Can you still talk about "The Fall of Man"
March 16, 2009 10:20 AM   Subscribe

The use of the word "man" as a stand-in for humanity, in academic writing -- what's the final verdict?

I do a lot of proof-reading for non-native speakers and I always get stuck on this point. Right now I've just found a sentence approximately like this: "Consequently, I will approach these problems from the perspective of a philosophical anthropology rooted in a conception of man as a tool-user". I feel that no other formulation will sound as good; "conception of humanity as a tool-user" is off-putting, "conception of humanity as tool-using" is awkward, "conception of humans as tool-users" just isn't as literary, and I don't like "conception of the human as a tool-user" either. But I have the feeling that I'm not allowed to let "man" stand because it's sexist. Do I have to change this, or is "man" still allowed? And how about "mankind"?
posted by creasy boy to Writing & Language (38 answers total)
 
It may not be as "literary" to edit out "man," but it is more humane. (Ok, go ahead and groan, but I mean it too.)
posted by hardcore taters at 10:34 AM on March 16, 2009


"conception of humans as tool-users" just isn't as literary

No, but it is more scientific, which considering you're proofing a sentence that approaches its subject from a philosophical anthropology" perspective seems more appropriate than a literary approach.

"Human" for "man" and "humanity" for "mankind" work just fine.
posted by mediareport at 10:34 AM on March 16, 2009


Your objections are nothing more than aesthetic. Aesthetics change with time. All nonsexist language used to sound awkward to people. It sounds increasingly less awkward the more people refuse to use it and seek alternatives. I was going to suggest "conception of the human as a tool-user." Almost all the reading and listening I do today on topics philosophical and anthropological take pains to avoid using gendered language; it's easy enough to do, it helps everyone become used to egalitarian language, and it communicates an editorial philosophy.

"Man" in the context you give sounds archaic to me, very 1960s-textbook.

I have the feeling that I'm not allowed to let "man" stand ... is "man" still allowed?

Allowed by whom? There's no ultimate authority to make this determination; you're 'allowed' to use whatever words you want. If your question is "which is preferred?" there can certainly be debate, but in most academic writing, nongendered language is usually preferred.

If you need a hard determination, perhaps there is a publication or institution whose style guide you can adopt as your own, using that as a guideline for future decisions.

how about "mankind"?

Humankind.

Familiarity comes with use. The use of "their" as a singular nongendered pronoun used to bother me, but in practice it has become very widely accepted as a simple, easily understood, and practical solution to the problem of avoiding an assumption of gender. My recommendation would be not to obsess over the mellifluousness over any one sentence. Focus on the broader aims of the text. Does the author want to talk about humanity and humans? Then let the author talk about "humanity and humans," not man.
posted by Miko at 10:36 AM on March 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


"Man" dates the writing, to me. Does "homo sapiens" work?
posted by nat at 10:38 AM on March 16, 2009


"Humans," in your example above, would be more accurate, as mediareport says.

The Chicago Manual of Style says:
For the editor in search of guidance in avoiding sexist connotations the following sources might be suggested: Casey Miller and Kate Swift, The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing, and Dennis Baron, Grammar and Gender. Along with these and other authorities, the University of Chicago Press recommends the "revival" of the singular use of they and their, citing, as they do, its venerable use by such writers are Addison, Austen, Chesterfield, Fielding, Ruskin, Scott, and Shakespeare.
posted by rtha at 10:42 AM on March 16, 2009 [8 favorites]


No style guide that I know thinks that "man" (or "mankind") in this context is the best choice. However, many of them do not go so far as to recommend using "human" or "humankind" as automatic replacement. (For instance, the Chicago Manual of Style recommends trying to rewrite the sentence to avoid that kind of construction in the first place.)

Having said that, in your example I would use "conception of humans as tool-users." You say that it doesn't sound as literary--what precisely do you mean? At least to me, "man as a tool-user" sounds literary in the same way that "ye olde shoppe" sounds literary: it has a slightly archaic feel, and it stands out a little bit because it's just outside of standard modern usage.

