On Media Style Guides, Inclusive Language and "Political Correctness" by Beth Winegarner

Photo by Flickr user r. nial bradshaw.

Photo by Flickr user r. nial bradshaw.

My first paid journalism job was working as a copy editor for the Daily Californian, the student-run newspaper at UC Berkeley. We had a copy of the Associated Press Stylebook -- the copy-editor's Bible -- that we shared at the desk, but each of us was issued our own copy of the Daily Californian's style guide. 

It covered all the things the AP Stylebook didn't, including names and titles particular to the school, but also a number of terms related to ethnicity and diversity that were more respectful and inclusive. For example, it required us to use the terms "Latino" or "Latina" instead of "Hispanic," recognizing that "Hispanic" improperly centers the Spaniards who colonized Central and South America. It said to use "African American" where appropriate, and Native American instead of Indian; you get the idea. These are common terms now, but they weren't in the early 1990s, when the guide was written.

I've worked in a handful of other media organizations since that worked hard to use the most respectful and inclusive language possible, going beyond what the AP Stylebook recommends. And some nonprofits have developed additional media guides of their own, including GLAAD and the J-School at San Francisco State University.

There are, of course, critics who decry "political correctness" and associate the use of such language with some sort of abhorrent "liberal agenda." But one of the roles of journalism is to inform people, and the purpose behind style conventions is to make sure that a piece of reporting is clear, whether you're reading it in the San Francisco Chronicle or The Economist. If we can all agree that the word "tree" refers to a large plant with a trunk, roots, branches and leaves, then we can probably also agree that "Native American" refers to someone whose ancestors lived on one of the American continents before explorers arrived from Europe. The point of a lot of this terminology is not only to be more respectful and inclusive, but also to locate the most neutral language possible to describe someone or something. And the point of standardizing such language is to make sure readers understand what a word means, wherever it might appear. 

This week, I was editing an article in which the writer had begun several sentences with "he or she." Fifty years ago, it would have only been "he," and I appreciate that the writer wanted to be more gender-inclusive, especially since it was an article about members of a profession that isn't as male-dominated as it used to be. But, not only is "he or she" clunky -- especially when repeated several times -- it doesn't leave space for folks who don't identify as "he" or "she." I replaced each one with a singular "they," which worked easily in context, works grammatically, and doesn't give the impression that only "hes" or "shes" can pursue that line of work. 

Even the AP Stylebook folks are beginning to embrace it

Language shifts regularly, both as new ideas come into being and as formerly marginalized voices gain visibility and access to the shaping of that language. We are far from finished, and terms we use now might be seem dated or harmful in 20 years. I'm personally thankful for that first style guide, and the fact that it put me on a life-long path of considering these issues. 

A Splash of Red by Beth Winegarner


The house next door to ours is getting a makeover. This is very common in San Francisco -- heck, it's really common on our block, where several houses have been remodeled in the six years we've lived here. When we moved in, ours was one of the nicer-looking houses on the block; now, it's one of the shabbier ones by comparison. But the refresh of our neighbor's house feels different.

When we moved in, Novelle was one of the first to welcome us to the block. She was friendly and chatty, and always found a way to work into conversation the fact that she'd survived a bout of cancer and could die at any time. She wore her frizzy gray hair long to the shoulders, and favored big glasses, comfortable pants and sweaters. If you bumped into her outside her house, you had to prepare for a chat that could last upwards of an hour. And, even though you needed to get inside to put away groceries or tend to the kids, you were fascinated enough to want to stay and listen.

Over time, I learned that she had worked for the author/journalist/activist Jessica Mitford, and was a psychotherapist who saw clients in her home. She told us that before we bought our house, and before the man who sold it to us, the house was owned by Nicomedes "Nick" Martinez, who had worked as a legislative assistant for Sen. John Burton and hosted lively dinner parties. It made me wish the walls could tell us all the San Francisco political secrets they might have absorbed.

Over the past year, Novelle grew thinner, but never let on to us that she was dying. In some ways, she seemed more energetic and purposeful than ever. A couple years ago, she'd had the front of her house re-done; workmen pulled down all the vines that had grown over the front of it, tore up the failing staircase, removed the shingles whose paint had faded to pink, nailed up new shingles and rebuilt her front stairs. At some point, though, the work trailed off, and went unfinished.

Earlier this year, I went outside one afternoon to find Novelle and three of her friends across the street, looking at the front of her house. She called me over and showed me a plank of wood with several colors of paint on it. "Which one do you like?" she asked. "I need to pick something for the front of the house." I can't remember all the colors, now; one was black, and another was a bold, deep red. I chose that one. "That's my favorite, too," she said. "I'm a painter, and it's one of my favorite colors to work with."

Novelle died in August. We found out when her son, who has the task of emptying her house and getting it ready for sale, told us one day while moving some of her belongings out onto the curb for passersby to pick through. On another day, he put out a deep red velvet chair, the fabric worn bald on the armrests. My partner pulled it into the garage for me. I haven't figured out what to do with it yet, but I'm glad to have something that she clearly used and loved.

