If you can't say something nice…

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This is a guest post by Kirby Conrod.

I'm sorry to see that the venerable Geoff Pullum is so desperately behind the times. I don't mean to be snarky, I genuinely am sad about it. It's not just a matter of being un-hip to the cool new language change in progress (singular "they" is making inroads syntactically in the types of antecedents speakers will use it with), but rather a methodological and disciplinary unhipness that really makes me feel bad.

First, let me address the rudeness: if a senior colleague of mine pulled this kind of self-conscious "he is–sorry, they are" on me in a professional setting, I'd file a complaint. If they did it in a casual setting, I'd have a nasty word for them. That's the kind of snide, intentional misgendering that I am not okay with. In writing, Pullum clearly has the ability to force a use of "they" even if he finds it distasteful. To do otherwise is profoundly disrespectful and borderline hostile, even as a supposedly self-effacing joke about his own grammar. It would've been easy to make the point of his difficulty in writing that sentence without using the wrong pronoun for anyone–and Pullum should seriously self-interrogate on why he thinks "he" would have been the alternative, anyways.

With that out of the way, I'll go into the linguistics first, then the methods.

Being linguistically un-hip here simply means that Pullum is one of what we sociolinguists call "conservative speakers," clinging to old rules or forms after younger and more innovative speakers are moving on to newer, shinier things. In this case, using singular "they" with specific antecedents like a name is something acceptable by more innovative speakers—see Bjorkman's Glossa paper out recently for a detailed syntactic analysis of how this can be accounted for. While I am pretty understanding of conservative speakers struggling with the forms, what I would expect from a polite speaker would be to instead avoid pronouns altogether, rather than nastily (or thoughtlessly) misgendering their referents. Social science has shown that misgendering has serious repercussions for transgender people, including feelings of alienation and increased depression. One would think that a supposedly good-faith speaker would want to avoid having such effects.

Being methodologically un-hip is unfortunately how Pullum really comes off as conservative, though. It is always disappointing to see that old-fashioned syntacticians, despite all sorts of good intentions, aren't using the technology available to them to step up their descriptive and explanatory game. By contrast, innovative cutting-edge syntacticians (among which I'll humbly count myself) are using corpus studies, judgment studies, eye-tracking studies, and sociolinguistic interviews to back up their own grammatical intuitions. While Pullum can safely report his own grammatical judgments (and I believe him), he cannot possibly purport to describe a language situation of which he is a minuscule part. If he doesn't turn his ears on and start listening for real, live speakers using singular "they" productively, fluently, and easily, then that's his failing as a scientist.

Now, the good news: I'm writing this on the tail-end of finishing two qualifying papers and several conference presentations about English pronouns. Both suggest that third-person pronouns in English are less functional than we thought, and more flexible than we thought. I have syntactic evidence that pronouns can be used essentially as nouns—I just presented a poster at NWAV all about a corpus study of depronominalizations, like "a he" or "a she," on twitter. They're productive and highly ideologically contested. That doesn't seem like a big scary grammatical word, does it? Once you stick a determiner on something like that, it looks a lot less determiner-like itself. And my two-year-long sociolinguistic study on misgendering had even more interesting results: not only do speakers (of all ages!) use singular "they" fluently and productively in unprompted conversation, but speakers switch pronouns about a single referent over the course of a conversation. If pronouns are so cut and dried as Pullum claims, that should never happen. There's clearly something more social going on.

And that's what has got me so ruffled up about Pullum's post, is the social stuff going on. He adds a "political" footnote– and I agree, the decision to misgender someone is always political. If Pullum does indeed know better, then he would have opted for a way to write the post without misgendering anyone, while still talking about his own grammatical difficulties. That's exactly my problem. After claiming that the "slip-up" is a sort of self-shaming edit, Pullum goes on to say:

I'm on the same side as my non-binarist and gender-neutral and transsexual friends. But don't let's kid ourselves: you can't alter your syntactic intuitions overnight.

Besides the rather out-dated terminology that suggests that Pullum has no such friends (or not many under the age of forty, for sure), he ignores the perfectly acceptable alternative of avoidance: if you can't use the right pronouns, don't use any at all.

This is a guest post by Kirby Conrod.


  1. Kai von Fintel said,

    December 5, 2017 @ 9:21 pm

    Very much agree with this. Also, “if you can't use the right pronouns, don't use any at all” … exactly, when I was a teenager, I avoided second person pronouns with the parents of my girlfriend for years because I couldn’t figure out whether to use the familiar “du” or the polite “sie”.

  2. stephen said,

    December 5, 2017 @ 9:23 pm

    I have nothing to say about whether something is rude or whatever.

    But I wonder how others would feel about adding to the lexicon of pronouns.
    "Such", "thus" and "also" could conceivably be pronouns. They are easier to remember and pronounce than xe, xie, or others.
    This, that and tis, could also be used.
    Hither, thither and yon are old words only used in that phrase, as far as I know. They could be repurposed.
    There are many non-binary categories these various words could be applied to.

    I hope you don't mind these suggestions.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    December 5, 2017 @ 9:54 pm

    @Kai von Fintel

    It's like my wife avoiding the first person pronoun almost at any cost.

    See "Luv u" (4/29/17)



    My wife had an aversion to the first person pronoun. She would do practically anything to avoid saying "I". She thought it was egotistical to make frequent, direct reference to herself, whether in speech or in writing. Among traditional Chinese, she probably was not entirely unique in that regard, but she was extreme in her first person avoidance, and it was through her that I became aware of the lengths to which someone might go keep from saying "I".

    I do not fully comprehend the psychological reasons why some people shy away from use of the first person pronoun, but my sense is that it has to do with not wanting to be assertive.

    Omission of the first person pronoun was almost like a religion for Li-ching, but zero anaphora extended beyond the first person to all the other pronouns, though not as prohibitively. Sinitic languages, by nature, are pro-drop; it's not unusual to see twenty or more sentences in a row without a pronoun.


  4. doug bigham said,

    December 5, 2017 @ 10:10 pm

    Thank you so much for this rebuttal. I would like to add, though, of GP's original post, that aside from the un-hipness of the whole thing, and aside from the grammaticality judgements of one person's (always biased) variety of English, it's just plain offensive for a person of privilege to complain about shifting for the needs of a marginalized group.

    Imagine if GP's original post were about phonology—if he were defending the mispronunciation of someone's name because initial [ŋ], or a /ɲ/, isn't part of (his variety of) English Phonology— It would be seen for the kind of privileged garbage it is.

    While your advice of avoiding pronouns is commendable, "don't let's give" GP too much grace. He is a trained linguist— no doubt skilled in several dialects, registers, varieties, and languages— and he has no excuse not to make the shift (to *force* the shift, if need be) once he's been made aware of the social implications.

