Skip to contentSkip to Main Site NavigationSkip to Site Left NavigationSkip to Site Utility NavigationSkip to Site SearchSkip to FooterDownload Adobe Reader
Tone Handbook impact image
Academic Tone
Home » People » Karl Sherlock » Tone Handbook » Academic Tone » Audience Diversity

Audience Diversity



Isms That Is, and Isms That Was •

An Attitude of "Correctness" •


Sexism •

Heterosexism •


The "Other" •

The "Self" •


Dominion •

B.C.E. •


What's the Matter With Kids Today? •

Do You Hear Your Self? •


Isms That Is, and Isms That Was

Before the 1990s, "political correctness" simply meant that one was expressing sensitivity for the political identities forged by minority groups, and demonstrating profound respect for the hard-won battles they had fought (and continue to fight) to earn the right to assert those identities. By the 1990s, an "attitude" of political correctness gave way to the "practice" of political correctness, and criticism against the extreme, sometimes ridiculous behaviors that arose because of the "political correctness" bandwagon has now made "politically incorrect" even more popular a term than that catch phrase that gave rise to it.

As instructors of writing and language, most teachers don't really concern themselves with the politics or ideological positions of their students. The teaching of Composition, in fact, encourages students to explore their own value systems and to write about them. However, this is also an exercise in anticipating audience response, and respecting the diversity of a university or academic audience, as well as the protocols of such discourse, is one of the most important keys to being taken seriously. We have fewer and fewer cultural heroes to turn to for models of respectful debate. Television news programming has, in recent decades, encouraged bloodsport among demagogues, which has given many people the impression that all journalists are propagandists, and that opinions are little else than "opinionation." Real academic writing does not debase itself in this manner; ideas, not egos, matter in college writing. Because of this, one's writing has to speak for itself and can't afford to the begin with the apology, "This may not be politically correct, but . . .

An Attitude of "Correctness"

On the flip side, because of the backlash against political correctness in the last couple of decades, there now exists a dangerous assumption that all politically correct behavior is extremist, or that "correctness" is entirely a matter of following rules of behavior rather than espousing a tolerant and sensitive attitude. Gender-neutral terminology for occupations is an apt example of the problem. Whether or not you know the gender of an individual you're writing about, it is still politically correct and ideologically appropriate to choose an occupation title that is not gender-specific. Why? Because equality of the sexes—our motivation for wanting to be correct—continues to be a worthy aim. In academic writing especially, we must be vigilant that our skepticism about political correctness not suddenly permit us to be disrespectful and intolerant of our readers' socio-political, cultural and sexual differences.

By representing, not just your own political values or even the specific political values of your readers, but rather the entire idea of diversity in the careful and correctly chosen terminology of your writing, you will accomplish two very important goals:

  1. you'll establish a neutral relationship with the academic audience concerning those issues that may be unrelated to your topic; in that way, you'll avoid an equally irrelevant bias in reaction, and your arguments will be permitted to succeed on their own intellectual merits.
  2. you'll create a rhetorical impression with them that makes your voice seem, if not actually inclusive, then at least aware of the concept of tolerance; remember, you can be as biased as you like in your written ideas, but the tone of your writing should not appear culturally or politically biased.

These, at least, seem to be a "correct" attitude to start with as an academic writer. However, let's look at the pitfalls more carefully.



One of the obvious reasons that political correctness dwells on the use of "correct" language is that any language is inherently political: its conventions are deeply rooted in the cultural values of the group using the language. Sexual politics—the division of societal behaviors into "male" and "female"—are just about as basic a set of cultural values as you can get.

One of the surest ways to demonstrate an insensitivity for gender is in the presumption that certain positions, roles, and occupations are inherently male, while others are inherently female. Avoid referring to jobs with "-man" or "-woman" and "-wife"; for example,

mankind, fireman, mailman, actress, congressman, housewife.

Choose titles for jobs that are gender neutral, if possible:

humanity, firefighter, postal carrier, actor, congressperson, homemaker.

Don't presume the following to be the sole purview of men:

doctor, lawyer, professor, president, vice-president, C.E.O., barber, broker, chef.

Don't presume the following to be "women's work":

nurse, paralegal, teacher, secretary, personnel manager, beautician, homemaker, cook.



