When language sensitivity clashes with clarity

Last week on the copy desk, I became part of a discussion about the use of alternative pronouns in a newspaper article.

I’ve been involved in a lot of discussions with American Copy Editors Society colleagues about the value of the singular they and about language and sensitivity issues in particular, so I was glad to be part of the conversation.

But the gist went a little bit beyond the singular they. The reporter had asked the subjects of the article which pronoun each preferred (a good practice) and came back with a list of eight pronouns.

I was familiar with most of the pronouns on the list, including using singular they, ze and xe. But there was one word I’d never seen, xeheir. And I couldn’t find any lexicographical reference to it (including on Wordnik.com or the Urban Dictionary, which tend to be my go-tos when confronted with words that are not just new to me, but new.)

As Steven Petrow wrote in this 2014 column on gender-neutral pronouns on washingtonpost.com, “Language is about respect, and we should all do our best to recognize how people wish to be identified.” But what do you do when someone apparently made up a new word and no one will understand what it means?

In this case, after the first reference to this person, the name didn’t come up again in the article. That was organic on the reporter’s part (there wouldn’t have been another reference regardless of the pronoun debate), so it took us off the hook for an instant ruling.

It did leave a question, though. When does sensitivity trump clarity? I’m down with the changing nature of the language and use words now that didn’t exist 10 years ago. But if a reader can’t look the word up anywhere, should we use it in a general interest publication?

I think that decision has to be made on a case-by-case basis. In a profile of an individual, I would say use the word and define it (for example: “Smith, who uses ‘xxx,’ a word he coined, as a personal pronoun …”) In a short general news story, I’d try to write around it by always using the first or last name. I wouldn’t, however, use a different pronoun when the person made a specific request.

I’d also consult my publication’s style guide for assistance and suggest that it include a section on gender-neutral words if there isn’t one.

Oh, and if I just missed the definition of “xeheir” in my web search, please let me know.

RESOURCES: Here’s a link to a list of pronouns from the Gender Neutral Pronoun blog.

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