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 return of ‘female email’

Do you remember your 2016 new year’s resolution? Was it to get more exercise, maybe? Give up the demon drink? Spend less time on Facebook and more with your real-life friends? Or was it, perhaps, to send ‘more effective email’, as recommended by the developers of an app called ‘Just Not Sorry’?

This app was intended to empower working women by encouraging them to delete ‘just’ and ‘sorry’ from their emails. If you hovered your mouse over one of the offending words you’d see a pop-up message from a communication ‘expert’, like “just” demeans what you have to say’, or ‘using “sorry” frequently undermines your gravitas’.

But even this ingenious invention seems not to have fixed women’s email problem. Last month the Telegraph ran a piece entitled ‘Sorry to bother you: how women can stop writing emails “like a girl” at work’. It begins with what the writer claims is a typically female email:

Hello! Hope you’re well and that you’re having a lovely week! So sorry to bother you, but I was just wondering if you could read the below article I’ve written? No worries at all if not – I know you must be super busy. Thank you so much for your time! Best wishes.

These 50-odd words are like a whistle-stop tour of women’s language stereotypes from the last half-century: they include a ‘just’, two ‘sos’, a ‘sorry’, a ‘lovely’, a superpolite indirect request (‘I was just wondering if you could…?’), and a veritable forest of exclamation marks. If the message had only ended with a smiley face emoji we could all have shouted ‘House!’

This much-maligned email style is generally assumed to be something women acquire in their teenage years, carry with them into the workplace, and need remedial instruction to get rid of. But last week a piece on Canada’s Global News website turned that assumption on its head. According to the reporter Meghan Collie, women in workplaces around North America are being told by their bosses, not to stop writing email ‘like a girl’, but on the contrary, to make their emails more girly.

Take Carlee Barackman, a former employee at a tech startup in Detroit who describes her email style as ‘short and to the point’:

Barackman thought she was emailing like everyone else — until her CEO pulled her aside to talk about her “harsh” language… While he didn’t explicitly ask her to soften her writing style, Barackman said it was implied, and she decided against it. “I had work to do and I didn’t want to spend extra time trying to convey my bubbly personality in an email,” she said.

Sometime later, Barackman replied to an email with “okay, thanks,” — no punctuation, no emojis — and her CEO called her out. Barackman agreed to try and “lighten it up,” but she didn’t really know what that meant. It was salt on the wound when Barackman saw an email thread between her male colleagues with writing nearly identical to the style that got her in trouble.

“I remember sitting down at my desk and having no idea who to ask about how to email like a woman. Is emailing like a woman even a thing?” she said. “I felt worried that, by adding extra fluff to an email, I would appear unprofessional, and also worried that, if I kept my replies short and direct, everyone would assume I was angry,” she said.

Carlee Barackman was only one of the many women who responded to the call Meghan Collie put out on Twitter: ‘Do you work in an office? Have you ever felt pressure to use emojis or exclamation points to soften your message?’ Affirmative answers flooded in, and they suggested that emojis and exclamation marks were only the tip of the iceberg.

I’ve been told numerous times to soften up my emails. I use smilies and ! In almost every email, and say please and thank you so much it would be weird if we were in person. I also throw in “just” a lot.

I have no idea what you’re talking about [followed by a screenshot of an email that reads “Awesome! I have been in and made the required edits! Thank you 😊]

I have been told to soften my tone, I notice that men and some women that they favor for whatever reason, are allowed to be rude, abusive and abrupt by email or message. The rest of us…get our tone policed. I have used emoji or “if that makes sense” a lot

I think it also comes down to what men can get away with in emails that women can’t — I once had a male manager write in all caps to get his point across.

I find men can get away with being short, rude and degrading but as soon as a woman does it, they get pulled in for it.

I hate exclamation points. Absolutely hate them. …But yes, I feel forced to use them to blend in & be polite! All the time! I’m so excited about absolutely nothing & here’s the punctuation to prove it!

I have consciously been removing exclamation points and emojis, apologies and just-a-quick-question from my emails for years. Why diminish yourself when you are simply communicating?

I read about how women apologize a lot in emails. Especially with saying the word “just”. I noticed how often I did it and it has been a LONG JOURNEY to remove those things from my email repertoire! No need to excuse myself for doing my job.

