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Opinion: Google — to boldly go where English isn’t always concrete

Google Docs will soon prompt writers to use more gender-neutral language, among other changes

Photo Illustration by Alex Cochran

In 1966, “Star Trek’s” promise “to boldly go where no man has gone before” caught the attention of grammarians who hated the split infinitive, arguing it should be “to go boldly.” It also irked some viewers who criticized the gendered use of “man.”

Two decades later, “Star Trek: The Next Generation” opened with a modified intro: “to boldly go where no one has gone before.”

The grammarians lost while cultural considerations prevailed.

Last month, Google announced that Google Docs will soon begin nudging writers to use more gender-neutral and inclusive language. “When it makes sense,” Google says, the free, browser-based word processor will suggest alternatives for gendered terms: “Chairman” becomes “chairperson,” “mailman” becomes “mail carrier,” and so forth. It will also suggest ways to avoid passive voice or “offensive language.”

It’s a simple idea asking for a sticky execution.

To be sure, English is punctured with sexist constructions that have developed over time. Consider the present connotations of “mistress” — the once-neutral counterpart to “master” — or “hussy,” which long ago described the female head of the house. Studies show masculine generic pronouns, often the default in our language, are more likely to conjure images of a man than a woman.

And pushback isn’t new. In 1912, Ella Flagg Young, Chicago’s first female public school superintendent, proposed using a contraction of “he” and “she” for a gender-neutral third-person singular: “he’er.” Academia has tried for decades to nurture impartial language, with some solutions clunkier than others — exclusively using feminine generics, switching between masculine and feminine pronouns every paragraph, or adopting the eyesore that is “s/he.”

Professions have gone through similar cultural edits. We don’t fly with stewardesses or laugh with comediennes anymore. “Actress” has fallen out of favor with the entertainment crowd, and although titles like “waiter” still work in context, “server” is a widely accepted substitute.

Eliminating needlessly gendered terms, which can diminish women, is a helpful step toward our egalitarian ideals, but it’s not always clear who gets to decide the “rules.” Unlike some languages, English has no formal academy or governing body of regulators. Our culture and the norms of the educated class often dictate the principles of appropriate use.

And there’s not always agreement. The Deseret News follows The Associated Press Stylebook, which, contrary to Google’s efforts, sticks to gendered titles like chairman and chairwoman. This is presumably for clarity’s sake: “Chairperson” can be ambiguous, and “chair” describes a contoured structure used for sitting.

Other style guides modify the language in their own ways to fit their needs. In that sense, one can think of Google’s move as a new chapter in its own style guide, except it’s one that reaches some 2 billion people around the world.

The scope of the tech giant is sure to have an impact on modern English. In her book, “Fixing English: Prescriptivism and Language History,” celebrated linguist Anne Curzan muses on the impact other softwares like Microsoft Word have had on our perceptions of language. Earlier iterations of Word’s grammar checker would ding writers for starting a sentence with “and” or “but,” even though, as Curzan reports, no reputable language guide has adopted such a rule. It would suggest correcting every instance of passive voice, even though there may be good reasons to use it at times. And it had a setting to flag gendered terms, although “freshman” was still accepted.

Without knowing the full degree to which a software’s nudges affect language, Curzan nevertheless believes “they will be a factor in the development of contemporary English.”

Which strikes at the heart of the Google situation. The company is choosing a preference — which, although broadly accepted, is not necessarily iron-clad — and exporting it to its many users. However small the suggestions may be, they come from a company that garners intense scrutiny and mistrust from swaths of America. As The Economist recently commented, Google walks a difficult line: It tries to stay on the proper side of “culture,” but it’s also a behemoth whose decisions can’t help but shape it.

Most people probably won’t notice (or care) that their Google Docs compositions are any different; others may celebrate it. But criticism comes from all corners, and the harder these companies seek to placate society’s concerns, the more concern they’re likely to generate.

Christian Sagers is an opinion staff writer for the Deseret News.