"Ask the gays"

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In a speech yesterday, Donald Trump reacted to the Orlando massacre by suggesting that his audience should "ask the gays, and ask the people, ask the gays what they think and what they do":

The predictable reaction was a twitter storm of memetic responses, of which this is one of the milder examples:

There are plenty more where that came from:

But this is Language Log, not Socio-Political Reaction Log, so let's take up another aspect of this exchange:

We discussed this issue last summer in the post "Phenomenal to the women", 8/11/2015. And as in that case, we should be fair to Donald Trump by giving the context of his "ask the gays" phrase:

Now Saudi Arabia, think of this — I have a lot of friends in Saudi Arabia —
look, Saudi Arabia,
Saudi Arabia,
don't forget these are the people who gave many many millions of dollars to the
Clinton foundation, I wonder why we take care of them.
And for the women out there, ask
the people of Saudi Arabia what they think of women.
And for the-
for the gays out there
ask the gays, and ask the people, ask the gays what they think and what they do
in not only Saudi Arabia, in many of these countries
with the gay community, just ask.
And then you tell me
Who's your friend,
Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, you tell me.
You tell me.

It seems that he meant to say something like the following:

And for the women out there,
ask the Saudis what they think of women.
And for the gays out there,
ask the Saudis what they think and what they do with the gay community.

But he got his noun phrases tangled up, and said "Ask the gays" instead of "Ask the people of Saudi Arabia". So he did repeatedly say "the women" and "the gays", but the whole "Ask the gays" meme was a response to a speech error. Richly deserved, in my opinion, but still.

The effect of the definite article with plural nouns on stance and attitude towards the referenced group is subtle and complicated. A bare plural is indefinite, so if someone urges us to "ask men", they're referencing some indefinite sample of adult males. In the generic case, they imply that any sample of men will do. But if they tell us to "ask the men",  they're talking about a specific and delimited group. That group might be contextually delimited — "ask the men (in the class) to leave the room" — but if the phrase is entirely generic, there's an odd implication of homogeneity and otherness.

Thus Donald Trump might urge us to "ask men" what they think of his positions. But it would be weird for him to suggest that we "ask the men" in general what they think of him, or to claim that "I'm popular with the men" (which in his idiom might be "I'm phenomenal with the men").



  1. m said,

    June 16, 2016 @ 7:08 am

    Blame the angels, blame the fates
    Blame the Jews or your sister Kate
    Teach your children how to hate
    And the big wheels turn around and around

    — Buffy Sainte-Marie, "Little Wheel Spin And Spin"

  2. Ray said,

    June 16, 2016 @ 7:47 am

    meanwhile the media never tires of talking about "the donald"!


  3. Weaver said,

    June 16, 2016 @ 8:00 am

    for the gays out there, ask the gays what they think and what they do in not only Saudi Arabia, in many of these countries with the gay community, just ask.

    FWIW I think this just means "The gay community here should ask the gay community in Saudi Arabia what they (the Saudis and others) think about, and do to, gay people." The confusion is just a product of the eternal problem of ambiguous pronouns, compounded by Trump's incapacity to finish, or for that matter construct, a simple declarative sentence.

  4. D.O. said,

    June 16, 2016 @ 8:35 am

    Trump's speeches defy logical analysis. Impressionistically, the quoted jumble of words meant to say that Trump will be better than Clinton for women and gays, because Clinton foundation took money from the Saudis and Saudis mistreat gays and women. But he also said that he has a lot of friends in Saudi Arabia (sounds a bit like "some of my friends are Jews"), which points in the opposite direction (and did he ask them about gays and women?).

    I think now that we moved from adulating crowds to a wider audience, "Trump is effective communicator" idea will look less and less grounded.

  5. Terry Hunt said,

    June 16, 2016 @ 9:39 am

    My interpretation of the text (can't do video or sound where I am currently) would have been that Trump meant to say:

    "Ask the women and the gays (presumably in the USA) about how Saudi Arabia (which donated to the Clinton Foundation, so the US Establishment favours them), and other countries in the region treat their women and gays [badly, obviously]. This proves that the Hilary is less good for the women and the gays than the Donald."
    (Extra definite articles added because, well, I can.)

  6. Hugh said,

    June 16, 2016 @ 10:06 am

    I understood the problem to be simply the use of 'gay' as a noun, whether definite/plural or not. I (28yo) and the vast majority of other millenials I communicate with would normally only use the word 'gay' adjecitvally, and would see the nominal use as being intrinsically offensive (though I realise this has not always been the case).

    This difference in strength between adjective and noun forms holds for some (but not all) other words describing elements of a person's identity, especially where there has been a history of prejudice against this identity.

    I would consider 'S/he's a gay / black / jew / ginger etc.' to be offensive (or old-fashioned/uneducated, depending on the speaker), while 'S/he's gay / black / jewish / ginger etc.' is neutral.

