Gurus, language scolds and comma queens

Last year I read Cathleen Schine’s novel The Grammarians, the tale of identical twins who share a lifelong passion for words. As babies they develop their own secret 48132246._UY200_language; a few years later their most beloved possession is not a stuffed animal but an edition of Webster’s Dictionary. As adults, however, their paths diverge. The older twin, Laurel, becomes a poet whose work celebrates the riches of the vernacular. The younger one, Daphne, finds fame as ‘the People’s Pedant’, an arch-prescriptivist whose writings become so popular she ends up writing a column for the New York Times.

I found that column hard to believe in. Not just because the story takes place at a time when William Safire, who wrote the Times’s ‘On Language’ column for 30 years, was still alive (he died in 2009 and the column was retired not long after). A fictional world doesn’t have to reproduce every detail of the real one. But I still couldn’t imagine the Times, that august ‘paper of record’, giving the slot it created for Safire to a woman. Safire was the kind of commentator who is often described as a ‘language guru’, meaning a person whose pronouncements on the use and abuse of language carry a particular kind of cultural weight. And when I say ‘a person’, Schine’s novel made me realise, what I actually mean is ‘a man’.

Don’t women write language columns too? The short answer is yes, sometimes. I can only think of one woman who’s done it for a major newspaper (Jan Freeman, who was the Boston Globe’s language columnist for more than a decade), but in today’s more diversified media landscape there are more women producing language commentary of all kinds (including some of the most popular language podcasts). But none of them are like Safire: they’re not seen, and wouldn’t want to be seen, as arbiters of usage or defenders of linguistic standards. Today’s media language commentators, men as well as women, are more interested in explaining than in opining or prescribing. In spirit they’re far closer to Laurel than to Daphne.

But the gurus still flourish in another part of the cultural forest–as purveyors of guidance on the rules of correct usage and the secrets of good prose style. In the anglophone world, the most revered authorities of this type are not only men, they’re also dead, white and upper-class. In Britain they include Henry Fowler (whose Modern 1plainwordsEnglish Usage first appeared in the 1920s), Sir Ernest Gowers (author of Plain Words, originally published in 1948 as a guide for civil servants), and George Orwell, whose rules for good writing in ‘Politics and the English Language’ are still endlessly quoted nearly 75 years on. In the US the list is headed by (William) Strunk and (E.B) White, whose 1959 book The Elements of Style is still held in such high regard by many educated Americans, Time magazine included it on a list of the 100 most influential nonfiction books published since 1923 (the year the magazine was founded). It also appears regularly on the many online lists which direct aspiring authors to ‘the X best books on writing’.

But on those lists the dead have some competition from the living. One popular recommendation is Stephen King’s On Writing; some compilers give a nod to Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style; and the most recently-updated lists acknowledge this genre’s newest star, Benjamin Dreyer, whose style-guide Dreyer’s English was published last year. Dreyer, a professional editor whose publicity describes him as ‘one of Twitter’s leading language gurus’, has been hailed as an authority for our times: he’s less patrician, less pedantic and less peremptory than his predecessors. But he too is, of course, a man. It’s hard to think of a woman who has been elevated to this status—whose pronouncements are quoted by the cognoscenti, or whose name has the kind of cachet that would prompt a publisher to commission ‘Jane Doe’s English’.

On the face of it this seems odd, since women are well represented in the professions gurus typically come from (editing, journalism, literary writing and teaching). As editors and teachers they are heavily involved in enforcing stylistic norms, and they may even be the hidden hands directing major corporate enterprises (like the Associated Press stylebook, whose current lead editor is Paula Froke). But few of the women who have made careers in this field have become the public faces of linguistic authority; and even those who have tend to be accorded a different (and lesser) status.

Consider, for instance, Kate L. Turabian (1893-1987), the creator and original author of A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses and Dissertations. To call this text ‘widely used’ would be an understatement: it has sold over nine million copies (five million of them during its author’s lifetime), and a recent survey of over a million college syllabi found that Turabian was the most frequently assigned female author (ahead of Toni Morrison, Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf), and the 18th most frequently cited author overall. If these figures are indicators of authority and influence, then Kate Turabian should be up there with Strunk and White. But that doesn’t seem to be quite how she’s remembered.

