New pronoun issues on Facebook

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In the beginning, Facebook used singular they to refer to members who hadn't specified their gender. Then, people complained, and Facebook listened. (Feel free to google {facebook pronoun} for a taste of the back-and-forth.)

But then, Facebook underwent a facelift. Again, people complained, but the changes appear to have stuck. One significant change is that the "status update" entry field, a simple tweet-like messaging function which used to begin "Username is" by default, now simply says "What's on your mind?", inviting the user to brain-dump (or -drop) whatever they feel like. (My Facebook friends know that I've been overdoing this a bit myself lately, having recently become a father.)

The result of filling in this field still shows up as a status update prefixed with Username, but the "is" is gone. This is generally good, because one used to have to get around the "is" if what you were posting involved something other than a possible complement to "is"; e.g., an adjective like "Username is bored" or a present participle like "Username is blogging". (My personal favorite way around the "is" was to add "all like:", as in "Eric is all like: I don't want to work.")

I recall noticing, back in the "Username is" days, that many people just ignored the prefix and would simply insert independent thoughts, which ended up looking like: "Username is I wish it were Friday already." I've perceived an uptick in this sort of thing since the facelift, and I think that the absence of the prefix next to the "What's on your mind?" status update entry field encourages more people to ignore the fact that their status update will be preceded by their username (or to think of the username as a simple label, which is encouraged by the fact that it's printed in boldface).

Among those who conceive of the username prefix as part of the status update, a couple of patterns are distinguishable. (Again, this may have been true before the facelift, but it's certainly more noticeable now.) On the one hand, there are those who consistently refer to themselves in the third person; e.g., "Username can't wait for the weekend so that she can sit on the couch and watch TV." On the other hand, there are those who start out in the third person but then switch to the first; e.g., "Username is ecstatic that it's the weekend. I'm going to sit on the couch and watch TV!"

If I had the time and inclination, I'd collect examples of the latter group and see if there are any patterns to the likelihood of a switch from third person to first. Is it most likely between independent sentences, separated orthographically by a period (like the immediately preceding example)? Or is it equally likely between clauses within the same sentence (as in the example just before that)? Or… well, since I don't have the time nor the inclination, really, I'll just stop there.

[ Hat-tip to an anonymous correspondent who brought some of these observations to the forefront of my attention some time ago. ]

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37 Comments »

  1. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    May 26, 2009 @ 3:49 pm

    I have to admit I kind of liked having to come up with inventive ways around the "Username is" prefix. I still typically add "is" in my (infrequent) status updates. And I always refer to myself in the third person, using "Username" as part of the sentence rather than just a label.

  2. Amy Reynaldo said,

    May 26, 2009 @ 4:07 pm

    I'm tempted to follow my username with "am" and carrying through in the first person.

  3. Kat Tancock said,

    May 26, 2009 @ 4:14 pm

    So funny, just the other day I was commenting to someone on a facebook update that was three sentences long but stayed in the third person, which seemed extremely odd/stilted to me. They didn't care, but I'm so glad someone does. :)

  4. Neil R Graf said,

    May 26, 2009 @ 4:16 pm

    Bizarro Facebook am only the beginning! Facebook kill lots of people! Them very grateful! Scream with happiness!

  5. Ed said,

    May 26, 2009 @ 4:37 pm

    Ed does most of their posting via Twitter, so they write for the Twitter audience and not the facebook audience.

  6. vaardvark said,

    May 26, 2009 @ 4:37 pm

    One points that is often missed by those posting status updates is that "is" is deletable–but it requires a proactive approach.

    But there is one aspect that Eric has not considered. There are at least four different sources of status updates. Of course, the primary is the "What's on your mind?" box, but it responds slightly differently on the wall and profile pages. The second source is Twitter. Then there is the matter of the Facebook iPhone app. Finally, there is the Facebook toolbar that still has the Username [Set your status...] box where the message in brackets changes to "is " once you click in it.

    So there may well be a good reason for divergence of styles since the Facebook facelift. Some users no longer bother with the standard browser approach–the extraverts who want to share their status freely may well prefer Twitter. Others, like me, are always "suspicious" of the "What's on your mind?" box and prefer the more straightforward toolbar box.

  7. [ni:v] said,

    May 26, 2009 @ 5:37 pm

    I really enjoyed this post because this is something I notice all the time on Facebook! The next issue they'll have to deal with is other languages; I now have my Facebook in Irish and if I decide to write a status update in Irish it's a little complicated because it's a VSO language. I find myself using a colon after my username and using quotation marks, as in: Username: "I am…"

  8. Confused said,

    May 26, 2009 @ 5:50 pm

    There's a third way that I use when putting unrelated statements on there – and have noticed other people doing – which is to use "hyphen-space" as the first character. This gives something like: "Eric – A lot of things happen in a short space of time".

