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September 24th, 2003

What to call married men / sights or sites

by Barbara Wallraff

David Author Dean, of Muskegon, Mich., writes, “The recent attention to the concept of gay marriage has me thinking about what terms should be used when referring to the couple involved in such a ceremony. In the heterosexual ceremony there is ‘husband and wife.’ What term should be used for two men? Two women?”

Same-sex unions became legal in Vermont three years ago, so I called Linda Spence, the town clerk of Manchester there. By now she has performed about 70 civil-union ceremonies. At the end of a ceremony she simply says, “It is now my honor to pronounce your civil union complete.” Same-sex civil unions are also legal in Quebec, Canada. Rabbi Leigh Lerner, of Montreal, told me that unless the couple requests otherwise, he uses the wording, “I declare you to be united in accordance with the laws of Quebec and in accordance with the traditions of our Jewish faith.”

OK, those are civil unions. What about an actual marriage? Ontario and British Columbia, Canada, allow same-sex marriage. So I called the Reverend Malcolm Sinclair, of the United Church of Canada, in Toronto, who married Janis Ian and Patricia Snyder last month. Sinclair concludes ceremonies with “I now pronounce you married” or “… to be legally married spouses.” He told me, “That seems to be an important thing for them to hear.”

Your letter suggests another language question too. Civil unions afford most of the same legal protections and obligations as marriages, unless the couple moves to a jurisdiction where their union is not recognized. Civil-union ceremonies may be performed by members of the clergy. Gay couples can and do raise children together. Once a couple is united, if the partners split up, divorce laws apply. So what is the difference between a “civil union” and a “marriage”? Could someone please explain this to me?

Bill Ward, of Decatur, Ill., writes, “I am a newspaper copy editor. The other day a reporter brought over a press release that read, in part: ‘Our group … has been given permission to tour the White House and Capitol. Other sights include the Washington Monument, … Jefferson Memorial, Lincoln Memorial and Korean War Memorial…. Other tours include … historical sights.’ The reporter wanted to know whether it should be ‘sights’ or ‘sites’ in the second and third sentences I quoted. Do you have any guidance?”

“Sights” and “sites” can be very close in meaning. On the one hand, that press release is encouraging people to go sightseeing. On the other hand, some of the places they’ll visit are historical sites. In those sentences I would vote for one “sights” (the first one) and one “sites,” because “historical sites” is a set phrase. I just looked up “historical sites” and “historical sights” for you in a news database, and it pulled up 162 articles over the past month containing “historical sites” and just three containing “historical sights.” A good rule of thumb might be: See a “sight,” but visit a “site.”

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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