  5. Ethan said,

    December 5, 2017 @ 10:19 pm


    I must take issue with some of your points here. First, it seems you take particular issue with Pullman's "he is–sorry, they are" slip. The political footnote in Pullman's post explicitly mentions that he intentionally left this slip in as an illustration of the personal challenges he's facing in altering his pronoun use, not as a snide remark. Secondly, you point out that Pullman might be considered a conservative speaker. This seems plausible given his description of his own language use. You then proceed to pass moral judgment – prescriptive judgement – on his conservativeness. Viewed from the perspective of the values of the field and the practice of descriptive linguistics, you're being equally discriminatory in your analysis of Pullman's language as you're accusing him of being towards you. It can hardly be surprising that a white male of Pullman's generation is a conservative speaker – that's how language works. You might point out that, as a linguist, Pullman has a responsibility to take a non-judgmental stance on the issue, and you would be correct. He certainly could have been more forgiving in his language, but it seems clear – to me at least – that his rhetorical questions were meant as rhetorical, not judgmental.
    Throughout your post, you seem to imply that Pullman has somehow failed to grasp the rising popularity of singular "they," despite the fact that the very first sentence of his post says just that. He is speaking only about his own internal grammar, and that is something that you, as a linguist, are not in a position to pass judgment on. Languages change. Not every person's language changes.
    More broadly, cherry picking phrases from Pullman's post to make a political point – rather than engage in a discussion – only serves to heighten vitriol, and certainly does no favors for the public's perception of linguistics as a field. These issues are very important and linguistics has an important role to play in them. But I believe that leveling an accusation, rather than starting a conversation, is a counterproductive way to go about that.

  6. E. McCready said,

    December 5, 2017 @ 10:29 pm

    Thank you for this Kirby. Now that you’ve said the things that needed to be said, let me just observe that the parallel between honorific pronouns and gender marking Kai points out is interesting on multiple levels: theoretically, but also leading to reinforcement of the idea that using preferred pronouns is a matter of respect, not just grammar.

  7. kali said,

    December 5, 2017 @ 10:42 pm

    I, like Pullum, am also a conservative speaker in this regard. I find "they" very difficult to deal with- and I'm myself non-binary. I try really, really hard to pay close attention to it because I'd never want to misgender someone, but I find myself doing it accidentally all the time (and I've never accidentally misgendered a binary trans friend!).

    I understand the frustration with Pullum's post, but I also 100% understand his discomfort with "they" as a pronoun. I just can't seem to make it work comfortably, and pronoun avoidance is also easier said than done.

  8. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    December 5, 2017 @ 11:05 pm

    @doug bigham: Wait, are you seriously asserting that it's "privileged garbage" for an English speaker to be unable to pronounce a foreign name with non-English phonology? (Or for such a speaker to admit it?) If you'll step down from your high horse for a moment, and solicit the opinions of people who have such names, I'm positive you'll find they're not bothered by it.

  9. Jonathan Smith said,

    December 5, 2017 @ 11:30 pm

    Geez. Language change is negotiated, not dictated. By all means engage energetically in the former, but step the heck off with the latter.

  10. Elizabeth said,

    December 5, 2017 @ 11:38 pm

    Ethan, I'm going to have to whole heartedly disagree with your analysis of GP's intention. There are many telling ways that GP chose to let his distaste for singular they be known within his post: the bolded "ungrammatical", the non-apologidtic "I don't want to offend anyone", particularly, "But it's a bit much to expect me" … And yes, even the cherry picked "he said — sorry, they said" are all very purposeful indicators of how very little empathy he gives to those who choose to identify as They.

    Kirby's rebuttle is a fantastic not only in content, but in ethos as well. They get to choose how much or little they want to be offended. They live that life every day. And I'm sorry, but if they is telling you that something a prodominate linguist is saying is wrong and hurtful, maybe you should reflect and listen.

  11. Guy said,

    December 5, 2017 @ 11:56 pm

    I don’t agree that there is anything wrong with adapting a name to the speaker’s phonology, adding, say, a schwa before an initial /ŋ/ is as natural – and difficult to avoid – for an English speaker as a for a Spanish speaker with an /e/ before an /st/.

    However, I do agree that Pullum’s “joke” pretending to “slip up” was really mocking, disrespectful, and generally rude. It marred a post that I didn’t entirely agree with but could have been a launching point for a civil discussion about preferred pronouns.

  12. Guy said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 12:08 am

    Incidentally, my view isn’t that people are entitled to prescribe their interlocutor’s grammar, but they can ask that their interlocutor respect their gender. So if a person identifies as female you should treat them generally the same as any other female person. That doesn’t entail any nonsense like “call me ‘him’ for nominative and ‘he’ for accusative” or whatever. There is a difficulty for people who are nonbinary in that it is often awkward to use “they” in connection with a given name (especially a gendered name). But I’m skeptical that this is ungrammatical. For me, “they” can refer back to a name in the rare instance where a person’s name is known but not their gender, but if Pullum is uncomfortable with this he can use the same coping mechanisms for a nonbinary person that he would use for a named person of unknown gender (presumably avoiding pronouns entirely).

  13. R. Fenwick said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 12:19 am


    The political footnote in Pullman's post explicitly mentions that he intentionally left this slip in as an illustration of the personal challenges he's facing in altering his pronoun use, not as a snide remark

    Firstly: *Pullum, throughout.

    Secondly, the fact that Pullum felt the need to footnote his phrasing at all shows that he knew it would probably be taken as insulting as written. Conservative Pullum's language may be, but surely he hasn't forgotten that writing and speaking are two very different media of communication, and one of the things writing permits that speaking doesn't is the ability to self-edit discreetly. He not only deliberately chose not to do so in a medium where the opportunity was ample, but also explained his intention in an unmarked footnote rather than immediately in parentheses (or even in a marked footnote), delaying having to explain the apparently offensive phrasing in a manner that (a) allowed him to prioritise opining on how personally hard it is to accommodate a minority, (b) allowed the reader ample time to take offence at how he expressed himself, and (c) then expected them to have to walk that offence back once he'd explained. I'm sure he didn't imagine it could be so offensive, but that's exactly the point: his privilege allows him to not have to think about such things.

    Finally, in response to this:

    cherry picking phrases from Pullman's post to make a political point – rather than engage in a discussion – only serves to heighten vitriol, and certainly does no favors for the public's perception of linguistics as a field

    Among other things, Pullum as a rule does not permit comments on his posts, and consequently to "engage in a discussion" was more or less impossible in this forum.