I confess I was taken aback by these vignettes.  Although I’ve spent a fair bit of my life observing the policing of language at work, the verbal hygiene practices described in this Twitter thread stand out for both their intrusiveness and their pettiness: managers scrutinizing internal emails in minute detail, and pulling individual employees aside (especially, it seems, if they’re female) to warn them about their tone. How is this a productive use of anyone’s working time?

The women who responded to Meghan Collie were also, for the most part, critical of the practices they described, often stating explicitly that the style they felt obliged to adopt did not reflect their own preferences. Some women clearly resented the tone-policing of their email, and a few reported actively resisting it. Many of these resisters invoked the competing, ‘Just Not Sorry’ genre of verbal hygiene to justify their rejection of ‘weak’ and ‘demeaning’ language. The irony of this–using one kind of sexist bullshit to fight another–isn’t lost on me, but I can’t really quarrel with the perception of ‘Just Not Sorry’ as the lesser of the two evils. ‘Empowerment’ may be a weasel word, but it’s surely preferable to self-abasement.

The ‘Just Not Sorry’ message has had a lot of media exposure because it resonates with the aspirational, ‘lean in’ ethos of the media outlets which commission pieces like the Telegraph’s. Precisely because it can’t so easily be spun as ’empowering’, the ‘Softly Softly’ approach hasn’t attracted the same attention. (I notice that no one has developed an app called ‘Soften Your Message’, or ‘Everything Is Awesome!’, with pop-up messages like ‘if you don’t add a smiley face people will think you’re angry’, or ‘do you love your job? Then say it with !!!’) But despite its low cultural profile. ‘Softly Softly’-style language policing is evidently a reality in many workplaces. What, we might wonder, is this about? Why are women–and, to some extent, men too–being instructed to ‘soften’, ‘lighten up’ or add ‘extra fluff’ to their emails?

On closer inspection, what Meghan Collie and her correspondents call ‘message softeners’–things like exclamation marks, emoji, hedges like ‘just’ and stock phrases like ‘sorry to bother you’ or ‘if that makes sense’–seem to serve two main purposes, which can in turn be related to two overarching norms of workplace communication.

First, there seems to be a clear norm prescribing the explicit expression of positive affect and high involvement. It’s not just that negative messages are frowned on: neutral, low-key formulations like Carlee Barackman’s ‘okay thanks’ are not acceptable either. This is what motivates the liberal use of exclamation marks and emoji (or more exactly, a subset of emoji–smileys and thumbs-up signs rather than, say, piles of poo). As conventional signifiers of excitement, enthusiasm, happiness or satisfaction, they inject a note of unambiguous positivity into even very short and banal communications. Accentuating the positive is also the function of phatic formulas like the Telegraph writer’s ‘hope you’re having a lovely week!’ and the hyperbole of responses like ‘Awesome!’ The message is something like, ‘I want you to know I’m thrilled to be at work, delighted to be communicating with you and eager to show I value your contribution’.

The second overarching norm complements the first: it could be glossed as ‘minimize the risk of conflict or offence by avoiding anything that could conceivably be read as angry, critical, overbearing or even just a bit inconsiderate’. This is the purpose served by formulas like ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, ‘sorry to bother you’ and ‘just a quick question’ (implying: ‘I know your time is precious’). It’s also the point of appending ‘if that makes sense’ to, for instance, a series of instructions or a piece of critical feedback. Here what’s being ‘softened’ is the presumptuousness of judging others or telling them what to do.

As some readers will doubtless have noticed, the two norms just outlined call for, respectively, the use of ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ politeness. (These terms are taken from the work of politeness theorists Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson: in their model, positive politeness addresses the desire every person has to be approved of or cared about (prototypical positive politeness formulas include ‘have a nice day’, and ‘congratulations!’), while negative politeness addresses people’s desire not to be imposed on (prototypical formulas include ‘excuse me’ and ‘sorry’).)  As I’ve explained in previous posts, one of my main beefs with the ‘Just Not Sorry’ brigade is their insistence on treating politeness features as ‘fluff’ or ‘clutter’, things that detract from the message and so impede communication, when in fact they’re essential elements of any interaction between humans. Politeness per se is not a problem: taking out all the ‘justs’ and ‘sorries’ is only good advice if your ambition is to sound like a jerk. However, two things about the ‘Softly Softly’ approach do strike me as more problematic.

