Questionable Style in the News

office-chairAn article about the benefits of standing desks in last week’s Washington Post highlighted a problem, and I’m not talking about the problem of sitting too long in a chair at the office (although this is a real problem). I’m talking about a different kind of chair.

My friend Barbara Beaton pointed out to me that the article refers to Loretta DiPietro, a pioneering advocate for standing desks, as “chairman of the department of exercise science” at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University.

If you go to the GW School of Public Health’s website, DiPietro is described as “chair of the department of exercise science.”

So why use “chairman” in the article when that is not the standard term in the academy at this point and not the term used on DiPietro’s website? The use also defies most standard guidelines in the academy for nonsexist language use. Than again, so does The Associated Press Stylebook.

The AP Stylebook, the most widely accepted style guide for journalists, does not accept the word chair. The entry for chairman/chairwoman in the 2013 version of the Stylebook specifies that chair, co-chair, and chairperson, all gender-neutral words, are not acceptable in AP style unless they are “an organization’s formal title for an office.”

That said, the Stylebook does not support chairman the way it is used in this article, as the Post is not referring to a man or the office in general (not to endorse this guideline in any way). Here is the entry for -persons in the 2013 version of the Stylebook:

Do not use coined words such as chairperson or spokesperson in regular text. Instead, use chairman or spokesman if referring to a man or the office in general. Use chairwoman or spokeswoman if referring to a woman. Or, if applicable, use a neutral word such as leader or representative. Use chairperson or similar coinage only in direct quotations or when it is the formal description for an office.

I see no good reason why both men and women cannot and should not be referred to as chairs in “regular text” or why the office of chair in general should take a -man word when there are widely accepted gender-neutral terms available. (I’m highly skeptical of claims that in context, chair creates ambiguity about whether we’re talking about people or furniture.)

The 2014 version of The AP Stylebook was released yesterday, and I just checked: These entries remain unchanged. Here’s to hoping the editors will update these entries in the very near future and endorse chair as a gender-neutral term.

In the meantime, I certainly hope The Washington Post will at least use the formal title chair when it is a university’s and faculty member’s term of choice.

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