Wordwatch Towers

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

A preference for orientation

with 2 comments

Gender symbols, sexual orientation: heterosexu...

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Disclosure: I haven’t consciously considered any of the following before. I know, there’s no excuse and I’m a Very Bad Person. Anyways, here goes:

Read the following excerpts and see what you think:

He acknowledges that gay male race fans are attracted to stock car drivers the way straight female race fans are, but his agenda seems to be much simpler. Race fans, no matter their sexual preference, just like to watch races.


…Paul touches on some highly charged subjects, like the potential effects of maternal lifestyle on a child’s temperament, I.Q. and sexual preference. 

These are both from The New York Times and were cited in the paper’s After Deadline column because:

The Times’s stylebook cautions against use of the term “sexual preference,” with its implication of choice. We should routinely use “sexual orientation” instead.

So obvious, now they come to mention it. I then checked out the Guardian’s style guide, but couldn’t find any reference to preference/orientation. However, the guide does include these very interesting observations from a reader:

Can I suggest your style guide should state that homosexual, gay, bisexual and heterosexual are primarily adjectives and that use of them as nouns should be avoided.

It seems to me that this is both grammatically and politically preferable (politically because using them as nouns really does seem to define people by their sexuality). I would like to read that someone is ‘homosexual’, not ‘a homosexual’, or about ‘gay people’, not ‘gays’.

Lesbian is different as it is a noun which later began to be used adjectivally, not the other way round. As an example from Wednesday, the opening line ‘Documents which showed that Lord Byron … was a bisexual’ rather than ‘was bisexual’ sounds both Daily Mail-esque and stylistically poor.

All sound advice, I think. I only wish I’d thought of even some of it myself. As penance, I pass it all on to you completely free of charge.

 Am I allowed to say that? A no-nonsense guide to political correctness


2 Responses

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  1. The recommended change is due to the evolving nature of public understanding that sexual orientation is more a matter of nature than nurture. I don’t find the noun vs. adjective issue as relevant, since sexual orientation terms can be either a definition of subjects and/or a modifier describing behaviors. American English is moving toward the use of LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and/or Trans-gender) as a noun, though. It is a more neutral identification applicable to any person belonging to the group.

    Invisible Mikey

    29/03/2011 at 9:11 pm

    • Hi Mikey – many thanks for your thoughts on this. Yes, I found the orientation versus preference argument more compelling than the noun/adjective one, although I think the latter is generally good advice to follow (at the very least, you wouldn’t go far wrong). I don’t think I’ve seen ‘LGBT’ in the mainstream press on this side of the pond (I could have missed it) — although if it’s becoming more common in America, it may do so here too. Thanks again!


      29/03/2011 at 9:33 pm

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