One problem is that the rules are so inflexible. In everyday life, the way we use linguistic markers of politeness reflects our assessment of how seriously what we’re saying might hurt, offend or impose on the other person. You wouldn’t hedge a request to pass the salt in the same way you’d hedge a request to lend you £100; you wouldn’t congratulate someone as enthusiastically on winning a pub raffle as you’d congratulate them on winning a Nobel Prize. In ‘Softly Softly’ world, however, everything gets the same ‘I’m so excited’ or ‘I’m so sorry’ treatment: as some of Meghan Collie’s correspondents observed, maintaining this high level of excitement or solicitude can be exhausting, and it can also come across as quite bizarre.

The other striking thing is the emphasis placed on expressing positive feelings, about everything and to everyone. In workplaces I do think that’s a novel development–particularly if we’re talking about internal back-office communications (accentuating the positive has a longer history in customer service). And what’s behind it, I would argue, is a combination of recent changes in workplace culture and innovations in digital communication.

Over the last 30 years, many workplaces have become less formal and overtly hierarchical, and more focused on collaborative teamwork. In the current era of precarity, companies also tend to have fewer permanent employees and more short-term contract staff. Arguably, these conditions provide fertile ground for things like the demand to accentuate the positive in dealing with co-workers (which displays your credentials as a ‘team player’) and the pressure to display enthusiasm for routine tasks (if you appear bored or disengaged you’re potentially giving your employer a reason not to renew your contract).

At the same time, more and more workplace interactions that would once have been conducted face-to-face have moved online. Email, though still available for the purposes it originally served in business contexts (sending the digital equivalent of letters and internal memos), has also become a medium for co-workers to ask each other quick questions, give brief reports and engage in rapid-fire problem-solving interactions. And what seems to have happened is that the workplace email has borrowed some of the strategies developed for text-based interaction outside work (e.g. on social media and via instant messaging apps), such as the repurposing of punctuation marks to signal affect. (As any teenager will tell you, not putting an emoji or a ! at the end of a text message risks coming across as angry; ending texts with a traditional full stop is rude because it signifies disapproval–though the students who made me aware of this say they try not to judge clueless old people like their mothers too harshly for this offence.)

Imported into the workplace, however, these strategies can create problems that don’t arise, or not so markedly, in other contexts. Some people find email messages larded with emoji and exclamation marks contextually inappropriate–too informal for professional settings, or too personal for interaction with non-intimates. Others find this mode of expression insincere—and not without reason, since at work you’re very likely to be communicating feelings or attitudes you don’t actually have, to people who also know you’re faking, because they’re doing the same thing themselves. (Has anyone ever read a message like ‘I’m so excited for this afternoon’s meeting!!!’ and taken it as a faithful reflection of the writer’s true feelings?)

In principle, the new workplace norms apply to everyone, men as well as women: one man told Meghan Collie that ‘In a previous role, I was told to be “20% friendlier” in my emails and to soften them with smileys’. In practice, however, many contributors to the thread believed that women’s language was more heavily policed than men’s. Whereas men’s failure or refusal to comply with the rules was frequently tolerated (even, reportedly, when this involved such gross breaches as ranting at length in all caps), women could rarely get away with even slight deviations from the prescribed style.

This double standard isn’t hard to explain. The new workplace verbal hygiene is about fostering co-operation and maintaining harmonious relationships by paying solicitous attention to people’s feelings–a responsibility that has been assigned to women since time immemorial. Women are thought to be ‘naturally’ caring, more emotionally expressive than men and more sensitive to others’ needs. We expect them to do more emotional caretaking, we hold them to higher standards, and we punish them more severely when they fall short.

But as depressing as all this is, the Twitter comments quoted earlier give me hope. They show women aren’t just sucking it up: they are critical of the linguistic demands made in their workplaces, and in some cases they are refusing to ‘soften their message’. This rejection of sexist bullshit has my full and unequivocal support. Rise up, sisters: you have nothing to lose but your !!! 😊😊–if that makes sense.

