IN THE Nineties Microsoft Word’s Clippy parodies were a bit of a trend in cartoons and magazines. The annoying paperclip figure would show up as soon as you started writing “Dear…” and said, “Looks like you are writing a letter,” before giving unsolicited advice on things like fitness.
Two decades later, various automatic writing aids, including spell and grammar checkers, are much better. They are both more demanding – powered by artificial intelligence rather than manually programmed – and more subtle in their operations. Many writers are grateful for their interventions.
But now tech companies are wading through tougher waters. In 2020, Google’s internal style guide was updated, encouraging developers to avoid “unnecessarily gendered language” in their documentation. Rather than referring to “person-hours”, for example, a coder might discuss the “person-hours” involved in a project. “All of humanity” could be replaced with “all of humanity,” suggested the guide’s authors.
On May 18, the company announced it was going further in promoting inclusive language. Google Docs, its popular free word processing software, would soon steer people away from potentially sexist language, like the generic use of “president.” Instead, he’ll come up with gender-neutral suggestions, including “chair”.
The tech company is right to see a problem. While it doesn’t fit into the same category as misspellings or grammatical dilemmas, gender bias is drawn across the English language, as well as others. Consider the lack of a female equivalent for “master” which lacks nasty secondary meanings. “Slut” and “whore” are the types of insults so sexist that they are rarely thrown at men.
Google’s target, however, is the so-called generic masculine. For a long time, English-speaking traditionalists have said that “the masculine includes the feminine”. Under this rule, “everyone has their own opinion” is non-sexist, and there is nothing wrong with generic presidents, airmen and firefighters. (In other languages, mixed or unknown people are also referred to in the masculine.) Read these terms, they are much more likely to imagine a man than a woman.
In some European countries, feminists have called for feminized job titles, so that a woman president in Spain is now “la presidenta” and not “el presidente”. But English-speaking feminists have argued the other way, recanting rather than recommending specific, feminized titles like poet and actress. And that doesn’t solve the problem of what to do with a generic referent, where languages still tend to default to masculine.
A solution in English is to prefer more recent titles without genre such as “mail carrier” and “police officer”. But even here there are difficulties. Some titles seem particularly ugly in this form: no one seems to like (and therefore want to adopt) “chairperson” and while “chair” is fine with some observers, others cannot see past the furniture. There is another disagreement as to whether these forms should be universal or whether it is acceptable to call a police officer a “policeman”.
With this instability, tech companies are walking a difficult line. It is increasingly recognized that sexist language is a problem; At the same time, there is also a widespread belief that tech giants are getting too powerful and making important political decisions in the daily lives of users without enough clarity or insight into how those decisions were made.
All major companies are under increasing pressure not only to sell their widgets, but also to take a stand on the hot issues of the day. Often they find that trying to please one riding scandalizes another; later try to divide the difference revolt the first, and so on. Companies that make coffee machines or shoes have already encountered these problems. When tech giants weigh in on politics, their enormous influence virtually guarantees backlash from one party or another.
There are some good things tech companies can do for inclusiveness: At the same conference where the language changes were announced, Google said it would improve the handling of black and brown skin on its smartphone cameras. But in the language, the solutions are less obvious, even among people who agree on the problem.
This article appeared in the Books and Arts section of the print edition under the title “A giant leap forward for humanity”