Why ‘Toxic Masculinity’ Is A Problematic Phrase, Grammatically

A few weeks ago Gillette dominated social media for producing an advertisement criticising what is now more widely known as ‘toxic masculinity’. Many responded negatively to this message, arguing various versions of:

  • Masculinity is not toxic
  • Not all men are toxic
  • Masculinity is wonderful, actually, and needs to be celebrated

Counterarguments largely contained an explanation of what ‘toxic masculinity’ means, or is supposed to mean: That toxic forms of masculinity are toxic.

Though I feel uncomfortable with this part of the phrase myself, I’ll leave aside the etymology of ‘toxic’, and how the scientific definition remains different from the pop psychological usage. That’s a different conversation. ‘Toxic’ in this context means ‘deadly’ at worst, ‘damaging’ at best.

Fast forward a few weeks and Donald Trump Jr. is at a rally. He uses the phrase ‘loser teachers’:

“I love seeing some young conservatives because I know it’s not easy. Keep up that fight. Bring it to your schools. You don’t have to be indoctrinated by these loser teachers that are trying to sell you on socialism from birth. You don’t have to do it. Because you can think for yourselves. They can’t.”

Note that I’ll also leave aside the various interpretations of ‘socialism’, except for a meme:

socialism never works

Donald Trump Jr’s use of ‘loser teachers’ is an interesting counterexample because ‘toxic masculinity’ is a phrase generally used by progressives, mostly defended by progressives, whereas the phrase ‘loser teachers’ was used by a conservative, and is mostly defended by conservatives.

In case you missed that analog, here is a comment on a post by School Library Journal’s Facebook feed after SLJ posted an article refuting that ‘teachers are losers’. The poster self-identifies as a teacher, but does not consider herself a ‘loser teacher’.

loser teacher

ADJECTIVES, NOUNS AND WORD ORDER

  • ‘Toxic masculinity’
  • ‘Loser teachers’

Both are identical in their construction: An adjective modifying a noun.

There are many ways linguists talk about adjectives, and one major distinction is between ‘attributive’ and ‘predicative’ adjectives. Attributive adjectives are placed before the noun they describe:

  • blue fish
  • tall person
  • swimming dolphins

Predicative adjectives are placed later in the sentence, after a verb.

  • The fish is blue
  • The person, who is tall
  • Those dolphins that were swimming

As you can see, there are various ways of joining an adjective phrase to a noun phrase… when the adjective is in predicative position.

Adjectives in predicative position afford the speaker more nuance. When an adjective comes after the noun in this way, we are able to make use of a comma (in written English) and of pauses + intonation (in spoken English).

This allows us to distinguish between a ‘restrictive’ adjective phrase and a ‘non-restrictive’ adjective phrase.

Restrictive adjective phrase:

  • We need to get rid of masculinity which is toxic.

Non-restrictive adjective phrase:

  • We need to get rid of masculinity, which is toxic.

The first sentence, sans comma, conveys the idea that there are various forms of masculinity, but in this case we’re only talking about a certain kind of masculinity — that which is toxic. Subtext: The speaker believes other forms of masculinity are fine.

The second sentence, with a comma, conveys the idea that there is one broad form of masculinity, and that broad category is toxic. Subtext: The speaker doesn’t approve of masculinity in general.

Another useful word is ‘appositive’. An appositive adjective appears right beside the noun it describes. ‘Toxic masculinity’ and ‘loser teachers’ are both appositive adjectives. (These adjectives are also attributive, but attributive adjective phrases can be very long, e.g. super-duper hairy-ass poo-bum twit. Only ‘poo-bum’ is appositive, because it’s right next to the noun it describes.)

Linguists have noticed that appositive adjectives tend to be heard as non-restrictive, whereas relative clauses and prepositional phrases coming after the noun (postnominal PPs) tend to be heard as restrictive.

In other words, when we say ‘toxic masculinity’, the listener is likely to infer that masculinity, in general, is toxic.

When Donald Trump Jr. says ‘loser teachers’, the listener is likely to infer that all teachers, in general, are losers.

This is a feature of language, before personal politics even come into it.

PESKY PRAGMATICS

This chart is a useful breakdown of linguistic fields, which I found somewhere on the net:

linguistic structure

Pragmatics muddy the waters, because unfortunately, people are not computers. No matter how careful we are with our language, the other person (the interlocutor) will bring their life experiences to its interpretation. Sadly for cross-political communication, we interpret a sentence according to information we already possess, or according to politics to which we already subscribe.

