Wordwatch Towers

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

Ladies first?

with 13 comments

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The convention of placing males before females when referring to people of both sexes is, unfortunately, second nature to most writers. ‘Husband and wife’, ‘his and hers’, ‘men and women’, ‘boys and girls’, and ‘male and female’ are all phrases which we use unthinkingly and unquestioningly.

When writing about married couples, it is inevitably the man who is named first, and when writing about a married couple’s joint business (or indeed, a woman and man’s joint business), it is inevitably the man who is named first. And don’t get me started on ‘husband and wife team’ or ‘man and wife’.

Ring the changes – shake up this ‘natural order’ of things. Mix it up a little. Women don’t always have to be mentioned first – but hey, sometimes would be nice.

Gratuitous modifiers or the lady bus driver

Top scientist or top female scientist? 

Marketing man — or woman?

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

She’s such a tomboy

Jack of all trades

Sorting the women from the girls

When is a man not a man?

Am I allowed to say that?

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13 Responses

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  1. I sometimes use ‘man and wife’! I should make it ‘wife and man’ sometimes or always?

  2. Hi, Vikas, I would never use ‘man and wife’. ‘Man’ means a person, whereas ‘wife’ refers to a role. For the same reason, I would not use ‘wife and man’.
    So — ‘husband and wife’ or ‘wife and husband’ are both fine.

    Deborah

    26/12/2009 at 7:00 pm

    • I used to like this phrase a lot! I used to think it is stylish! 😮

      • Hi, Vikas — I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to disillusion you!

        I would say that most people still use such phrases unthinkingly without considering the implications of the words, and many would probably disagree with my dislike and non-use of the phrase. However, for me, the phrase suggests ‘man’ (a person in his own right) and ‘wife’ (a role in relation to a man). It is interesting that the marriage ceremony from the Book of Common Prayer starts off by referring to a ‘man and a woman’ who are to be married, but then, after they are formally married, announces them to be ‘man and wife’.

        Deborah

        27/12/2009 at 9:26 am

  3. Hi Deborah, I was just reading the Daily Mail and I see that a headline refers to an ‘Air Hostess.’ For Pete’s sake, are there still people that refer to flight attendants that way? (I guess so). The story was about a female flight attendant, I wonder what they would have done if it had been about a male flight attendant? As I’ve remarked before, I reads the Mail, I takes my lumps.

    Jo-Anne

    12/08/2010 at 11:43 am

  4. Just popped back in to say that I sound a little harsh there, wondering aloud if people still call female flight attendants ‘air hostesses’. I realized that my parents do – and probably many people of their generation and that’s understandable. It’s the fact that a newspaper would use such an term in a headline or story that is so irritating.

    Jo-Anne

    12/08/2010 at 12:55 pm

    • Hi, Jo-Anne — I think the Mail will be expecting a pat on the back for using ‘air hostess’ and not ‘trolley dolly’ or similar. The Mail‘s — er — quaint use of language can be a source of both irritation and amusement, I think. Thanks for that, Jo-Anne.

      Deborah

      12/08/2010 at 4:47 pm

      • It’s still 1963 at the Mail!

        Ron

        12/08/2010 at 4:54 pm

        • Very true, Ron. Except for the pictures of half-naked women they find any excuse to publish.

          Deborah

          12/08/2010 at 5:16 pm

          • Ha! Yesterday, there was the usual hatchet job disguised as journalism, about – oh, damn, I’ve forgotten – a former female TV presenter who had been thoughtless enough to become middle-aged. Got it – Anthea Turner, who’s 50.

            Anyway, a woman posted a comment about how disgraceful it was that women in TV had such a short shelf life. So I posted a reply saying, true, but don’t you think the Daily Mail contributes enormously to this problem?

            I must pop back and see if it was published, I’m not taking bets. . .

            Ron

            12/08/2010 at 6:19 pm

            • No, I don’t think that comment will see the light of day, Ron.

              Deborah

              12/08/2010 at 7:02 pm

              • And it didn’t.

                Ron

                12/08/2010 at 7:21 pm

                • So it’s not just me, then? I’ve composed some huffy comments and they’ve never been posted. I’ve even tried using an alias, but they must be able to identify me by my huffiness. 🙂

                  Jo-Anne

                  12/08/2010 at 9:37 pm


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