Should you be teaching l’écriture inclusive?

Inclusive writing is a hot topic in France at the moment. French newspapers in particular, but also the international press, seem fascinated by the debate and try to offer some clarity. French teachers worldwide are observing the discussions and it is only natural that they should wonder whether to incorporate inclusive writing in their teaching.

What is l’écriture inclusive?

In essence, inclusive writing endeavours to represent both sexes equally in written language. In concrete terms, it advocates the following principles:

  • Le point milieu:
    Traditionally, if you have both male and female friends, you would refer to them as mes amis. This is because the rule is as follows: the masculine form trumps the feminine form when referring to a group that contains at least one man. Supporters of inclusive writing advocate that you should write mes ami·e·s instead. The strange dot used to insert the feminine mark ‘e’ is called point milieu (= middle dot, sometimes also referred to as point médian).
    Other examples: les directeur·rice·s / les chef·fe·s / les écolier·ère·s
    The approach applies the same principle to pronouns and adjectives: il·elle·s / chacun·e·s / tou·te·s…
    Note: To type the point milieu, on Windows hold the ALT key down and enter 0183 on your keypad, or on Mac hold down simultaneously ALT + Shift + F.
  • Functions, jobs and titles:
    Official titles are considered gender-neutral by the Académie française so you should say Madame le maire, Madame le président, Madame le ministre… There are also a great number of jobs that do not have a feminine form (e.g. le professeur). Advocates of inclusive writing argue that all those words should have a feminine form. A female teacher, for example, should be referred to as la professeure, and a female president as la présidente.
  • The rule of proximity (la règle de proximité):
    In the example Les garçons et les filles sont égaux, the adjective égal agrees takes the masculine form by default. However, with inclusive writing the adjective agrees in gender with the closest noun (in this case les filles) so you should say: Les garçons et les filles sont égales.
  • Proscribing generic use of Homme:
    Another recommendation is that words such as Homme when generically referring to both men and woman (e.g. droits de l’Homme) are to be proscribed. It is worth noting that the first draft of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights referred to ‘Man Rights’ in its English version. Eleanor Roosevelt, the only woman on the panel, however insisted the term ‘Human Rights’ was used instead. But the English language still includes words such as ‘mankind’ so it’s fair to say the problematic is not specifically French.

What’s the official policy?

To start with, it is important to note that inclusive writing was developed by a private communications agency (Mots clés) working for special interest groups. Therefore there is clearly an agenda behind the proposal. It is not backed by the Académie française or any governmental agency. Indeed the Académie française is fiercely opposed to inclusive writing and the French Prime Minister has recently instructed his ministers not to use this new form of writing in official documents claiming that “the masculine form is a neutral form”.

At the French Ministry of Education, the official line is that nothing has changed and teachers should continue to teach the traditional way.

So what’s the big deal?

The controversy started when a French textbook introduced inclusive writing earlier this year. It attracted a lot of criticism from grammar purists who think the new method is unnecessary, sloppy and too complicated. Critics point out that grammatical gender has nothing to do with sex. Indeed feminine words such as une personne’, ‘une vedette’, or une célébrité’ can refer to both men and women.

Backers of inclusive writing in turn argue that traditional grammar rules are sexist. They add that a change is necessary to ensure equal representation for men and women in language. They believe that a lack of feminine forms is a sign that women are not considered as highly as men.

So is the French language sexist?

To try to understand the complexity of the problem, let’s draw a parallel with the English language: we’ve all heard in recent times actresses referring to themselves as ‘actors’. The word ‘actor’ refers to a person who acts regardless of gender. ‘Actress’ being a specifically feminine word, some argue that the term is sexist, maybe even condescending.

To take another example, a female mayor is usually called a ‘mayor’, while ‘mayoress’ traditionally refers to a mayor’s wife. However in recent years it has become common in the UK to refer to a woman elected to the position of mayor as ’mayoress’. Indeed, some female mayors prefer the term. This of course raises further questions: how do you then call the husband of a mayoress? Officially ‘mayor’, as a title, is already gender-neutral, and official government guidelines recommend referring to female mayors as ‘Mrs Mayor” and to their husband as ‘Mr Consort”.

The principle is the same in French. However, the vast majority of elected female officials state they prefer the feminine form (la maire). Consequently, dictionaries are now classifying words such as maire as epicene words. This means that speakers can use them with either a masculine or a feminine article.

What should French teachers do?

It is probably too early to decide whether to teach inclusive writing or ignore it. Certainly, if the Académie française and/or the French government were to back it, there would be a strong case for switching to inclusive writing. As it stands, the general public has not yet embraced the new method either. However, it is a good idea to introduce the concept and principles of inclusive writing to learners of French. Perhaps this should not be at beginner level to avoid adding another level of complexity. But students should be aware of inclusive writing as this is something they are likely to encounter at some stage. So in short: stick to the old rules, but introduce students to the new rules and allow them to practise and use them if they choose to.  A good place to start is this simple video by 1 jour 1 actu.

Linguascope has also produced a worksheet to practice the point milieu. Readers of this blog can download it free of charge using promo code LINGUABLOG.


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