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Languishing in a politically correct language impasse

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Dolly Withrow Dolly Withrow
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Dolly Withrow is a retired English professor and the author of four books. She is a columnist for The State Journal and the Charleston Daily Mail. She is also a regular essayist for Now & Then, a scholarly publication published by East Tennessee State University. Contact Dolly at ritewood@aol.com.

"Impasse is when an Australian is telling another to look at one racer pass others. ‘Look at impasse everyone else,' he says."

One of my college students wrote the preceding sentences when asked to define "impasse." I was never sure whether he was waxing creative or answering honestly. My students knew the test would not be graded, so he could have been writing merely for my entertainment. I explained that I wanted to discover what they knew about constructing grammatical sentences and what they knew about their culture. The assignment was successful, and I continued to use it in future classes.

Another young scholar, when defining homogeneous, wrote, "A very smart person who stays at home." That makes sense if the word is mispronounced, and if Don Quixote is mispronounced, he is a person who quits ahead of time. Leo Tolstoy is a world-famous musician, and Louis Armstrong was an astronaut. "An akimbo is a Swedish dance similar to the limbo." Another student disagreed with that, writing that "akimbo is African for Thank You." As omnipresent as the multiflora rose, the Golden Gate Bridge was located in New York, New Mexico and London. "Cain and Abel is when you are abel to walk with a cain."

When I began teaching, the use of euphemisms was discouraged. For example, using "died" for "passed away" was preferred because it was more precise, and it was honest. There was a distinct difference between "blind" and "visually impaired." All that gradually began to change by the time I was ready to retire. Political correctness entered the language, and euphemisms were suddenly loved. This strange love affair muddied linguistic waters, making language imprecise. Also, as Emily Dickinson wrote, we could "tell the truth, but tell it slant." A little dishonesty was acceptable, for sensitivity ruled the day. Students were taught how to be sensitive and how to react. If they suffered the slightest verbal abuse, they had learned how to whine and then how to protest. Freedom of speech was quickly taking a back row. 

As a woman, I admit to replacing the male pronoun with "he or she" when the gender of the single antecedent is unknown. I agree it's cumbersome, and whenever possible, I use a plural antecedent followed by "they." If, however, a writer ignores the cumbersome construction, I promise not to weep or march in the streets. Although retired from my day job, I'm still too busy working to do any of that.

The political correctness movement — and it is political — has gone awry since my retirement, and I have begun to question many replacements. For example, we can no longer say Indian when we mean Native American, but wait a minute. I was born in this country, which makes me a native American, but not a Native American. My computer has just put a squiggly line under "native" because it precedes American, and I did not capitalize it. Apparently, the phrase "native American" no longer exists in politically correct language. Even my computer knows this.

When I was teaching at the University of Iowa Summer Writing Festival, a colleague had penned a book titled "Dancing at Halftime." After meticulous research, she concluded that it was wrong to use Indian dress for halftime ceremonies, but she also concluded that the best way to define American Indians is to say American Indians. 

Other politically correct language is just as strange as Native American. We no longer have law enforcement majors. Instead, we have criminal justice majors. Ponder that for a few minutes. We now have persons of interest, who may or may not be interesting persons. "Suspected criminal" is insensitive. We no longer offer remedial English classes because we're suggesting that something (like language usage) needs to be remedied, and to suggest a language flaw would diminish a student's self-esteem. The replacement was developmental English. One day, developmental English could be replaced since it, too, could scar self-esteem. 

When I asked my developmental students to write about three of their main writing weaknesses, one wrote that she was having trouble with her comas. Working hard, she awoke and conquered commas. Did something there need a remedy? You bet it did. I found it was easy to begin questioning my own knowledge of language when I read placement essays with the same misspelled word in paper after paper. While we English professors were evaluating those essays, I looked across the table at a colleague and said, "Have I been misspelling peer all these years?"

He said, "I know what you mean. I was beginning to wonder, too." Almost all the students had written that they were having problems with pier pressure. 

As for political correctness, one male student, in an effort not to offend anyone, wrote the following on the topic of premarital sex: "I don't believe in premartial sex because he or she might get pregnut."

I enjoyed my students. They're probably running Fortune 500 companies now, for they learned to be sensitive and were filled to the brim with self-esteem. In today's job market, those are important qualities.