Given the importance of the question of how to use language in ways that don’t reinforce prejudice, marginalization or oppression, it’s a little surprising that there hasn’t previously been a specific guide to thinking through bias-free language. But now it’s here, and its arrival in our fraught social and political times is certainly timely.
Co-written by Don LePan and Laura Buzzard—respectively, founder and senior editor of Broadview Press—along with Maureen Okun, a professor at Vancouver Island University, How To Be Good With Words marshals the insights of three clearly well-informed authors to confront some of the vexing and contentious language-use questions of our time. Designed for use in the classroom and complete with questions and suggestions for discussion at each chapter’s end, How To Be Good With Words tackles how to approach race and gender, religion and sexual orientation, political controversy, humour, euphemism, class, humanity’s relationships with other species and more. It offers a straightforward guide to the pitfalls of language—and thinking—that can snare us if we’re not careful.
More than a guide to linguistic etiquette, this is a guide to linguistic decency—a crucial distinction. Linguistic decency means knowing not just what words are polite to use and what aren’t, but also knowing what harms certain usages can do and why a speaker or writer might want to avoid them. There is a lot to like in how LePan, Buzzard and Okun approach this task. One of the book’s best features is that it presents the conversation about language as a conversation, frankly acknowledging when there isn’t a single obvious right view on how to approach an issue and instead presenting the reader with the authors’ contrasting opinions when they disagree.
Those “opposing views” sections are just part of what makes this a fascinating and thought-provoking guide, even for the reader or writer who feels well-informed on questions of bias in language. The entries here are modest, efficient and precise, and there’s enough intellectual heft to make it an interesting cover-to-cover read rather than simply a reference, though it could certainly be just as easily used to spot-check usage and includes a useful short list of bias-free vocabulary as an appendix.
The success of How To Be Good With Words in striking a balance between concise presentation and thoroughness in the range of material covered is a remarkable achievement in itself. Informative, accessible and physically compact, it deserves a place on the bookshelf of anyone who aspires to the most responsible possible practice of the written and spoken word.
—Ian Samuels is a poet and editor in Calgary.