Once you've clarified what gives the sentence a literary feel, you can ask whether that's really the meaning (however subtle) you want to convey with that sentence. Since academic writing is notorious for being jargon-filled and stilted, I would recommend against sounding "literary" in this way. Here's a simple test: do you worry that a reviewer's report will come back and say, "In order to be publishable, this sentence should be rewritten to use sexist language so that it sounds more literary?"
posted by philosophygeek at 10:47 AM on March 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


OK, thanks for the responses so far. I'm just looking for what the consensus is -- I certainly understand the reasons that language changes towards non-sexist forms.

I'm not sure if "human" is more accurate. I have to make a decision between words that describe a biological class, such as human, homo sapiens, etc., and a much different word like "person". Since it's philosophy, it could make a difference, and since I'm not the author, I'd rather not have to make a decision myself. Hence my desperate hope that "man" had somehow survived the 80s. So far I've always changed it, but it's certainly a pain in the ass.

Probably human is more accurate here. I suppose that's what I'll do.
posted by creasy boy at 10:55 AM on March 16, 2009


Using "man" to encompass all people seems rather uninformed in these modern times. If you are editing for non-native speakers, it seems very appropriate to substitute a more concise and accurate alternative. If you were editing for native speakers, it would still be appropriate! I'm seconding homo sapiens if at all possible--humankind is still a derivative of MAN.
posted by vas deference at 10:56 AM on March 16, 2009


Myself, I'm a fan of the particular kind of progressive scifi that uses "man" and "sir" and "mister" to refer to all people, including women -- I think that's the bolder line to take and I wish more feminists would do it -- so I'd use "man" here.

But that is a lawn-exclusionary thing, I realize. I'm crotchety.

If "human" and "humankind" don't make you wince too much, use those and prickly people of all sexes won't get miffed.
posted by rokusan at 11:03 AM on March 16, 2009


I'm not sure if "human" is more accurate.

Very hard to argue that it's not more accurate if what you mean is "the human being."
posted by Miko at 11:04 AM on March 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


As someone with a semi-worthless writing degree, I see nothing wrong with the flow of "conception of humans as tool-users." The sentence you've given us sounds clunky, but I'm assuming it sounds that way because it has been taken out of context.

As a feminist, I would advise you to never use "man" when referring to humans of both genders. It's not a question of being "allowed" to use a sexist term, but rather a question of why you would want to exclude 50% of the human population because it supposedly sounds better.
posted by giraffe at 11:07 AM on March 16, 2009


I suppose it's possible that your author is describing a particular set of humans (the male ones) as tool-users, but you should be able to tell from the context of the rest of the article/chapter/book if "man" is supposed to mean "human beings" or if "man" is supposed to be "men, that is, not women."

If it's "man" = "human beings" and the author's native language is not English, I'd say (as an editor) that it's fine to gently point out (in the form of a query, even) that such usage will strike most users as archaic and distract from the argument the author is making (unless the argument is that only men use tools).
posted by rtha at 11:09 AM on March 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm in the minority here, but I don't mind it all. If I'm allowed to go even more archaic, I'd even capitalize the first letter.
posted by cmiller at 11:14 AM on March 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


You are over-bureaucratizing your language into layers and layers of passive voice. Instead of "...anthropology rooted in a conception of man as a tool-user," try "...anthropology based on tool-using people," or even "people using tools."
posted by rhizome at 11:14 AM on March 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


"conception of humans as tool-users"

Professonal copyeditor here, 15+ yrs experience. There's not a damn thing wrong with this wording. Your opinion that it's not "literary" is just that: opinion. In any case, if you're proofing before the paper is submitted for publication, the journal will most likely have a house style rule about this.
posted by scratch at 11:17 AM on March 16, 2009


You are over-bureaucratizing your language into layers and layers of passive voice.

