Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Sex vs. gender

Doug Fisher at Common Sense Journalism points to a cheat sheet on the differences of sex and gender.

(Note that not everyone is on the same page here. It's one of the few things that Bill Walsh and I disagree on, but I think there's value in the distinction.)

Here's how the The American Heritage Book of English Usage puts it:
Traditionally, writers have used the term Gender to refer to the grammatical categories of masculine, feminine, and neuter, as in languages such as French or Spanish whose nouns and adjectives carry such distinctions. In recent years, however, more people have been using the word to refer to sex-based categories, as in phrases such as gender gap (as in voting trends) and politics of gender. Anthropologists especially like to maintain a distinction between the terms Gender and sex, reserving sex for reference to the biological categories of male and female and using Gender to refer to social or cultural categories, such as different gender roles in a religious organization. According to this distinction, you would say The effectiveness of the treatment appears to depend on the sex (not Gender) of the patient but In society, gender (not sex) roles are clearly defined. A majority of the Usage Panel approves of this distinction, but opinions are mixed. In a sentence similar to the first one above, 51 percent choose sex, 31 percent choose gender, and 17 percent would allow both. Similarly, for the example Sex/gender differences are more likely to be clearly defined in peasant societies, 47 percent prefer Gender, 38 percent would use sex, and 15 percent would allow both words.
This is probably not something you'll be expected to change in copy. However, you should be aware that the distinction exists and is not wrong.

And, by all means, you don't need to change "sex" to "gender" just to avoid giving readers a case of the giggles. Let's be a little more adult than that.


At 2:15 PM, February 08, 2005, Blogger Peter Fisk said...

I favor using “gender” in its extended sense in many instances for the sake of clarity and social comfort. “The patient’s gender” is clear. “The patient’s sex” can conjure various unfortunate connotations.

Along the same lines, when I had a female dog, I didn’t go around identifying her as a bitch, although I think I heard the cat use that term on more than one occasion.

At 12:05 AM, February 09, 2005, Blogger cl said...

I know you, Nicole Stockdale! I'm Christy, Mike Marlett's friend! I'm a copy editor in Lawrence.

At 12:10 AM, February 09, 2005, Blogger Nicole said...

Hello, Ms. Little! Nice to see you around.

Also, Peter, I don't have a problem with using "gender" to avoid potentially ambiguous situations (although I think those are few and far between). However, I do take issue with the "social comfort" part of your argument. Poppycock. (Woops, will that send people into a titter, too?)

At 1:27 AM, February 09, 2005, Blogger Peter Fisk said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 1:30 AM, February 09, 2005, Blogger Peter Fisk said...

But, Nicole, I looked it up at Language Log. It's a liberical chrondish inflected into an infedible enus. Shakespeare used it when he wrote Beowulf’s Canterbury Tales, so it must therefore be accepted as a perfectly cromulent usage in contemporary standard American English.

At 1:55 AM, February 09, 2005, Blogger Peter Fisk said...

… Your mention of “titter” prompted me to break the ice on my new 724-pound (give or take) 4th-edition American Heritage Dictionary to check the origin of that word (“probably imitative,” says AHD). Wandering to the previous page, I found a “Regional Note” that talked about Henry David Thoreau having referred to his generation as “a race of tit-men” (not what it sounds like). Which reminded me that my concern about “social comfort” might be related to my Puritanical Yankee upbringing. (I probably wouldn’t say “titillate” or even “titular” in my mother’s presence.)

At 2:28 AM, February 09, 2005, Blogger Peter Fisk said...

... Uh-oh, now I’m having to deal with a previously repressed childhood memory of looking up a little gray tufted bird in the field guide and having to find a way to say “titmouse” inaudibly. I think I just pointed to the entry in the book. Hmm, maybe I could use some counseling. Anyway, if I got a story that said something like “the disease is statistically correlated to sex” and it wasn’t talking about an STD, I’d probably change it to “gender” or recast the sentence.

At 10:48 AM, February 09, 2005, Blogger Nicole said...

Peter, I think this is as good a time as any to say: Your comments are my favorite. Thanks. These really made me laugh.


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