  14. R. Fenwick said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 12:36 am


    And I'm sorry, but if they is telling you that something a prodominate linguist is saying is wrong and hurtful, maybe you should reflect and listen.

    "They is"? Now THAT is linguistically interesting. I'm trans myself and happy to accommodate the pronouns of anyone who asks, but I would have assumed that "they" would take plural agreement (not least because of the parallel with "you", which is also semantically unmarked for number and morphologically plural). I ask this out of genuine curiosity: is "they is" common in referring to non-binary people? Among my non-binary friends I've only heard "they are", but I'd be interested to see if others use "they is" instead.

  15. Emily M. Bender said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 12:57 am


    Others have replied aptly to several points in your reply. I wanted to address two more.

    First: the false equivalence you draw here:

    "Viewed from the perspective of the values of the field and the practice of descriptive linguistics, you're being equally discriminatory in your analysis of Pullman's language as you're accusing him of being towards you."

    As Guy points out above, this isn't about prescriptive grammar rules. It's about respecting how people wish to be referred to. Would you consider it prescriptive (and discriminatory) to push back if someone called you by a nickname that you don't go by? Or if a professional contact called you by the nickname that your parents use with you?

    Second: the tone policing you engage in at the end:

    "But I believe that leveling an accusation, rather than starting a conversation, is a counterproductive way to go about that."

    Misgendering is *hurtful*. Pullum clearly has been asked politely to use the correct pronouns for people in the past, and he is using his platform on LL to whine about what an imposition that is on him, while apparently ignorant of the harm that misgendering does/can do. I think it is utterly appropriate for Kirby to express their position on this as emphatically and pointedly as they like. For those of us who move through the world without being misgendered, it is all too easy to treat this as some academic debate. Here we have the good fortune that Kirby is willing to share both their scientific expertise and their perspective informed by lived experience. We should listen and learn, with gratitude, rather than tell them what to do.

  16. doug bigham said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 1:07 am

    @ran ari-gur

    No, I'm not saying it's privileged garbage for any English speaker to misstep in such a way; when people don't know, or when accidents always happen, that's okay. To err is human.

    I'm saying that as a trained linguist who holds the public ear on such matters, yes, it was a huge mistake for GP to frame his argument as
    "a bit much to expect me to start saying things that are clearly and decisively ungrammatical according to my own internalized grammar".

    Has he any idea how many native speakers of non-privileged varieties do exactly that, every day, for business, in educational settings, around people who aren't in-group, etc.? People from marginalized groups constantly change their speech (change their grammar, change their phonology, change their politeness strategies, and on and on), so yes, GP, as a person who has spent their life dealing with language objectively, shouldn't have such a hard time with it. And even if this use of "singular they" is difficult for him, to use a public forum– a forum where his opinion guides public perception and public acceptance– to whine about having to feel the discomfort of conforming, is absolutely privileged garbage.

  17. AntC said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 1:22 am

    Firstly: *Pullum, throughout.

    That was possibly a deliberate: here's a taste of your own medicine; see how you like me calling you what I think it should be/what I can't help myself saying.

  18. RJF said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 1:27 am

    Data point: I'm nonbinary, I use "they" as a personal pronoun, and when I saw the pronoun misuse in the original post I actually flinched back from the screen. I have done so again, to a lesser degree, every time it's quoted here. Misgendering hurts. Deliberate misgendering hurts more.

    Also, I'm astonished that anyone thinks "I left it there to show my shame" is a reasonable way to handle finding an error in an unfiled draft. Consider some equivalents:

    "Here is a photo of my wife playing baseball. I left up the sexy nude photo of her because I posted it first by accident and then felt ashamed of my error."

    "Lee is the rapist — sorry, a therapist — who…"

    Pullum undoubtedly makes typos in his posts and then edits them out before posting. He may make factual errors in drafts and then do a bit of research and realize he has to correct them. This is what drafts are for. There is absolutely no legitimate reason to retain a harmful error that you catch before hitting "post" or "send". He's not ashamed. He's boasting. And his "correction" shows his full awareness that misgendering is harmful, and his willingness to do it anyway if he thinks it serves his purposes.

    If the incorrect pronoun were used in a live post and someone wrote in with a correction, there's a long-established protocol for that: completely rewrite to omit the error, then append a notice along the lines of "The original version of this post used an incorrect pronoun for Garcia; we regret the error." I'm quite sure Pullum is aware of that protocol. His refusal to use it shows the opposite of shame or humility.

    If Pullum actually felt any shame about this whatsoever, he would go sit with that feeling and then resolve to do better. Which I still hope he will do.

  19. MWL said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 1:40 am

    A cross-generational eye-tracking study of singular, specific, non-binary they would be very interesting. If someone has (or has already had) the interest and resources to do this, I hope it gets a spotlight in a future Language Log post!

    Alas, it seems Bjorkman's Glossa article confirms that Pullum's main factual point is likely to be correct: he and (I presume) the vast majority of other native English speakers over 25 face a syntactic impediment to fluently adopting singular specific they to refer to non-binary individuals. People whose immediate reaction is to dismiss Pullum's post as "wrong" should take care not to overlook this, and the implications it has for promoting adoption. "Everyone uses singular they!" is not going to be enough—the message has to be something more like "It won't be easy to get used to, but you should work at it, as a matter of respect."

    People taking Pullum's side, meanwhile, would do well to note that the main problems of the post are not problems with the science. Rather, this particular factual point requires a great deal of tact and awareness to make without doing harm, and in that regard the post does not succeed. Bjorkman does it much better:

    "Internalized cultural assumptions that all humans can be sorted into binary gender categories likely form part of the obstacle to adopting they as a singular pronoun of reference—but the contrast between (2) and (3) reveals that there may also be a grammatical obstacle as well. This paper is not intended to argue against adopting they as a singular pronoun of reference for nonbinary individuals, but instead to clarify the grammatical status of they among contemporary English speakers, and so to clarify what changes are involved in extending they further to examples like (3a–b)."

  20. cliff arroyo said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 1:53 am

    Jonathan Smith said what i was going to (just more concisely).

  21. I am They as You are They | Exit, Pursued by a Lark said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 2:17 am

    […] by Geoffrey K. Pullum under Names, singular "they", Syntax, as well as a response If you can't say something nice… by Kirby Conrod, both in the Language Log […]

  22. Chas Belov said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 2:22 am

    I started typing my response here, but it became an essay, so I've linked to it above. tl;dr: I use "they" a lot more than I used to and things are complicated.