    To my ear, using the noun categorises the person, suggesting that, as far as the speaker is concerned, this is their primary/only identity, and this identity separates them from those who don't share it. The adjective is descriptive, describing one among many elements of this person – the speaker could just as easily have been talking about the size of their ears or the colour of their shoes.

    I'd be interested to know if others recognise the same distinction – and whether there's any age element involved.

    (apologies to Prof. Pullum – I believe a commenter pulled him up on his use of 'gays' in his 'Don't be awkward' post a couple of days ago)

  7. Ann Burlingham said,

    June 16, 2016 @ 10:10 am

    Trump also has claimed to have a "great relationship with the blacks".

  8. bzfgt said,

    June 16, 2016 @ 10:51 am

    Maybe he needs to acquire a gay to go along with his African American?

  9. Levantine said,

    June 16, 2016 @ 10:53 am

    There are two issues at play, I think. One is that the insertion of 'the' results in unidiomatic phrasing. The other is that such pluralisation can sound abrupt or offensive whether preceded by the definite article or not. Would 'gays' and 'blacks' have have any better than 'the gays' and 'the blacks'?

  10. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 16, 2016 @ 11:43 am

    Trump's prepared speech after the Orlando shooting* was noteworthy in a different direction by using turns of phrase like "stand[] with the Orlando LGBT community" and "the ability of free people to live their lives, love who they want and express their identity" that are (I'm told by people who pay closer attention to this sort of thing than I do) rather unusual in the mouths of prominent political figures associated with the Republican party and indeed might be taken to signal (because they have a little bit of an in-group jargon vibe) affiliation with "progressive" views on the subject. But unsuprisingly he strikes different notes in different contexts.

    I accept the perception that e.g. "ask the Jews" may sound more off-putting to some/many ears in some/many contexts than e.g. "ask the Jewish community," yet it seems like the latter conveys just as strongly the "odd implication of homogeneity and otherness" by suggesting that most/all Jews form a coherent "community" which will predictably have a uniform collective opinion on whatever the topic at hand is. "Ask the male community" sounds just as weird as "ask the men" to my ear because the background assumption re homogeneity/otherness isn't present. So I suspect that's not an adequate account of why "ask the Jews" might sound suboptimal to some ears.

    I had raised the point in a dialogue with Levantine on another thread that euphemisms of the "politically correct" variety often seem to be longer (in word or syllable count) than the deprecated/stigmatized forms they substitute for, and certainly viewing e.g. "the LGBT[etc] community" as superior to "the gays" or even "gay people" fits that pattern. He may be on to something with the suggestion that the shorter form sounds problematically "abrupt." Short/clipped forms often, it seems to me, fit best into a somewhat informal register, which in some social contexts may be fine or even beneficial but in other contexts terse informality may be taken (and indeed may have been intended) as disrespectful.

    *Full transcript at http://www.politico.com/story/2016/06/transcript-donald-trump-national-security-speech-224273#ixzz4BlB2UEcv

  11. Second Responder said,

    June 16, 2016 @ 11:47 am

    Since Trump is literally running on a platform of anti-political correctness, criticism of his phraseology just strengthens his argument, something his opponents continually fail to grasp.

  12. Levantine said,

    June 16, 2016 @ 11:52 am

    J. W. Brewer, length may well have something to do with it. Whereas disyllabic 'Muslims' sounds fine, I now find myself unable to say 'Jews' without worrying about its abruptness; I almost always say 'Jewish people' instead. On the other hand, I am perfectly comfortable saying 'Turks' and 'Greeks', so perhaps the issue pertains (mainly) to monosyllabic terms for traditionally denigrated groups.

  13. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 16, 2016 @ 11:59 am

    Though to give a counterexample to my own general claim, "gay" is obviously much terser than the predecessor "homosexual," although maybe that's so polysyllabic that it sounds overly clinical and thus more easily accumulated the now-problematic baggage of the intermediate mid-20th-century period where the underlying distinctive behavior/inclination had been reconceptualized in polite company as a psychological disorder rather than a moral failing. But the clipped form "homo" is much more unambiguously pejorative/insulting than the longer form it's clipped from, which would be consistent with my overall thesis.

  14. Rodger C said,

    June 16, 2016 @ 12:00 pm

    Speaking from the depths of the mountains, I'm so glad to learn that "gay" as a noun is obsolete. When I was a young adult it was de rigueur to say "gays" and even "a gay." I suppose the analogy was with "a black," which has also receded into history. The annals of justice are full of misdirected rigueur.

  15. DWalker said,

    June 16, 2016 @ 12:09 pm

    We are not monolithic, but I strongly suspect that most of us don't like The Donald. Also, we don't have appointed spokespeople.