Turabian’s story is unusual, in that she didn’t come to style-guide writing by any of the 220px-Turabian_A_Manual_for_Writers_Ninth_Editionusual routes. Her formal education ended when she graduated from high school, and when she embarked on what would become her life’s work she was employed as a secretary at the University of Chicago, in the office that dealt with graduate students’ dissertations. Her experience in this role led her, in 1937, to produce a short pamphlet setting out the style rules dissertation writers should follow. She took or adapted these from the Chicago Manual of Style, produced for authors and editors by Chicago University Press. In 1947 the press itself began distributing her guide; over time the text expanded, and it was published in book form in 1955.

By the time Turabian died she was sufficiently well-known to merit obituaries in various newspapers. But some of these tributes seem remarkably condescending. Take this one, which originally appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

Kate L. Turabian was our trusted guide and mentor, the absolute authority, the one who knew all there was to know about the strange world of proper term papers.… Our writing on term papers might be weak, our research haphazard, our insights sophomoric, but, thanks to Kate L. Turabian, our footnotes could always be absolutely flawless.

Turabian is memorialised as the First Lady of the Footnote, an ‘absolute authority’ on the dullest and least important details. It’s clear that the writer is poking fun at his younger self, but is he not also trivialising his subject (who did, undeniably, care about citation, but not to the exclusion of all else)? There’s a whiff here of the old stereotype of the schoolmarm, whose obsession with minutiae symbolizes her limited horizons. The same figure hovers over an appreciation written by a former colleague, who recalls Turabian as ‘a devout Episcopalian, an accomplished cook, an enthusiastic and adventurous traveller and a voracious reader’, and goes on to praise her ‘years of devoted service to the university, trudging in her sturdy oxfords from her apartment on the south side of the Midway to her office on the third floor of the administration building’.

The idea that women specialise in sweating the small stuff did not die with Kate Turabian. Mary Norris, for instance, writes on language for the New Yorker, where she was a copyeditor for many years, under the soubriquet ‘Comma Queen’. This is obviously a joke (self-deprecating wit is also a feature of the pieces themselves, as in this account of a copyeditors’ conference where a highlight was the announcement of some new rules about hyphenation); but it still trades on a stereotype of women like Norris (who has also published on subjects ranging from ancient Greek to mud-wrestling) as Miss Prisses whose main talent is fussing over trifles.

Another woman who has been dubbed ‘the queen of commas’ is Lynne Truss, whose 2004 bestseller Eats, Shoots and Leaves was entirely devoted to the subject of punctuation. What’s striking in her case is the hostile reception she got from heavyweight commentators and reviewers. Even her fellow-prescriptivists criticised what they perceived as her schoolmarmish bossiness (‘Ms Truss’, complains one such reader on Amazon, ‘came across as obsessive and lecturing’), while anti-prescriptivists denounced her as a fundamentalist, a bully and a fascist.

It’s true that Truss is, by her own account, a ‘stickler’; but is she really any more of a stickler, or any more obsessive about it, than any other popular prescriptivist? I can’t help wondering if the anger her book provoked reflected the same resentment of female authority we see in commentary on female politicians, who are also derided as bossy schoolmarms (the word ‘lecturing’ was used repeatedly about Hillary Clinton). Women who claim authority are always liable to be perceived as ‘uppity’ and unlikeable; and that’s a problem for prescriptivists, as it is for aspiring presidents, because laying down the law is what they do.

Some women have managed to avoid the ‘bossy schoolmarm’ trap. ggA good example is Mignon Fogarty, the former science writer and editor behind the ‘Grammar Girl’ brand. What she produces is a fairly traditional kind of content—advice on grammar, spelling, punctuation, commonly misused words, etc.—but it’s packaged in a less traditional way, using a persona, Grammar Girl, whose ponytailed and bespectacled avatar suggests a combination of the cutely girly and the slightly geeky. Grammar Girl’s advice is, in her own words, ‘fun and friendly’: she sounds less like a schoolmarm, and more like a friend or a classmate sharing tips she’s found helpful with her peers. Her selling point, in short, is not authority but approachability.