Sexism, however, is no longer as "straight-" forward as it used to be. During those same decades that shaped our ideas of "political correctness," advances were made in the civil rights of queer and transgendered people, and this has now fostered a greater awareness of heterosexism, a heteronormative bias that either consciously or unconsciously presumes readers are straight, identify with "straight" interests, and support "traditional" family values. (The term "family values," in fact, was invented to promote a heterosexist ideology.) Given their power to create solidarity among the disenfranchised, "alternative" ideologies like Feminism and Queer Theory have strong support among academics, and whether or not these matter to you, they matter to your academic readers—and not just the portion who are feminists or LGBTQ. Remember, your entire base of academic readers is judging your work on the basis of how aware of diversity it is—all diversity, not just gender sensitivity.

Just like the sexist concept of a "Girl Friday," the assumption that certain professions are a marker of one's sexual orientation is equally ill-advised. Don't presume that certain jobs are largely populated by gay men. For example:

dancers; ice skaters; nurses; hair stylists; librarians; poets; priests; female impersonators*

*Yes, that's right! Being a "drag queen" is an acting job, and there are many performers out there who are paid to wear feathered boas and heels, but who don’t self-identify as homosexual. Avoid, then, the stereotype of the following occupations belonging predominantly to lesbians. For instance:

professional women golfers; tennis pros; librarians; dog trainers


Sexuality is complex, and “sexual orientation” isn’t synonymous with “gender identity.” Regardless, the culture incessantly reinforces traditional heterosexual and cisgender mores at every possible turn, from the time we are infants to the moment our names are etched onto our tombs. Everything from children's toys to commercials about chewing gum imply an approval of straight behavior. Try to be aware of your own filter as much as possible to screen out these presumptions from your writing. Statements like, "A woman whose charms no man can resist," or "Every little girl dreams of her Prince Charming" have a powerful way of making those who self-identify as gender-oppressed feel as if they don't matter enough to be of any consequence. When you feel excluded and invisible, you internalize it, and it affects the way you interact with world. What, then, should you do with a piece of academic writing that excludes you and makes you feel invisible in an environment where words like "university" and "collegiality" are supposed to make you feel just the opposite? You may feel as if this is a carping, and that feminists and gay people should just get over wanting special attention paid to them, but until you've experienced their degree of censure, it's not really fair to dismiss their concerns, nor the concerns of those who are empathetic to their cause. If you're not empathetic to their cause, make a sincere effort to show that you're aware of their cause. A little sensitivity has the added effect of being a rhetorically persuasive appeal in your writing: everyone appreciates that you're making an effort to include them.


The "Other" 

Women may not be a minority and the LGBTQ community may not officially rank as a protected minority yet, but racial and cultural identities are pretty clearcut and well defined. Openly promoting a racially defined perspective in the tone of your academic writing—whether or not you are a member of a minority—promotes the opposite of diversity.

Imagine for a second that comedian/actor Robin Williams, known for his attention-deficit style of performance, had been chosen to narrate the award-winning documentary series Planet Earth, instead of actress Sigourney Weaver. Could you take the program as seriously if Williams were discussing the migration of caribou in a frenetic and humorously sniping voice? Would that voice demonstrate respect for the cinematography and the subject matter of the series? The answer to both questions is obviously "no." Nor would Robin Williams likely attempt such a delivery were he actually to narrate the program. People inherently understand when and how to change their voices to suit the context. Even Snoop Dawg, the man who single-handedly popularized the "Street" term "foshizzle," knows enough to switch off his vernacular when he's in a talk show panel discussing serious topics. So it is with academic tone: we learn to disrobe from our specific cultural voices and don a more formal "appearance" when the occasion requires it. Granted, cultural revivals sometimes change the rules temporarily: the Celtic Revival which began in the nineteenth century, for example, gave Gaelic culture and language more gravitas in literature, art and education, but Ireland is still an English-speaking country today; similarly, the controversy of Ebonics in the Oakland Public Schools system during the 1990s gave African Americans descended from slaves permission to find pride, not derision, in their vernacular, but no one seriously believes that it will undermine our vocabulary or that all our youth will be forced to adopt Ebonics. In academia, these rarified voices are celebrated in spoken word art, but academic writing is more literal-minded and practical: it uses a "one size fits all" tone.

