Archive for the ‘Word Usage’ Category


Words matter: Systemic exclusion of women and their work

January 28, 2023

For many years now I’ve been hunting down various branches of my family tree (thank goodness for the internet!). Most recently, the US census forms from 1950 were released and made available to members who have a subscription to the US data. Over the past couple of years, various states’ census forms have gradually become available on Ancestry as they’ve been converted/transcribed.

I’ve got a fairly extensive branch of my family tree in the US, so I’ve been gradually checking my records and adding the 1950 US census information, if I can find it. And if there’s other information missing for the person, I’ve hunted that out too and filled in things like dates of birth, death, marriage and other census data.

But something has been bothering/upsetting me for a while… and that’s the exclusion of the value of work done by women, as evidenced by excluding fields from forms or labelling them in ways that discount or dismiss that work. This can manifest in several ways in the official records:

  • Totally ignoring that a woman may have an occupation (see the example below of an Iowa marriage certificate [from 1924], where the groom’s occupation is listed, but there isn’t even a line item for ‘Occupation’ for the bride). Many single women had occupations then, but obviously those jobs and/or the education involved in getting those jobs, don’t matter. It could be assumed by not reporting this information on official forms that educating women and acknowledging their work was for nothing, which was a prevailing attitude about women and education for generations.)
  • Assuming that the head of the household is a man, and assuming those completing the census are male, as evidenced by the use of the word ‘he’ (see the 1950 census form). This was quite a departure from the 1930 census form (below), which referred to ‘he or she’ and ‘the person’, and perhaps is an indication of a more conservative/’traditional’ society in 1950.
  • Completely discounting the unpaid work that women do, either by clearly stating to NOT include it in the working hours or definition of work on the 1950 census forms, or if not discounted in that way, by the enumerator either leaving that line blank for the women or writing ‘none’. Try telling the women raising 8 children under 10 without the mod cons we have today or little help from their partners that they didn’t spend any hours working! For comparison:
    • Australian electoral rolls from about 1910 to 1980 use ‘home duties’ (mainly; sometimes ‘housewife’ or ‘married’) for unpaid work in the home, which was almost exclusively done by women—this term was still used as an official occupation even if the woman was in her 90s and her husband had no occupation next to his name, acknowledging that she was still working even if he wasn’t.
    • UK census records (up to 1911) mostly use ‘domestic duties’ for work done in the home (again, almost exclusively done by women).

It would be easy to dismiss this as ‘that’s how it was then’ but WORDS MATTER:

  • The words we use to describe work (or NOT describe it) matters.
  • The exclusion of work as category in official forms (marriage certificates, census forms etc.) matters.
  • The assumptions implied by using ‘he’ even when it’s for a woman’s record, matters.

I hope such official forms are much better now, but I’m sure there’s still implicit sexism, binary gendering, misogyny (among others) lurking in many government forms. If you can’t see it, you can’t measure it, and if you can’t measure it, it doesn’t have value. And therefore the message is that those who aren’t measured except by their name, age and gender, don’t have value.

(As an aside, I’m not singling out US official forms here–it’s just theirs are the most recent records I’ve been looking at. Australia’s 2016 census had a terribly worded question about religion, which after the outcry about it, I had hoped would have been corrected for the 2021 census, but it wasn’t [in a nutshell, instead of lumping the Christian religions under one heading, with perhaps the subsets under subcategories of ‘Christian’, they put the various types of Christian religions at the same level as the broad categories of other religions, such as Buddhism, Islam, Hindu etc. More information:

Examples of official state and federal US forms

  • Names blurred out, pertinent words highlighted in yellow
  • Click an image to enlarge it

1924 Iowa marriage certificate

Iowa marriage certificate from 1924. Groom has a field for entering his occupation; bride does not

1930 census form (first half)

First half of the column headings for the 1930 US census showing the use of 'person' to refer to those in the household

1930 census form (second half)

Second half of the column headings for the 1930 US census showing the use of 'person' or 'he or she' to refer to those in the household

1950 census form (first half)

First half of the column headings for the 1950 US census showing the use of 'he' to refer to those in the household

