On PETA and Linguistics
Into the category "Why didn’t I think of that?" I must put PETAs campaign (for lack of a better word) to get The Associated Press to recognize that nonhuman animals are living beings by transitioning from calling them "it" and "which," to "he," "she," and "who."
Though I am conscious of pronoun usage and other language in my own writing and I often deconstruct the writing of others, I never thought of going to the source to get language changed: style guides. If you’re not a writer or editor, or if it’s been a while since you had to write a report in school, you might not be aware that there’s a handful of style guides that regulate:
- how (or if) you’re supposed to punctuate bullets
- how to refer to a source within your text (as opposed to in a bibliography or footnote)
- when to capitalize what words and why
- and thousands upon thousands of other tidbits
The style guide you use depends on your field of endeavor, with print journalism being governed by the The Associated Press Stylebook. I usually write according to The Chicago Manual of Style, which governs the publishing and research communities. When I was in graduate school, I usually used the MLA (Modern Language Assocation) Style Manual, which governs scholarly publishing, but I also used the APA (American Psychological Association) Publication Manual, which governs the social and behavioral sciences. I never chose myself; I was told which style guide to use for my writing and I had to master a handful.
I attempt to raise awareness about language usage in this blog and in my personal activism and writing, but it’s genius to go to the source–the style guide(s)–to request a change. Here’s the PETA letter, in its entirety:
Norm Goldstein, Editor
The Associated Press
450 W. 33rd St.
New York, NY 10001
Dear Mr. Goldstein:
On behalf of PETA’s more than 1.6 million members and supporters worldwide, I am writing to request that you revise The Associated Press Stylebook so that its grammatical rules reflect the fact that animals are living beings rather than inanimate objects. In magazine articles, popular literature, and advertising, writers are using “he,” “she,” and “who” to refer to animals—instead of the outdated and inaccurate “it” and “which.” Won’t you consider making this transition as well?
As “the essential global news network,” the Associated Press (AP) should take a progressive step and give animals the respect that they deserve by revising AP style guidelines to reflect the usage of personal pronouns for all animals.
While the world accelerates through the 21st century, progressive ideas are challenging and changing conventional perspectives. Recently, the American legal system recognized that nonhuman animals deserve legal status beyond that of mere “property” and that abusive treatment of animals is more than simple vandalism.
The public now recognizes that whales, who sing across oceans; great apes, who share more than 98 percent of our DNA; sheep, who can recognize as many as 50 faces after not having seen them for two years; and pigs and chickens, who can learn to operate switches in order to control heat and light in factory-farm sheds, are feeling, intelligent individuals—not objects. Our language should reflect this.
I would greatly appreciate hearing your decision on this matter. Enclosed are PETA’s Writing Style and Guidelines, which explain how to avoid language that portrays animals in a negative light.
Thank you very much for your time.
Director of Written Communications
I like this idea so much that I’m going to send one of my own. And then I’m going to take on the other style guides. Arbiters of style will eventually go where the public sends them in many cases. Watch your language, diplomatically alert others of language missteps, and write your own letters requesting changes in the way we refer to nonhuman animals. Language affects behavior.