Over the past two weeks, painters have set up scaffolding in front of her house, although it was days before I saw what colors they were using. This week, the shingles have gotten their new look: dark red paint, just as Novelle wanted, with a dark gray trim. Her son could have picked something more modern -- it's what would fetch a higher price from potential buyers. But I like to think that, somewhere along the way, she left specific orders to paint her house that color when the time came.


Fool Pirates With This One Weird Trick by Beth Winegarner


In recent weeks, I've sent out more than my usual share of copyright violation notices, otherwise known as DMCA takedown requests (named for the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which protects artists' copyright online). The same guy keeps posting free PDF downloads of my books -- on different domains, but with the same page designs, etc. And sometimes his domains resolve to other domains, or show the book-download page for 30 seconds and then redirect somewhere else, as if I can't figure this stuff out. Anyhow, I've emailed him twice, ordering him to stop offering downloads of my books, and twice he's taken them down. Not that I expect this to be the end of it. 

I don't know how many people -- writers included -- realize that this is now part of the business of writing. Setting up alerts for your book titles, discovering who's offering them as free downloads, emailing them to tell them to knock it off, repeat until fade. 

Maggie Stiefvatar definitely knows. The author of the Raven Cycle series and, more recently, the Ronan trilogy, played a trick on would-be pirates -- and on people who were downloading her books from them -- and it wound up driving more people to shell out for her actual books and e-books: 

I was intent on proving that piracy had affected the Raven Cycle, and so I began to work with one of my brothers on a plan. It was impossible to take down every illegal pdf; I’d already seen that. So we were going to do the opposite. We created a pdf of the Raven King. It was the same length as the real book, but it was just the first four chapters over and over again. At the end, my brother wrote a small note about the ways piracy hurt your favorite books. I knew we wouldn’t be able to hold the fort for long — real versions would slowly get passed around by hand through forum messaging — but I told my brother: I want to hold the fort for one week. Enough to prove that a point.

And it worked. Perhaps more writers and publishers need to try Stiefvatar's trick. 

The Six-Legged Spider by Beth Winegarner

Photo by Flickr user Kristy Johnson.

Photo by Flickr user Kristy Johnson.

For the past several weeks, we've had a number of orb weaver spiders in our yard. They build their webs in all sorts of improbable places: between two thin branches on a shrub, between the rosemary bush and the tea-rose bush, between one of the trees overhead and a stalk of dry foxtail grass in the dirt. 

The one spider who has stuck around the longest only has six legs, four on one side, and two on the other. It's missing two back legs on one side. I've never seen a spider missing legs like this before, although I'm sure it must happen -- amputations and accidents happen throughout the animal, insect and arachnid kingdoms. 

As I write this, the six-legged orb weaver has built its latest web between two of our clotheslines. It's been windy and rainy the past few days, but the spider isn't bothered. It's still there, ready to catch whatever flies into its web. 

I have to admit, I'm inspired by this little creature. It's missing a full quarter of its limbs, but it has built several webs in the yard, moving to new spots as it needs to. It's not giving up. It's just as able as a spider with a full complement of legs, and even more persistent. 

Stunning by Beth Winegarner


On Monday afternoon, I was sitting near the back of a bus headed through the south Mission. There were four or five teenage girls in the very back, being loud, obnoxious and classically teenagery. I was annoyed by the volume, but otherwise didn't have an issue with them.

But the older woman sitting across from me did. After a while, she stood up and started yelling at them: "You should show more self-respect!" "You need to show me some respect!"

The girls started yelling back: "We weren't bothering you!" "I have self-respect, what are you talking about?!" and so on. The noise level grew. And the older woman's granddaughter, who I'm guessing was about 10, started to cry, begging her grandmother to stop yelling -- and to get off the bus.

"You need to listen to your granddaughter!" one of the girls yelled.

I needed to get off at 30th and Mission. As I pushed the button to request a stop, I heard a zzzzzap! But I didn't see anything; I thought maybe I had imagined it. 

Somewhere in all the yelling, the older woman started saying she was going to shock the teen girls. And, as I got off the bus, she was in the open doorway with her granddaughter when I heard the zzazzap! again. I realized she had some sort of small stun gun. The granddaughter was on the sidewalk, sobbing, still begging her grandmother to get off the bus. 

I wanted to hug that little girl so hard, but I was too scared. 

Two moments on public transit by Beth Winegarner

Morning. I'm sitting on the bus, in one of this disabled seats, because my balance is poor, my knees are in bad shape, and most of the other seats are full. 

A man, holding a cane and getting ready to exit the bus, turns to me and says, "You should be ashamed!"

"Why?" I ask. 

"Because I'm 67 and disabled and here you are, sitting in one of these seats!" He's in the doorway now. 

"I'm disabled too, thank you!" I yell as he exits. 

(Why did I say, "Thank you?")