1950 census form (second half)

Second half of the column headings for the 1950 US census showing the use of 'he' to refer to those in the household

Example of how enumerators completed the occupation field for women (1930 census)

Note that a man who was a janitor had greater recognition of his work than any woman.

image showing 'none' listed under Occupation for women

[Link last checked January 2023]


Impact as a verb versus affect and effect

November 13, 2021

I’ve had the delightful privilege of hearing Canadian James Harbeck speak at several ACES (editing) conferences in the US. His passion is language and its origins, and his presentations have left me in awe of that passion, his knowledge and understanding, as well as his ability to speak in old and middle English to illustrate his points. So it was with delight that I read his recent post on using impact as a verb:

As someone who edits environmental impact statements, plans, and reports, impact is a word that’s used OFTEN. I certainly don’t have the problem with it that other editors and writers have, and in many cases, in the context of the documents I edit, affect or effect just wouldn’t work.

If you want to spend a couple of hours learning about the quirks of language, take a look at some of James’ other posts. There’s an index to his posts on specific words here: and to his articles here:



Using personal pronouns in corporate and academic writing

October 13, 2021

There’s an unwritten rule (no doubt written, in some places) that you should never use personal pronouns (we, us, I, our, etc.) in corporate or academic writing. Instead, you need to use the third person (e.g. ‘the authors’), or eliminate altogether the person or organisation responsible. Blog posts are different—they’re more informal, so using personal pronouns is accepted there.

But why not everywhere?

I certainly don’t have an answer for that, but saying ‘it’s traditional’, ‘that’s how it’s always been done’, ‘that’s the rule’ just doesn’t cut it, in my opinion.

I’m sure the plain language people, and others, have done studies on this, but it was brought to mind when a client asked What are your thoughts on using personal pronouns in a scientific publication? I’ve occasionally seen it but it’s an unwritten rule that scientific publications are written from the point of view of a third party.

Their question reminded me of a 300p government report on hydrogeology I’d edited recently, which DID use personal pronouns. It was a refreshing change! As I wrote back to that client: ‘… I also like how you used ‘we’, ‘our’ etc. in a government report—it made it much more readable, and far easier to edit because I wasn’t trying to figure out or add who (person, department, role) was responsible for doing things.’

An example from that 300p report (‘we’ refers to the authors of the report):

‘We measured the initial groundwater level in all bores …

Before 2016, we had opportunistically monitored ….

Because the water levels in bore [XYZ] were likely to be tidally influenced, we recorded water levels hourly …’

Back to corporate/government writing… Often the third person is used to hide the person/entity responsible for an action or a response, and it may be quite deliberate. Government and corporate reports are very good at this—it’s CYA* at its best! By saying something was (or should be) done, but never saying WHO did it or is to do it, or WHO is responsible for any actions arising from it, no-one bears responsibility if it fails. The proverbial buck can be passed around forever, without ever stopping on someone’s desk.

My recommendation: Unless your style guide (in-house, external) says otherwise, consider using personal pronouns in your corporate/government/academic writing. And if your in-house style guide says not to, question WHY the authors of the style guide recommend this. ‘It’s tradition’ is not an acceptable answer, in my opinion. Your responsibility as a writer or editor is to your readers and ensuring they can not only read but also comprehend the material they’re reading.

* CYA = cover your arse (‘ass’ for those in the US)


You can change attitudes, one word at a time

April 9, 2021

One word. That’s all it was. One small word, but a word I’d seen used by those working for my main client a couple of times in the past few weeks (I’ve been working for them for 13+ years, and this was the first I’d seen the word in this context). To me, this word was SO out of context in how they’d used it that I wondered where it came from and why it was used in that way, and why it was starting to proliferate.

The easy thing would be to say nothing, do nothing, and let it slide on by. But I couldn’t, because that one word held a lot of very negative meaning in other contexts, a meaning that was offensive to many Australians and made others, like me, uncomfortable.

In other contexts, it’s a perfectly fine word, but it was out of place in the context where I’d seen it used.