When a progressive person hears ‘toxic masculinity’, we expand that in our head to ‘toxic forms of masculinity’. When a conservative hears ‘toxic masculinity’ they expand that in their head to ‘masculinity is toxic’.

When a progressive person hears ‘loser teachers’, we expand that in our head to mean ‘teachers are losers’. When a conservative hears ‘loser teachers’, they might choose to hear ‘specific teachers who also happen to be losers’.

WHAT CAN SPEAKERS DO ABOUT THIS?

Two critical concepts:

  1. If someone says ‘loser teachers’, or ‘toxic masculinity’, or any adjective + noun combo, listeners will interpret that as ‘all nouns are adjective’ unless their existing personal politics intervene. If Donald Trump Jr. did not mean to convey the message that teachers in general are losers, he picked his words badly. (Whether he was indeed speaking of a small sector of teachers is another question, and I remain skeptical.)

Unfortunately for progressive feminists like me, the phrase ‘toxic masculinity’ has the exact same problems, to do with the intersection of syntax and pragmatics. I fully acknowledge there are aspects of masculine indoctrination which need to change, yet I feel the phrase ‘toxic masculinity’ shuts down the conversation rather than opens it up. The exact cohort who needs to be talking about these problems only hear ‘all masculinity is bad’, ‘I am bad’, ‘I am ashamed’, ‘I’m not allowed to feel ashamed — the only negative emotion I’m allowed to feel is anger’. That anger is directed back on the speaker. Everyone remains miserable.

The linguistic fix should be an easy one: We could replace ‘toxic masculinity’ with ‘toxic forms of masculinity’.

2. Unfortunately this rubs up against another universal fact about human language and its evolution — speakers convey ideas using the fewest words possible. But when aiming to persuade, good communicators will occasionally resist this tendency to abbreviate and condense. Sometimes, briefer is not better. ‘Toxic forms of masculinity’ may seem wordy, but is a better place to begin the conversation. As for ‘losers’? Donald Trump Jr. is right. It does seem America’s teachers are losing out. But calling anyone a ‘loser’ is a very broad, deliberate insult, and nothing good can come of it.

What is a ‘strong verb’?

dictionary

In high school English we were taught to use ‘strong verbs’ and ‘specific nouns’. Today I’d like to say about more about those strong verbs.

When I taught high school English myself, I noticed the advice was sometimes misinterpreted. Some took it to mean ‘pick the most comically impactful verb’. In place of ‘get out’ (of a chair) they’d choose ‘leap’. In place of ‘put down’ (a school bag) they’d choose ‘throw down’. There was also the danger that those ‘strong verbs’ would creep into dialogue tags, which is another issue altogether.

Other students would make heavy use of a thesaurus, picking unusual verbs. In place of ‘whisper’, ‘susurrate’.  Better thesaurus enthusiasts do make sure their readers could nevertheless deduce the meaning from context.

But there’s another, higher level of word ninja-ing and as writers we must aspire to this one.

Word ninjas choose verbs not only for their dictionary definitions but for their connotations, associations and how they fit into your overall symbol web.

Earlier this year I wrote a re-visioning of “The Pied Piper.” In my story, children are swallowed up into a hill. That’s the verb I used in my first draft — swallow. It was the first that came to mind and it’s not particularly apt. Nothing wrong with it really, and it lasted several drafts. But when I really focused on my verbs in a later pass, I had to admit, I didn’t really mean to turn the hill into a creature with a mouth.

Then I referred back to Robert Browning’s poem and realised that his verb ‘trepan’ was far better. Why? Because of its multiple associations:

trepan

Note that the verb has a mining use, which is basically how Browning uses it, but it also has a grotesque medical use which harks back to medieval times. (Browning wrote his poem fairly recently — even to him, the medical practice of trepanning would have seemed archaic and disturbing.) Because of its mining AND its medical associations, trepan is a far better verb than swallow.

After all the Annie Proulx short stories I’ve been reading lately, I’ve turned attention to how Proulx uses verbs.

Strop — ‘His razor tongue stropped itself on the faults and flaws of his dead parents’. This verb in its literal (non metaphorical) sense means to sharpen something with a strop. A strop is a strip of leather for sharpening razors. In a story about rural characters who work with their hands, this verb is especially appropriate.

