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A spokesperson for sanity

The Baltimore Sun’s in-house stylebook used to have more than 3,000 entries: the bulk of it AP style entries, with local variations on AP, local place names, local crotchets, and the like. It existed only in electronic form, and about a year and a half ago a lapse of attention in IT allowed the server that carried it fail. It is irretrievably gone.

Since then, the paper has basically followed AP style, as recorded in old editions of the stylebook scattered around the premises, combined with spotty recollections of how we were accustomed to do things.

One thing we used to do was to change spokesperson to spokesman or spokeswoman whenever it popped up in copy. That prohibition survives in the current edition of the Associated Press Stylebook, which hesitates to leap on board with novelties. Of course, spokesperson hasn’t been all that much a novelty for forty years. But never mind. One senses that perhaps at AP they still bitterly regret having given up on the long s and the dieresis on coordinate.

I therefore take a rude pleasure every time I allow spokesperson to go into print. You should too.

Motivated Grammar has weighed in on the emotional and irrational resistance to gender-neutral terms, examining why some of them sound all right and some sound awkward. Spokesperson, he thinks, is here to stay, the wattle-shaking of various cranky old white guys notwithstanding.

Meanwhile, at After Deadline, the in-house newsletter on grammar and style at The New York Times, Philip Corbett takes aim at the false range. You know it, the journalistic crutch that lists “everything from x to y.” Mr. Corbett mentions a You Don’t Say post on the subject with measured approval and goes on to denounce it as a damnable cliche. And so it is.



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:39 PM | | Comments (15)


Spokesperson might not be a very beautiful or mellifluous word, but I can't muster up any objections to it.

And for conjuring up the image of "the wattle-shaking of various cranky old white guys", I thank you heartily.

Thanks for the mention! I can't believe a whole stylebook was lost so easily.

And following up on Stan, your "rude pleasure" phrase has made my day. I picture you with a devilish smirk each time you get a spokesperson through.

what is a long s?

The long s, not to be mistaken for an f.

Rude pleasures are the very best kind!

It's still vitally important to be careful with changing -person to -man or -woman. We had that house style built into a Quark spell check dictionary at a paper I once worked at. It was always a great help, except for the terrible clunker on the Arts section front page: a rave review of the community theatre's production of Arthur Miller's famous play, "Death of a Salesperson."

I have no real problem with "spokesperson." I just don't quite get why a writer would talk to someone and not notice whether the person is a man or woman. Well, that's the thought that goes through my head when I read "spokesperson" with the name of someone the reporter obviously spoke to. So far I've resisted the urge to call and ask. (Which is a little odd, since I call and ask them equally minor things all the time. Yes, I'm a copy editor.) I'd feel silly referring to someone as a spokesperson when I knew full well she was a spokeswoman. (I hate hate hate your reCaptcha system. I really do.)

I suspect the appropriate use of spokesperson is in those generic situations where the gender is unknown. For instance, "A spokesperson will be named to field all questions." Otherwise, I agree that it would be better to identify the gender when it is known. Isn't it similar to the use of the word "person?"

My only objection to -person formations is that they sound contrived and, well, impersonal. "Person" itself is not a "warm" word, at least to me; it's a stand-in for when "man" or "woman" won't do, as when the gender isn't known or one is referring to the job in the abstract. "Jane is an excellent spokeswoman for the company." But: "The company spokesperson should avoid using the colloquial name of the product." There is nothing really "wrong" with "spokesperson", but "spokeswoman" and "spokesman" are friendlier and, ironically, come with less baggage. Can't one be for gender-neutral writing on principle without insisting that gender always be erased?

New York Times today: The Obama administration said Tuesday that it would appeal a court ruling challenging the legality of President Obama’s rules governing human embryonic stem cell research, as the head of the National Institutes of Health said the decision would most likely force the cancellation of dozens of experiments in diseases ranging from diabetes to Parkinson’s.

Another perspective on "spokesperson." Like "chair" instead of "chairman" (or woman), it's a title for a role, a non-gender-specific role. It doesn't matter if it is a woman or a man in the position. We don't care. We just know that the position is as a spokesperson.

Another perspective on "spokesperson." Like "chair" instead of "chairman" (or woman), it's a title for a role, a non-gender-specific role. It doesn't matter if it is a woman or a man in the position. We don't care. We just know that the position is as a spokesperson.

Another perspective on "spokesperson." Like "chair" instead of "chairman" (or woman), it's a title for a role, a non-gender-specific role. It doesn't matter if it is a woman or a man in the position. We don't care. We just know that the position is as a spokesperson.

Apologies. #@&%#$ Captcha and misperception on my part for apparent non-sends.

Let me add one more point to Becky, Jed and Rolig -- a reader service point.

Taylor. Devon. Chris. Sam. Whitney. Are you thinking of men there or women? If you encounter one of these names with a gender-neutral title and no other gender clues, doesn't it make you pause? Wouldn't we try to make things easier for the reader in any other case?

Don't say it couldn't happen. In this article, there are five references to "spokesperson Taylor West" and none of them give any clue as to whether West is a man or a woman.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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