So I spoke up. I emailed two people further up the chain to make them aware that this word was being used, that it was often offensive (uncomfortable at the very least) to many Australians, and suggested other perfectly fine words that could be used instead in that context. Speaking up always carries with it risk, but I’ve been emboldened by what I’ve seen in other situations this past year or so (political, BLM, LGBTQI+, sexual harassment etc.), so I figured the risk was worth it.

Here’s a summary of my email (identifying information removed) and the response I received—it shows that speaking up CAN change attitudes and perspectives. It’s just one small step to a kinder, more inclusive society.

My email

As you are well aware, [company] has policies on inclusion and diversity, including sensitivity to others’ cultures and experiences. In light of this, I’d like to bring to your attention something I’ve noticed recently from some in your team, and that’s the use of the term ‘native’ / ‘natives’ when referring to original Word documents. I’ve seen it used in emails and in folder names in the past few weeks. I don’t know where this has come from as it’s the first I’ve encountered it in 13 years working with [company] docs.

The problem is that this word has multiple meanings, not all of them good or acceptable or appropriate for the context, and for some people, this word is offensive. Macquarie Dictionary has this to say as a usage note: ‘The use of the term native to refer to an indigenous person is associated with European colonialism and is often regarded as old-fashioned and offensive.’

While that usage note refers to usage specifically in regards to indigenous people, it’s a term that is increasingly tainted with its colonial past even when used in other contexts. In terms of documents and their lifecycle, I see no reason to use this word (which could be offensive to many) when there are perfectly fine words that can be used instead—words that don’t have multiple meanings, or that don’t cause offence to others. Words such as ‘original’. The lifecycle of a document as it goes through revisions could be ‘originals’, ‘current’, ‘archived’, ‘in progress’ or similar, with no need to use the word ‘natives’.

I ask that you consider whether this term should be used or if it should be substituted with other, clearer, terms that are more appropriate to the document lifecycle. If you decide to not use this word in this context (it’s fine in regard to describing species), could you please pass on that decision to others on your team.

Response I received

… thank you for taking the time to help me understand that the term has been [is] offensive. I am checking in with our internal Document Control lead to determine the prevalence of this term in our internal systems. … its use here may have originated from our US parent office. As an immediate step, I will ask my team to stop using this term, and I will stop using the term also. … my apologies for any offence caused. And thank you for your ongoing support.

My follow-up email included this

Language use is cultural too—for example, those is the US may not have the same reaction to ‘native’ as we do in Australia, just as we use ‘thug’ here with little understanding of how offensive that word can be in the US.

It’s only by being aware how language can exclude or marginalise people that change can happen. That’s not to say that every word with multiple meanings needs to be sanitised, but that word usage needs to be considered when writing to ensure it doesn’t ignore, offend, or marginalise large sections of the readership.

Update August 2021: A major professional organisation for editors has made a statement on the use of ‘native’ in terms of ‘native’ and ‘non-native’ English speaker:

[Links last checked August 2021]



September 22, 2020

An aptronym is where a name matches some characteristic of a person, typically their occupation. The first I ever experienced was when I was a kid—the town’s only butcher was… Mr Butcher!

More recently, I’ve come across other names that match their occupations or areas of expertise. For example, authors Whiting and Salmon have both written on fish, Swann has written on birds, and today I came across Fangue, who has co-authored an article on a species of sea krait!

See also:


Gender-neutral (and other alternative) terms

July 30, 2020

This list is for me for future reference. There are plenty of lists out there of gender-neutral terms, but some apply much more to the work I do than others, so I’ve started to keep a running list.