  23. AG said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 2:23 am

    I'm sorry, but I think the type of "they" being used here does require some possibly brain-bending rewiring of one's grammar usage, and it's not reasonable to expect everyone in the world to hop on board immediately without honest discussion of the awkwardness new adopters might feel.

    Just to invent a couple of examples that would definitely set my "behind-the-times" head spinning:

    "Phillip is friendly to my enemies, and they hate me."
    "Phillip eats a cookie in front of his work colleagues; they eat fourteen cookies every morning."
    "My sister and her boyfriend say that Philip likes their cat."

    Who's eating the cookies? Who hates me? WHOSE CAT?

    I have a feeling that it would be extraordinarily difficult for me to immediately start parsing and generating sentences like the above examples without making mistakes and being frequently baffled, EVEN IF I knew that was a new acquaintance's preference.

  24. Keith said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 2:26 am


    I'll come back and read the whole of your diatribe when I have a bit more time and patience; I need some time to calm my temper after getting to the following bit.

    Being linguistically un-hip here simply means that Pullum is one of what we sociolinguists call "conservative speakers," clinging to old rules or forms after younger and more innovative speakers are moving on to newer, shinier things.

    You fall into the trap that ensnares many "young" people (or people who wish to think themselves "young"): you assume that everything "newer [and] shinier" is necessarily better than the "old" things that "conservative" people cling to.

    Language is also a mechanism for communicating between people of different generations. Can you imagine a society where each generation invents a language that the previous generation cannot understand? We must all accept a common core of vocabulary, grammar and usage to enable intergenerational communication. And just as I do not reach for my Luger when I hear whippersnappers using their jargon, I expect not to have bricks thrown at me when I use the pronoun "she", rather than "they", to describe an aforementioned "Rachael".

    Unless this whole rant was to be taken as humorous, which would explain the gender-neutral forename "Kirby" and the unlikely family name of "Conrod"; would that be a jibe at all us language cranks?

  25. AG said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 2:26 am

    …d'oh! In the "cookie" example I just realized to my horror that I made Pullum's "his" mistake, completely without realizing it.

    I am being honest here, I was seriously trying to use "they" and messed it up in my very first sentence. I was not trying to be snide or anything, I was literally grappling with the system for the first time in my life, and ended up replicating Pullum's mistake. Surely that might show that his intent wasn't malign? Mine wasn't!

  26. Chas Belov said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 2:40 am

    Fortunately, English, like most languages, offers options to avoid ambiguity.

    If "they" are Phillip

    "Phillip is friendly to my enemies and hates me."
    "Phillip eats a cookie in front of his work colleagues and thirteen cookies in private every morning."
    "Phillip likes their cat. My sister and her boyfriend said so." (potentially ambiguous if my sister and her boyfriend were previously mentioned)

    or, if "they" are not Phillip

    "Phillip is friendly to my enemies, who hate me."
    "Phillip eats a cookie in front of his work colleagues. All of them together eat fourteen cookies every morning."
    "Phillip likes the cat my sister and her boyfriend have."

    Further, the originals are no more ambiguous than the sentences recast for two same-gender binary people:

    "Mary is friendly to my niece, and she hates me."
    "Robert eats a cookie in front of his colleague Kenneth; he eats fourteen cookies every morning."
    "My sister says that Mary likes her cat."

  27. David Morris said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 2:42 am

    ditto what Jonathon said.

    Otherwise, a brief comment about Kirby's "if you can't use the right pronouns, don't use any at all". That may be a short-term solution, but it's not a long-term one.

  28. AG said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 2:53 am

    @Chas – Nicely done, and I think that in practice, with practice, I'm sure everyone who was working within this "they" system would easily learn to avoid ambiguity or confusion.

    After all, we're all pretty used to singular "they" when not referring to a specific person already.

    But there's something about the combination of things going on here that I think would really trip me up for a while until I had some practice, personally (and did trip me up, since I couldn't even write three examples without making a mistake).

    Assuming that older people who have trouble with this switch are automatically being "profoundly disrespectful" seems unfair.

    I would argue that this isn't just like, for example, learning that instead of "Oriental", the preferred term is "Asian", and mentally swapping the two adjectives out of respect (which in itself is hard enough for some people). This involves some possibly very tricky grammar re-wiring.

  29. Adam F said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 3:18 am

    I thought the attack on Pullum was excessive and I'm inclined to agree with some of Keith's comments.

    The description of young/new dialects as "shinier" also struck me as contradicting the linguistic dogma that all dialects have equal merit..

  30. Graeme said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 3:33 am

    Working in law and academia I take care with language. I was non-plussed with Dr Pullum's column – he is often idiosyncratic and enjoyable.
    This post seemed like a peeve by a descriptivist, an inversion of the blog's ethos.

    But I was more astonished to see people piling on with the label 'transphobic'.

    Eg, older relatives who still use terms like 'Peking' may or may not have colonial mindsets on China. I'd not leap to moralising labels of discriminatory intent from one language peccadillo.

  31. Berna said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 5:46 am

    Native speakers, do you think it's OK to just use 'they' for *everyone*? That would be easier for this old person than remembering everyone's personal preference.

  32. Not a linguist said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 5:51 am

    > If "they" are Phillip
    > "Phillip is friendly to my enemies and hates me."

    and if the person making the statement wishes to be referred to as `they`, would this be "Phillip is friendly to our enemies and hates us." ? It seems confusing for a person to refer to themselves in the singular while asking others to refer to them using the plural. I could sort of see that, but then "Phillip likes the cat my sister and her boyfriend have." could become "Phillip likes the cat our sister and their boyfriend have." which could be ambiguous.

  33. Geoff said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 6:10 am

    @berna said
    So maybe one day 'they' completely extinguishes 'he, she, it' in exactly the same way that 'you' extuingished 'thou'?
    Interesting idea, but I suspect it won't fly because of the ambiguities. 'You' is less problematic in that regard as the number of referents is more often obvious.
    Are there any languages that have just one number-blind third person pronoun?

  34. Geoff said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 6:16 am

    @kai von fintel
    It must take great ingenuity to conduct a conversation without using du/Sie. Especially when the most natural polite opener is How are you? (Or other cultures' equivalents, 'have you eaten' etc)
    Does German have any natural you-free greeting comparable to French 'ca va?'

  35. Berna said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 6:38 am

    @Geoff "So maybe one day 'they' completely extinguishes 'he, she, it' in exactly the same way that 'you' extuingished 'thou'?"

    Yes, exactly like that (except 'it' could stay). Not only because that way you don't have to remember everyone's preference, but you don't even have to ask, and people don't have to tell you. Personally I'd find it very awkward to have to talk about my sexuality/gender with every new person I meet.

  36. Todd said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 7:35 am


    "Are there any languages that have just one number-blind third person pronoun?"

