Facebook phases out singular "they"

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As Eric Bakovic described here last year, Facebook uses they as a singular pronoun when the gender of the user is not known, leading to news feed items like: "Pat Jones added Prince to their favorite music." That's never been the most elegant use of singular they, since readers of these items tend to know the gender of Pat Jones, even if s/he hasn't told Facebook about it. Even more awkwardly, Facebook also uses themself when a reflexive pronoun is needed, as in: "Pat Jones has tagged themself in a photo." Well, now after some cross-linguistic difficulties, Facebook is trying to stamp out singular they by being more demanding about gender specification.

Reuters reports that pronoun trouble arose after Facebook moved beyond English and added 15 new languages in recent months. Singular they/their/themself might be inelegant or even ungrammatical in English, depending on your point of view, but it's downright impossible in languages where gender marking on singular pronouns is obligatory. As Facebook product manager Naomi Gleit explained on the company blog: "We've gotten feedback from translators and users in other countries that translations wind up being too confusing when people have not specified a sex on their profiles."

Confronting complaints of ungrammaticality from speakers of English and untranslatability from speakers of other languages, Facebook will now be more in-your-face about choosing a gender identity. If you haven't filled the information out on your Facebook profile, you'll now get a prompt asking if you want to be referred to as him or her. But they're not getting too insistent on sexual dimorphism, since users can still opt out of the gender choice, in response to what Gleit calls "pushback in the past from groups that find the male/female distinction too limiting."

Stay tuned for further developments from the online front of the grammar-and-gender wars.

(Hat tip, Greg Howard.)

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27 Comments »

  1. greg said,

    June 27, 2008 @ 11:56 am

    I've always been interested in Facebook's use of singular "they". But this article points to a whole 'nother can of worms: the distinction between "sex" and "gender". In the biological and health sciences, "gender" is often used as a euphemism for "sex" (perhaps the word "sex" sounds too direct?). But the queer community, and sociologists and related scientists, usually recognize a distinction between sex and gender. If you're looking for metabolic differences between two groups of people, sex is probably what you mean, and gender is probably irrelevant. If you're looking for effects on salary, you're probably looking at gender. I'm not one of the precision-in-language fanatics, but in a scientific context, these are two rather different things.

    Facebook profiles say "sex", and the FB blog cited above says "specified a sex", but they mean "gender". The Times article more properly refers to gender.

    I am pretty impressed that they have a gender op-out, though. It's a good start.

  2. Mary Kuhner said,

    June 27, 2008 @ 12:41 pm

    There are really three concepts in this concept space, which could be described as sexual reproduction, biological sex/gender, social gender. No field appears to have more than two well-established words for these three concepts, and how the two words cover the three concepts varies. What a mess!

    Biologists don't resist using "sex" for biological sex/gender because the word is blunt, but because it's firmly established in that domain as meaning sexual reproduction. The "paradox of sex" in evolutionary biology is not about division into genders, but about sexual reproduction in the broad sense. (Leading to one of my favorite scientific paper titles ever: "Evolution of bacterial transformation: Is sex with dead cells ever better than no sex at all?" by Rosemary Redfield.)

    I'd favor getting three words in play as soon as possible. It would help people distinguish between sexual orientation and sexual activity, I think, which is a pernicious confusion in modern English use. (I'm surprised how many people seem to lack a mental category for "gay but currently celibate", for example.)

  3. mgh said,

    June 27, 2008 @ 1:13 pm

    greg, I'm not familiar with biologists using "gender" to replace "sex." In fact, PubMed shows fewer than one-quarter as many results for the former than the latter.

  4. rpsms said,

    June 27, 2008 @ 2:00 pm

    Facebook users should just pick a pony and ride it. If they feel the need for disclaimers, put them in the profile.

    If they REALLY need more accuracy, then perhaps they should have two chromosome drop-downs: number of x, number of y. To bring further magnification: two sliders indicating sexual attraction to a genitalia. Also, a sarcasm acceptance toggle.

    The proper term for gay but currently celibate is "gay, but currently celibate."

  5. John Laviolette said,

    June 27, 2008 @ 3:22 pm

    Hmmm. I have an account on a MOO that allows you to pick from six or seven different "genders", including neuter and "royal we". You'd think Facebook could make a program change that would give an option to the people who don't want to identify as either male or female.

    Or, maybe, choose a random gender every day for the genderless.

  6. Nathan Myers said,

    June 27, 2008 @ 3:27 pm

    "Wistful" is more concise.