  9. Jess said,

    May 26, 2009 @ 6:05 pm

    I'm a 'switch mid-way to first person' Facebook updater, and I always do it when there's a sentence break, as a matter of policy. I've tried other options, but this is the one that seems the least stilted to me.

  10. kip said,

    May 26, 2009 @ 6:07 pm

    For a while there "is" was filled in by default, but you could delete it or change it to something else (like "was" or "will be"). I think the most recent changes reflect an attempt to be more in line with Twitter, where almost no one considers the username part of the tweet.

  11. Roy G. Ovrebo said,

    May 26, 2009 @ 6:17 pm

    "Is" was probably good when Facebook was only used by English-speakers, but looks really lame when it's in front of a status update in a different language.

  12. JW said,

    May 26, 2009 @ 6:32 pm

    Unfortunately, you still can't remove the space that's displayed after your name. So if you use a possessive, you'll end up with something like "JW 's brain hurts."

  13. Chris said,

    May 26, 2009 @ 6:49 pm

    +1 Ryan. Putting a gratuitous extra "is" in definitely the right way to go about it.

  14. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    May 26, 2009 @ 6:57 pm

    Kat Tancock has hit upon something. In a very short sentence, using the third person doesn't seem odd, but the longer your Facebook status is, the weirder it seems to continue with the third person business.

  15. dr pepper said,

    May 26, 2009 @ 7:58 pm

    Bob Dole is feeling smug because Bob Dole has been proven to be ahead of his time.

  16. Ed Cormany said,

    May 26, 2009 @ 10:56 pm

    i tend to agree that with the new, more free-form statuses, talking in the third person seems a bit strange. but not that long ago, in the mandatory "is" days, fb actually tried to enforce third person in statuses by doing a simple find-and-replace on any morphologically first person form. needless to say, this led to some mangled and ungrammatical updates.

  17. Jed said,

    May 27, 2009 @ 12:12 am

    Alternative Facebook name/sentence separator: ⊢, which suggests that the person is somehow a context in which the statement can be proven.

    As far as communication which the medium precedes with the name of the speaker, see also IRC's /me command, where the first-vs-third-person issues have been doing their thing for quite some time. (Also other chat protocols with a similar feature, MUD emotes, &c.)

  18. michael said,

    May 27, 2009 @ 2:37 am

    I have been consistently although slightly uncomfortably writing in ?mixed person, although I thought it uncouth to ignore the "is" in the old setup. I always switch after 1 sentence, and occasionally mid-sentence (although I haven't observed a definite pattern). I've noticed several friends who put the entire message in quotes, similar to what [ni:v] mentioned but in English.

  19. Ginger Yellow said,

    May 27, 2009 @ 4:56 am

    The only time I've ever updated my Facebook status was when I wanted to know to whom I'd lent one of my books. I can't recall whether or not I was consistent.

  20. Alex said,

    May 27, 2009 @ 5:59 am

    I consistently refer to myself in the third person in the status updates. I actually was a bit sad when they changed the status update to "What's on your mind?", echoing Twitter. I am someone who believes that limitation enhances creativity, maybe that's why.

    But I admit that I have sometimes worked my way around it by entering "says: "I am saying something in the first person".

    My next status update will be a link to this post. :)

  21. Nik Berry said,

    May 27, 2009 @ 8:01 am

    I often just type 'Friday' – but no one gets the Easybeats reference.

  22. Ken Grabach said,

    May 27, 2009 @ 10:29 am

    While I have issues with the facelift not relevant to this thread, I do find the new status style quite liberating. One can (1) continue with the old style working around the 'is' problem. One can (2) use the Username as the predicate of the status sentence with a different verb than 'is'. Or (3) one can simply use it as a label, and make sentences with their own predicates, using either 1st or 3rd person. The context presented provides the syntax the participant is using. I've done variations on all of these. I like version (3) the best, and use it most frequently.

  23. carissa said,

    May 27, 2009 @ 10:50 am

    One of my facebook friends took an informal poll about this pronoun issue in her status, and the surprisingly strong general consensus was: first sentence, keep it 3rd-person; second sentence, switch to 1st. This prevents an obnoxiously prolonged all-third-person statement about oneself, but avoids the awkwardness of "Carissa1 is cooking in my1 kitchen."

  24. Richard E said,

    May 27, 2009 @ 12:10 pm

    Like Ed Cormany, I remember Facebook's attempts to 'correct' ungrammatical sentences by changing the first-person pronouns to third-person ones. But I think this was because the box in which statuses were entered was prefaced by text that read 'I am…', leading plenty of people to write without realising how their status would appear to others.

    The funniest outcome I can remember was when a friend of mine who spelled IHOP a little wrongly had her status corrected to:

    "Anne is at she-hop with Sarah.'

  25. TheUnixGeek said,

    May 27, 2009 @ 2:11 pm

    Or you could just have pressed backspace a few times to the delete the "is"… that's what I used to do ;)

    theunixgeek.wordpress.com

  26. Kenny V said,

    May 27, 2009 @ 3:16 pm

    I regularly vary using the first and third persons. It's not consistent at all. There may be a pattern (or an inscrutably complex conglomeration of variables) that influences which I use, but I haven't paid attention.