Approachability is also important to Ellen Jovin, proprietor of the Grammar Table, which22GRAMMARTABLE01-facebookJumbo-v2 she sets up on the streets of New York City so passing strangers can literally approach her. Her advice-giving persona, like Grammar Girl’s, is that of a friendly and non-judgmental peer. ‘I’m not there to make people feel bad’, she says. ‘I don’t like thinking, “Oh, you don’t know this thing, and that marks you as uneducated”‘.

But not all women are so eager to downplay their authority. The fictional Daphne seems to revel in hers: ‘I’m a language scold’, she announces, ‘and I like it’. ‘Scold’, of course, is not an entirely gender-neutral word (there used to be a bridle for that), but the kind of ‘scolding’ she’s talking about has a long history of being done by men. In modern times it’s been the particular province of right-wing curmudgeons like Kingsley Amis and John Humphrys. And recently a woman–the novelist Lionel Shriver–has placed herself squarely in that tradition. Last August she published a classic curmudgeonly piece in Harper’s complaining about what she referred to as ‘semantic drift’ (aka ‘people not using words properly’), and she has since followed up with a hatchet-job on ‘lefty lingo’. If the timing fit better I’d suspect that Daphne was modelled on her.

But surely, I hear you cry, you’re not defending Lionel Shriver’s reactionary bullshit, or Lynne Truss’s ‘zero tolerance’ for misplaced apostrophes? Well, no: I’m not a fan of either. I’m also not a fan of Orwell, Strunk and White, or in fact any of the gurus, living or dead. But another thing I’m not a fan of is double standards. Whatever you think of the enterprise itself, there’s no good reason why the women who engage in it should be treated any differently from the men. They may be no better, but they’re also no worse–no bossier, no more snobbish and no more obsessed with trivia. They deserve parity of esteem, and (if we feel that way) parity of abuse.

The year in language and feminism, Part II: selected reading

I created this blog primarily as a vehicle for my own thoughts and opinions, but what I write for it is always informed by other people’s research, and by ideas I’ve encountered in other people’s writing. So, to complement my recent review of the year, I’d like to share ten things I read in 2017 which I found interesting, informative and thought-provoking—and which aren’t too technical to be accessible to non-specialists.

Four books

Mary Beard, Women and Power: A Manifesto. A short book which takes the long view on the silencing of women in patriarchal societies.

Emma Jane, Misogyny Online: A Short (and Brutish) History. An Australian journalist turned academic researcher examines the development and impact of online misogyny, and its characteristic linguistic register ‘Rapeglish’, from 1998 to the present.

Angela Nagle, Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4Chan and tumblr to Trump and the alt-right. Before anyone was talking about the ‘alt-right’, Angela Nagle was investigating the online subcultures from which it emerged, tracking the people involved, the platforms they used, the political positions they espoused and—from a linguist’s perspective most interestingly—the evolution of their distinctive communication style. This isn’t as distinctive as we might think: it has much in common with earlier celebrations of transgression (‘kill all normies’ is reminiscent of Baudelaire’s ‘il faut épater les bourgeois’), and its emphasis on men rebelling against the domesticating influence of women recalls the leftist counter-culture of the 1960s (think Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). What this shows, Nagle argues, is that we shouldn’t equate being transgressive with being politically progressive. She thinks opponents of the ‘alt-right’ need to take a critical look at their own style of discourse.

Jennifer Sclafani, Talking Donald Trump. Another short book in which an interactional sociolinguist analyses Donald Trump’s use of spoken language during the contest for the Republican nomination. Sclafani doesn’t say much about Trump’s performance of masculinity (which became more salient after he won the nomination and was pitted against a female opponent, Hillary Clinton), but what she does do, by concentrating on small but interactionally significant details, is get beyond the linguistically superficial received wisdom (‘he’s inarticulate/ can’t construct a proper sentence/ has a vocabulary as small as his hands’) to show what’s actually distinctive (and effective) about Trump’s style of public speaking.

