Unless You’re in the middle of a media fast, you’ve probably seen some discussion of the violence in the United States the past few weeks. Well, less like discussion and more like screaming at each other?there’s not a whole lot of listening going on, I’d say. Lots of talking though, and there’s one thing I hear over and over from all sides of this and any contentious issue: “these people.” “These people” say this, do this. Why can’t “these people” understand? If “these people” would just?
You get the idea. But what does it have to do with writing?
Actually, quite a lot.
As an editor, one of the things I have to look out for is biased or offensive language, and That’s cued me in to how the smallest word changes can completely alter the impression we make. Racist slurs, sexist terms, and the like are obvious, easy to spot. But It’s the subtler word choices, often unconsciously made, that set the mood and reflect our own perceptions or what we’ve absorbed from those around us, even if we’re trying to remain neutral.
Take a moment and listen to the phrase: “these people.” Now a personal pronoun like we would convey unity or at least some sort of common ground. But in “these people,” the demonstrative pronoun suggests other demonstratives, like that or those. In other words, the group That’s not like us. And even “people,” while It’s not dehumanizing, has the effect of lumping “the other” into a group?one with a single characteristic, a group without individual traits or interests or needs. A group without individuals at all.
Subtle nuances in language aren’t confined to heated (or rational) argument, of course. If you’ve ever sat in on a courtroom trial, you might have noticed the way lawyers tend to refer to their clients by first name, while the other side gets the more distant “Ms. X.” Victims often get the same treatment, depending on which side the lawyer’s working for.
“Gray Jones attacked Sarah Ken on the morning of January 25,” the prosecutor might say. “Sarah had moved next door to Mr. Jones two months before the attack.” But from the defense you’d be more likely to hear “Gray had been Ms. Ken’s neighbor for two months.”
Elsewhere?especially in journalism?you might find the passive voice used to convey neutrality, victimhood, or blamelessness (“She was assaulted by a stranger”). In business dealings you may have noticed the tendency of management jargon to use dehumanizing language that has the subtle effect of keeping employees in line. Both topics for another day?and I’ll address them individually in a future column.
For now, though, consider the hidden message your word choices convey. Are you saying something you don’t intend or believe? If you write fiction, think too about how the way your character refers to a person, event, or concern is saying something about them?and make sure It’s the impression you want your reader to have. And above all, don’t forget that readers come with their own biases and perceptions, so if You’re in doubt, talk to someone with different views from your own, and get their take on what you’ve written.
The pen is mightier than the sword, but It’s just as sharp?and it can cut. Use it with caution.
Christina M. Frey is a book editor, literary coach, and lover of great writing. For more tips and techniques for your toolbox, follow her on Twitter (@turntopage2) or visit her blog.