Specificism: An atrocity!

Specificism: I am coining this as a new category of socially-inacceptable language for 2024. I think it’s high time for us to shine light on an overlooked bias.

What is specificism, you may ask? The use of definite articles, i.e., those the British Council defines as being “ in front of a noun when we believe the listener/reader knows exactly what we are referring to.” Shameful!

The Oxford English Dictionary goes on to point out that a definite article indicates something or something “defined or particularized.”   Our most tyrannical definite article is, of course, “the”, closely followed by its pernicious partners, “that” and “those.” For too long we have been ignoring its inherent stigmatization. A simple example:

The man jaywalked across the intersection.

First of all, obviously “man” should have been changed to “person”, but setting this aside, using “the” to call out a particular individual about their illegal behavior is not only offensive, but potentially illegal.  Many people jaywalk! Why should a particular human being be singled out merely because the author of a sentence wishes to be specific? Did an author of such a sentence ask for permission to call out “the man” above all other people who jaywalk?  Secondly, does such an author have witnesses that “the” individual in question actually jaywalked?  Could such an author pick out such a person from a police lineup?  In America, people are innocent until proven guilty!

As a New Year’s resolution for us all, may I suggest we make an effort to eschew definite articles in a show of solidarity with people and things that are too often singled out purely on the basis of the need for a speaker or a writer to be specific.  Let us provide practical guidelines with an example taken directly from a newsfeed:

The duet with Snoop was one of many high points for Mr. Nelson in 2023” (“Willie Nelson’s Sense of Style,” New York Times, 27 Dec., 2023)

Why should one particular duet with Snoop be singled out as a high point?  Why should any duet, with or without Snoop, be singled out?  A reporter writing such an article may subjectively believe such a statement, but perhaps Snoop doesn’t feel that an individual duet was a high point.  Perhaps it is not a duet but a solo piece that should be singled out!  Who are we to judge?  Far better is a following suggested rephrasing:

“A duet with another artist may have been a subjectively higher point for an artist.”

  • We are not calling out a particular duet.
  • We are not calling out either of the artists involved.
  • We are admitting that “high points” and “low points” are subject to individual tastes.
  • We are omitting “2023” because an assumption of a Western calendar is a paternalistic colonizing attitude.

See? Wasn’t so hard, was it?


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