Courtesy and personal pronoun choice

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My most recent post started out as a very minor note of approval about the continuing spread of singular they in journalism. Then the person who sent me the quote realized that Phillip Garcia, named in the cited newspaper story, had a preference for being referred to with the pronoun they, which nullified the point. So I modified the post to acknowledge that. I added a side remark that this caused a difficulty for me: although I find singular they fully grammatical and entirely natural with many types of antecedent, that's not true for singular personal name antecedents. I didn't reject the notion of following Garcia's preference; I said "I'll do my best, but it will be a real struggle."

Ironically, on re-reading the paragraph I saw it was more of a struggle than I thought: within minutes of learning about Garcia's preference I had unintentionally disrespected it by using "he". So I went back and corrected myself, overtly, the way people do in speech ("Phillip Garcia's profile reveals that he is — sorry, that they are…"). It was not snarky; it was an honest admission that I had found it hard to make an instant change to my syntactic habits. But it prompted an angry and disappointed reader signing in as Cass to comment* that my post was "immensely transphobic", and failing an immediate apology, "Language Log needs to take him off this blog."

This is Language Log, so let's be careful with our word choices. What has transphobia got to do with this? My young friend Magnus, born about 18 years ago as the daughter of a good friend of mine but now militantly trans-identified and male, expects to be called "he". I respect his wishes, of course. The use of they under consideration here has (normally) nothing to do with being trans. It's the requested usage of those who (whether trans or not) hate the binary sex distinction that Magnus has rebelled against in his own way; they wish to be referred to in a way that does not assign them to a sex category at all. I have young friends of that persuasion too, and I do my best to avoid the gendered third person singular pronouns when talking about them. I respect their choice.

Yet for simply touching in passing on a slight problem for the they-preference, I am suddenly the conservative hate figure of the week, targeted for dismissal and subjected to streams of hostility in an intemperate guest post by Kirby Conrod and a welter of comments underneath it. This hostility is, to put it mildly, unmotivated and misdirected.

I'll say just three other things here.

1. Let's not allow the increasingly nasty tone of political discussion in the Trump era, and the culture of online bullying, to infect Language Log. There are important matters under discussion here. There are evil figures in US legislatures trying to pass laws about bathroom use that seem to have no purpose other than to make life unpleasant for trans people. (Here in Edinburgh my head of department is quietly working to get all the bathrooms relabeled in a sex-neutral way. Good for you, Nik. That's a progressive move.) These matters are not best tackled by writing hot-tempered and baseless allegations about my being old or privileged or conservative or transphobic or dishonest. Kirby Conrod quotes my remark about having trans and non-binary friends, and reckons instead that I have "no such friends (or not many under the age of forty, for sure)". That's close to saying I'm a liar. A person like Kirby who knows nothing about me or my life or my friendships should either find out some facts or not comment. We are concerned here with the moral issue of how to treat people decently regardless of their gender, sex, orientation, identity, or other characteristics. Writing overblown attacks on the personal honesty and integrity of someone you don't even know (and over a remark about grammaticality!) is not a positive way to contribute.

2. Grammaticality intuitions are not a voluntary matter: staunch defender of singular they though I am, I happen to find *Phillip1 said they1 won, with the NP coreference as shown by the indices, ungrammatical (whereas Someone1 said they1 won is fine). That factual point about my idiolect shouldn't be a cause for emotional outbursts or abuse. Notice that it could change over time: as Bob Ladd pointed out to me yesterday, in the 1950s he and I were reading stuff that used purportedly sex-neutral he, and were finding it normal, but today our intuitive reactions have changed, and we find it ridiculous. We can sometimes come to find something grammatical through repeated exposure to it. But such intra-speaker linguistic evolution takes at least a few years.

3. Telling me I am required for political reasons to use a construction that strikes me as ungrammatical, and judging me morally and politically for not instantly obeying, is the most extreme manifestation of prescriptivist Stalinism I have ever encountered. It amounts to an insistence that I should adopt an artificially invented language to replace my own idiolect (admittedly, in just one minor area of morphosyntax). Maybe I will. But demanding that I do, and insulting me because you think I won't (or proposing that I should be banned from Language Log, as Cass suggests), makes Simon Heffer look relaxed and liberal. Beware of becoming intolerant in the battle for tolerance.

*Cass violated Language Log's comment policy by posting amid the comments on a previous item on a different topic. Just to clarify, I generally don't click the Allow Comments button when I post; Language Log was never intended to be an open and unmoderated discussion forum like Fark, and I don't want to have the responsibility of acting as moderator to check for the spamming, trolling, quarreling, and abuse that tend to afflict open and unmoderated comments areas. That is my decision. Other contributors take a different view. We respect each other's choices.

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