Dude, I work for German academics, and I'm just the proof-reader.
posted by creasy boy at 11:21 AM on March 16, 2009 [9 favorites]


I have to say, at this point, if I came across "Fall of Man" in a title, I might assume it had more to do with "Ascension of Woman" or "Rise of Equality (Amongst the Sexes)" than the fall of humanity.

While "man" has roots as meaning "person," and "male person" used to be another word, the modern meaning of "man" does mean "male person" to just about every reader. Avoid it unless you mean to speak of men exclusively.
posted by explosion at 11:35 AM on March 16, 2009


While "man" has roots as meaning "person," and "male person" used to be another word, the modern meaning of "man" does mean "male person" to just about every reader. Avoid it unless you mean to speak of men exclusively.

But in the example OP used, if the writer were speaking about males, then it would be "men as tool users."

As a writer, teacher of writing, and a feminist, I'm fine with "man" as a stand-in for "humanity." It's really a stylistic choice--if you're trying to sound precise and scientific, use "humanity"; if you want to have a lofty, slightly archaic tone (and, hey, maybe that's what the original writer is going for) use "man."
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:46 AM on March 16, 2009


I agree with cmiller. I don't mind the use of the word "man" in this context, nor do I think it sounds archaic. It would be one thing if this was a piece of journalism, but it sounds like it is intended for academia, specifically for the humanities. I think it's fine to use words like "man", "mankind", etc., in order to refer to humanity as a whole; it comes accross neither dated nor uncouth.

Oftentimes, in fact, I find the overuse of substitutions like "humankind" to interfere with reading and comprehension of a text.

Don't get me wrong; I'm a big fan of semiotics- the whole "he/she" debate, as well as manner in which our written and spoken language is heavily biased towards one gender, are fascinating topics. But I try not to let them interfere with practicality and convention, since these are stylistically important to a text.

I realize I might get criticized for my viewpoint on this. But I would like to mention the following: The debate on pronoun use (he/she, mankind vs. humankind, etc.) takes its roots in Derrida and his theories of Deconstruction. At one point in his writings (I think "the Politics of Friendship" but I will have to look this up) Derrida brings up the inherent sexism in the he/she pronoun divide and elaborates on it. He concludes that there is, in fact, an inherent gender bias in our pronoun usage, but says that having addressed this, he will use the "he" pronoun in the rest of the book as it is stylistically appropriate.
posted by HabeasCorpus at 11:55 AM on March 16, 2009


"Man as tooluser" sounds off to me -- what do journals in the field do? That's really the answer to this question. It might not be worth your time to look it up.

I'd go for one of the many non-gendered versions suggested above. If a journal wants to change it back to man, they'll do it.

Unlike HabeasCorpus, I find that the use of male-as-generic in the text makes it awkward for me to read. This is certainly due to factors about what we've read in the past, how we write, etc. Neither is inherently more awkward; the one you will find more comprehensible is the one you have read more often, probably, so this will change as the use of humanity (or other non-gendered words) rises, or if the use of man becomes popular again.

I don't particularly care that the letters m-a-n show up in human(ity/kind).
posted by jeather at 12:26 PM on March 16, 2009


As you can probably tell from the answers here, it's still a question in dispute, although the consensus seems to be leaning towards "using man to refer to humanity is outdated and exclusionary". Personally, it seems blatantly sexist to me and I'm somewhat astonished when I see it in contemporary, academic use--but I do see it, so it's apparently acceptable in some circles, and to some writers (and editors).
posted by overglow at 12:32 PM on March 16, 2009


At least to me, "man as a tool-user" sounds literary in the same way that "ye olde shoppe" sounds literary: it has a slightly archaic feel, and it stands out a little bit because it's just outside of standard modern usage.

Agreed. Further, in an academic context, this kind of language can subtly (or not so subtly) discredit a text by suggesting it is outdated. I roll my eyes every time I run across the "Man The Tool-user" trope in archaeological texts.
posted by Elsa at 12:53 PM on March 16, 2009


I don't think that whether there's a consensus about what's right or wrong makes much difference.