  16. cameron said,

    June 16, 2016 @ 12:28 pm

    Ask the Japanese:

  17. Pflaumbaum said,

    June 16, 2016 @ 12:42 pm

    @ Levantine

    That's funny, my (Jewish) grandma used to say something similar – she didn't like the sound of "a Jew", as in "Is she a Jew?", whereas "Is she Jewish?" sounded fine to her. (I suspect she would have been alright with, "A Jew, a Muslim and a Buddhist walk into a bar", since there's safety in numbers.)

    At the time we took this piss out of her for it, maybe unfairly.

  18. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 16, 2016 @ 12:47 pm

    Levantine: You do sometimes see unterse descriptors like "Hellenic-American," but I don't know that people who use that because it sounds all impressive and fancy actually take offense when other people just say "Greek." I guess it's true that has not yet been any activist campaign encouraging people to say e.g. "persons of Cyprioticity." But the future is unwritten.

  19. Zeppelin said,

    June 16, 2016 @ 12:50 pm

    What Hugh said, basically.

    The nominal use ("a black", "the gays") is becoming dated especially quickly now that "person-first" language seems to finally be catching on. A person is not "a gay" any more than Donald Trump is "a rich" or "an old".
    Which is also why the nominal usage is turning into an outright marker of bigotry (and hence something of a slur), or at least of privileged ignorance.

    Perhaps relatedly, calling women "females" has become a fairly reliable marker of attitude in online conversations about gender.

  20. Y said,

    June 16, 2016 @ 12:57 pm

    "The olds", "the youngs" and "the poors" have been getting popular in recent years, especially jocularly. So much so, that I imagine LL must have had a column about it, although I don't recall seeing one.

  21. Greg said,

    June 16, 2016 @ 1:17 pm

    @Hugh @Zeppelin yes yes yes. Adjective vs noun. Attribute vs implication of sole identity. Person-first, please.

  22. Levantine said,

    June 16, 2016 @ 1:26 pm

    J.W. Brewer, although I think that monosyllabic abruptness can discourage use of certain words, I don't quite agree that greater length is generally correlated with political correctness. 'She's gay' is, I feel, more PC that 'She's [a] lesbian', and 'Muslim' is certainly to be preferred to 'Mohammedan'.

    Pflaumbaum, thanks for that! It's interesting to know that older generations too can find such usages discomfiting.

    One exception in liberal/PC usage when it comes to terms like 'gays' and 'blacks' seems to be in the context of lists that use the same approach for non-stigmatised groups. In other words, when reference is also made to 'straights' and 'whites', their counterparts sound acceptable.

    a role in making some

  23. BZ said,

    June 16, 2016 @ 1:59 pm

    If the problem is that "gay" is not a noun, Why is there no problem with "gays" without a definite article? Also in this case, "the gays" seems to refer back to the (implied?) gays who Hillary Clinton thinks she speaks for.

  24. Zeppelin said,

    June 16, 2016 @ 2:28 pm

    BZ: Not a native speaker, but from my perspective "gays" is also kind of unfortunate. I would much prefer "gay people".
    I imagine it seems less…problematic than "the gays" because without the definite article it carries less of an implication of "groupness".

    Compare "her husband was killed by Russians during the war" and "her husband was killed by the Russians during the war" (a phrasing I've had occasion to argue about with a Georgian friend).

  25. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 16, 2016 @ 2:36 pm

    I think it's probably correct that much may depend (to some extent in the actual facts of usage and certainly on the meta-fact of whether a certain usage will draw criticism) on the specific dimension of identity involved. It seems completely unproblematic for a politician to claim that if elected he will fight for "the consumers" or "the workers" or "the farmers" even though those are all nouns, because (or, hey, this is at least my off-the-cuff speculation) we are more comfortable that everyone knows that those categories of identity are not somehow all-encompassing and exclusive of all other sorts of group identity and affiliation the same individuals might concurrently have. And geographically-based designators are fine for perhaps similar reasons: you won't offend any potential voters by promising to reduce the tax burden on "hard-working Nebraskans" rather than "the hard-working people of Nebraska."

    Or it simply may be that we have (for reasons that are certainly not entirely random but also not entirely rational) a division between groups that spend time and energy worrying about what other people should and should not call them and groups that don't. Sometimes groups shift from one category to the other. My impression is that Mormons spend much less time and energy worrying about outsiders using the exonym "Mormon" than they used to, even if many of them still out of preference or habit use "LDS" themselves. And indeed my impression is that fewer American Jews worry as much about the "Jews" v. "Jewish people" distinction than was the case two generations ago. I take this to be some evidence that the members of the group in question generally feel (hopefully on good empirical grounds!) less socially marginal and insecure than they previously did, and it is thus a positive sign.