Afternoon. I'm on the subway, sitting in a window seat with my bag in the aisle seat next to me. A man on a cell phone is standing in the aisle, hovering. I gesture to my stuff, ask if he wants to sit, and he nods. I clear the space and he sits. 

I put my headphones on, start playing Heart's Greatest Hits on my iPod, partly because some kids are playing loud music and dancing for spare change. A few minutes later, my seatmate taps me and asks, "Where are you getting off the train?"

I hate when men I don't know ask me that. 

"Why do you ask?" I say, wary. 

"Oh! Because I wanted to take a little nap, but I want to be able to let you out, and I'm wondering how much time I have," he says, chuckling. 

I laugh, relieved. "Berkeley. You've got a little time."

I let him sleep, listening to "Magic Man," "Crazy On You," "Dreamboat Annie" and "Barracuda," and wake him gently when the train reaches my stop. 

We Could Be Heroes by Beth Winegarner

My daughter, who is 8, wants to be a superhero for Halloween this year. When I tell people this, they often ask, "Which one?"

But she doesn't want to be any of the mass-market superheroes out there. She wants to be a superhero version of herself. Her costume is a pair of purple pants, a black shirt with her first initial printed boldly on the chest, a red cape with a star on the back, and a mask. 

When I asked her what her super powers are, she said: "Flying, teleporting, making whatever I want appear, super strength and super speed."

What is your superhero costume? What are your super powers?

"Lost" in Questions by Beth Winegarner

I've been sick this week, which has given me time to watch most of the first season of Lost. I haven't seen any of it since it aired in 2004, and I'm noticing a lot of new stuff this time around, like: 

1. What are all the women doing for their periods? 

2. Why didn't Sun and Jin learn English, especially in relation to Sun's father's business? 

3. How does Sun know so much about plants?

4. What are the odds that nobody on the plane would know enough about botany to be able to tell where they landed, based on the plants on the island?

5. What are the odds that so many of them would have an "I had to kill someone/I accidentally killed someone" backstory?

6. If you took a drink every time someone referred to Walt as "my boy" or "your boy," how drunk would you get?



The squirrel and the barbecue grill by Beth Winegarner

I was lying in bed reading the other day, enjoying a breeze through the open window, when I heard a scraping noise outside. I tried to ignore it -- my mental image of "me time" just then didn't involve that particular sound -- but I couldn't. 

Scrrrch, scrrrch, scrrrch.

I turned around and saw one of our backyard squirrels on top of the dome of our barbecue, nibbling the white plastic handle. 

"That is not food!" I said, because I talk to animals as if they can all speak English.

I climbed out of bed and went out the back door, waving my arms like I was trying to flag down a police car. I figured if I looked scary enough, the squirrel would associate the delicious grill-cover handle with danger and not want to eat it again. It skittered up the wooden fence and disappeared into the trees.

It doesn't seem like any good can come of a squirrel eating our grill handle. A, the squirrel is ingesting something that isn't edible. And b, it leaves us without a way to lift the cover on the barbecue, including when it's hot. And it's not like we are starving this animal. We fill our bird feeders regularly. The squirrels leap onto them from nearby trees and hang upside down to get at the seeds. It's impressive, actually.

Now, maybe this is one of those times you're supposed to let nature sort itself out, but I just couldn't. I tried to think of something I could cover the handle with that would make it seem even less like food. Foil! Nobody likes biting down on foil, right? I wrapped a layer around the grill handle, feeling clever.

A few days later, I went outside to see how my plan was working. I had to chase the squirrel away from the grill again. Not only had it not been turned off by the foil, but it had peeled off a long strip to get to the handle. I looked around on the patio for shredded aluminum, but found almost none.

Great. Now the squirrel thinks the foil is food, too?

Meanwhile, the critter was sitting on top of the fence, halfway behind a frond of leaves, as if it believed I couldn't see it. It sat very still, regarding me with one cautious eye. 


Trigger Warnings by Beth Winegarner

I said: "I'd like to ask you not to joke about triggers and trigger warnings. Folks with PTSD get ridiculed enough as it is."

He said: "I respect you very much. And I respect what you're asking me, and why. I have a very big problem with the concept of 'trigger warnings.' And that may be because of how I was raised, or things I was never exposed to, or because of my own views about jokes, free speech, and so on. Which is not to say that I'm correct in any of it, or, certainly, that I don't have a lot still to learn. But it is a factor in who I am and how I act and what I say. Because I would never want to cause any person undue harm, I will think about it."

I said: "Thank you. Because being triggered by something causes actual harm to the people who experience them. Think of a trigger warning as like an allergy label for someone with a severe peanut allergy. It's not a spoiler in a movie review. It's a notification that the content could be actually harmful to some folks."

I said: "It's not really up to people who don't have PTSD to have opinions on trigger warnings; it's a bit like able-bodied people having opinions on whether a courthouse that has no wheelchair ramp should warn wheelchair users ahead of time that they can't get inside."

I said: "Another thought is the 'punch up, not down' theory of comedy. Make fun of people who are better off than you, not worse off."

I haven't heard from him since.