3 November 2011

The gender of the comma

An article in The Guardian online has revealed punctuation as a surprising device for getting round the law. The article claims that, as Chinese parents often prefer male children, a doctor in China may "use a full stop or comma at the end of medical notes – to indicate that parents have achieved their goal or must continue efforts to have a boy."

The gender-testing of foetuses is sensitive in China due to the illegal practice of gender-selective abortion. It now seems that the surreptitious manner in which medical information is allegedly communicated is leading to a new symbolism for two of the most frequently used punctuation marks.

Granted, the marks used in Mandarin Chinese are not precisely the same as the equivalents used with Latin scripts. However, the thought that the comma and the full stop (or period) are gaining a clandestine symbolic gender is intriguing in times when many people are striving to make language usage more gender-neutral.

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