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First Person Language

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Blogger Neuroskeptic offers his thoughts on an editorial by Roger Collier in the Canadian Medical Association Journal about the use of politically correct language in formal writing.  Some excerpts: 

There's a reason Ernest Hemingway didn't call his novel The Person Who Was Male and Advanced in Years and the Sea. He valued economy of language over verbosity, so "Old Man" worked fine to describe his titular character. One can only imagine what Papa Hemingway would think of person-first language.

Of course, the purpose of person-first language -- such as "person with a disability" instead of "disabled person" -- isn't to produce writing that is more concise, clear or lyrical. It's supposed to promote the idea that personhood is not defined by disability or disease.

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"Whatever is negative or taboo, such as disease or illness, we try to avoid talking about it," says Halmari. "It's a fallen world, and we need to talk about unpleasant and sad things."

The structure of person-first language also does a poor job of de-emphasizing disability, notes Halmari. In English, emphasis naturally occurs at the end of sentences. This is why, when asked if there are rules for humour writing, Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten replied: "Only one. I always try to put the funniest word at the end of the sentence underpants."


As a Gen X'er myself, I'm somewhat accustom to the revised model of describing people with disabilities.  I also sympathize with those who prefer the terminology of "a person with schizophrenia" rather than a "schizophrenic" because it signifies that schizophrenia is not the whole description of that person.  But I also realize that writing that way really does change how we think about people, behavior and responsibility.  People are not criminals but "people with criminal justice histories" and murderers are instead people convicted of murder.  Some may say it is humanizes but it also obfuscates.

I'm reminded of the late comedian George Carlin who once said poor people are not folks with a negative cash-flow position.  No, they're just plain broke.     

2 Comments

Another George Carlinism is apropos. The disabled are not handicapped--they are handicapable.

\\ Some may say it humanizes but it also obfuscates.//

Spot on. Call a spade a spade.

"In the multitude of words there wanteth not sin..."~~Prov 10:19

The reason that the life of King David, Homer's Illiad, and the works of Shakespeare & Milton prevail is that man has not evolved, but remains the same (if not worse).

One of unimproved man's negative traits is to employ a superfluity of words to avoid the truth. Instead, "let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil."~~Matt 5:37

~Adamakis

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