  26. Levantine said,

    June 16, 2016 @ 2:44 pm

    Zeppelin, in the example you give, I would say that the second phrasing sounds better. Because you specify the context as being that of war, 'the Russians' is what one would expect, since it's referring to the Russian side. To me at least, the definite article provides this sense even without 'during the war':

    'Her husband was killed by the Russians' = the Russian side (in war or some other factional encounter) killed her husband

    'Her husband was killed by Russians' = some people who happened to be Russian killed her husband

    As for 'Her husband was killed by Russians during the war', it sounds unexpected, as if the definite article has been dropped. Or maybe that's the point you're making anyway!

  27. hector said,

    June 16, 2016 @ 3:24 pm

    As I see it, "the Jews" is clearly wrong, since it implies monolithicity.

    "A Jew" is used like "a Christian", i.e. someone who identifies as being the adherent of a religion.

    "Jewish" refers to genetic heritage and cultural upbringing, and includes many who may be, for instance, atheists, Buddhists, or new agers.

    A major problem with Western political discourse these days is the use by some of "Muslims" to imply monolithicity. Sometimes the definite article is used ("the Muslims"), sometimes it isn't.

  28. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 16, 2016 @ 4:03 pm

    hector, have you ever gone up to someone of Jewish ancestry and upbringing who is not a believer in Judaism qua religion and said to his or her face "you know, you're Jewish but you're not a Jew"? Because that seems to me like a good way to provoke an angry-to-violent response. Which makes me think that you're perhaps not making empirical observations about actual current usage of the actual English language but pursuing some other project.

    Separately, whether implying monolithicity is or isn't a good or constructive thing to do in discourse about a particular group or topic seems to me to be an extra-linguistic question, whereas trying to figure out patterns of actual current usage that can lead to insights of the form "if you're *not* intending to imply monolithicity you should probably avoid such and such wording" is a linguistic inquiry whose results may be of practical benefit.

  29. akavi said,

    June 16, 2016 @ 4:26 pm

    A datapoint, but to me (25 years old, American, liberal-leaning), "whites" sounds just as dated and weird as "blacks" or "gays'. Nouns for people of a nationality or religion, on the other hand, sound fine, but prefixing the religious nouns with "the" doesn't.

    A somewhat full accounting:
    "Whites": weird
    "Blacks": weird
    "Straights: weird
    "Gays": weird
    "The whites": wat
    "The blacks": definitely said by someone racist
    "The straights": super weird
    "The gays": Trumpian.

    "Jews": not weird
    "Muslims": not weird
    "the Jews": weird
    "the Muslims": weird

    "Greeks": not weird
    "Turks": not weird
    "The Greeks": not weird
    "The Turks": not weird

  30. Levantine said,

    June 16, 2016 @ 4:33 pm

    akavi, what about 'The Jews were persecuted throughout medieval Europe' and 'We asked the Muslims among the delegation whether they had any dietary restrictions'?

  31. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 16, 2016 @ 5:17 pm

    Or (examples from post-2000 titles found via google books)
    "Indian hunting grounds were disappearing as the whites moved in." and
    "As the blacks that could afford to moved in, the whites moved out."

    I think those are good examples where a monolithic/homogeneous view of the racial groups is indeed implied by the use of the definite article, but seems in context like an appropriate or at least defensible view to take given what the writer is trying to convey to the reader.

  32. hector said,

    June 16, 2016 @ 5:18 pm

    "Pursuing some other project?" Please. Members of a minority group, like African-Americans, can refer to themselves however they want. It's their business. People from outside the minority group should, however, be polite, and show respect. The reason non-Jews refer to "Jewish people" is either because they sincerely don't want to cause offence, or they don't want to be seen to cause offence.

    I wasn't trying to be proscriptive in my original post, I was just trying to tease out differences in polite usage. If I failed, so be it.

  33. D.O. said,

    June 16, 2016 @ 6:15 pm

    @J.W. Brewer . "[Y]ou know, you're Jewish but you're not a Jew" does not seem offensive to me (you never know what you can get as a reaction from another person, some people are prone to take offence over nothing at all). Certainly a person can have Jewish parentage, but not identify himself with the culture or religion, or community. Especially if the person in question is adherent to another religion. Something that can be called "of Jewish ancestry".

  34. D.O. said,

    June 16, 2016 @ 6:21 pm

    Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics,
    And the Catholics hate the Protestants,
    And the Hindus hate the Moslems,
    And everybody hates the Jews.

  35. bratschegirl said,

    June 16, 2016 @ 6:38 pm

    D.O. for the win! Goodness knows we could use something approaching "National Let's be Kind to One-Anotherhood Week" right about now.

    However: "You're Jewish, but you're not a Jew" is perilously close to what is often flung at adherents of less-observant movements of Judaism by adherents of more-observant movements, and in those cases, while the speaker may not define his/her intent as "causing offense," it is unquestionably a statement of being "other" and "less than" and will almost universally be received as an insult.