    Yup. WALS lists 9. [http://wals.info/feature/35A#2/16.7/148.9]

  37. Rodger C said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 8:02 am

    I'll be 70 next month, and these here newfangled pronoun usages challenge me too, but I work at them because respect and justice. Also because I'm old enough to remember the 60s and 70s, when every change in society that involved a change in language was made into a linguistic issue by some faux-innocent. (I remember snarky jokes about being bitten by "chegroes," for heaven's sake.)

    Speaking of faux (fausse?) innocence: R. Fenwick, do you really not realize that Elizabeth simply either has a slender grasp of high-register English or is too angry or headlong to use it?

  38. Vivian Ford said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 8:12 am

    I derive an exquisite, almost otherworldly pleasure from reading the sloppily written rants of ardent descriptivists who, while they would be proud to mock a prescriptivist suggesting how one ought to use the English language, are now eager themselves to suggest not only how one should use it but also how one is a [insert a morally pejorative word here] if one does not use it as they like. Such descriptivists, confused souls like Kirby Conrad, have always poorly hid their strongly held language prejudices—which, unsurprisingly, tend to be closely related to those of leftists. Though these descriptivists feign a scientific objectivity and moral detachment when it comes to language use, they are just as eager as the most opinionated prescriptivist to tell other people how they ought to, and even must, speak and write. This, on a grand scale, is a damning duplicity.

  39. Vicki said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 8:18 am

    When I read Pullum's post, I was sorry that he disallows comments, because I wanted to answer his final rhetorical question (meant to elicit a "no" or "of course not") with "yes." Specifically, "yes, though 'twould sound old-fashioned" (or poetic). Like most people, the phrasings and vocabulary I understand include things I'd be unlikely to say or write myself.

    Chas has already addressed the point that "she" and "he" are also ambiguous in many normal English sentences, because we don't have separate pronouns for, say, "the first woman mentioned in this conversation" and "the second woman mentioned in this conversation."

    In practice, I'd ask "Is that Mary's cat or her mother's cat?" in the same way as "Is that Philip's cat or your sister's cat?" (easier than "your sister and her boyfriend's cat?"). And if I knew the speaker's sister, I might even ask "which cat, I know she has three?"

  40. Kai von Fintel said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 8:19 am

    @geoff: "Does German have any natural you-free greeting comparable to French 'ca va?'" Yes, we say "wie geht's?" (how goes it?). It does take a lot of self-monitoring to edit out 2nd person pronouns but I did it for a looong time without (m)any slipups. For all I know they knew this was happening and decided to enjoy it rather than letting me off the hook by proposing that I call them "du".

  41. Brooke said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 8:41 am

    I'm dashing this off and might write more later. But Pullum's post and a lot of the comments here strike me, a linguist, as pretty embarrassing.

    Are we really a field where an eminent and relatively powerful voice can post about a phenomenon in a way that offends the relevant people *and* is apparently utterly ignorant of the relevant literature on the subject? Sure, LL isn't a journal article, but the usual petty citational pedantry is conspicuously absent here. Almost as if Pullum had no actual interest in the phenomenon beyond attempting to make himself out to be victim of it. I really much prefer my field leaders (such as they are) to be much more distinguishable from a peripheral internet crank

    This is one example in a dispiriting trend of prominent linguists claiming concern for more marginalized people, but showing something entirely different. Last week it was Martin Haspelmath talking in a characteristically callous manner about the pronunciation of language names, before that it was Pullum again being staggeringly obtuse about racial slurs.

    The defenses offered of these embarrassments resort to claiming the virtues of a scientific objectivity utterly independent of the preferences of the relevant marginalized people or in Haspelmath's case, naive concern peddling. This bums me out because I'd like to think our field is more nuanced and savvy than a teenage dolt who read a wikipedia page and now justifies repeatedly telling me that I am going to die by a feeble 'but it's true'.

    Despite the writings of some of our major linguists and some of the commenters here, I actually don't think most people in our field are so witless, that gives me hope. And I'm happy to see marginalized linguists stand up for themselves, even when some commentators betray how woefully small their mental world is when they don't even think Kirby could be a real person. Sheesh, maybe some commentators should stick to shallower ends of the internet.

    Use 'they' because it's what someone is asking of you and it's the merest rudiment of respect to do so. Don't attempt to rationalize your rudeness, it's cringe-inducing. We rightly feel disdain for those who cite political or 'scientific' reasons for not using 'she' for trans women (I actually hesitate to ask. we do, don't we?) and we should feel a similar disdain for those who grasp for reasons to disrespect non-binary people

  42. Emily M. Bender said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 9:23 am


    @Everyone else (just about): Please read Conrod's post carefully. The criticism that Pullum is due is not because he's finding it difficult to adapt to using the pronoun 'they' as requested. It's because he's whining about it and because of the way he is whining about it.

  43. ngage92 said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 9:25 am

    I do love how every single person standing up for Pullum is a white man over 50.

  44. Tatjana Scheffler said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 9:32 am

    Thank you, Kirby, for this post.

    With regards to the reasonable recommendations for practical language use, though (using the requested pronouns, or minimally, avoiding the wrong ones), I'm honestly interested in "more gendered" languages like Russian. In German, in addition to pronouns, we gender many common nouns that refer to people (think "teacher"). But in many Slavic languages, most predicates (verbs, adjectives) are gendered as well, and there are only two grammatical genders available. The only option other than misgendering is using the form reserved for inanimate subjects. This applies not only in 3rd person but also in 1st, for example. What to do? I know of at least one non-binary person who reportedly avoids using Russian entirely (for this reason).

  45. languagehat said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 9:51 am

    Assuming that older people who have trouble with this switch are automatically being "profoundly disrespectful" seems unfair.

    This is insulting to "older people" in general and to Pullum in particular, who is not some old fool who can't keep things straight, he's sharp as a tack and knows exactly what he's doing. I've always enjoyed his acerbic humor and relished his memories of his rock-and-roll past, but he has an unfortunate fondness for causing a ruckus (what in your garden-variety internet troublemaker is called "trolling"), and of course he knew perfectly well he'd be riling up the "political correctness" crew. It is an unfortunate corollary of contrarianism that it too easily slides into this sort of thing: "Oh, if all those laughable bien-pensants are insisting on X, I'll toss some not-X into the mix and watch them squirm!" The trouble is that one very easily winds up (as here) on the same side as some pretty nasty people, whether one intended it or not, and gives them aid and comfort ("You see, the famous linguist Pullum is with us!").