  7. dr pepper said,

    June 27, 2008 @ 3:37 pm

    My position is that unless it's a dating site, it's nobody's business. If they insist, i just flip a coin. I also won't give my age or ethnicity.

  8. Virgil Ikari said,

    June 27, 2008 @ 4:24 pm

    dr pepper: Yeah, but Facebook is a socialization site. It's primary function seems to be categorizing people you already know, rather than MySpace, which seems to be more about meeting new people.

  9. rootlesscosmo said,

    June 27, 2008 @ 4:28 pm

    Hm. I'm trying to imagine a situation in some language other than English that would present a problem here. "Pat Jones a ajouté Prince à sa musique favorie"–the possessive pronoun takes the gender of "musique," not that of the personal antecedent. And reflexive pronouns–French "se," German "sich"–aren't gendered. Where does the problem come up?

  10. rootlesscosmo said,

    June 27, 2008 @ 4:29 pm

    Forgot to close italics–sorry.

  11. Karen said,

    June 27, 2008 @ 5:18 pm

    It would come up in the Slavic languages if Pat was not the subject of the sentence. Not having been on Facebook I don't know if that ever happens.

  12. Bunny Mellon said,

    June 27, 2008 @ 5:20 pm

    rootlesscosmo said, Forgot to close italics–sorry.

    No, don't apologise! You did nothing wrong.

    You see? Now if the authorities would just pay for a testing button for us to see what we have written before our comments are submitted, we would be spared this embarrassment and confusion. If Language Hat can spring for one I should have thought LL could. Where's your 'We try harder' spirit?

  13. John Laviolette said,

    June 27, 2008 @ 5:26 pm

    It's not LL's fault, but the programmer's. WordPress — and other blogging software — seems to think it's too hard to close all open tags on a comment.

  14. Andrew Heathwaite said,

    June 27, 2008 @ 5:47 pm

    I've thought for quite a while that websites like Facebook should allow their users to choose their own pronouns. In the queer community, a number of gender-neutral neologisms crop up that sound much more elegant than singular they (in my opinion) once you get used to them. I'd opt for Spivak pronouns, myself.

  15. Kellen said,

    June 27, 2008 @ 10:42 pm

    i personally like the singular they. i firmly believe it's acceptable spoken english. as in when you're driving down the road and say "ah crap they just cut me off. now i must track them down and add sugar to their gas tank". i've said "he" as a default in this type of thing before, only to be corrected by a fellow passenger saying "dude, it's a girl". like it matters. they cut me off damnit.

    seriously though, when my students have asked about using they in this way, i've told them to go for it, though others might tell them it's wrong. i always thought it was progress to be able to do so.

  16. james said,

    June 28, 2008 @ 12:40 am

    Kellen:

    The issue is not whether singular they is correct, but where it sounds natural and where it comes across as awkward. In your example, singular they sounds fine because the sex of the driver is unknown, uncertain, or irrelevant. In the Facebook example, it sounds inelegant because the person reading the news feed does know the sex of the person that the text is about in almost all cases.

    For example, it would be awkward if I were to say, "Jacob went to the store because they needed some milk," when I mean that Jacob needed some milk. Jacob is a male name, so it would be unusual and awkward to use singular they in order to avoid assuming the person's sex, since it was already suggested by the name.

    Pat Jones is a little different, since the name doesn't suggest the person's sex. However, singular they would still be awkward because Facebook is referring to a specific, named individual (more specific than "the person who left their coat"), so sex is not uncertain or irrelevant. Furthermore, the reader probably also knows Pat's sex in real life, so it's confusing to use they when it's unnecessary.

    In the case of individuals that cannot or do not wish to be described by a sex binary, singular they (or another pronoun) would be entirely necessary in order to make this point and therefore its use would not be inelegant.

  17. Timothy M said,

    June 28, 2008 @ 4:48 am

    This is kind of off topic, but Kellen's comment made me think of it: Some of the posters on Language Log have said that "he" and "him" are not gender-neutral pronouns – which is obviously true – but there IS a tendency sometimes for people to assume that a random third-person is male until they find out otherwise. The car example is a good one – how often have you heard someone say "check out this guy," or "what is this dude doing" only to find out afterwards it was a girl? Perhaps sometimes when people defend "he" as a gender-neutral pronoun, what they really mean is that in certain cases we assume that someone is a "he" even if we have no basis to do so.

  18. ascidiacea said,

    June 28, 2008 @ 5:03 am

    Re: gender vs sex in science-speak…

    In my experience, biologists who study non-human organisms almost never use "gender" to mean "sex". Personally, I would feel very odd discussing the "gender" of a snail or a sea cucumber (especially since some of these can be simultaneous or sequential hermaphrodites).