Patinate — ‘But in the insomnia of old age he read half the night, the patinated words gliding under his eyes like a river…’ Patina is a thin layer that forms on the surface of copper, bronze and similar metals (a.k.a. tarnish) or certain stones and wooden furniture (sheen from wear, age and polishing) or any similar acquired change of a surface through age and exposure. This may count as an example of pathetic fallacy, in which attributes of something else actually describe the character. It is the character who is built up with layers (of age and experience). (Literature majors let me know if there’s a more appropriate term for this technique than pathetic fallacy.)

Other various examples of verbs done well:

Unloose — meaning ‘to loosen the ties of’, but when the writer used ‘unloose’ instead of ‘loosen’, they wanted to suggest ‘unleashing’, of something bad, like demons or bad memories.

‘Leavened with pride’, in a story which includes kitchen scenes where bread is baked. Pick any verb in any dictionary and you’ll find literal meanings listed first, followed by metaphorical meanings, which are now so common we hardly consider them metaphors. Pick verbs whose metaphorical meanings match the symbol web of your story.

Confect — means to make or construct, but is linked to confectionary, so this verb is useful to describe a character who is both a confectioner/lover of sweets and also, say, a liar.

FURTHER TIPS FOR CHOOSING GOOD VERBS

Think of your milieu. Some verbs are chosen because they are reminiscent of an earlier era: to be afeared of (afraid of), bewail.

Play with your verb nouns. In English, a lot of words are used as both nouns and verbs, one usage leading to the other. Blat means to cry plaintively. It’s also a noun: ‘tooting the horn in loud blats’ (Annie Proulx). A lot of our English words are commonly used as verbs but not as nouns, or vice versa. Try making use of the less common part of speech.

Be mindful of syllable count and phonology. Proulx writes harsh landscapes, so chooses single syllable verbs where possible, and if there are hard consonants like plosives and fricatives, all the better. (Blat, strop and crump etc. match these harsh landscapes. Proulx also uses words like these as character names, and links character to physical setting.)

ONE LOOK DICTIONARY

To help with all this, I highly recommend making use of (the completely free)  OneLook Dictionary. It’s the best writing resource I’ve seen online. You probably know it yourself, but have you found its slightly hidden features? If you haven’t used it recently, it benefited from recent upgrades.

The ‘related words’ page is especially useful, but this is no traditional thesaurus.

onelook dictionary

I recently wrote a short story about a butcher, and the symbol web was — of course — related to meat. So when using OneLook I made sure to make use of its filter functionality:

onelook filter

When I search for hits ‘related to meat’, the dictionary returns results which are tangentially, if not directly, related to my symbol web of meat. Top of the list were:

layer related to meat

As you can see, the job of selecting words is still a very manual process, but this OneLook feature has been super useful to me on various occasions. (Sometimes it is, sometimes it leads me down a fascinating rabbit hole, but is that not the joy of writing?) This feature is especially useful if you have a word on the tip of your tongue.

Poets and poetic stylists take note: You can search the thesaurus by meter:

(The forward slash means stressed, the x unstressed.)

For the more common definitions all you need to do is click once on a word and you get a pop-up window. This saves you opening a whole heap of extra tabs while you’re looking for just the right word:

And I generally know which part of speech I’m looking for, in which case, I definitely make use of this tab to narrow down the results:

OneLook parts of speech

OneLook lets you search by the number of letters (good for crossword enthusiasts, I imagine — I haven’t used it once when writing prose); by ‘sounds like’ and also by ‘primary vowel’. The nice thing about the ‘primary vowel’ feature is, it breaks the non-useful aeiou of English into useful phonemes (though doesn’t make use of phonemic transcriptions, which is only a bummer if you have learned that and would like to occasionally put it to use).

Go forth and have fun with OneLook. Some writers advise against making use of a dictionary and thesaurus — Stephen King is a well-known naysayer, but I wonder if he’s ever seen OneLook! I wonder if Stephen King has ever been stumped for words… Possibly the very best thing about OneLook, and I believe its raison d’être, is its ‘reverse’ functionality. I couldn’t think of the word ‘naysayer’ just then, so I typed ‘anti advocate’ and it returned what — at first — looks like a useless bunch of words, but the 19th result was ‘nay’, which led me to ‘naysayer’.

There’s also a new Spanish version of OneLook.