    For the horror-stricken folks rushing to defend the great man against slander, I'm pretty sure nobody here thinks Pullum is transphobic in the sense that he hates transgender people and wants bad things to happen to them. That's not the point, any more than when someone uses racist terms "ironically" it matters that they're not "actually" racist. If you don't want to be thought to walk the walk, don't talk the talk.

    I'll be 70 next month, and these here newfangled pronoun usages challenge me too, but I work at them because respect and justice.

    See there? I'm 66, and I'm not even particularly challenged by the newfangled pronoun usages, because I have a background in linguistics (as does, to take an example at random, Professor Pullum), and also because respect and justice. If someone is more concerned about appearing cool and independent than about standing with the oppressed, that's on them, and they don't need anguished defense from people who apparently see them as doddering old fools. I'm pretty sure Pullum doesn't appreciate that view, even if he lays himself open to it with his mock-self-deprecating jocularity.

  46. languagehat said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 9:53 am

    I do love how every single person standing up for Pullum is a white man over 50.

    Knock that shit off: a) you can't possibly know any such thing, and b) see my previous comment. Ageism is not much of an improvement on transphobia.

  47. Brooke said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 10:02 am

    @languagehat: That Pullum knew what he was doing is a much more striking indictment of what he did and lays out more plainly how much of an embarrassment it is. What a rollicking trickster, which marginalized group is this tenured linguist gonna skewer next?! …I wonder if he wears a leather jacket too

  48. Brooke said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 10:07 am

    @languagehat: re-reading my last comment to you, I'm afraid it come across as attacking you, which I did not intend. I was trying to convey a sorta 'yeah, and' sentiment

  49. languagehat said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 10:11 am

    That Pullum knew what he was doing is a much more striking indictment of what he did and lays out more plainly how much of an embarrassment it is.

    I agree. (And I imagine he has a leather jacket or two left over from his wild youth.)

    @languagehat: re-reading my last comment to you, I'm afraid it come across as attacking you, which I did not intend. I was trying to convey a sorta 'yeah, and' sentiment

    No worries, that's how I took it!

  50. Ethan said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 10:16 am

    @All and @GP in particular, apologies for using the wrong name in my original comment last night. I of course meant Pullum, not Pullman. Would highly recommend The Book of Dust.

  51. Yuval said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 10:35 am

    @Not a linguist:
    No. "They" is only meant to replace third-person references. Think of "you" as a parallel. People are referred to as "you" (plural agreement) when talked to in second person, but retain singularness when talking about themselves.
    "Mary told me, 'you belong here'. Mary then turned and said to the clerk: 'they belong here'".
    No probs.

  52. Peter Klecha said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 11:13 am

    @Vivan Ford:

    you seem to be operating on a very unsophisticated view of prescriptivism, and the linguist's relationship to it. it is not the official position of linguists, as scientists, to be against prescriptivism full stop. what we can say, in our scientific capacity as linguists, is that many forms of prescriptivism are scientifically unfounded (eg., there is no objective sense in which "ain't" is incorrect, negative concord isn't illogical, vocal fry won't destroy your vocal chords, the form-meaning correspondence is almost entirely arbitrary so any way of saying a thing is as good as any other way).

    we also can point out, in all objectivity, that prescriptivism in the form of negative attitudes towards markers of certain varieties can be damaging to disempowered groups who speak those varieties. it's only as human beings, with our linguist hat off, that we take the further step of saying: these sorts of prescriptivism are bad. (or at least, that's how i present things to my intro ling classes.)

    but there are plenty of kinds of prescriptivism that are not bad, or at least, there is no scientific reason to undermine them. any intro language class is an exercise in prescriptivism — the problem isn't being told the conventions of a given community, or being expected to follow them in certain contexts, the problem is generally that other people believe that the (arbitrary!) conventions of *your* community are essentially worthless or defective.

    and that brings is to this sort of prescriptivism. the issue here isn't the arbitrary forms that GP or anyone else use. this isn't about phonology, morphology, or (as in GP's silly attempt at a slippery slope argument) syntax; it's about semantics — it's about what you presuppose about other people's identities. telling others not to be rude about what they presuppose does not fall into the same basket as the sort of prescriptivism that linguists are wont to rail against. the issue here is with what is communicated, not how.

  53. Anarcissie said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 11:30 am

    I am not particularly challenged by newfangled pronoun usages, but, since I am a part-time political activist, many of the people I talk to, who are of every age group but mostly young, of every class but mostly lower, and of a variety of cultures and ethnicities and mother tongues, may not have gotten the memo. I have never observed the singular-definite-they in use on the street, only in hip publications, and I suspect its usage is class-based, where 'upper' means 'went or is going to college'; but I don't know, I'm just going by appearances. Because I am of great age (78) it may be that they are editing their speech to make it comprehensible to the dotard, but I don't think so, since they otherwise seem to believe my wits are functional. There are some other problems: sometimes conversations occur partially or entirely in Spanish, where the third-person plural is gendered as well as the singular and whose speakers include a substantial number of people who will be offended if they are referred to by what they regard as the incorrect gender. As I said, they haven't gotten the memo.

  54. languagehat said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 12:00 pm

    Trust me, Geoff Pullum has gotten the memo. This isn't a general complaint about un-woke people using incorrect language, it's about a provocative post by one man who definitely knows better.

  55. Joe Pater said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 12:01 pm

    Thank you Kirby for writing this. I'd just like to share Lal Zimman's extensive blog post, which I've found very useful.


  56. Julian said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 12:38 pm

    @Anarcissie: I regularly observe singular-definite-they in use on the street. This includes people who have never been to college or graduated high school, who are young, and who are most certainly not middle or upper class. I have observed these people refer to a person of known gender by their proper name and proceed to use they/them pronouns:

    "Jasel's off work! They'll be home soon."
    "Is Brad bringing their copy of Pandemic?"

    I also naturally produce such utterances. I have even used they/them without thinking, and then switched to gendered pronouns once I remembered that they don't use gender-neutral pronouns:

    "Chris is out. They're grabbing some beer." … "Yeah, he'll be back in a sec."

    (Note, the Chris in this case is a cis male who presents masculine, so we can rule out any hypothesis that rests on me being at all unclear about his gender, even subconsciously.)

    (Also note I originally typed "their gender" in that sentence and went back to correct it.)

    I've had moments where I am confused at a person's use of gendered pronouns because it feels like they're flouting the Maxim of Relevance. I'm left wondering how their gender matters to what's being said and what the speaker is implying by providing that additional seemingly irrelevant information.

    This total internalized shift to gender-neutral pronouns isn't complete for me. Those moments where I am wonder what's being implied or where I slip into they/them pronouns for a definite named individual of known gender are still less than half of the time, but I have noticed it happening, and I have noticed young, lower-class people speaking this way naturally as well.