  36. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 16, 2016 @ 6:48 pm

    Well, I expect there are some variations (perhaps in particular by geography or generational cohort) in the polite usage of well-meaning non-Jews not least because the preferences and sensitivities of various members of the Anglophone Jewish community are not entirely consistent (and may vary by place and generation as well as somewhat random individual taste) and different well-meaning non-Jews may have thus picked up different cues from the Jews with whom they have interacted at the time their sense of propriety in these matters was being formed, e.g. were they more like Pflaumbaum's grandmother in the example given upthread or the younger members of his family who apparently did not share her sensitivity on the issue.

    It does seem that one other significant factor driving potential differences in-group versus out-group patterns of usage is what you might call salience. I recently saw a headline from the website of a newspaper whose target audience is the Jewish community that said something like "Six out of 20 members of new Trump advisory group are Jewish." And for a non-Jewish publication with a non-Jewish audience to engage in that sort of nose-counting could well come off as a bit creepy – um, dude, exactly why are you keeping score? But for purposes of intra-community discourse it seems much more benign. So if it is less problematic for people within the community to bring up the topic of who is and isn't Jewish in contexts where that would objectively seem to be of marginal relevance (and thus suggest an unsavory obsessiveness if done by an outsider), that might systematically affect some of these related points of usage, because a form of words that's benign in and of itself may seem less benign if used by an outsider in a context where the whole raising of the topic seems questionable. Similarly, to judge by what I see on the internet, some people within the community may feel comfortable making sweeping/essentializing statements ("no Jew can in good conscience support Donald Trump" "no, no Jew can in good conscience support Hillary Clinton") that would seem to me pretty obviously beyond the pale if made by an outsider (which is not to say that there aren't many fellow insiders who probably find that sort of rhetoric inappropriate or irksome). So if there is a broader range of occasions in which talking about the group in that sort of "monolithic" way is socially acceptable for insiders, you might expect the phrasings that tend to imply that monolithic characterization to be more commonly used by insiders.

  37. Zeppelin said,

    June 16, 2016 @ 7:46 pm


    That was indeed the point :)

    "Killed by the Russians" implies monolithicity, and a Russian friend took offense at it for that reason, pointing out that she, and in fact practically all Russians, had nothing to do with the killing of said husband.
    "Killed by Russians" may be unexpected, in the context of how we typically talk about factions in a war, but it's both more accurate and more humane. I would normally say "killed by Russian soldiers", though.
    But I'm a weirdo who cringes when people refer to their country's government or sportsball team as "we", so ymmv.

  38. Levantine said,

    June 16, 2016 @ 8:08 pm

    Zeppelin, but 'killed by Russians' in the context of war sounds almost as if some Russians, not necessarily involved in said war, randomly killed someone; it's unexpected both idiomatically and semantically. 'The Russians', by contrast, makes clear the killers are those Russians actively involved in the war (read: soldiers); no-one would misunderstand this as referring to all Russians, any more than if 'killed by Russia' were used. The same applies to this pair:

    – 'The Americans accidentally bombed a hospital in the Middle East' (clearly referring to those Americans militarily involved in the region)

    – 'Americans accidentally bombed a hospital in the Middle East' (just sounds puzzling, as if some Americans happened to be setting off bombs)

    And in the case of the following example, the anarthrous version is definitely the more problematic and sweeping:

    – 'The Muslims cause trouble' (sounds as if it lacks context, but clearly referring to a specific set of Muslims in some particular locale)

    – 'Muslims cause trouble'

    So unless you completely disregard how native speakers use and understand language, 'killed by Russians' in your example doesn't actually end up being more accurate or more humane; it just sounds odd (at least to this native speaker). Your other alternative of 'killed by Russian soldiers' works very well, however.

  39. Reinhold {Rey} Aman said,

    June 16, 2016 @ 8:10 pm

    @ Pflaumbaum:

    That's funny, my (Jewish) grandma used to say something similar – she didn't like the sound of "a Jew", as in "Is she a Jew?", whereas "Is she Jewish?" sounded fine to her.

    That was presumably in the good old days when the nowadays horribly "sexist" suffix -ess was still kosher (as in actress, stewardess, waitress, etc.). Did your grandma ever use Jewess, and if so, was it felt to be positive, negative or neutral?{

  40. Pflaumbaum said,

    June 16, 2016 @ 8:15 pm

    No I've never encountered Jewessoutside of literature and propaganda.

  41. Levantine said,

    June 16, 2016 @ 8:19 pm

    Pflaumbaum, it seems to me the point of your earlier post was either misunderstood or deliberately overlooked.

  42. Ray said,

    June 16, 2016 @ 8:47 pm

    maybe "the gays" sounds a bit off in the same way that "the AIDS" sounds a bit off?

