It is often so easy to mock ‘inclusive’ word guidelines that it can feel unsporting. Lately the BBC reported the release of such rules for the University of Manchester, highlighting the instruction against the use of ‘mother’ and ‘father’
Poe’s law has clearly broken out of the internet, and one sometimes wonders if these guidelines are the work of Ron Swanson fans trying to destroy redundant HR departments from within. Another plausible explanation is that there is a long campaign to send copy editors insane, which would only take a push.
It is nonetheless good practice to assume well of people unless they prove their intention to be otherwise. I can therefore believe that these rules were drawn up to make minorities more comfortable, even if their actual effect is less certain.
The trouble is that style guides reflect a narrow view of how language should work. All of them contain absurdities and monstrosities, as well as rules that are peculiar to the authors. In the case of ‘inclusive’ guidelines, many give the impression of being written by people who have never spoken English.
One passage from the university’s guide instructs readers to “avoid ageist terms such as ‘elderly’, ‘OAPs’, ‘pensioners’ or ‘youngsters’”. Instead it advocates for the “objective” terms of ‘child’ (4-12 years), ‘teenager’ (13-19 years), ‘young people/adults’ (16-24), ‘adults’ (19-64), and ‘older people/adults’.
This is nonsense. “Child” normally includes those aged under 4, and often encompasses teenaged minors. Beginning adulthood at 19 is also utterly random, not even being pegged to the legal rights people assume at 18 or 21. You can argue whether ‘elderly’ or ‘youngster’ has negative connotations, but they are no less objective than the proposed equivalents.
In attempting to be inclusive, there are also several rules that would even be controversial among wokies. “Where it is not clear what, if any, gendered pronouns or nouns are appropriate for an individual, ask and respect their wishes,” would draw attention to a person’s ambiguous gender identity whether or not that was welcome.
According to the Beeb, these rules were requested by staff. Given the tensions at many universities, you can hardly blame them for wanting clarity. Yet as the document shows, this is elusive. “The language around sex and gender identity is evolving constantly,” it says, before outlining a distinction between “sex” and “gender” that is popular among academics but ignored in common speech.
Others have already argued that woke vocabulary is an elite game of wordplay. Keeping up with the last forbidden words is claimed to be a status signifier, showing your education, cosmopolitan values and time spent on Twitter.
There’s something in that, but I think it misses a more basic point: these rules don’t reflect how anybody really speaks. Nor are they a happy midpoint between different speaking styles, but the eclectic result of a committee repeatedly trying to second guess itself.
The manmade nature of such rules makes them exclusionary. Since nobody speaks like this, everybody is expected to translate their usual words into the authorised vocabulary. Things are inevitably lost in translation, with many nuances are excluded by default.
The fact remains that people express themselves best in the words that are most familiar to them. Allowing them to do this without making cheap accusations of bigotry would be real inclusion, and would mean none of us have to read another of these dreary style guides.