Six shorter reads

Language, gender and politics

Unsurprisingly, 2017 produced many reflections on the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, and one issue some of these reflections addressed was the role played by gendered language in shaping responses to the candidates. Among the most intriguing approaches to the question was a dramatic experiment asking ‘What if Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton had swapped genders?

Speaking while female in the workplace

Though working women in 2017 continued to be lectured about their dysfunctional ‘verbal tics’, the idea that inequality in the workplace might not be the result of women’s own linguistic shortcomings appears to be gaining more traction. The research reported in ‘A study used sensors to show that men and women are treated differently at work’ led the researchers to conclude that the problem is ‘bias, not differences in behavior’.

Representing violence against women

Watching the TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, which was one of the feminist cultural events of the year, prompted Emma Nagouse, who researches Biblical and contemporary rape narratives, to write ‘Handmaids and Jezebels: anaesthetising the language of sexual violence’, about the way language is used to normalise sexual violence and exploitation in the fictional world of Gilead. Later in the year it would become apparent that language serves a not dissimilar purpose in our own world. In ‘The complicated, inadequate language of sexual violence’, Constance Grady reflected on the difficult linguistic choices writers face in reporting women’s experiences of sexual harassment.

Language, gender and artificial intelligence

There was a steady stream of commentary this year on the rise of intelligent machines and what it might mean for the future of humanity. A question of interest to feminists is whether the Brave New World of AI will look any less sexist than what preceded it. In her short but pithy ‘What is a female robot?’, Gia Milinovich asked what it means to treat a  machine as ‘female’. Another memorable piece about the way gender affects human-machine relationships was ‘Siri is dying. Long live Susan Bennett’. Susan Bennett is the woman whose recorded voice was used, without her knowledge, to create the first version of Apple’s virtual assistant Siri. There’s nothing feminist about the writer’s take on her story, but for a feminist reader it contains plenty of food for thought. You could think of it as a Pygmalion narrative for the 21st century, set in a technologically advanced world where women are still seen as raw material to be shaped and improved on by male ingenuity.

Bonus: something to listen to

One of my professional sheroes, the cognitive neuroscientist Sophie Scott, gave 2017’s Royal Institution Christmas lectures for young people. In the run-up to the lectures she made this podcast, which is interesting on a range of frequently asked questions about language, evolution and the brain, and includes some trenchant debunking of  myths about male-female differences.

As Sophie Scott observes, challenging popular beliefs about men and women is an uphill struggle. Though I’ve only mentioned a few by name in this post, I want to salute all those women (and men) who have, nevertheless, persisted.




Are women over-emojinal?

To mark World Emoji Day on July 17, the Empire State Building was lit up in emoji yellow, and Leah Fessler wrote a piece for Quartz* about why feminists should stop using emoji. She’d realised, she explained, that larding your messages with smiley faces, love hearts and thumbs-up signs (as well as exclamation points, which she treats as honorary emoji) is yet another form of emotional labour the world demands from women.

From childhood, women are conditioned to smile and nod to ensure that others feel comfortable and confident. This dynamic translates in digital communication through emoji and exclamation points.

Fessler was determined to break her emoji habit, but initially she found it hard; she felt ‘rude and awkward’ replying to messages with a simple ‘OK’ or ‘sure’ rather than a cheery thumbs-up or an enthusiastic ‘absolutely!’ But a few days in, she found she was starting to reap the benefits. Ditching the emoji, she reports, ‘wasn’t just a relief—it was empowering’.

Ah, the E-word–so often the canary in the coalmine of language-policing bullshit. Despite its use of sociological terms like ‘conditioning’ and ’emotional labour’, this is still basically an example of the formula I’ve analysed in previous posts about ‘just’, ‘sorry’, uptalk et al. First, you identify something women do, or are believed to do, more than men; next, you explain why that’s a problem for women; finally, you exhort women to empower themselves by changing their behaviour. Embellish the basic argument with some personal anecdotes, finish with an Uplifting Thought (‘even the smallest changes can alter the way others view you, and more importantly, the way you view yourself’)–et voilà, job done.

But enough of the snark: let’s try to unpick the argument.