  43. Reinhold {Rey} Aman said,

    June 16, 2016 @ 9:08 pm

    @ Levantine:

    Pflaumbaum, it seems to me the point of your earlier post was either misunderstood or deliberately overlooked.


  44. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 16, 2016 @ 9:28 pm

    In the bad old days, you could have said something like "killed by the Soviets" (probably better than anarthrous "by Soviets") which might help distance the acts of the regime and its agents from the broader mass of people who happened to have the misfortune to live under their rule, which some might find a helpful distinction to draw. And once you're blaming the regime rather than a broader group of people the potential impoliteness of a "monolithic/homogeneous" characterization goes way down. That may be a bit harder to do now, although I expect both sides in the conflict near the Russian-Ukrainian border have (not necessarily in English) rhetorical ways of talking about the other side that makes them sound more like a mere faction of dubious legitimacy than simply the representatives of a large and presumptively legitimate nation-state or ethnic group.

    FWIW, as an American I do not take any offense at all to phrasing like "the Americans did Bad Thing X" in a context where it means "the military or other agents of the then-current U.S. government did Bad Thing X" even if I did not personally participate, did not vote for the politicians who ultimately authorized it (or maybe even didn't authorize it if was a screwup or violation of orders by some lower-level person), affirmatively thought it was a bad idea, etc.

  45. Zeppelin said,

    June 16, 2016 @ 9:59 pm


    I don't think the danger is of a factual misundertstanding so much as it lies in the mental image the phrasing creates, and the attendant unconscious biases. Calling Russian soldiers or the Russian military "the Russians" erases the distinction between them and the civilian population, and suggests they are a monolithic group. Even if the listener doesn't intellectually believe this, I feel it's bound to affect their thinking to a degree.

    I would also not normally say "the Americans bombed X", for what it's worth. I'd say "the US military bombed X".

    That's why I would argue that "killed by Russians" is more accurate to reality than "killed by the Russians" (which isn't to say that it is particularly accurate. Only that it, at least, doesn't lie). It may omit the important fact that those particular Russians were in the military, but that seems less dangerously inaccurate to me than suggesting that that all Russians as a group are culpable.

    But this is all straying pretty far from actual language talk. I didn't mean to inject quite so much ideology into this thread!

    So yes! I agree with you that "killed by Russians" is both idiomatically and semantically unexpected. As an actual, practical replacement I use "Russian soldiers".

  46. is said,

    June 16, 2016 @ 10:00 pm

    Interestingly, I have noticed a trend among some younger queer people of referring to oneself as "a gay" (or sometimes "a/n [adjective] gay" e.g. "a sad gay") in the context of humorous or ironic social media posts. Never in serious posts, though. My impression is that the markedly strange wording adds to the humorousness of the post. It also, to my ears, sometimes carries an implied mockery of people who would seriously refer to someone as "a gay".

  47. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 16, 2016 @ 11:48 pm

    As a Jew, I prefer "Jew" to "Jewish person". The problem with "Jewish person" is that it sounds euphemistic, as if "Jew" were an insult. Of course some people have heard it used that way, and I can understand why such people are uncomfortable with the word, but I for one would be grateful if they could get more comfortable.

    The problem with sentences starting "The Jews" is the assumption of monolithicness and often the rest of the sentence, but I see nothing wrong with "Many of the Jews [in that place, organization, etc.] preferred …."

    I don't feel limited by saying I'm a Jew, an American, a man, a physics teacher, a birdwatcher, etc., though that maybe because I'm older than most of the person-first terminology.

    That works for religions, ethnic groups, and nationalities for me, but "a white", "a black", "a gay", "a straight" sound wrong.

    I too thank D.O. for quoting "National Brotherhood Week".

  48. Levantine said,

    June 17, 2016 @ 4:31 am

    Zeppelin, to be clear, the point I was making was linguistic, not ideological. In the example you give, 'the' is doing something different from what you and your friend claim it is, at least to my mind. Anyone perverse enough to think that those Russians who did the killing represent their entire people is going to think that way regardless of the phrasing you select. I too would prefer the 'killed by Russian soldiers' option, so we're in agreement there, but 'killed by Russians' is, I believe, likely to draw more attention rather than less to the Russianness of the killers.

    To pick up on J.W. Brewer's point, I (as a Brit) would have no problem saying 'The UK/Britain has not properly compensated its former colonies', and I think I would even be OK with 'We have not properly compensated our former colonies', even though I claim no personal responsibility. Perhaps in cases like these, however, it matters that one is from the place being thus referred to.

    is, you may already know about this, but if not: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KrlzaBNgz-M. And I should point out that Matt Lucas, who plays Daffyd and cowrote the series, is himself [a] gay!