    I'd expect some regional variation: I'm near Seattle and we have a relatively high queer population, a public university that is held in relative esteem locally, a culture that is relatively focused on politeness, and are relatively progressive. It's precisely the sort of location where I would expect usages like this grow and spread from.

  57. Ellen K. said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 12:56 pm

    I see a lot of absolutist thinking in the comments here. And, for that matter, the post itself.

    People aren't perfect. And not everything is black and white.

    Personally, I believe Geoff Pullum when he says that he left the original in, along with his correction, in order to show the struggle in dealing with this new grammar. I also think it comes across as a snide remark, and a very inappropriate one. But I also think that Pullum, because he new his own intent, completely missed seeing that it comes across that way. And I also think he's wrong to not admit (in his 2nd post, at 12:12 pm today) that it was a poor choice on his part.

    There are other possibilities besides seeing nothing wrong with what Pullum wrote and assuming intentional hurt on his part.

  58. ngage92 said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 1:00 pm

    Ah I see Pullum has weighed in, and in sum appears to believe that he is the real victim here, because people expect him to exhibit the bare minimum of human decency. Well done sir.

  59. Chas Belov said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 1:09 pm

    @Berna "Native speakers, do you think it's OK to just use 'they' for *everyone*? That would be easier for this old person than remembering everyone's personal preference."

    Chinese (at least Mandarin/Cantonese) seems to get by just fine with non-gendered pronouns, although they do distinguish between singular (ta/keuih) and plural (tamen/keuihdeih). We could probably make the adjustment. I've been gradually moving in that direction.

  60. Julian said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 1:10 pm

    @Ellen K.: Yes, and those possibilities include negligent hurt. Hurt was caused, he had access to sufficient evidence to know that hurt would be caused, and he did not apologize when confronted with the fact that he caused hurt.

    I agree that we probably shouldn't assume that he intentionally set out to hurt anybody, but at this point it's reasonable to believe that he did not care if he caused hurt.

  61. Ellen K. said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 1:16 pm



    Funny, I don't see any white/black/whatever people, nor any ages. I see names. Some male, some female, some, like yours showing no signs of gender.

  62. E. Pyatt said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 1:25 pm

    I actually have some sympathy for Geoff Pullum in this situation. I think an important linguistic point here is that grammatical competence can be different from pragmatic competence. What may be true in real world logic can be overridden by a person's unconscious use of his or her (standard editorial English) / their (colloquial becoming standard English) grammatical machinery.

    To take a world political example, I am very aware that the nation of Ukraine prefers the English name "Ukraine" over the older "The Ukraine", yet I am one of the many people guilty of still saying "The Ukraine" if I am not focusing on it. The same thing has happened to President Obama.


    I don't believe President Obama had any ill will towards Ukraine, but rather that his grammar hasn't fully made the transition. I wince when I say it or hear "the Ukraine" and it will take lots of reminders to change it. It doesn't help that for some reason I cannot identify, "Ukraine" sounds phonologically odd. But I still work to use the culturally preferred form.

    In terms of pronoun use, I definitely agree we should move away from generic "he" when it refers to both men and women. I would also agree that my gender as a woman makes me more likely to pay attention to this issue, so the culture/grammar distinction is not clear cut either.

    But I also feel slip ups will happen, even to linguists who really do know better. When it comes to an inflectional grammatical terms, forcing a transition in the grammar may take longer (vs. a simpler noun vocabulary substitution of Mumbai from the older name Bombay).

    P.S. I also recognize that some people are actively against the use of colloquial "they", but I don't believe Geoff Pullum is one of these people.

  63. Ellen K. said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 1:40 pm

    No, Julian, it is not, in my opinion, reasonable to believe that he did not care if he caused hurt. Not at all. That's making an unwarranted assumption. His failure to apologize says nothing at all about his mindset when he initially posted.

  64. Julian said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 2:02 pm

    @Ellen K.: I also noted that he had sufficient evidence to know that hurt would be caused before posting, which he either disregarded or did not avail himself of. He should have known better and could have done better at every step of the process, which is quite disappointing to me because I had thought him better than this.

    In either case, I'm not making an assumption, I'm giving my best understanding based on the evidence available to me, including his nonpology followup where he is clearly more concerned with giving excuses and proving he's not transphobic (because look he's got one trans friend!) than addressing the hurt that was brought to his attention. "I didn't mean to hurt you, therefore it doesn't matter that you're hurt," is precisely what it looks like when someone doesn't care about whether or not they hurt you.

    If he wants to acknowledge the hurt he has caused and make a genuine apology, I'll be greatly relieved and change my tune. But until then I'm sticking with the evidence.

  65. Doubtful said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 2:51 pm

    I am genuinely curious, and would truly like to know: has any one of the above commenters had their opinion changed by reading the other comments?

    Has anyone else?

    Not just a plea for civility, an attempt to quantify the futility of this thread.

  66. Anna Nicholson said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 2:58 pm

    I hesitate to comment here, as there is real nastiness in several of the responses I’ve read (and I haven’t actually had the time or energy to read every single one of them). I’ll try to keep it brief, but this is quite difficult to write.

    1. I completely endorse what KC writes in their guest post. Much as I respect GKP as a linguist and as a colleague, I think his recent posts go beyond the realm of syntactic descriptivism and seriously fail to take account of the impact of the word choices he makes.

    2. I didn’t get the chance to speak to GKP at the time, but back in May he used my personal situation as a recently-out trans person in his department for a linguistic example in a (non-academic) conference (which I happened to be attending, probably unbeknown to him).

    His example supposedly illustrated the impossibility of using the ‘wrong’ pronouns with proper-name antecedents. I disagreed with his judgement (though I’m afraid I can’t recall the actual example now).

    But, more significantly, he saw no problem with using my personal situation to construct a non-anonymised example without asking my permission, and moreover used my deadname in this example (also outing me to perhaps 80 of the 100 or so people at the conference).

    Deadnaming, like misgendering, can be extremely hurtful to trans and non-binary people. This is widely recognised within the trans community, though in my experience cis people often seem baffled that something so trivial could offend anyone. Take it from me, it does. (And outing trans people can even put them in physical danger, in extreme cases.)

  67. Elizabeth said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 3:10 pm

    @Roger C

    I don't appreciate your comment.

  68. languagehat said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 3:14 pm

    Thanks for your comment, Anna Nicholson. It's important to hear the voices of those directly affected, because otherwise some people seem to think it's a purely theoretical "gotcha" exercise. I know it's not easy to write such a response, and I for one appreciate it.

