Wordwatch Towers

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


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A variety of tools made of mussel shells. U.S....

Sometimes I get quite hopeful. The way we use language does slowly change to become more inclusive.

An archaeological excavation of a Norfolk beach here in the UK has uncovered over 70 flint tools thought to be up to one million years old. This resulted in much discussion about our early ancestors, traditionally referred to as ‘prehistoric man’ or similar.

Full marks to both the Telegraph and Guardian newspapers which both used a variety of inclusive terms such as ‘ancient Britons’; ‘early humans’; ‘our ancestors’; and (revolutionary) ‘people’.

The Independent also did well, but its interviewee, Professor Chris Stringer of London’s Natural History Museum, let the side down a bit when he referred to ‘man-made tools’. An excellent and inclusive alternative there is ‘handmade’.

The Mail started off with good intentions, but soon got tired of all the effort and reverted to ‘Norfolk man’. It also suggested that ‘he was rather like us’. Not so much like me, I’m guessing. And up pops Prof Stringer again to say ‘this was no apeman’. No, nor woman neither. Body hair may also, apparently, have helped to keep ‘him’ warm. I expect his missus was a bit too busy with her depilatory preparations to worry too much about the temperature.

Sarah Montague, the only female presenter on BBC Radio 4’s flagship news programme Today, twice referred to ‘early man’ in relation to this story. I’ve always wondered: if our ancient ancestors were all men, how come we’re still here?


Here is an excellent example of a newspaper article demonstrating careful use of gender-neutral language. (To nitpick, the term ‘craftsmen’ creeps in, but apart from that, ten out of ten.) Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind

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

Old wives’ tales — good or bad?

Ladies first?

Jack of all trades

Sorting the women from the girls

When is a man not a man?

Am I allowed to say that?


11 Responses

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  1. How amusing! I try and use “human” and “people” wherever I can but clearly I (and the reporters who transcribe my words) have totally failed to meet your high standards – my deepest apologies Chris

    Chris Stringer

    25/07/2010 at 4:53 pm

    • Hello, Chris! How lovely to see you here — and how gracious you are in response to my mutterings. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment. I really appreciate it. Kindest regards, Deborah.


      25/07/2010 at 4:57 pm

  2. Crass stuff, based on poor understanding of etymology. This sort of superstitious nonsense is more like the creation of Newspeak described with such foresight in Orwell´s “1984” than real, living, imaginative language spoken by real people in a real world. In many cases it has the opposite effect of that intended. Some of the most empowered women I know make a point of eschewing such rubbish, and live confident, positive lives, free of hang-ups and shibboleths.

    Dai Hawkins

    25/07/2010 at 5:08 pm

    • Hello, Dai — I thought you might not like this. Lots of people would agree with you, of course. How does using inclusive language have the opposite effect to that intended?


      25/07/2010 at 5:16 pm

      • You know, Deborah, I have to agree with Dai, particularly his last sentence – but I thought I’d let someone else give you some stick!



        25/07/2010 at 5:30 pm

        • Let me qualify that – the sentiment, not the stroppiness. . .


          25/07/2010 at 5:38 pm

        • That’s OK, Ron. I’m used to it!


          25/07/2010 at 5:32 pm

  3. I often won’t think of how insulting it is to women when talking about prehistory. I think they can keep ‘man’ in reference to Neanderthals (kidding -you make a good point as always. It is indeed sexist, but glad the papers are seeing that they need inclusiveness).


    25/07/2010 at 10:22 pm

    • Hi, Lisa — thanks very much. Yes, I find it quite encouraging to see how both the media and those working within these specialisms are gradually changing the language they use.


      26/07/2010 at 7:10 am

  4. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Lisa B, Sandra Lee. Sandra Lee said: There is hope! RT @Wordwatch Preherstory: http://wp.me/pFKkP-1bx […]

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