Yardman or yard worker? You decide. Washington Post

Recently Virginia ratified the Equal Rights Amendment, meaning the amendment was finally approved by enough states to become law — if it hadn’t missed the deadline by nearly four decades, that is. While it will be up to the courts to decide whether or not the ERA goes into effect given that gap, at least writers are doing their part to see that all people are represented equally, be they female, male or non-binary — those who don’t identify as exclusively a man or a woman, or are transgender.

The effort to treat people equally in our language has involved an evolution of words and meanings.

For a while, “ze” seemed to be the gender-neutral pronoun preferred by lesbian, gay and transgender persons, with other acceptable pronouns including “sie, e, ou, ve,” and the current leader, “they.” As is the case with “you are,” both the singular and plural of “they” is “they are.”

Though many female-specific words, such as “doyenne,” “brava” and “fiancee,” and many male-oriented words, such as “councilman,” “foreman” and “fireman,” persist in the area of informal writing, scribes in the business and legal fields are doing their best to make sure that everyone is treated equally.

For example, while my copy of the “Maine Legislative Drafting Manual” is a few years old and doesn’t specifically address the subject of non-binary persons, it does have a section that has plenty to say about the gender-neutral construction of state statutes. It starts by cautioning that, whenever possible, “nouns rather than pronouns shall be used to refer to persons in order to avoid gender identification.”

Over several pages, the manual goes on to cite dozens of examples of how writers can replace gender-specific nouns and adjectives with neutral terms, starting with the replacement of “alderman” by “municipal officer,” and concluding with the substitution of “yard worker” for “yardman.”

The section does allow for the use of some gender-identifying words that “have specific legal meanings or general acceptance,” such as “journeyman,” “manhole” “manslaughter” and “ombudsman.”

The phenomenon is another example of our ever-developing language as our culture changes.

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.”  

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