What’s wrong with the French? You’ll get a different answer depending on who you ask – but according to the Associated Press Stylebook, a lot’s wrong with the French. The stylebook, one of the most respected guides to the English language for journalists, recently tweeted that writers should avoid using “the” in phrases like “the disabled, the poor and the French” because “the” terms can be dehumanizing.

Much mockery ensued. Even the French embassy in the US piled on, posting a screenshot of it ‘changing’ its name from “French Embassy US to “Embassy of Frenchness in the US” This tweet got a lot of likes but, sorry to be pedantic, the gag didn’t actually make sense because there wasn’t ever a “the” in front of ‘French Embassy’ on its Twitter account. But what do you expect from the French, eh? They’ve always had a strange sense of humour.

I apologize. I wasn’t trying to dehumanize anyone here. It’s just that I’m half-English and sometimes the English in me colonizes everything else. I think it’s programmed into English DNA that you’ve got to be superior about the French every now and again. It’s a coping mechanism. A way to deal with the fact that people experiencing Frenchness have got baguettes and we’ve got baked beans.

But, anyway, back to le point, as they definitely say in France. The AP Stylebook got so much grief for its tweet that it ended up deleting it and having to go into damage control. I’m pretty sure that executives at the AP corporate communications department never thought they’d have to explain to the international media why they believe “the French” is a slur but that’s exactly what happened. “The reference to ‘the French’…is an effort to show that labels shouldn’t be used for anyone, whether they are traditionally or stereotypically viewed as positive, negative or neutral,” Lauren Easton, the vice-president of AP corporate communications, told the French newspaper Le Monde.

“The French” may not have been the best example to use, but the overall point the AP was trying to make was valid – I think it’s important to remember that amongst all the hilarity surrounding FrenchGate. The language we use to describe the world shapes how we think about the world; the way we describe groups of people impacts how we treat them. Again, “the French” was a ridiculous example to use but it’s certainly worthwhile to ask people to think about how using “the” to label a large group of people might be reductive.

Not everyone seems to agree. The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof tweeted: “To say ‘the French’ is to dehumanize, er, the French? Really? I wish we on the left could spend less time fussing over language and more time trying to actually solve problems.” Hang on a second…not to fuss over language, but is the Associated Press Stylebook really on “the left”? I mean, I know it has strong views on capitalism, but I didn’t really think it had a political orientation. Frankly I thought it’s raison d’être was to fuss about language.

And fussing over language, I can’t emphasize enough, shouldn’t be seen as a bad thing. You need to fuss over language in order to solve a lot of problems. I came out as gay, for example, at a time when people still said “that’s so gay” to mean something was stupid. You know how many people told me that I was overreacting and being sensitive when I pushed back on them saying that? You know how many people thought I was fussing over language by being offended? Almost 20 years on, you don’t hear people use that sort of language much anymore in polite society. And that’s, in part, due to public service campaigns raising awareness of how using “gay” in a derogatory way was dehumanizing. Fussing over language wasn’t a distraction in the fight against homophobia, it was an important part of helping to solve the problem.

Having said all that, I understand Kristof’s frustrations. Liberals and the left can occasionally overreach when it comes to inclusive language. Take the term Latinx, for example. A lot of highly-educated liberals use the term as a gender-neutral way to talk about Hispanics/Latinos. However, very few Americans of Latin American descent describe themselves as Latinx. And, according to one poll, 40% of registered voters of Latin American descent actually find the term offensive. “That’s the irony of ‘Latinx’ — it’s supposed to be inclusive but erases a crucial part of Latin American identity and language, and replaces it with an English word,’’ The Miami Herald said in an editorial about the survey.

So, yes, liberals can certainly be guilty of overreaching in an attempt to be inclusive. But you know what? That’s a hell of a lot better than what’s happening on the right. You think the right doesn’t obsess over language? They’re currently passing “don’t say gay” laws and trying to censor what books kids read. Of course the right fuss about language – that’s partly what has made them so effective.

The moral of all this? The left desperately needs to keep fussing about language. But it’s more than OK to talk about the French.

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