  27. Alissa said,

    May 27, 2009 @ 5:03 pm

    I guess I am one of the weird ones who prefers it all in third person, no matter how long. That being said, I try to keep status updates to pretty much a two-sentence maximum anyway, so it's not sentence after sentence of third person.

    As JW noted, the space is still an issue. It's bad enough with English possessives, but even worse for languages that require morphology on the subject for certain constructions. In Finnish to say "Alissa has" it's "Alissalla on." I have seen different ways of dealing with this. Some people (like me) ignore the space, but I'm pretty sure I've seen it with a colon, which is what is done with acronyms in Finnish (but not words), so you get "Alissa :lla on."

    Even worse than that are constructions in languages where the word itself changes. At that point I usually just don't do it, being an English speaker who just likes to put status updates in languages I am studying. I have thought about doing it like a gloss and saying the case it should be in, but always decide not to be that geeky.

  28. robert.w.m.greaves said,

    May 27, 2009 @ 7:55 pm

    In the old days before the changes I used to delete the 'is' if need be. If I didn't want to use the third person for some reason, or if myname wasn't the subject of the sentence, I'd use "says" as an introduction. The third person did feel a bit stilted for longer posts, but if Julius Caesar can write a whole book referring to himself in the third person ….

    When the changes came, I just carried on the same way and thought of not having to delete 'is' as an improvement, but since I joined twitter about a month ago I've been using myname as a label.

  29. Cath the Canberra Cook said,

    May 28, 2009 @ 7:00 am

    Actually in the old, old, days you couldn't delete the "is". I was glad when that changed.

  30. Katherine said,

    May 28, 2009 @ 10:09 pm

    One of my Facebook acquaintances typically posts updates as single, past-tense verbs. "John Smith was." "John Smith experienced." etc. It drives me up the wall! (not my Facebook wall…)

  31. Bae said,

    May 28, 2009 @ 10:55 pm

    Huh, I really miss the "is". I'm sad it's gone, because people used to make interesting sentences when they ignored it and paired it with a noun or something that didn't make grammatical sense. Like, "John is 'cookies!'" It was cute, and not something I've seen anywhere else on the net. What's good about facebook turning into twitter? I've got enough updates to read from my friends as it is.

  32. Guy Pursey said,

    May 29, 2009 @ 7:08 am

    Some interesting thoughts – I think I agree with Kip's comment.

    I blogged something similar to this about a month back, in case it should add to the discussion:

    http://yarnandglue.blogspot.com/2009/04/status-updates-and-digital-identity.html

  33. Alyssa said,

    May 30, 2009 @ 3:54 pm

    I'm so glad to read about this phenomenon here! I'm living abroad and Facebook has become a major gateway for staying in touch with people in the U.S. When the internet works, I admit I use Facebook quite frequently to check friends' status updates. Being a budding linguist myself, I've become abundantly aware of the interesting 1st/3rd person usages and have been somewhat passively guessing at a pattern.

    Maybe I'll read the rest of these comments and look into it more… The biggest pattern I've found so far, though, is that my friends who are involved/more educated in any form of literary art tend to stick to the third person. Those who are more educated in a hard science, or less educated overall (and by less, I just mean they have little or no college ed.) are more likely to switch to first.

    Very interesting…

  34. Tamara said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 4:49 pm

    I do the third person to first person switch. I'm ok with the main verb having 3rd person agreement, but it feels so ridiculous to refer to myself as "herself" or "she" and it bothers me when other people do it.

  35. Kent Smith said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 8:28 am

    I'd like to know if there is a word or a style of writing that defines beginning a sentence in one grammatical person and switches to another.

    "Bob is bored and I hope my friend calls tonight."
    (third person) – (first person)

    This has only been made common through social networking status updates I believe.

    My suggestions: schizodeixis or deiximorph? :)

    -KENT

  36. Kim Watkins said,

    December 29, 2009 @ 7:43 am

    I don't like the use of "their" or "them" as a unisex singular possessive pronoun, or pronoun as in, "Joe Facebook poked you, poke them back," or, "Joe Facebook invited you to join their cause." Doesn't facebook have a record of the members' genders? It would be better to repeat the name than to suggest that you perform an action on some unknown group of people when it really means that same person previously identified.

  37. Amy said,

    January 24, 2010 @ 4:29 am

    @Kent Smith: I offer you "thirst person," courtesy of Urban Dictionary:

    thirst person:

    The grammatical person, commonly used in status messages on social networking sites, that starts off in the third person (he, she, it) but ends in the first person (I) because ultimately I am writing about myself.

    For example: "So, my friend hooked up with this girl, and he didn't use protection, and now he says it hurts when he pees. Anyway, do you think I should go to the doctor?"

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