Broad men and narrow women: the perils of soundbite science

Last week a few people asked me what I made of a new study that was generating some interest on social media. At the time I hadn’t read it: I only knew Nature had reported it under a headline–‘Male researchers’ “vague” language more likely to win grants’–that made it sound both baffling (why would scientists get points for being vague?) and infuriating (as usual, it seemed to be men who were benefiting and women who were losing out). So I decided to investigate further, and then share my conclusions in this post.

The study was conducted by researchers at the US National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), and their write-up is available as an NBER Working Paper. The data they analysed consisted of 6794 grant applications submitted to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which operates a policy of anonymous reviewing. Because reviewers weren’t told whether applicants were men or women, the researchers assumed that any gender differences in success rates could not be the result of direct discrimination. Whatever was leading reviewers to favour men must be contained in the application itself. And since most of a grant application consists of words, they decided to look for gender-differentiated patterns of word-use.

What their analysis revealed was a tendency for reviewers to give higher scores to applications that contained ‘broad’ words and lower scores to those that used ‘narrow’ words. Since broad words were used more frequently in men’s proposals, while narrow words appeared more often in women’s, this preference for broad over narrow words was also a preference for male- over female-authored applications. The researchers found no reason to think that broad words were associated with better proposals. When they looked at what applicants had gone on to achieve, the words used in their proposals appeared to be a poor predictor of research quality. Overall, then, the study’s conclusion was as infuriating as the Nature headline suggested: men whose research was objectively no better than women’s were receiving more funding from the Gates Foundation because reviewers preferred a particular style of grant writing.

One question the researchers didn’t attempt to answer was why men and women writing grant proposals might favour, respectively, ‘broad’ and ‘narrow’ words. But many people who commented on their findings thought the answer was obvious: simply and bluntly put, men–or at least a higher proportion of men–are bullshitters. Whereas women offer specific, realistic accounts of what they think their research can deliver, men have fewer inhibitions about making sweeping, grandiose claims.

This take is an example of a common interpretive strategy. If you present people with a generalization about language and gender—especially one whose significance isn’t immediately obvious—they will often try to make sense of it by invoking some other, more generic gender stereotype. In this case what they did was map the alleged linguistic difference (‘men use broad words, women use narrow words’) onto a higher-level, more familiar male-female opposition: ‘men are over-confident, women are over-cautious’.

You might ask: what’s wrong with that? Stereotypes aren’t always false: there’s plenty of other research you could cite in support of the thesis that men are over-confident (for instance, experimental studies showing that male test-takers consistently overestimate how well they’ve done, or the fact that men are more likely than women to apply for jobs when they don’t meet the advertised criteria). I don’t dispute any of that: in fact, I agree that ‘men are over-confident and women are over-cautious’ captures a real and significant cultural tendency. But there are, nevertheless, some problems with using it to explain the findings of this study.

One general problem is that you can use the same interpretive strategy to explain pretty much any set of findings, including made up ones. Suppose I told you the study had found that men use narrow words and women use broad words (i.e., the opposite of what it actually found). You’d be able to come up with an equally plausible explanation for that (non) finding just by switching to a different gender stereotype. Instead of ‘men use broad words because they’re overconfident bullshitters’ you might suggest that ‘women use broad words because they’re more attuned to their readers’ needs’; or ‘men use narrow words to show off their expert knowledge’. Since the supply of gender stereotypes is inexhaustible, there’s no statement of the form ‘men do x and women do y’ that can’t be slotted into this explanatory frame.

In the case of the NBER study, though, there’s a more specific problem with explaining men’s use of broad words as a linguistic manifestation of their over-confidence. When the researchers use the terms ‘broad’ and ‘narrow’, they don’t mean what people have assumed they mean (i.e., what the words would mean in ordinary English).

By way of illustration, here’s a list of six words taken from the study: three of them were classified as ‘broad’ and the other three as ‘narrow’. Which do you think are which?

