Can you tell the sex of the writer?

I’ve given you nothing so far today, so perhaps even this, insubstantial as it is, will seem like something.

Among many things I did today instead of blogging was try to continue cleaning out my inbox, which a day or two ago was up to about 500. That happens because there are things that I don’t have time to deal with at a given moment, but that I want to do something with, so I leave them where I found them rather than filing them away, where I’ll never see them. And of course the next day another hundred and something come in, and I try to winnow those, but there are always a few more that end up staying there for the same reasons, and so on. Then, there are days I don’t really have time to cull at all, and things just get deeper and deeper.

No, it’s not a good system, but it is mine.

Anyway, I managed to dig today all the way down (I only have 211 left, mostly old stuff) to something I saved on June 3. It was this Tweet, which I had emailed to myself hoping to blog about:

Slate @Slate
Can you tell if this paragraph was written by a man or a woman? V.S. Naipaul says he can: http://slate.me/lWMWfg

Yes, I took the test provided by The Guardian — the one designed to determine whether I could do what Naipaul claimed HE could do, which was quickly tell whether something was written by a man or a woman.

And of course, I failed — I got 4 out of 10 right. Which is what the person who devised the test had intended. It’s easy enough to pick passages by men that sound like they are in the voice of a woman, and vice versa. To make it hard (or, in this case, to prove Naipaul is a sexist pig, which seemed to be the point — which he deserved, since he was being ungentlemanly).

Often, when I start out thinking, for whatever reason (say, an ambiguous byline such as “Pat,” or “Leslie”) that I’m reading something by a man or a woman and I’m wrong, at some point in the reading I go, “Wait a minute…” because something doesn’t seem right. And then I realize — the man is a woman, or vice-versa. Since, as an editor, I’ve had to critically read thousands of pieces from strangers, this has happened enough for me to note a trend.

Sometimes I’m wrong about my realization, though. I suspect, based on observations over the past thirty or forty years, that men and women (especially younger ones) are writing more and more like each other. Just as in other areas the genders are crossing paths. For instance… I’ve been driving for more than 40 years. For the last 25-30 years, I’ve noticed that young women are driving a lot more like young men than they did the first 10-15 — more aggressive, more likely to cut you off, more stupid in general, just like young guys.

Meanwhile, I’ve noticed a number of trends among young guys that combine to make it harder to determine the presence of a Y chromosome in superficial behavior. OK, guys still do more stupid stuff than women do, since testosterone still exists in them, but it seems that some of them try harder and harder, and often succeed, to express themselves like women. I won’t go into detail because one of them might punch me. Not very hard, of course, the wussies, but I still would find it inconvenient.

Anyway, take the test if you like. I’ll bet you flunk it. I certainly did. I knew I would, so I played along. When I thought the deviser of the test was trying to lead me to answer a certain way, I did.

I think I could probably devise a test you could pass along these lines. (The way to do it would be to choose paragraphs that are characteristically masculine or feminine in tone. In other words, stack the deck toward being easy rather than hard. If you chose paragraphs at random, everyone would flunk that, too. Most paragraphs provide few clues.) But you know what? I think my not having time to do that is why this post idea has sat here for almost three months…

6 thoughts on “Can you tell the sex of the writer?

  1. Brad

    I don’t know where all of y’all are today, but over on Twitter, a writer says:

    “I got 6 of 10 tho I do think *in general* men & women have diff styles.”

    I think she’s right (couldn’t y’all tell she was a woman? what’s wrong with y’all? ya bunch of asexual knotheads!). But no one will ever be able to prove it statistically.

    Reply
  2. Kiki

    P.S. scroll to the bottom of article to see the quiz (tho u might want to read article, as it confirms everything you’ve said about Babies A and B)

    Reply
  3. Ralph Hightower

    Brad,

    Oh hell yea! I’ve noticed this trend of young women driving more stupid than young men.

    I try to look at the positive sides of life and decision.

    I find one positive of Nikki Haley as Governot of South Carolina: She has a driver to take her from place to place; unless, she does a “Mark Sanford” and slips her SLED security detail.

    A few years ago, I noticed this white Cadillac Escalade that was weaving in and out of traffic on Highway 378, driving aggressively. The Caddy caught up and passed me over I-20. The driver only signaled lane changes after the lane change was made. The Cadillac Escalade sported SC Legislator tags, the number on the tag was then Lexington County’s Representative District that Nikki Haley represented.

    I think that Nikki Haley took driving lessons from the Andre Bauer “School of Driving”.

    Reply

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