  69. Elizabeth said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 3:18 pm

    @R Fenwick – I chose singular verb agreement because that's what I would use with s/he. Perhaps I'm wrong, and I'm OK with that. But that's what made the most sense to me. *shrug* My experience with using singular they is limited, so I welcome feedback.

    @Roger C – your comment is not appreciated.

  70. Brooke said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 3:25 pm

    @doubtful: I'm not in my comments trying to convince anyone of anything, but rather I'm just trying to stand up in a limited way for myself and other trans linguists

  71. Zizoz said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 3:39 pm

    Something that hasn't been mentioned, but I wanted to point out: To the best of my knowledge, the community has coalesced around "they" as a nonbinary pronoun because it's thought to be easier to adopt (for everyone) than the alternatives – an invented pronoun like ze, ey, xie, etc., or even all of them at once, with each person allowed to coin their own.

    Unfortunately, "easier" and "easy" aren't the same. But I thought it worth mentioning this evidence that those who advocate for singular they as a definite pronoun aren't wholly dismissive of the difficulty with adopting it.

  72. Tom R. said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 4:08 pm

    I am not sure I can add much to the many eloquent comments here by Brooke, Emily, and others, nor to Kirby's excellent post. But I want to stress that asking one to produce ungrammatical structures is of far less cost than referring to people with incorrect pronouns. In Pullum's first post, one could charitably assume that he was simply unaware of the grave hurt that can result from misgendering rather than being willfully malicious. But in light of Kirby's follow-up, I cannot comprehend why Pullum continues to insist that demanding the use of singular "they" for a person who requests it an "extreme manifestation of prescriptivist Stalinism". The hyperbole is completely unjustified.

    I don't doubt Pullum's claim that using "they" to refer to a known person might be ungrammatical for him. I myself have confronted the same difficulty. However, for many people of marginalized identities, correct choice of pronoun is hugely important. Whatever mild discomfort I endure to get used to saying singular "they" is a small price to pay for not inflicting harm on someone by misgendering them. To Pullum's question, "What has transphobia got to do with this?" the answer is everything. Even the best-intentioned among us slip up sometimes, but if that happens, you make amends and try again; you do not double-down on your mistake. Intentionally using the wrong pronouns is a signal that you do not respect a person's identity as legitimate.

    It's understandable that it might be hard for someone to wrap their head around an alien grammatical construction. But that is no excuse not to treat people with respect. And besides, it would not be the first time, nor will it be the last, that people have to get accustomed to grammatical innovations.

  73. Anarcissie said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 4:39 pm

    @Julian — That's very interesting. Most of my observations are from Brooklyn (Bedford- Stuyvesant, Crown Heights, etc.), so it could be a regional difference. I will stay tuned, although as far as I know there is no citizen-scientist linguistics project to report my observations to. It'll be the purest of pure research.

  74. Brett Reynolds said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 4:39 pm

    Kirby writes, "he cannot possibly purport to describe a language situation of which he is a minuscule part. If he doesn't turn his ears on and start listening for real, live speakers using singular 'they' productively, fluently, and easily, then that's his failing as a scientist." But Pullum doesn't purport to do any more than report his own situation. He does write, "it could be decades before the use of singular they with male-associated or female-associated personal names starts sounding natural and feeling grammatical to the majority of speakers." But this is clearly speculation, as evinced by could.

    Moreoever, Pullum's reported ideolect matches the usage of the "inovative speakers" in the very paper that Kirby cites. Pullum's position on the examples in (9) in Bjorkman is that they are grammatical, but that those in (10) are ungrammatical. Bjorkman writes, "For speakers with the innovative distribution of they, by contrast, specifying gender on referential pronouns is possible (and often pragmatically preferred) but evidently grammatically optional. Why then do innovative they speakers pattern with conservative speakers in requiring he or she in examples like those in (10)?"

    10) a.*I just saw the lead actress, and I really love their costume.
    b.*Janet left their sweater here.
    c.*Thomas said they’ll be joining the call later.
    (With the pronouns coindexed to the foregoing NP)

  75. RfP said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 4:44 pm


    I was upset when I first read Geoff Pullum's post, and this conversation hasn't changed my mind. But it has certainly clarified my own thinking, and helped me understand the views of people who disagree with me.

    I think Brooke's point is pretty important, too. You have to stand up for what you think is right—especially in times like these—even if you don't succeed right away.

    I've been reading Ron Chernow's biography of Ulysses S. Grant, which has caused me to think a lot more about the politics of the pre-Civil War era in the U.S. You can bet that not many people agreed with the early abolitionists. But they kept at it until they won.

    I think we have a lot to learn from their example.

  76. SCF said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 4:50 pm

    Isn't Pullum's use of "militantly trans-identified and male" in follow-up post not merely awkward (most people would just write "trans man") but a clue to his motives? Don't all trans people seem militant and demanding to someone who refuses to make accommodation?

  77. Yan said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 5:17 pm

    This must be the saddest comments section on Language Log, full of personal attacks. :-(

  78. languagehat said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 5:20 pm

    It is not a "personal attack" to point out that someone is harming other people by their language; you have made what is called a "tone argument," and it does not help the situation.

  79. Elizabeth said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 5:26 pm

    The last paragraph of your comment is highly disrespectful and very rude. Your attempt to demerit Kirby's post by questioning their legal name is truly an insult not only to Kirby, but to everyone who knows them as a person. Additionally, this is a very serious topic, one worthy of civil discussion, so to categorize Kirby's response as a diatribe and a rant is rudely dismissive. I hope you will find the time to reflect on your writing and apologize to Kirby.

  80. boynamedsue said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 5:28 pm

    This is an interesting debate, about which I can't say I've made up my mind.

    I'm under 40 and trained in linguistics, living in a large urban area and involved in left-wing politics. This stromash is the first time I've even heard the verb "misgender", and I'd say 99% of British English speakers had never even heard of the concept that an individual's pronoun might be chosen independently of gender orientation. This is not a question merely of age, but of subculture.

    If this idea is to catch on it will require a hell of a lot of prescription, and many individuals will have great difficulties in consistently using the right ones. However, GP could have highlighted his own difficulties in a way that could not be construed as baiting. Unfortunately, nobody gets the benefit of the doubt on the internet.

  81. Bathrobe said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 5:31 pm

    @Elizabeth I think his handle is Rodger C.

  82. Eric Baković said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 5:41 pm

    Hi all — my own policy is to keep comments open on my LL posts, even guest posts under my by-line, but also to close them down when I judge that they've veered off in directions that are unhelpful at best and hurtful at worst. I think this comment thread has reached that point now, so I'm closing it. Thank you all for your participation in this discussion.

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