  1. bacteria
  2. brain
  3. community
  4. detection
  5. health
  6. therapy

My guess is that you defined words as ‘broad’ if they were just basic, everyday vocabulary, and ‘narrow’ if they were a bit more abstract and technical. On that basis you probably categorised ‘health, ‘brain’ and ‘community’ as broad and ‘bacteria’, ‘detection’ and ‘therapy’ as narrow. That wasn’t, however, what the researchers did. Their definition wasn’t based on the characteristics of the words themselves, but on their frequency and distribution in the sample. Broad words were those that occurred in proposals on a wide range of different research topics; narrow words were restricted to proposals on a particular topic. By those criteria, ‘bacteria’, ‘detection’ and ‘therapy’ were broad, whereas ‘brain, community’ and ‘health’ were narrow.

If you think these definitions are confusing, I agree: the researchers might have done better to choose a different pair of terms (like, say, ‘core words’ and ‘peripheral words’). But once you’ve understood how they made their broad/narrow distinction and looked at the words in each category, it becomes difficult to argue that what’s behind the gender difference is men’s propensity for writing grandiose bullshit and women’s dogged attention to detail. (Is ‘health’ more precise than ‘bacteria’? Is ‘therapy’ vaguer than ‘brain’, or more grandiose than ‘community’?)

The fact that so much discussion revolved around the question of explanation suggests that most people had simply accepted the findings themselves at face value. This always bothers me: in my view, any claim that men use language in one way and women use it in another should be approached with a degree of scepticism. And that’s especially true if what you’re basing your assessment on is a report in the media. For obvious reasons, the media pay most attention to studies whose findings will make an eye-catching headline or a killer soundbite; this means they have a bias towards research which makes bold rather than cautious claims (stories like ‘men and women fairly similar, study shows’, or ‘we looked, but we didn’t find anything’, are not exactly clickbait). But for feminist sceptics it’s always worth asking whether the finding everyone’s talking about is supported by any other evidence. Have other researchers found the same thing? Or have they asked similar questions and come up with different answers?

There is, in fact, other research investigating the influence of writing style on grant decisions. Earlier this year, the Journal of Language and Social Psychology published an analysis of the language used in a sample of nearly 20,000 abstracts taken from research proposals submitted to the US National Science Foundation. This study considered only successful applications, taking the amount of funding applicants had been awarded as a measure of how positively their proposals had been assessed. It found there was a relationship between the funding researchers received and the language used in their proposal abstracts, but the linguistic features which made a difference were not the same ones the NBER study identified. The NSF gave more money to applicants whose abstracts were longer than average, contained fewer common words, and were written with ‘more verbal certainty’.

But I’m not just lamenting the uncritical reception of the NBER findings on general scientific principles. It also bothers me because I know how easy it is to propagate myths about the way men and women use language. ‘Men use broad words and women use narrow words’ is exactly the sort of thing that gets mythologized–detached from its original context (a study in which, as I’ve already pointed out, it meant something completely different from what most people thought) and repeated without elaboration in dozens of other sources, until eventually it turns into one of those zombie facts–like ‘Eskimos have a lot of words for snow’, or ‘women utter three times as many words per day as men’–that refuse to die no matter how many times they’re debunked.

If it does become part of our collective folk-wisdom on this subject, there’s every chance that ‘men use broad words, women use narrow words’ will also be filtered through the kind of deficit thinking which sees whatever women do with language as a problem in need of remedial intervention. Using ‘narrow’ words could join over-apologizing, hedging and tilting your head on the list of bad habits which are said to hold women back, and which it then becomes women’s responsibility to fix. (I can already imagine the TED talks exhorting women to ‘think broad’, and the workshops for female grant applicants on ‘choosing the right words’.)

To be fair to the authors of the NBER study, that isn’t what they think should happen. As they see it, it’s the reviewers who need training: their bias towards certain ways of writing elevates style over substance and leads to less than optimal funding decisions. But it’s hard for researchers to control what people make of, or what they do with,  findings that have entered the public domain. Even a study that was intended to be part of the solution can end up becoming part of the problem.

This is a dilemma for everyone who researches or writes about language and gender, myself included. Whenever I criticise some questionable claim or mistaken belief, I’m aware that I could be amplifying it just by giving it airtime. Though I’m only repeating it to explain the arguments against it, those arguments won’t necessarily be what people take away. But as you’ll have noticed, that hasn’t caused me to retreat into silence. I do believe that knowledge can set us free–but only if we’re willing to interrogate it critically.

 

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.