  49. Levantine said,

    June 17, 2016 @ 7:51 am

    Regarding Zeppelin's example, it occurred to me that removing 'the' would not work in the case of certain nationalities. One can say 'Her husband was killed by the British', but not, 'Her husband was killed by British' (same goes for 'the French'). 'Her husband was killed by Britons' or 'Her husband was killed by Frenchmen' really does end up drawing attention to the nationality of the killers in a way that the far more institutional-sounding 'killed by the British' or 'killed by the French' doesn't.

  50. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 17, 2016 @ 9:48 am

    I think the linguistic point is the one myl set forth in the original post – "the Russians" (for example) need not be totally generic and presumptively refer to "all Russians without exception" (which seems to be the "ideological" overtone Zeppelin was concerned about), but can be "contextually delimited." So in the wartime example (assuming enough context has been provided before the "killed my husband" sentence) "the Russians" is contextually delimited to mean more or less "certain Russian soldiers acting, at least broadly speaking, on behalf of the then-current Russian government."

    The question is whether there are group names (especially those where people seem uncomfortable with the bare arthrous plural noun in part because the noun is identical to an adjective) that people sometimes want to avoid even if they are clearly contextually delimited. Let's say for example I was talking about the racial dynamics of my public high school, where the high-Seventies social engineering that had created a carefully balanced black/white ratio in the student body as a whole did not carry over to the more granular level, because once you got to the grade where students could choose which electives to take certain classes (and extracurricular groups etc) would quite often not have the same demographic mix as the school as a whole. So if in that context and with that context already having been explicitly established in the discourse I were to say "the blacks typically took subject X while the whites typically took subject Y," each plural noun would be contextually delimited — I'm not actually adding any further information if I change the sentence to make it "the black students typically took subject X while the white students typically took subject Y" and it would not be a fair reading to say the first version implied any more sweeping or essentialist or monolithic claim about the 99.9999% of the members of the relevant racial group who were not part of that school's student body. But the first version may still feel a little "abrupt" (I can see myself saying it but also see myself avoiding it via a wordier formulation like "___ students" — it's in the sort of borderline zone where I don't know that my practice would be consistent from one occasion to the next even if the general level of formality/register were the same) and I'm still not entirely sure why that should be.

  51. akavi said,

    June 17, 2016 @ 12:03 pm


    Your example seems fine. I think it's the implicit "of Europe" in your first, and the explicit "among the delegation" in your second.

    @J.W. Brewer

    Those both feel awkward. Not *racist*, per se, but ungrammatical. I think, at least in my sociolect, using "black" or "white" as a noun for a person is vanishingly rare.

  52. John Walden said,

    June 17, 2016 @ 12:34 pm

    I point out to my Spanish-speaking students that 'the' is a th word, along with 'this', 'that', 'these', 'those', 'there'and 'then'. We used to have 'thither' and 'thence' but I skip that. They all seem to suggest a Pythonesque pointing finger .

    I tell them, because they tend to use 'the' too much, that if they can't use 'this', 'that', 'these' or 'those' in its place then they may well be wrong in their use of 'the'.

    Substituting 'those' for 'the' in the examples so far mentioned seems to me to give an idea of what the 'the' means. It's almost 'themthar' in some cases.

  53. Eneri Rose said,

    June 17, 2016 @ 4:03 pm

    My husband is a non-observant Jew. He's 66 and grew up in Flushing, Queens, NYC. His grandparents came to the USA thru Ellis Island from eastern Europe. I asked him about being referred to as "a Jew" and he said it makes no difference to him. He said, "I am a Jew. If somebody takes offense to being referred to as a Jew, then they are just looking to be offended."

  54. Brett said,

    June 17, 2016 @ 8:36 pm

    Normally, I identify myself as, "I am Jewish." Calling me "a Jew" is fine. Calling me "a Jewish person" could be a little bit irritating, and suggests that the speaker has some preconceived ideas about proper nomenclature that are probably not informed by any conversations with actual Jews.

    However, if I heard, "You know, you're Jewish but you're not a Jew," I would not tend to interpret that as a statement about terminology. The question of who is really a Jew is a contentious one in the Jewish community, and I would tend to interpret any statement about whether I'm really Jewish within that frame. I don't care what an ultra-orthodox Jew might think about whether I am allowed to give the priestly blessing; however, I recognize that it is a topic of legitimate interest to them. On the other hand, I really don't want to hear any comments from gentiles about who is or isn't Jewish; they should just mind their own business.

  55. Levantine said,

    June 17, 2016 @ 8:55 pm

    Brett, I think it's unfair to say that those who might cautiously use the wordier alternative are uninformed. The 'actual Jews' you refer to include people like Pflaumbaum's grandmother who object to being called 'a Jew', and I've definitely encountered this sentiment more widely. Without having statistical evidence one way or the other, it's difficult for gentiles to know how most Jews/Jewish people prefer to be identified. Speaking personally, I'm left even more confused having learnt from the comments here that avoiding the use of 'Jew' in favour of well-meaning and seemingly PC locutions might actually *cause* offence!