Since emoji came into widespread use, their merits or otherwise have been extensively discussed, and opinion has been divided. On one hand they’ve been lauded in pieces (misguidedly) proclaiming them a new universal tongue, ‘the world’s fastest growing language’; on the other they’ve been belittled in comments like this one from the New York Times:

Given their resemblance to the stickers that adorn the notebooks of schoolgirls, not to mention their widespread adoption as the lingua franca of tweens and teens everywhere, some people wonder whether grown men should be using [emoji] at all.

This has something in common with the popular response to other linguistic innovations, like uptalk and vocal fry, which are associated with young women. When a linguistic form is stereotyped as a ‘girl thing’, you can bet that people will disparage it–and also that they will project a meaning onto it which reflects their ideas, or prejudices, about girls. Uptalk, for instance, has persistently been interpreted as a sign that the speaker doesn’t know what she really thinks, and/or is desperate for others’ approval–a story we’d find less intuitively plausible if it were told about something middle-aged men did. (If you want to know why linguists who’ve studied uptalk don’t buy this interpretation, see here).

By likening them to the decorative stickers young girls put on their school notebooks, the writer quoted above implies that women’s enthusiasm for emoji is of a piece with their more general fondness for frivolous embellishments. In scholarly discussions you’re more likely to encounter a different stereotype: women use emoji more than men because they’re more ’emotionally expressive’. Apart from being suspiciously circular (is there any evidence that women are more emotionally expressive apart from the kinds of emotional expression which their emotional expressiveness is meant to explain?), this argument presupposes that expressing emotion must be the function of emoji. Which might seem to be self-evident (isn’t the clue in the name?), but is actually an oversimplification.

That emoji are neither purely decorative nor all about the expression of emotion becomes clearer if you know something about their history. The precursors of emoji, emoticons (the earliest of these were smiley and winky faces made by combining ASCII characters, and they were invented by a grown man, or so he claims) were taken up by participants in early online forums to address a problem in what was then a new communication medium. Written language offers fewer resources than speech for signalling how you intend your message to be taken. In speech you’ve got the pitch, tone, loudness and quality of your voice (plus in face-to-face contexts facial expressions and body language), but in text-based interaction you’ve got none of these. This was leading to conflict when messages that were meant to be ironic or humorous prompted angry reactions from others who read them ‘straight’. Emoticons were ‘meta’ devices which enabled writers to signal their intentions more explicitly.

Today’s emoji are more diverse than emoticons in both their forms and their functions. They do provide resources for emotional expression, but that isn’t the only thing they’re used for. They’ve retained their usefulness as indicators of ironic or humorous intent, and they can also serve as tools for managing the mechanics of text-based interaction. On Twitter, for instance, the heart is often used simply as an acknowledgment token, to let someone know you’ve seen a tweet rather than to express your feelings about its content. In that case its affective meaning (‘heart = love’) is irrelevant, and competent users understand that. The same applies to the office conventions Leah Fessler complains about, like acknowledging meeting reminders with a thumbs-up emoji. Though the thumbs-up gesture conventionally symbolises enthusiasm, in this context it’s no more likely to mean ‘I’m really excited about this meeting’, than the Twitter heart is to mean ‘I’m in love with this tweet’. Using it is less a form of emotional labour than a labour-saving device (it’s quicker and easier than composing a verbal acknowledgment).

But if emoji aren’t just about emoting, or decoration, how do we explain women using them more than men? Actually, let’s go back a step: do women use them more than men?

Some of the evidence presented to support this claim should be approached with caution, because it comes from studies which asked people to report on their emoji use rather than analysing their actual output. Self-reports vary in accuracy, and they’re liable to be influenced by the subjects’ beliefs about who uses what kind of language (if a form is associated with women, that in itself may lead men to under-report their use of it). However, the generalisation that women use emoji more than men does have some credible research evidence to back it up. One frequently-cited study was done in Texas in 2012: researchers analysed 124,000 real text messages produced by subjects who granted access to their phones without knowing what the research was about. Women in this sample were twice as likely as men to include emoticons in a text–though their overall frequency was low for both sexes (only 4% of the texts sampled contained any).

