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Auntie Barbara's Writing Guide

Some English terms are correctly criticized as sexist.

. "The Ascent of Man," or "mankind"

What about the other half of the human race?

"Humanity" and "humankind" are perfectly acceptable and traditional replacements.


. "When a human looks up at the night sky, he sees..."

There are several alternatives to this: You may use "he or she," though this is admittedly awkward. "When a human looks up at the night sky, he or she sees . . ." Some people are using "she" in some paragraphs, and "he" in others. "When a human looks up at the night sky, she sees . . ." You may stick to the slightly archaic-sounding but convenient "one." "When one looks up at the night sky, one sees . . ."


DON'T, however, use the plural "they" as a replacement for a single "he."

. "When a human looks up at the night sky, they see..." AAAAAARGHG.

Many people are falling into this error in an attempt to be gender-neutral, but aesthetically, at least, it's far, far worse than the sexist "he" that it was intended to fix!

 You'll give your Auntie Barbara a cardiac arrest if you use "they" in this way.

It's acceptable to use "they" ONLY if you keep it PLURAL throughout. "When HUMANS look up at the night sky, they see . . ." (More on this later, though.)


 Some English terms are incorrectly criticized as sexist.

"History" and "Humanity" may happen to include "his" and "man," but these are historical accidents. The words "his" and "man" came to English from German via the Saxons. The words "history" and "humanity" came not from German but from Latin, and are not associated with their apparently embedded words. The playful "herstory"is fine, too, but the original "history" is not sexist. These errors are a good example of the needlessly sloppy work that has given "cultural diversity" studies an undeserved bad name.


 A related temptation:

Many U.S. natives automatically speak of "we humans" when in fact what they mean is "we U.S. citizens . . ." Many U.S. natives also speak of "in the modern world . . ." etc., when they mean "in the modern industrial world . . ." or even "in the modern western industrial world . . ."

Be cosmopolitan, not provincial.


Also be historically sophisticated.

Much of what seems traditional to us is quite recent in terms of human history. It's astonishing how many U.S. natives don't realize that the modern "traditional" family is an innovation, or that medieval Europe simply wasn't interested in proving hypotheses empirically.

Many U.S. citizens also tend to look back on previous generations as somehow less intelligent, less capable, less wise. They are able to hold this illusion only because they are ignorant of history.

You don't need to memorize dates to be historically sophisticated. You do need a sense of how life was different at different periods and in different societies.

There are plenty of highly entertaining books and movies that can help give us this sense of life in various periods and societies. So even if you don't have the resources to get a good formal liberal arts education, you can enjoy expanding your horizons and get some rest and recreation at the same time. Here are a few of my coziest favorite books, all suitable for effortless bed-time reading.


Aristophanes' play Lysistrata is howlingly funny. Aristophanes was a sort of brilliant, bawdier Mel Brooks for Golden Age Athens. Do be warned; this is adult humor -- R-rated at the very least. William Arrowsmith's breezy translation is the best, but here's a free version: The illustration above is Picasso's vision of the celebration at the end of Lysistrata, when the women have forced an end to a war by declaring a strike on connubial relations.


Wilkie Collins's celebrated mystery, The Moonstone, has been described as the first modern mystery story. It's only slightly, pleasingly, over-the-top, far more restrained than the rest of his campily gothic output. And it's thoroughly addictive. Here's Victorian England at its most Victorian, complete with a gemstone stolen from a Hindu god, early hypotheses on paranormal psychology, mysterious sounds in the night, intrigue, sex, violence, you name it. Here's a free version:


When a Dutch diplomat named Robert van Gulik lived in China, he was delighted to encounter an ancient genre of Chinese story quite similar to the modern western murder mystery. To introduce his fellow westerners to this genre, he wrote a series of new mysteries based on this genre, and set in medieval China, with the resourceful and elegant Judge Dee as hero. These books are not a primary, authentic source, but van Gulik seems to have researched the literature and the culture conscientiously and extensively. They're great fun. Here are two blogs about them: and

Incidentally, the term "America" refers NOT to the U.S. of America, BUT to the whole hemisphere, both continents, North America and South America.

Thus, the politician's favorite phrase "The American People" refers not only to the U.S. electorate, but to all other residents of the hemisphere as well. Likewise, "Americans" refers to all inhabitants of both these continents. If you are referring to the U.S.A., take the time to specify "U.S.A.."

Mexicans, Canadians, Brazilians, etc. will appreciate your courtesy.


(The photograph is from Nasa. They have stunning photos available at



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