The "Self" 

The lesson here is that, one may have the power to assert a cultural perspective, but this doesn't mean it should always be used. Reverse discrimination is an interesting and complex example of this; it's a phenomenon wherein members of a minority militantly exclude members of a majority, and it occurs in many different contexts: women who abhor metrosexual men; gays who call straight people "breeders"; Muslim business owners who won't employ Christians; Black stand-up comedians who joke, "White guys can't dance." This isn't to say that there aren't some stereotypes rooted in truth; nevertheless, reactionary politics and racism—whether its reverse racism or not—have no place in the tone of academic writing. Note: Your subject in your academic writing may, of course, be an issue of race presented from any particular cultural perspective you like. That's not the issue here. Rather, an academic tone should successfully welcome a culturally diverse audience to the discussion of a specific racial or cultural topic, and do so by creating a welcoming space or a neutral zone characterized by the voice of the writing.

Cultural centrism is similar to racism, but it isn't always about disparaging a group based on their morphological traits. When someone born and raised in Topeka, Kansas says, "I'm an American," that statement is true, but it's also true for someone born in Winnipeg, Canada. It's true for someone born in Chihuahua, Mexico as well. Technically, if you live in North, Central, or South America, you're "American." However, it has become the convention of citizens of the United States to refer to themselves as "Americans." (It's a contraction of the phrase "United States American.") Most of the world has accepted this convention and, while it seems a tad egotistical when paired with slogans like "America's Number One," it doesn't usually make others feel defensive or alienated. Certain language use, however, does have a more destructive way of determining who belongs and who doesn't. As a child, I watched my own father be laughed at for his broken English. He had a thick Polish accent, and he didn't always express the idioms right: "easy as cake" or "piece of pie"—that sort of thing. Oddly enough, I never really heard either one of my parent's accents until I moved away as an adult and gained some perspective allowing me to hear their voices more objectively. At home, they were simply my parents and I loved them as they were. What I didn't realize at the time, though, was that I had picked up a habit of making them comfortable with their own language skills. For my mother, who was Irish, this wasn't as difficult because she already had mad skills with a variety of colorful idioms that made American vernacular pale by comparison, but for my father I developed a habit of translation: every pronunciation or idiom he got wrong, I fixed in my own head as we went along. I habituated my own voice to his needs.

And, that's the goal of accommodating a racially and culturally diverse reader in an academic setting: to habituate your own writing voice to their needs. That means avoiding hyperboles and colorful idioms that risk alienating readers for whom English is not a first language. In fact, academic writing uses "bigger words," not just because you're expected to have a more sophisticated vocabulary by the time you reach college, but because a more sophisticated vocabulary allows us to write with greater precision. People use idioms, cliches, and hyperboles when they don't know how to say it in a literal way. Your academic readers should be able to trust your writing to express your ideas literally. This isn't to say that academic writing doesn't occasionally have room for wit and style, but writing in a way that makes others feel forgotten or stupid is not only rhetorically damaging to your writing, it does little to respect the subject matter. Remember, your academic writing is not about YOU and your ego-driven voice. It's about your subject matter, and the voice it would use to present itself. Most subjects are racially and culturally neutral, even when race and culture are the subjects, so strive for a neutral tone that doesn't go out of its way to exclude readers based on their racial or cultural attributes. Try to respect the names and labels by which they self-identify. For example:

Indian, or Eskimo
Native American (or a specific tribal affiliation, like "Inuit")
Indian people
indigenous peoples; tribal nations
squaw (considered insult)
Native American woman
Oriental people
Asian, or a specific country ("Vietnamese" or "Mongolian," for example) 
African or South American
a specific nationality ("Antiguan" or "Chilean," for example)
Black American
African American*

On the matter of the term "African American," academic writers should be careful not to use this as a blanket attribution for all things "Black" or of African descent, for this, too, can unintentionally promote a ethnocentric or racially myopic perspective. There's no such thing as African American hair, for example—even though there may be hair styles attributable to African American culture or subcultures, there's nothing particularly "American" about hair (excepting perhaps the great William Shatner's toupee). This is where the fiction of race becomes apparent: morphology is not always cultural. One perhaps can categorize the hair on people of African descent, but telling a beautiful native Somalian woman that, physically, she has African-American anything is kind of ridiculous, don't you think?  Would you gaze into the face of an Australian outback hunk and say, "You have the most beautiful Anglo-American eyes" just because your easiest frame of reference is that of a U.S. Anglo-American?  I don't think so.  



