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Grammar advice from a "female professor"

This week on That’s What They Say, we explore gender stereotypes in job titles for women and men. Michigan Radio's Rina Miller talks with Anne Curzan, a professor of English at the University of Michigan who specializes in linguistics.

Curzan says the stereotypes come from our understanding of who does certain jobs.

“So we tend to say things like 'a woman doctor,' or 'a female doctor,' which indicates that the stereotype is that a doctor is male unless otherwise specified. In contrast, we have 'a male nurse,' which suggests that a nurse is female unless otherwise specified," she said.

According to Curzan, the way people talk about athletes has also shifted, and she attributes the change to Title IX, the civil rights law excluding gender discrimination in education, best known for expanding athletic opportunities for women.

“And again, I wonder the extent to which an athlete is male unless otherwise specified as female,” Curzan said.

In the past 40 years there has been an effort to create non-sexist language, says Curzan. In particular, she finds it interesting how people have come up with different solutions to historically gendered terms that end with -man.

“We take a word like 'chairman,' and early on, people said it should be 'chairperson.' But it turns out that English speakers didn’t really like 'chairperson,' and in fact, what we now do is call that person a 'chair.'"

Interestingly the term “freshman” has remained unchanged at many universities. Curzan is not sure why that is, but says she chooses to use the term “first-year.”

“And it’s not that if we change to 'first-year' we’re somehow ruining some wonderful progression in what we call students because we go from freshman or first-year, to sophomore, to junior, to senior," she said.

Mercedes Mejia is a producer and director of Stateside.