    I don't know what biologists who study humans do about gender vs sex, since I concentrate on things without backbones.

  19. Bunson U. Mellon said,

    June 28, 2008 @ 5:45 am

    Timothy M said 'The car example is a good one…'

    The car example is a good one where you almost have to use 'they'. If I say 'that guy doesn't use his indicator' my daughter says 'how do you know it's a guy?'. But if I say 'look what she just did!' my daughter says that unless I'm sure it's a she then I'm just assuming women are bad drivers.

    I don't believe it. The authorities have installed a brilliant test thingy. Well done.

  20. mp said,

    June 28, 2008 @ 6:04 am

    Karen: And in (most?) Slavic languages the verb, at least in past tense, agrees in gender with the subject. So even though the choice of the pronoun would not be problematic in the examples from the article, translation of the verb would be.

  21. Alexis said,

    June 29, 2008 @ 8:15 am

    "what is this dude doing" only to find out afterwards it was a girl?

    For a lot of modern users of "dude" this is not a problem. Dude can be a gender-neutral term. There is no feminine form. It's also just fine in my English to say "Hey guys, what's up" to a group containing all females.

    I hadn't thought about the translation difficulties with singular they, but I did note it sounded really inelegant when it told me things like "E has changed their profile picture" since I know E's gender.

    I guess part of the problem is that even if the user uses Facebook in a singular-they or non-marking language (like Mandarin, for example) that doesn't mean all their friends do, so the software really needs to know the answer for everyone.

    It's good that Facebook is just asking you to select a pronoun, rather than to definitively select your gender.

  22. blahedo said,

    June 29, 2008 @ 9:53 pm

    Too bad! I always loved this feature of Facebook; it seemed like such a nice dodge.

  23. Stewart Haddock said,

    July 3, 2008 @ 4:21 pm

    Yep! Today, when I logged onto Facebook, I got the following question.

    Which example applies to you?
    Right now your Mini-Feed may be confusing. Please choose how we should refer to you.

    Stewart edited her profile.

    Stewart edited his profile.

  24. hkor said,

    August 12, 2008 @ 11:12 pm

    Something that seems to be coming up here is that since we may know the people with whom we are connected to via facebook, we "know" their gender.

    Some of us on Facebook have a different pronoun depending on the situation, for example maybe J uses the pronoun she with family who hasn't been informed about the more complex aspects of their gender, but really J prefers a neutral pronoun like they or ze, when they are in a setting where the use of these pronouns can work (social settings with trans issue sensitive individuals, intentional safe spaces etc) and male pronouns while occupying a male identity or space, like using a mens washroom or attending a social interaction centered around maleness, like for example while performing drag or shopping for mens ware.
    So taking J as an example, if we have folks on our facebook who know us in each of these parts of our lives, having a no-pronoun or neutral pronoun can be very helpful as not everyone we are connected to "knows" .

  25. Felix said,

    March 6, 2009 @ 1:29 pm

    Interestingly, I believe "dude" is only gender neutral in the singular. One wouldn't say, "Look at those dudes" about a group of women. Actually, one wouldn't say, "Look at that dude." about a woman. Only when addressing someone might you use "dude" for both men and women. I also think its interesting that "guys" is gender neutral but "guy" is not.

  26. Katie said,

    April 10, 2009 @ 11:14 am

    I am surprised that Facebook would stop using singular “they,” especially as the usage is continually gaining popularity. Although I think singular “they” is used most frequently in spoken language, it seems natural to me that it would be used on Facebook as well, especially because the language of social networking is so informal. I personally am a fan of singular “they,” and honestly I think in the end it will win out. I would not be at all surprised if Facebook reverts to this usage sometime in the not so distant future.

    In terms of the gender issue, again I am surprised that they don’t have to offer some type of alternative to “him” and “her.” I think eventually Facebook will break down and have to offer some kind of third option, whether it be singular “they” or another general neutral pronoun.

  27. Patrick said,

    April 24, 2012 @ 5:34 pm

    This isn't just a problem for people who are either male or female and wish to not reveal their gender. It's primarily a problem for genderqueer people who don't identify as male or female and want Facebook's pronouns to reflect their identity. I think Facebook should allow not only the singular they, but also any number of common gender neutral pronouns such as ze/hir, ne/nem/ner, and ey/em/eir. And it should have a gender option separate from the preferred pronoun option that allows genders such as bigender, agender, genderfluid, and genderqueer.

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