If you're translating papers that they want to submit to English-language journals, then I think the right answer is that it serves your clients' interests to use avoid using "man" or "mankind" to refer to humans or humanity.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:20 PM on March 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


The use of "man" specifically with reference to tool use has a history. That it hasn't been completely replaced by "humans" or "humanity" may be because we're used to the sound and sight of those words in proximity.

Consider Thomas Carlyle's widely quoted dictum: "Man is a tool-using animal. Without tools he is nothing, with tools he is all." It's quoted by philosophers, anthropologists, theologists, etc.

S I Hayakawa in Language in Thought and Action says that although substitutions for the generic "man" may not sound as good, he suggests using "humans" or "people". As an example of this substitution, he uses Carlyle's quotation.

This anthropologist discusses the problem of man vs human. This ergonomics text seems to favor "humans" instead of the collective "man" or "men".

If your author is alluding to Carlyle in that specific passage, then "man" is perhaps justified. Also, you haven't told us whether the entire manuscript favors the generic "man" over "human". In that case, you two may want to have a discussion and decide what to do about it.
posted by subatomiczoo at 1:23 PM on March 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure if "human" is more accurate. I have to make a decision between words that describe a biological class, such as human, homo sapiens, etc., and a much different word like "person". Since it's philosophy, it could make a difference...

For what it's worth, I'm also in the racket of proofreading and marking philosophy papers by people whose native language isn't English, and I always recommend "human" or "humanity" when I come across "man" used in this way. To me, "human" has already acquired the connotations that you're wanting to salvage from "man," and at any rate it doesn't sound any more biological than "man" does, in the sense that the latter also means "the ones with the pensises."
posted by Beardman at 1:53 PM on March 16, 2009


I should say that I changed the quote somewhat, since I felt iffy about quoting an unpublished sentence, and it was a different -er, not tool-user. Anyway, thanks everyone for the input. Since I've been out of America for a while and I read mostly old stuff, I can't always just rely on my own intuition.
posted by creasy boy at 3:13 PM on March 16, 2009


I should say that I changed the quote somewhat... it was a different -er, not tool-user

Unless the actual example was sex-specific ("Man The Beard-grower"? "Man The Penis-haver"?), "human" is the gender-neutral equivalent.
posted by Elsa at 4:35 PM on March 16, 2009


Academic papers rarely known for style, so I suppose it's a case of anything but Man. That said, and I don't think it's just my age, the removal of Man trades a powerful word (and to my mind, inclusive) for a watered down word.

But then, I only read Tyndale and the King James bible (on account of the language), and eschew academic writing entirely (unless I absolutely must).
posted by IndigoJones at 4:57 PM on March 16, 2009


(By the way, there's a joke in there about Every Prospect Pleasing and Only Man is Vile, but I leave you all to work it out.)
posted by IndigoJones at 4:58 PM on March 16, 2009


The academic institution at which I teach English requires the use of non-sexist language. I find it unlikely that it's Robinson Caruso* in this respect.

*yes, really
posted by Wolof at 8:25 PM on March 16, 2009


I am a sociologist and I teach cultural anthropology and courses relating to gender at the university level. Man meaning human or humanity is sexist. Period. Not acceptable at university or in academics. From my shelf of current intro anthro texts: Zero out of twelve use Man / Mankind instead Human / Humankind (and this has been so for at least a decade). In sociology too, this usage of masculine generics is deemed inappropriate within academia. Period.

Man as a term which includes women??? Picture this in your head: "A man walked in to the room". What gender was your 'man'? Did Anybody visualize a female 'man'? Not likely.

If you're talking about it with reference to a specific time period/context, then the only way to do this is to refer to (eg:) Man (sic) and Society; or:"at that time, the debate between 'man' versus nature...."
posted by kch at 1:30 PM on March 17, 2009


Picture this in your head: "A man walked in to the room".

