers were more interested in constructing a relationship with the reader. OK, it’s a stereotype (men are into things and women are into people), but it isn’t as blatantly sexist as ‘women’s writing lacks logic/boldness/force’. And at least these researchers, unlike Jespersen or Wolf, had solid statistical evidence for the pattern their theory was meant to explain.

Yet if we ask what these male and female ways of writing actually look like, the answer is a bit of an anti-climax. In one of their academic papers, the researchers illustrated the differences by comparing the opening paragraphs of two linguistics books, one written by a man and one written by a woman. The man’s book began: ‘The aim of this book is…’. The woman’s book, in stark contrast, began: ‘My aim in this book is…’. The difference is significant in the statistical sense (i.e., not just there by random chance), but it’s hard to invest it with the kind of deeper symbolic significance that a lot of people want gender differences to have.

But such is the popular fascination with its subject, this highly technical piece of research was soon repackaged in a more user-friendly form. Some enterprising person made an interactive program based on it, and put it up on a public website under the name ‘the Gender Genie’ (the site was later taken down, but something similar is available here). If you pasted some text into a box on its homepage, the Genie would guess whether the author was male or female. I monitored the site for three months, and also tracked a sample of blogs where people had posted a link to the Genie and commented on their own experiences with it.

What people invariably did with the Genie–in most cases it was the only thing they did–was paste in a sample of their own writing. Obviously they already knew if they were male or female, so presumably what they were trying to find out was whether their writing was gender-typical. And when the Genie told them it wasn’t (which happened frequently: while I was monitoring it its success rate never got above 68%), their reactions were instructive. Almost no one concluded that there was something wrong with the program, or with the basic idea of gendered writing styles. More commonly they fell to pondering why they, as individuals, did not match the profile for a ‘normal’ male or female writer.

Women who’d been misidentified as men often put this down to being ex-tomboys or geeks who had no truck with ‘girly’ things: none of them seemed offended by being told they wrote like men, and sometimes they appeared to be flattered. Men who were miscategorized as women, by contrast, more often expressed bafflement, annoyance or discomfort. They also got teased by other people in the comments: had they been writing poetry again? Were they secretly gay?

These contrasting responses underline the point that gender isn’t just a difference, it’s a hierarchy. As Caroline Criado-Perez notes in her book Do It Like A Woman, to do something ‘like a woman’ usually means to do it badly, or less well than a man would do it. It’s your basic deficit model, in which men set the standard of excellence and whatever women do is somehow deficient, weak and inferior.

Women’s writing, on the face of things, is not an obvious candidate for this treatment. If we consider writing as a basic skill, it’s one on which girls outperform boys from an early age, and if we consider it as an art, it’s one that women have excelled in for centuries. And yet the idea has persisted that men do it better. Only yesterday, I heard a male writer on the radio explaining why he preferred to read other male writers: one of the reasons he gave was that men’s writing gets to the point (while women’s by implication beats endlessly about the bush). Had he ever, I wondered, opened Finnegan’s Wake, or any of the novels of Henry James?

But that question is a bit of a red herring. When someone voices a general objection to women’s writing, you can be pretty sure that what they really object to isn’t the writing part, it’s the women part. And if that’s the problem, you can’t solve it by tweaking your prose style. There is, though, one time-honoured solution, used by writers from the Brontes to J.K. Rowling: don’t let anyone know you’re a woman. Write under a male pen-name, or use your initials, and don’t appear in public until your talent has been acknowledged and your gender no longer matters.

But won’t your writing style give the game away? Well, if you’re J.K. Rowling posing as ‘Robert Galbraith’, a statistical comparison between ‘his’ style and an authenticated sample of yours will show that you’re J.K. Rowling. But it’s a different matter if you’re an unknown woman pretending to be an unknown man.

When the writer Catherine Nichols was looking for a literary agent, she put this to the test by sending out exactly the same manuscript under her own name and a fictional male name. She found that what readers said about her language depended on whose work they believed they were reading. Whereas Catherine’s sentences were described as ‘lyrical’, those of her alter-ego ‘George’ were ‘well-constructed’. It was ‘George’ whose writing was more positively received: with seventeen expressions of interest to Catherine’s two, he was, as Nichols drily observes, ‘eight and a half times more successful than me at writing the same book’.

Nichols’s experience suggests that what causes writing to be perceived as ‘male’ or female’ may have less to do with the objective characteristics of the language a writer uses, and more to do with the tendency of readers to select and interpret data in a way that reflects their expectations. As Carol Ohmann put it in an article about the reception of Wuthering Heights (a novel whose language suggested to one reviewer that its author ‘Ellis Bell’ (aka Emily Bronte) might be ‘a rough sailor’):

There is a considerable correlation between what readers assume or know the sex of the writer to be, and what they actually see or neglect to see in ‘his’ or her work.

And that, in a nutshell, is the problem. It’s not easy to persuade people of the virtues of a ‘female style’, but it’s even harder to convince them that in reality, there’s no such thing.