  56. Samuel Buggeln said,

    June 17, 2016 @ 11:03 pm

    As "a gay" myself, this seems super obvious. (And sorry if this notion has been posted, about halfway through the thread above got TLDR.) To say someone "is gay" uses the same structure as "is tall" or "is left-handed," which is to say that it's an attribute, one among many, not an all-encompassing identity. I think the extent to which some people are comfortable with the "is a [–]" formulation–usually with national or religious identifiers–is the extent to which these folks are comfortable being thoroughly, profoundly identified as (to quote above) "a Greek" or "a Jew." But most black people, gay people, and yes, Jewish, Greek or Russian people I know prefer to be described by adjectives, not defined by nouns.

  57. Brett said,

    June 18, 2016 @ 11:56 am

    @Samuel Buggeln: Thank you for gentilesplaining that to me.

  58. Gene Callahan said,

    June 18, 2016 @ 12:08 pm

    '"Ask the gays" meme was a response to a speech error. Richly deserved, in my opinion, but still.'

    This is interesting: even though when we look at what Trump really was trying to say, it is unexceptional, still, it is "richly deserved" that he was taken to task for it, because, well, treating Trump unfairly is always OK!

  59. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 20, 2016 @ 12:56 pm

    Levantine: If you're still reading this, I'd like to clarify that I didn't mean avoiding "Jew" offended me. I just have a preference.

    However, the situation is in some ways parallel to "Negro", where the English equivalent "black" was deemed too straightforward—and what could the reason for that be except that being black was shameful?

    I haven't been learning much for some decades about that contentious debate Brett mentioned, but in my youth it was referred to as "Who is a Jew?"

  60. BZ said,

    June 20, 2016 @ 1:02 pm

    @J.W. Brewer,
    Regarding the Russian/Ukrainian conflict, it's not really needed. There is no rogue Ukrainian group acting against Russians, so the agents of Ukraine's actions in the conflict are referred to in the same way by both sides (though the actions themselves might be described in different ways).
    On the other hand, though the "Russian" side of the conflict gets called different things by different sides (terrorists, separatists, freedom fighters, etc), they are not really a Russian group per se (note that there is a distinction in Russian between ethnic Russians and Russian citizens/government/country. I'm referring to the latter here). The disagreement is about whether these "Russians" are actively aided by Russia or not.

  61. David said,

    June 20, 2016 @ 4:02 pm

    As a 30-something, American gay person, I'm sure I've heard my peers use "the gays" ironically, for humorous effect (and probably used it myself, though I can't recall a specific instance). I'm not offended by it used in that way, nor even by Trump's usage, which is awkward but seems generally well-intentioned. I suppose if it was used in an anti-gay context, it would be marginally more offensive than "gay people," for the aforementioned reason that it singles out a particular aspect of identity as the only salient one.

    As a person who is ethnically Ashkenzi and was raised Jewish (but identifies as atheist and doesn't currently participate in the Jewish community), the situation for "the Jews" is a little different: that phrase feels tainted by the long history of anti-Semitic rhetoric that uses it frequently. I would always say "Jews" or "Jewish people" instead. "A Jew" is fine, although maybe feels slightly off. I would say "I am ethnically Jewish" in preference to "I am an ethnic Jew." All that said, I wouldn't necessarily feel offended at someone using "the Jews" or "the Jew" unless I suspected they were doing it deliberately in homage to historical anti-Semitic usage.

  62. chris said,

    June 21, 2016 @ 6:04 am

    To me, "killed by the Russians during the war" implies the specific group of Russians who were *waging* the war (whether they were, in some sense, supported by other Russians elsewhere is arguable), and "killed by Russians during the war" does not — that could be a Russian criminal gang, a lynch mob of Russians who suspected him of aiding the anti-Russian side of the war, or even just a random violent crime whose perpetrators happened to be Russian.

    Of course you could go more unambiguous with "killed by the Russian Army during the war" or similar.

    Relating that back to "the gays" — does that imply the specific group of gays that are forming and promoting the Gay Agenda? Maybe it does, and since the offhand assumption of the existence of such a group is off in conspiracy theory territory next door to the Elders of Zion, that's why it sounds so offensive.

    On a substantive level, if that's not too off-topic, Trump's critique of Saudi treatment of gays might perhaps be more persuasive if he wasn't the standard-bearer of a party that seems quite taken with the idea of replicating it in this country. Ask the Republicans how they think about the gay community, because I'm pretty sure Trump's ties to the Republicans are closer than Clinton's ties to the Saudis.

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