13 June 2018

The University of Queensland does not have a gender-neutral language policy or a list of banned words. This has been misreported in the media.

School of Political Science and International Studies Head Richard Devetak responds:

"Outrage is a powerful emotion, but is not always helpful when analysing the facts. Let me employ some common sense and dispassionate reason to respond to recent stories about university essay guides.

Has the University of Queensland banned the use of words such as ‘mankind’ and ‘workmanship’? No, and there is no evidence they have, despite the lurid headlines. Does the University deduct marks specifically for using gendered language? No, not as a rule. And no one has presented me with any evidence that marks have been deducted for gendered language in essays. Can the use of gendered language affect the overall quality of an essay? Perhaps, but only at the margins, and it depends on the extent.

The truth is that there is no university policy to ‘mark down’ student essays for using gendered language any more than there is for splitting infinitives, misplacing apostrophes, or committing any other grammatical infelicity, as Acting Executive Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, Professor Julie Duck, pointed out.

The public quite rightly expects universities to uphold high standards when it comes to formal communication. Naturally, these standards will differ from what’s expected in other parts of life. What’s acceptable in the pub may not be appropriate in a newspaper. What’s acceptable in a newspaper may not be appropriate in a piece of academic writing. This is just plain common sense and has nothing at all to do with political correctness. It is about informing students of professional standards and expectations across different fields.

Professional environments both inside and outside universities have writing conventions. Universities have a responsibility to inform students about these conventions and expectations, which is why they issue guidelines to help a highly internationalised and diverse student body. They guide students in their formal academic writing, they do not dictate how they communicate in other contexts.

If students wish to ignore grammar and revert to using the passive voice or splitting infinitives, if they choose to use colloquialisms and slang, or if they insist on using gendered, racist or foul language in other settings, that is their business. But in an academic essay, as in many other professional contexts, it is best to avoid them.

So, are universities pushing an ‘agenda’, as Minister Birmingham implies, by upholding widely accepted writing conventions? No, of course not. To suggest otherwise is simply a convenient fiction to create outrage. The awkward truth is that universities are following style guides used in many professional organisations, including the Commonwealth Government and News Ltd.

The Minister might care to consult the sixth edition of the Style Manual published by the Australian Government as a guide to its publications since 1966. This includes the same advice about inclusive language as is found in university guides.

Readers of the Courier Mail may also like to consult the third edition of News Ltd’s Style: The Essential Guide for Journalists and Professional Writers, edited by long-time News Ltd editor, Kim Lockwood. It says: ‘Avoid words or phrases implying men are viewed as the norm and women as the exception’.

Ironically, as it turns out, both Minister Birmingham’s own government departments and News Ltd are dictating “nanny state stuff” and “lingo lunacy” through their style guides too.

It is important that universities defend their autonomy and integrity against the assault on academic standards, and maintain good writing practices. To do this, we must not allow shrill culture warriors to twist the truth and turn common sense writing conventions into weapons of fake news."

Read more: philosophy, language and gender experts Associate Professor Deborah Brown and Dr Dino Willox apply critical thinking to gender-neutral language.

Media: UQ Communications, communications@uq.edu.au, 3365 3439.