But research also shows that gender is not the only variable affecting how, and how much, emoji are used. You can’t easily generalise across genres, platforms and devices–text messages aren’t the same as emails, and what goes for Tinder doesn’t apply to Twitter. Nor can you sensibly talk about ‘women’ or ‘men’ as homogeneous categories, without reference to intersecting variables like age and social background. It can also make a difference who the messages are addressed to. One early study of emoticon use in newsgroups (which were important online forums before Web 2.0 and smartphones) found that women in all-female or female dominated groups used more emoticons than men in all-male or male dominated ones. In mixed newsgroups, however, there was no significant difference: women used emoticons at much the same rates as they did in all-female groups, but men used them much more frequently when they were participating in a mixed group. This is not an unusual observation. Masculinity and femininity are often performed differently in single-sex and mixed sex interaction, where people are responding to different kinds of peer pressure, and where they may also be having different kinds of conversations.

In sum: ‘women use emoji more than men’ is probably true as far as it goes; there’s also plenty of evidence showing that certain emoji are used more by women and others are used more by men. However, these descriptive generalisations (like all statements about ‘men’ and ‘women’) mask significant variation within each group. And no descriptive generalisation (if you’ll forgive me for stating the obvious) constitutes an explanation of the facts it describes.

As I’ve already said, there’s a tendency for researchers to go straight for the ‘women are more emotionally expressive’ explanation. But as I’ve also already said, this is not entirely satisfactory. And there are other possibilities which fit at least as well with things we know about gender and communication in other contexts. For instance:

The difference might be a matter of style (a word which shouldn’t, in the context of language, be taken to denote something trivial). Online and offline, language is one of the symbolic resources which people draw on to create a distinctive persona, and to mark themselves as members or non-members of particular social groups or subcultures. Many small differences in pronunciation do this job: different variants of the same sound may be used to differing degrees or in different ways by speakers of different ages, classes, ethnicities and genders. The same principle might explain why men and women use an overlapping but non-identical range of emoji, and why women use them more frequently overall. You could compare it to the way we style our clothes or our hair: with emoji as with clothes, it seems that mainstream masculinity is less flamboyant than the feminine equivalent. (Interestingly, a study that investigated the perceived gender of the most popular emoji found that the ones ranked most ‘feminine’ included ‘face throwing a kiss’ and ‘face with tears of joy’, while the most ‘masculine’ were the more prosaic ‘thumbs-up’ and ‘OK’ symbols).

The difference might also be a by-product of the fact that men and women, if we insist on considering them as aggregates, tend to be members of different social networks in which they have conversations about different things. This is a point demonstrated in many tedious Big Data studies of vocabulary: I wish I had £10 for every article I’ve read which announces that ‘men and women use different words’, when all the research really shows is that people generally use words which pertain to the subject under discussion. Amazingly enough, women posting family news on Facebook tend to use more words relating to kinship and family occasions (like ‘grandma’ and ‘wedding’) than men debating current affairs or the performance of Arsenal Football Club. Most emoji are less subject-specific in their application than most words, but it’s still reasonable to think that which and how many of them you use might have something to do with who you’re talking to and what about.

It’s also possible that women’s more frequent use of emoji exemplifies the common pattern where innovations which are destined to spread through the whole population become visible first among young women. Because of that, we start out assuming they’re a ‘girl thing’ and looking for explanations which connect them to femininity; but as they spread it becomes apparent that they weren’t so much a girl thing as a new thing that girls got onto first. This is what has happened with uptalk: once a Valley Girl signature, it’s now heard among young and even middle-aged speakers, of both sexes, in many parts of the English-speaking world. Maybe the emoji gap between men and women will also narrow over time, making the question of why women use more emoji redundant.

This is not a multiple choice test where there’s only one right answer: the social life of language is too complex for one-size-fits-all explanations. And that’s an especially important point to bear in mind when you’re trying to explain gendered behaviour, because the categories ‘men’ and ‘women’ are so internally diverse–different subsets of men and women may be using or not using emoji for different reasons. I know I keep on saying this, but it really can’t be over-emphasised: no single thing can explain the behaviour of every member of a group which comprises half of humankind.