Religious affiliations are, in reality, a kind of cultural identity. For some countries, such as the United States, religion is a cultural attribute inside a broader national identity. For example, you can be a Christian American, an American atheist, or an American Muslim. In some countries, though, your cultural identity makes no distinction between nation and religion.

In academic writing, unless your audience specifically espouses a religious point of view that is directly relevant to your subject matter, religion should be altogether avoided. That doesn't make the assumption, either, that all of your readers are atheists. If your goal is to showcase your topic based on its own merits, and your topic is not about a religious agenda, then expressing a religious bias—whether in an absentminded way or not—gives readers permission to feel self-conscious about their own religious attitudes. You may be a devout member of a dominant religion, but that doesn't give you a right to intrude on your readers' spiritual ideologies unless you are invited to. It's simply bad manners.

To be fair, some of the bad manners and religious bias are things we grow up with and simply have to re-train ourselves not to do once we begin writing for a more diverse audience. Thinking everyone knows and shares your religious practices is a good place to start changing your attitude. I grew up in city that was predominantly old-world Roman Catholic; in fact, I was an altar boy in my youth. If I begin casually referring to scapulars, quoting the Latin mass, and invoking the names of saints—all in an essay about geopolitics—who's going to listen? Or, worse, who's going to feel as though I'm proselytizing?

The most frequent ways we participate in religious bias, even when we, ourselves, are not necessarily religious, is in assenting to phrases like "Judeo-Christianity." This may seem innocuous enough, but it creates the impression that Judaism is a splinter of Christianity, the same way "Protestant Christianity" or "Methodist Christian" sounds. Even worse, it makes Judaism sound like its proto-Christian. If you're not Jewish and you've never given this any thought, politely ask someone you know who is Jewish what their reaction is to "Judeo-Christianity," and ask yourself why it's not called "Christo-Judaism." In the meantime, in your own writing make a habit of using either "Judaism" and/or "Christianity."


Probably the most egregious way in which we let religion filter into our non-religious writing concerns dates: B.C. and A.D., to be precise. "Before Christ" and "Anno Domino" are both terms used in the Julian and Gregorian calendars of the millennia-old Roman Catholic Church to divide our Western historical perspective into "Old Testament" and "New Testament." Many erroneously believe that these terms were used two-thousand years ago, when, in fact, they were introduced in the sixth century and did not become popular until the ninth century. Today, they're regarded as quaint, vestigial remnants of that Old World calendar system. While we still use the Gregorian calendar, however, there no longer is any compelling reason that a Buddhist or an atheist would feel beholden to invoking the ideology of the Roman Catholic Church every time a calendar date is written. Instead, the convention now is to use "C.E." and "B.C.E.": "Common Era" and "Before the Common Era." The term "Common Era" is not some newfangled phrase coined out of political correctness; it dates back almost as far as the seventeenth century. Writing addressed to Christian audiences may understandably continue to use B.C. and A.D., but using "C.E." and "B.C.E." is important in academic writing in that it still allows a broader base of readers to reference the traditional Western canon of history but it doesn't alienate anyone by forcing them to acknowledge a dominant religion. Even common arenas like The History Channel have adopted "B.C.E.," and you should make it a point in your own academic writing to use them. Your own strong religious faith will not suffer as a result of a little tolerance; if anything, it will be enriched.


What's the Matter With Kids Today? 

Why is it that, when you were fourteen years old, you didn't want to be stuck at the "kid's table" when your parents hosted a party? Because you had outgrown the sub-culture of little kids, who liked to talk about the Disney characters and games they enjoyed. Puberty initiated you into another subculture of sexual references and popular music that younger kids weren't aware of.

