Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Jack of all trades

with 6 comments

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A number of job titles are male-specific. Fireman and policeman are prime examples, often used unthinkingly when both speaking and writing. And yet the alternatives are more accurate, and sound absolutely fine too:

‘Firefighters’ or ‘fire officers’

‘Police officers’ or ‘the police’

‘Foreman’ is OK if you are sure the person is male, ‘forewoman’ if she is female, or ‘supervisor’ is a good alternative.

Similarly, ‘chairman’ is OK if you are sure the person is male. ‘Chairwoman’ is fine if you are sure she is female. Otherwise, use chair, or ‘chairperson’. Sadly (in my opinion), some chairwomen insist on being called a ‘chairman’ — always respect their wishes. If you are not sure which they would prefer, ask them.

Instead of ‘businessmen’, prefer ‘businesspeople’.

Women-exclusive terms can proliferate when writing about the workplace, for example, ‘manning the phones’ and ‘man-hours’. There are many alternatives to ‘manning’ such as ‘staffing’, ‘running’ and ‘operating’ and ‘man-hours’ can become ‘work-hours’ or ‘staff-hours’.

Avoid popular but exclusive phrases such as ‘our boys in blue’.

This post is an extract from the longer post ‘Am I allowed to say that? A no-nonsense guide to political correctness’.

See also:

Marketing man — or woman?

He or she  — or they?

Ladies first?

Gratuitous modifiers — or the lady bus driver

Sorting the women from the girls

She’s so intolerant — but he doesn’t suffer fools gladly

Old wives’ tales — good or bad?

She’s such a tomboy

When is a man not a man?

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6 Responses

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  1. Cambridge Advanced Learner’s dictionary says “jack-of-all-trades” and Oxford Advanced Learner’s writes “jack of all trades”!

    I guess both are correct.

  2. Hi, Vikas – that’s very interesting. After reading your comment I checked in my Oxford Dictionary of English, and ‘jack of all trades’ is not in it at all!

    However, I did find it online (without the hyphens):

    http://www.askoxford.com/concise_oed/jack?view=uk

    Deborah

    24/12/2009 at 5:19 pm

    • Thanks very much, Vikas.

      Deborah

      24/12/2009 at 6:04 pm

  3. I remember a prominent newspaper headline that read: “Those magnificent men in their flying machines”. The story was about flying doctors and, as the actual story revealed, at least one of the flying doctors was a woman. How bizarre – a woman who can operate a flying machine AND a doctor. Who would ever have believed it? Obviously not the sub-editor who wrote the headline.

    Lizi B

    24/03/2010 at 10:28 am

    • Thanks for that prime example of the pitfalls of women-exclusive language, Lizi. Even setting aside all the other issues involved in the use of male-saturated language, from a practical point of view it so often leads to innacuracy and confusion.

      Deborah

      24/03/2010 at 10:46 am


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