Do I think Leah Fessler is describing a real phenomenon? Yes. I think the pressure to be relentlessly upbeat and positive is a feature of many workplace cultures, and I also think there are good reasons to be critical of it (if you’re interested, this is the subject of Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Smile or Die). But do I think it follows that women should stop using emoji? No. Emoji are not the problem here. Like other attempts to ’empower’ women by changing their behaviour rather than the conditions it’s a response to, the ‘feminist case against emoji’ is fundamentally a pile of poo.

*Thanks to Mercedes Durham for drawing my attention to the Quartz piece.

Donald Trump talks like a woman (and the moon is made of green cheese)

A couple of days ago, Politico magazine published a piece by Julie Sedivy claiming that Donald Trump talks like a woman:

He might be preoccupied with grading women’s looks, penis size and “locker room talk,” but the way he speaks and the actual words he uses make for a distinctly feminine style. In fact, his speaking style is more feminine by far than any other candidate in the 2016 cycle, more feminine than any other presidential candidate since 2004.

A number of people who read my last post, on Trump’s ‘locker room talk’, have asked me what I think of this claim. The answer is well summarised in the title of a response written by the linguist Tyler Schnoebelen, ‘Trump does NOT talk like a woman (BREAKING NEWS: gender continues to be complicated and confusing)‘. If you’re looking for a full explanation of why Sedivy’s analysis does not stand up, this excellent post should be your first port of call. (Some other relevant points are made by John McWhorter here.)  There’s no need for me to duplicate these more detailed critiques, but before I go, let me just highlight a few key points–points which aren’t just relevant to this piece about Donald Trump, but are equally applicable to many other discussions of the linguistic differences between men and women.

First point: the fact that a word is used more frequently by women than men, or vice versa, does not license the conclusion that the word in question is typical of women’s or men’s speech (let alone that the word itself is ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’). As Tyler Schnoebelen points out, a word can be strongly associated with one gender, but only used by a small minority of people of that gender. If that’s the case, you’re not looking at a marker of ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ style: more likely it belongs to the style of a particular subset of men or women (e.g. ‘white suburban women under 25’), or maybe it’s typical of a group which is numerically female- or male-dominated, but is actually defined by something other than gender (e.g. being a sports fanatic, or the primary carer for small children). Women and men are not internally homogeneous groups, so we should always be sceptical about any claim which implies that each of them has a single, uniform style of speech.

Second point: statistical findings about language-use need to be interpreted in relation to the context–it makes a difference what people are talking about, to whom and in what situation. A case in point: the research Sedivy cites suggests that women use the pronoun ‘she’ more frequently than men do, and the analysis of Trump’s speech during the presidential debates shows that he also uses ‘she’ quite frequently. But there’s a good reason not to interpret that as evidence of his ‘feminine style’. Political campaigners tend to make repeated reference to their opponents, and Trump has a female opponent. In this context, his use of ‘she’ says precisely nothing about his style.

Third point (and please forgive me for stating the obvious here): communication style isn’t just about words. Even if we leave aside the question of content, what Trump says, the analysis of his ‘distinctly feminine style’ detaches the words he uses from a whole lot of other things that contribute to our perception of him. His aggressive attempts to dominate the floor, for instance, by interrupting and talking over other speakers. The tone and volume of his voice. His body language: gaze, facial expression, posture, the way he prowled around and loomed over his opponent in the second debate. All those aspects of his performance, I would suggest, are distinctly–indeed, cartoonishly–masculine.

When you look at Trump’s performance as a whole, it’s hard to buy the argument that his ‘feminine’ linguistic style is ‘helping to counter the opposition’s portrait of [him] as a domineering misogynist who lacks empathy and concern for others’. And I don’t think we need that argument to explain Trump’s appeal. His support isn’t coming from people who don’t believe or haven’t noticed he’s a domineering misogynist; it’s coming from people who either don’t care that he’s a domineering misogynist or who consider that a positive virtue. We can only hope their view will not prevail.

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.