The singular is a bit of linguistic dodge here. Guy walks into a bar...

Picture this, then: "X million years ago, man walked the savanna."

Myself, I picture a family portrait including men and women, children and the odd geriatric. Inclusive. (To be fair, it is a guy leading the pack, but the first lady is right behind, not pulling up the rear, looking for berries. And I'm including them all under the rubric, opposing them to lions and tigers and bears.)

But then, I make no claims to being an academic or a scientist, and rarely see things in absolute black and white.
posted by IndigoJones at 6:03 PM on March 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


I picture a family portrait including men and women,

Then you're a bit unusual. In all seriousness, this has been studied, though I'm too tired to Google up some goodness for you - came across a lot of it in college doing research on gender in educational texts. When asked to draw a "caveman," children drew a man. When asked to draw "cave people," they drew men, women, and children. One of the reasons I oppose sexist language is my experience as a teacher. When kids learn the language, they learn that "man" means "male." Later, we complicate it for them by teaching them there is a sense in which "man" means "everybody." But it was not the first sense in which they learned the word, and the mental imagery that arises, lightning-quick, is not usually the egalitarian, inclusive one that is learned at the age of abstract reasoning, but the simple, most basic categorization learned in toddlerhood and used ever since to refer to people of a single gender with very few exceptions.
posted by Miko at 9:28 PM on March 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


Then you're a bit unusual.

So I'm told.

But again, it's a bit of a dodge to slip in a singular article and then point to it as evidence of a collective or an abstraction. Ask me to picture "a" caveman, sure, it's Fred Flintstone. Ask me to picture a cavewoman, it's Wilma. Ask me to picture "a" man, it's Michaelangelo's David. Ask me to picture "Man" (or even "caveman"), well, as I say, a bit contextual. Poetic, even.

Again too, if I write, "Man walked the savanna," do you picture one man, a bunch of male football players, or a small mixed family tribe? Of all choices, the group of football players would strike my mind as most awkward.

(Pop quiz - did Shakespeare write "What a piece of work is man" or "What a piece of work is a man"?)

As to the kids, I don't think it's too much to ask them to gather shades of imagery as they grow. English is possibly the richest language on earth, why the little darlings to a frankly narrowed prescriptivist POV? Let them learn the very few exceptions. Let them embrace the very few exceptions. Let them understand that Carlyle was not loonybins for writing the way he did and that the language and the world is a far more nuanced thing and place than they imagined.

But then, I'd rather read Carlyle than pretty much any modern scholarly text anyway. One reason I gave up on the idea of an academic career was modern academia's tendency to drain life blood out of the subject. At least in the humanities. The scientists always seemed to me to be having more fun.

Quiz answer -

What a piece of work is a man.

Yet moderns will habitually drop the article. Why? My guess is because they, we, immediately equate lack of article with an abstraction. (Given the strong roles that Shakespeare gave to women, it is an interesting question whether he would have thought this as sexist, to throw an anachronistic concept at the poor guy. Something for the academics to work on....) But I would welcome other perspectives (and thanks, Miko, I tend to learn things from you).

Tangled web, you see.
posted by IndigoJones at 8:19 AM on March 20, 2009


"Man walked the savanna," do you picture one man,

Yes.

It's not tangled to me at all; you just see it differently.

I simply don't think there is anything more to be gained by forcing children to deal with the abstraction of gendered language that contradicts the concrete gendered language they've known since early childhood than there is by asking the adult world to avoid the abstraction and use inclusive language.

I think, in general, most communications about all human beings in the abstract are better for being inclusive and non-gendered. You don't activate the responses of wondering about datedness or feeling intentional or unintentional exclusion in a large (majority?) portion of your readership - they don't have to wonder about your motives or who is or isn't included in this category. Thus they can concentrate on the point you're making - it's clearer.