That didn't always mean you had the option to sit at another table. Sometimes, you had to adapt, and you got along with these younger kids either by talking about the same things they talked about, and at the same level, or by choosing neutral topics and a tone of conversation that didn't always make one of them say, "What does that word mean?"

Sometimes, we're not aware just how much we're defined by our generation and the popular culture that favors it. When I was in my early twenties, New Wave music was coming into its own, and an entire generation of young people led by President Ronald Regan was saying things like, "Rad," and "Gag me with a spoon." Everybody fell into one of two camps: you were either "Madonna" or "Cindi Lauper." If someone said, "The chair is not my son," everyone in the room knew it was a joke about the lyrics from Michael Jackson's "Billy Jean." And, if someone said, "Herschel is sick," it wasn't an announcement that Herschel was "cool," but rather that H.I.V. and A.I.D.S. had, literally, afflicted another friend. Our connection to our brief period of young adulthood is shaped by how we use language, and how we use language is shaped by the people who have authority in our sub-culture during that time. That's why it should be no surprise that our music and film icons frequently set the standards. Sometimes we fall into the habit of making references to them that become a kind of shorthand for those who have membership in the subculture. Right now you're probably young enough or knowledgeable enough to know what it meant if someone said, "Don't pull a 'Janet Jackson' on us" (i.e., Janet Jackson's gaff during a Superbowl half-time performance). However, what if, instead of "Six of one, half a dozen of another," I said to you, "A 'one' is as good as an 'L'"? Would you pick up on the reference to a manual typewriter? Would you know I was talking about a time when typewriters didn't have a key for the number "1," but instead used the lower-case letter "L"? Probably not, because manual typewriters aren't part of your smartphone milieu right now. And, in several more decades, when the technology moves on, your comfortable references to things like "smartphone" will probably confuse twenty-somethings in the year 2045.

Do You Hear Your Self? 

A living language always finds a way to create root metaphors for enduring values. The ones that last rely on comparisons to objects and experiences that don't change:

like the back of my hand
like blood from a stone
brain like a sieve
work like a dog

Many expressions, however, rely on a bygone frame of reference. For instance, which of the following do you recognize? Which have you, yourself, actually used?

honest as Abe
legs like Betty Grable
in like Flynn
Murphy's Law
bend it like Beckham
be like Mike
move like Jagger

This is the difference between an ordinary cultural referent and a pop-cultural referent. The former has cross-generational appeal, while the latter is more dependent on a familiarity with the sub-culture of entertainment and youth. In the interest of making academic prose transcend the fads that come with youth-culture—or any time-bound subculture—your writing should steer clear of overt pop culture references, unless it takes the time to explain them in neutral terms for the reader. One of the most common ways college writers stumble into this pitfall is in their reference to movies, television shows, and sports figures, because college students make the assumption that everyone is participating in the common culture of entertainment at the same pace as they are. This approach may work in magazine articles and popular news programs, which make money by keeping in temporal step with the culture. Academic writing is not like article writing. One writes "for the ages," as it were. Yes, vocabulary and style are going to evolve as time goes on, but it's an academic writer's duty to at least try to speak to future generations of readers by adopting a more culturally inclusive tone. Always try to imagine what you will sound like to your future self, in another twenty-five years. What attitudes and usage, cultural references and authorities, will likely stand out as immature or out of fashion? Write to your academic readers as though you want to be able to relate to yourself in another thirty years.


Identify the errors of tone in the following passage, based on the topics covered on this page:

God created the world in six days, but now the planet has been taken over by men as if we owned it. The average politician might refer to this exploitation of the planetary resources as “progress,” but he, and so many others who reap the greatest monetary benefits from the destruction of forests and other environments, does not speak for the majority of concerned world citizens. “All you need is love,” so the song goes, but the kind of love we show the planet now, in a very serious manner, reflects the kind of regard we hold for our own species. And we must wear our hearts on our sleeves these days for anyone to take notice of our environmental message. Over the next thirty years, humans will directly cause the extinction of a hundred species per day; eventually, we will be one of those species. Clearly, only our stewardship of our planet will ensure our very survival, an important concept we as parents must pass on to our sons.
Last Updated: 11/04/2016
  • Grossmont
  • Cuyamaca
A Member of the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District