  • chairman — chair, chairperson
  • craftsman / craftsmanship — artisan / artisanship  artistry, expert / expertise, skill, mastery, craft, craftspeople
  • fireman — firefighter
  • fisherman — fisher, angler (only in reference to recreational fishing), commercial fisher, fish harvester, fish industry worker, fishing licencee
  • foreman — supervisor, team leader
  • fraternity — community, camaraderie, guild, affiliation, club, fellowship, house, kinship, order, solidarity, family, society
  • man (as in ‘man the desk’) — staff, supervise, manage, lead, handle, cover, run, oversee, work, person
  • man basket / man box — crane basket, suspended personnel platform, crane cage, construction basket, personnel basket, workbox
  • man-hours — person hours, work hours
  • man-made — artificial, manufactured, machine-made, synthetic, human-made, human-caused, handmade, hand-built, fabricated, constructed, factory-produced
  • manhole — access hole/hatch, utility hole, maintenance hole, sewer hole (if specifically related to a sewer), utility access hole, personnel access hole/hatch, work hole, inspection hole; also, consider if ‘point’ or ‘hatch’ is more accurate than ‘hole’
  • mankind — humanity, humankind, humans, human beings, people
  • manned — staffed, occupied, crewed, piloted, operated, human-operated
  • manning — staffing
  • manpower — workforce, human effort, labour, staff, workers, human resources, personnel
  • manway — see manhole (see also:
  • masterful — expert, accomplished
  • middleman — intermediary
  • patrolman — patrol, guard
  • policeman — police officer
  • unmanned — unpiloted, uncrewed, robotic, automatic (see also manned)
  • vessel master — captain, skipper
  • watchman – guard
  • workman — worker
  • workmanship — handiwork, craft, application

And others:

  • become blind to — ignore
  • black and white — monochrome
  • blind faith — unswerving belief
  • blind to — oblivious to, ignoring, overlooking
  • deaf to — ignoring, disregarding, unwilling to acknowledge, unwilling to hear or listen, callous
  • fresh eyes — fresh perspective
  • mecca — hub, hotspot, magnet
  • minorities — see the advice for ‘underrepresented’
  • put blinders on — limit (This one created some discussion on a Facebook group for editors as most said they only thought of that term in relation to limiting a horse’s vision. My response was that I’d wondered about that one too, but then I realised that there was another perfectly acceptable other word for the context that didn’t make me stop and think about it. If the reader has to hesitate to figure out the meaning, or to stop and think about the context, then I believe my job is to help take some of that hesitation away. In the context, it was used when referring to geologists who only see in rock formations what they want to see, and wasn’t related to preventing distraction [i.e. the geologists’ perspective was limited to what they’d learnt at university or in earlier jobs].)
  • spineless — cowardly, weak, unprincipled, corrupt
  • that’s lame — ridiculous
  • totem pole — organisational hierarchy, organisation chart (org chart)
  • underrepresented — check this one for context; if talking about groups of people, it may really mean ‘historically excluded’ or ‘traditionally excluded’ or just ‘excluded’

See also:

[Links last checked June 2022]


Different interpretations

September 24, 2019

I’ve lived all my life in Australia (barring one year when I lived in Canada), and thus have been covered by Medicare, Australia’s health system. One of things that’s always been a feature of Medicare is the need to get a referral from a GP to see a specialist (I can’t remember if this was ever not the case, as it’s been so entrenched for much of my working life [Medicare officially started in 1984]). I say it’s a ‘feature’ though it’s often seen as a bug by the public, especially those with long-term conditions that need specialist treatment.

What the referral system does is stop Jo Public from calling a specialist for an appointment for every tiny little thing — it acts as a filter to stop overloading specialists with matters that can be dealt with by a GP. However, it does require a visit to the GP (at normal consultation rates) to get the referral, as well as the cost of the specialist if you are referred. So some people rightly feel like they’re paying twice.

And so to interpretation… In all the time Medicare has been in existence (45 years), I’ve always assumed that the date on the referral letter from the GP was the date the referral (typically 12 months) started from.

But not so, as my GP informed me yesterday when I asked him to post-date a referral closer to the time of the specialist’s appointment. It seems that post-dating a referral like this is deemed fraud in Medicare’s eyes, and then my GP explained that the date of referral starts from the date you see the specialist after being referred, NOT the date on the referral letter!

Well, call me surprised! He told me that many medical receptionists get this wrong too, which may have contributed to my belief that the date of the referral letter was the date the 12 months starts from.