Just as with communications about race, the question for a writer should not be "Would I feel excluded by this language?" but "could reasonable readers feel excluded by this language?" If the answer to that last is yes, I believe it's best to avoid the language.
posted by Miko at 8:28 AM on March 20, 2009


Thing is, I'm not sure that the attempts to be non-gendered do fail to neutralize the thoughts about motive. Indeed, often enough the writers, academic writers in particular, begin their works by making a point of how they are finessing the issue.

Speaking as the father of a daughter, I've no doubt our new sensitivity is a Good Thing. I am old enough to remember when they introduced Ms (a definite Good Thing, if clearly artificial) and the early arguments for "he or she", or "they" (as a singular), or s/he, or the random (or not so random) use of "she" as an abstraction.

Problem is, the solutions have sounded, to my ear- clunky. Instead of pushing the issue aside so we can concentrate on the writing, such usage inevitably rings the bell of "Writer Making Social Point". (Again, to my ear. Conversely, failure to do so also catches my attention- I have been Sensitized.)

As to the feelings of exclusion, I can sympathize (if only in the abstract), but it is not universal among womankind. Mrs. Jones and many other women I know claim not to feel it, and trust me, Mrs. Jones and many other women I know are far from shy about making their feelings known. Conversely, there are clearly many men who feel it intensely.

Perhaps this is a function of age, or of our living in a transitional age, and the young'uns will not have this as a problem. Hope so. Still, I pity them the loss of nuance.

(The tangled comment was mostly about the Hamlet quote and the significance of articles over the ages. What are the different overtones over time of "Man", "A Man", and "The Man." Sorry, I tend to let my mind wander. (It then went to the source, and such usages as Homo Faber, Homo Ludens, and such like- but it has come to no conclusions about them.))

(Actually, an argument could be made that datedness is something that should to be considered in evaluating a writing. (Ach, wandering again!))
posted by IndigoJones at 9:23 AM on March 21, 2009


Problem is, the solutions have sounded, to my ear- clunky.

This is in part because your ear is unaccustomed to the gender-neutral form. Time and use will likely wear away some of this supposed clunkiness. In any case, as has been pointed out above, grace and literary value are secondary in academic texts, which exist primarily to inform. Where stylistic choices interfere with the primary goal style should give way to clarity.

Since we're admitting aesthetics to this discussion: I cannot politely express how graceless and outdated and therefore, yes, clunky the "Man the _____" construction sounds to my ear.

To my ear, it is also resoundingly, infuriatingly exclusionary, another strike against it. Since this is a common complaint, "Man the ____" has little or nothing to recommend its use in current academic writing, unless the specific piece of text is built around a guiding "Man the ____" quote from an older text, e.g., Carlyle as described above.

(Even there, it's entirely possible for a graceful writer to use the original phrase in the quote, then move on to a gender-neutral construction. I've done it. It's not difficult, and my professors consistently praise my writing as well as my research. Gender-neutral language has not hampered my academic writing style in the least.)

As to the feelings of exclusion, I can sympathize (if only in the abstract), but it is not universal among womankind.

It need not be universal to be a very real complaint, as several people in this very thread have shown. As a student of archaeology and anthropology (and as therefore as someone who comes across this question in my daily reading), I am telling you it is a very real complaint.
posted by Elsa at 10:01 AM on March 21, 2009


It need not be universal to be a very real complaint, as several people in this very thread have shown. As a student of archaeology and anthropology (and as therefore as someone who comes across this question in my daily reading), I am telling you it is a very real complaint.

Also, I did a number of grammaticality judgement studies about generic use of masculine pronouns, and most of the people under, say, 20 (5 years ago) rejected sentences like "Everyone picked up his toys" in a mixed sex nursery school. (The response is "I know what they mean to say, but you can't say it like that", at varying degrees of sophistication.) This was less true for older people, though I mostly only studied people up to 25. The use, in English, of "man" to mean all people, of "he/him" to refer to any person or group of people whose gender is unknown, of male as unmarked generally, is phasing out.
posted by jeather at 12:00 PM on March 21, 2009


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