I checked the Medicare website and it clearly states ‘date you see the specialist’ under the ‘Referral periods from a GP to a specialist’ subsection on this page:

[Link last checked September 2019]


Should you use capitals for job titles?

July 23, 2019

Back in May 2019, I attended the biennial IPEd Conference for Australian and New Zealand editors. One of the things I took away was a snippet about capitalising job titles from Penny Modra’s plenary on Day 2 ( and how that can represent (consciously or subconsciously) hierarchies of greater and lesser jobs.

For example, if you cap Chief Executive Officer, Managing Director, or Senior Geologist, do you also cap Cleaner, Plumber, Sewage Truck Driver? If not, why not? Why should some job titles get capped and others not? What’s the implied social stratification here?

I’ve kept that in mind when working on the corporate reports I deal with, and today I queried an author who had used ‘truck operator’ when referring to a particular occupation, yet in the same sentence had used ‘Production Coordinator’ and ‘Site Supervisor’ when referring to other occupations in the same company.

My opinion: If you capitalise some job titles, then for consistency you need to cap them all, so a cleaner or truck operator needs to have the same recognition for their job as a production coordinator, otherwise you’re implying a hierarchy of ‘good’ or prestigious jobs over those that are less well-paid or recognised (less ‘worthy’). Either cap them all, or cap none of them (my preference). This may seem a trivial thing, but every time someone sees their job diminished by no caps when other positions are capped, it just further affirms (perhaps only subconsciously) that their job is less important. Yet if you took away all the sanitation workers, society would soon realise the importance of these jobs and the people who do them, and not give two hoots about any of the managing directors until the waste was sorted out.

Most style guides will have a section on when to capitalise occupational titles when referring to an individual (e.g. Doctor Sally Jones) or to a generic position (Sally Jones, a doctor). Just keep in mind that capitalising ‘Principal’ or ‘Doctor’ doesn’t make that job any more important than the uncapped ‘teacher’ or ‘nurse’—and ask yourself why you are giving some job titles more prominence than others.


Spellcheck is useless against real words with different meanings

February 1, 2019

An example of where spellcheck is useless, and where you need human eyes to check your work before it goes out. I received a letter today from an Australia-wide company that conducts hearing checks. At the bottom of the letter was this set of boxes. I spotted two major errors straight away that spellcheck wouldn’t pick up (and no, one of them wasn’t ‘tick’ — Australians use ‘tick’ more than ‘check’ when referring to boxes, though a ‘the’ wouldn’t have gone astray in that instruction).

The errors I picked up were ‘everyday’ instead of ‘every day’, and ‘know’ instead of ‘no’. Neither instance would have been flagged by spellcheck. The message here — get someone else to check your work before it goes out to a national audience!


There’s always a word for that: tmesis

December 23, 2018

I learned a new word a few weeks back. It’s a word that describes another word/phrase, and is ‘tmesis/ (pronounced teh-MEE-sis).

So what does it describe? Well, according to Australia’s Macquarie Dictionary, it’s a noun that describes the ‘separation of words that constitute a compound or construction by the insertion of other elements’.

Macquarie gives these examples: kangabloodyroo or a great man and good instead of a great and good man.

Personally, I prefer the more Aussie colloquialisms like ‘abso-f***-lutely’ or ‘fan-bloody-tastic’. However, I think there’s probably a rule for its use within another word, and I think that rule might relate to the number of syllables of the surrounding word. Of all the words I’ve tried in my head, the only time tmesis really works is with a word of at least three syllables. But not all words of three or more syllables work. ‘Fan-ta-stic’ works, but ‘brill-i-ant’ doesn’t’; ‘ab-so-lute-ly’ works, but ‘gen-er-ally’ doesn’t; ‘un-be-liev-able’ works, but ‘un-us-ual-ly’ doesn’t.

According to Merriam-Webster and Wikipedia, the origin of ‘tmesis’ is Greek, meaning to cut. And its usage was first recorded in the mid 1500s, so it’s been around a while.

Update May 2021: Also known as an expletive infixation; this less than 5 minute YouTube video describes it well, and has citations you can check for more academic discussions: