On when listening is better than talking: A call for contemplation and empathy

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The following is a reply from Emily M. Bender, Natasha Warner and myself to Geoff Pullum's recent posts (A letter saying they won, 12/4/2017; Courtesy and personal pronoun choice, 12/6/2017).


Respected senior linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum recently used the widely-read platform of Language Log to remark on the fact that his grammatical tolerance of singular they only goes so far (A letter saying they won, 12/4/2017). For Pullum, singular they cannot be used in reference to a personal name; example sentences such as Kimi said theyi were going to the store are ungrammatical for him. This fact is not in dispute, nor is the fact that this is a salient grammaticality judgment for Pullum. What is in dispute, however, is the appropriateness of a series of choices that Pullum has made in reporting this grammaticality judgment. Those choices have clearly hurt people. The following is an effort to explain the hurt that these choices have caused and to give Pullum — and everyone from his defenders to those who don't see what all the fuss is about — another opportunity to respond with contemplation and empathy as opposed to defensiveness and continued disrespect.

To start, here's a very general rule that we feel is useful to follow in situations where one is in a conversation with someone who belongs to a group that lacks power (e.g. a transgender person, a person of color, in some cases a woman, etc.), where you are not a member of that group. If that person tells you that something you're saying is hurting them, stop talking and listen to them at length (if they're willing to talk to you) to find out why what you're doing is hurtful. Try to learn what you would need to change in order to not hurt them. Listen with an open mind. Perhaps most importantly, believe the other person's statement that you have been hurting them. Especially if you find yourself starting to feel defensive, stop talking until you have listened long enough to figure out what's going on. Continuing to talk before you understand is likely to make it worse. We recognize that it is probably a normal human reaction to defend one's behavior when challenged. It takes emotional preparation and effort to simply stop talking and listen when one is feeling defensive. We advocate this because we feel there is much to be gained in learning from others by putting in this emotional effort.

We want to acknowledge at this point that many authors of color have said all this before, concerning interactions about race; see e.g. this piece, where the first point is "Be willing to listen and learn." We do not pretend this advice is original. However, we find it important to emphasize that in discussions between a member of a group that lacks privilege and a member of a group that has that particular privilege, the first step is for the person who has that privilege to listen and learn rather than trying to speak as an authority. This transfers across various types of privilege: we have seen in recent months that the same things often apply in discussions of sexual harassment as in discussions of racial bias and LGBTQ issues.

Now let's go back to the point in time when Pullum decided to post on Language Log concerning his grammaticality judgment about the limits of his use of singular they. It seems to us that there were three paths Pullum could have pursued here, knowing full well that he was commenting on a matter that intimately pertains to a group that lacks power.

One path was to not post anything at all. This is an option that anyone with author access to a widely-read and well-respected blog like Language Log should always consider.

The second would have been to (i) note the example of singular they, (ii) comment on the fact that this use is ungrammatical for him, and (iii) nevertheless express support and respect for those who have explicitly noted their preference to be referred to with this pronoun, despite how difficult it may seem to him to be to master its use given (ii). The following posts on Twitter give examples of how one might have done that:

Pullum instead chose the third option: to really only do (i) and (ii), and to reduce (iii) to this:

I don't want to offend anyone. But it's a bit much to expect me to start saying things that are clearly and decisively ungrammatical according to my own internalized grammar. I'll do my best, but it will be a real struggle.

This paragraph is preceded by an unfortunate decision to write "that he is — sorry, that they are" in reference to someone who explicitly prefers to be referred to with they/them, and it is followed by a bizarre slippery-slope analogy to an imagined situation where someone may ask to only be referred to with pre-verbal object pronouns.* Whatever his intentions in these three paragraphs, the result has sent a clear message to those who support and respect personal pronoun preferences: that Geoffrey K. Pullum, Professor of Linguistics, considers his individual grammaticality judgments on singular they to be more significant than referring to people with pronouns that correctly reflect their gender.

"But wait," we hear some regular readers object, "this is Language Log, where random comments on individual grammaticality judgments are a dime a dozen. One of the posts that put Language Log on the map, after all, was Pullum's own "Everything is correct" vs. "nothing is relevant" (1/26/2005), commenting specifically on the issue of individual grammaticality judgments." This is true, but note that we are not faulting Pullum for commenting on his grammaticality judgments (nor for those judgments themselves) — we are calling him out specifically for commenting on them and not also doing (iii).

Why are we using the Language Log platform to do this? Is this still really about language? It is, because the sociolinguistic issues surrounding personal pronoun preferences — and expressions of support and respect for those preferences by allies — are just as much a matter of language as anything else to be found on Language Log.

It is unsurprising that Pullum's choices, and the equally unsurprising inferences many drew from them, led many who care about the relevant issues to want to respond, and to respond publicly. As regular readers well know, Pullum exercises his right as an independent Language Log author to leave the comments off for all of his posts. People who wanted to comment thus reasonably and predictably turned to social media, other blogs, and the comment threads on other Language Log posts to express themselves.

Among those commenting was linguist Kirby Conrod, who has been researching pronoun use, from both syntactic and sociolinguistic perspectives. In addition, they have the lived experience of navigating the world as a non-binary person and negotiating pronoun use. Conrod had previously posted a blog post over on their own Medium page giving helpful guidance to those who, like Pullum, find it a challenge to adapt to new pronoun usage.

Because Conrod's voice is particularly relevant in this discussion, we invited them to author a guest post for Language Log in response to Pullum, and fortunately they were willing to take this on. The result is posted as If you can't say something nice…, 12/5/2017.

Some respondents have suggested that Conrod's post was too combative, and have said that maybe a different tone would be more effective. Since this seems to be a common reaction from people who in the same message express support for those asking others to respect their pronouns, we want to address it here. While we think the goal of advocating for civil communication in general is a good one, we also think that it has to be done with a sensitivity to privilege and to power differentials. Pullum is a long-established figure in the field. He is also a member of the more privileged group on most dimensions. So when he writes something that starts with an apparently "reasonable" tone he's bringing to bear the weight of all of that privilege (deliberately or not) — in this case in a way that directly causes harm to marginalized people.**

In cases like this, we believe that the best way forward for those with privilege on the relevant dimension is to listen to those who are hurt, and to lift up their voices. If they are angry, they have the right to express that anger. Advising them to do otherwise is almost certainly going to be tone policing. (See this piece for an excellent explanation of this term.) If the people hurt by this aren't given space to show their anger, then how can those whose privilege prevents experiencing it directly have a chance to learn and understand? Furthermore, people in groups that lack power often experience hurtful or even physically dangerous situations based on their membership in a group every day. There are frequently violent attacks against transgender people on the street, for example. The emotional cost of dealing with verbal challenges such as Pullum's and the danger of potential violence every day take a toll that could reasonably lead a person to respond with anger. (For a clear discussion of the connection between linguistic choices in the media and real world violence, see "Deadnaming A Trans Person Is Violence – So Why Does The Media Do It Anyway?", by Sam Riedel.) In such cases, if people are willing to put the emotional energy into communicating that anger, those with privilege would do well to learn from it. Those of us who have several types of privilege (e.g. white, middle-class, straight) may not realize how much stress is caused by being a member of a marginalized group, and how that daily stress can lead a person to express anger. An analogy that may make this easier to understand is a bicycle commuter who lashes out in anger because of the stress they experience daily that a car driver does not experience (see here).

If a reader thinks there are people who can be reached more effectively with a gentler approach, then one can try to engage them with that approach (from the standpoint of an ally) in addition to what the folks directly affected (such as Conrod) are doing. But trying to tell marginalized people how to fight their fight isn't productive or helpful. Sometimes a member of a marginalized group expresses anger, and this may make members of a privileged group uncomfortable. But dealing with that discomfort rather than telling the marginalized person not to express it is part of the learning process, part of the listening advocated above.

To conclude, we advocate for thoughtful, respectful, introspective behavior among academics toward other academics. This means that people with privilege (whether because of gender identity, sexual orientation, race, position in academia, age, or any other category) should avoid inflicting hurt on people without that privilege. All humans make mistakes, whether in failing to use someone's correct pronoun or in saying something hurtful in some other way without realizing it. How one behaves when one finds out that one has done something hurtful is the important part. This returns to our initial point: if someone who belongs to a marginalized group tells you you are hurting them by something you say, we advocate stopping and listening with an open mind to try to understand how not to cause hurt, rather than defending yourself or trying to act as an authority figure on the issue. We thank you for reading.


Additional resources, beyond those linked to in the text above:

Furthermore, googling "How to be a better ally" pulls up numerous articles, many written by members of marginalized communities. These are a good learning resource.


Footnotes:

* What makes this analogy bizarre is that it misunderstands what pronoun choices are about. People aren't asking other people to make arbitrary changes in their grammar. Rather, people are asking for their gender to be recognized in others' speech about them. Since case, grammatical function, word order, etc. don't reflect gender, they are never relevant to this discussion.

** Furthermore, Pullum then posted a response on Language Log (Courtesy and personal pronoun choice, 12/6/2017) that failed to properly address the hurt caused by his original post and that furthermore castigated respondents to that post. (Conrod has posted a short reply to Pullum's reply on Medium, which we hope everyone following this story will also read.)



42 Comments

  1. Philip Taylor said,

    December 11, 2017 @ 1:11 pm

    If I may comment on the first footnote ? "* What makes this analogy bizarre is that it misunderstands what pronoun choices are about. People aren't asking other people to make arbitrary changes in their grammar. Rather, people are asking for their gender to be recognized in others' speech about them". I don't have any problem recognizing that someone might not wish to be identified by a pronoun that makes assumptions about his/her sex, and if there were a generally accepted gender-neutral singular pronoun that could be used where "he" or "she" is normally required, I would be very happy to use it in such circumstances. But "they", whilst gender-neutral, is plural, yet what is required is singular. And therefore "they" is not an option for me in this context.

  2. Chas Belov said,

    December 11, 2017 @ 1:28 pm

    @Philip: It was good enough for Shakespeare.

    A Comedy of Errors, Act IV, Scene 3:

    There's not a man I meet but doth salute me
    As if I were their well-acquainted friend

    Ironically, I found it on a Geoffrey Pullum post. http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/002748.html

  3. Lameen said,

    December 11, 2017 @ 1:29 pm

    I'll leave it to more knowledgeable people to discuss the specifics of this case and the broader issue of gender identity. But, beyond these, the general advice being proposed here strikes me as profoundly problematic.

    If you go around just gratuitously causing hurt, you're a jerk. But causing hurt for good reasons is often a necessary and valuable part of education. To take an obvious example that regularly comes up, it is impossible to write a truthful history book of any length without causing hurt to someone who has overidentified themselves with their chosen nation; their hurt is no less heartfelt for being unjustified. That goes just as much for the most clearly marginalized of nationalists (say, Tibetans or Palestinians) as for the most privileged of imperialist chauvinists. It's hardly necessary to point out that this generalizes to identification with ideologies and religions, which can often be even more fundamental to an oppressed person's identity.

    As for the proposed general rule in the opening: Hearing people out is almost always a good idea. Apologising and changing your ways when you're in the wrong is basic decency. Automatically presupposing that you're in the wrong – believing anyone who says you've hurt them, and believing that no verbal hurt is justifiable – is a recipe for getting walked all over.

  4. Emily M. Bender said,

    December 11, 2017 @ 2:03 pm

    @Lameen — Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

    However, I think you've misinterpreted our point. Believing someone who says you've hurt them doesn't mean you're "in the wrong" or that no verbal hurt is justifiable. (In the general case, yes, there may well be situations where it is unavoidable.) It just means believing them. The next step is to learn why the action or words were hurtful. Again, this does not amount to "automatically presupposing that you're in the wrong".

    Speaking in the very general case: I'd like to think that very few people move through the world wishing to do harm to others. When we're are told we have done harm, that desire can lead to feeling and acting defensive (which can in turn cause more harm). What we're advocating here is being willing to acknowledge hurt caused, because it's better to know how not to hurt people in the future (or in those rare cases where you know you're going to hurt someone and you don't see a way around it, of which this is not one, mitigate that harm) than to maintain a fiction of not having hurt anyone.

  5. cervantes said,

    December 11, 2017 @ 2:05 pm

    The language changes all the time. The grammar and vocabulary of today are not the grammar of Beowulf or Chaucer. This happens for many reasons, but one of them is that a need arises for a new word or a new construction. Technological innovations, social changes, historical events, all create the need for change in the language. For example, the title Ms. was invented because women no longer wanted their marital status to be a component of the means of formally addressing them. This has now become standard and nobody is harmed by it. And if you want to call yourself Miss or Mrs., you still can.

    Now there are people who want gender pronouns that don't force them into the category of male or female. "They" has actually been used this way informally for a long time — as long as I can remember. All these people are asking is to respect them enough to endorse the singular usage. I can't imagine why that would bother anybody enough to write about it any length. I do not see how it is harmful in any way.

  6. hip old linguist said,

    December 11, 2017 @ 2:08 pm

    I'm a linguist and mother who, for the last few years, has been learning to use "they" for individual people, and I'm also one of the many longtime fans of Geoff Pullum's sharp wit; i.e. I'm both "hip" and "old"

    It isn't easy for me (and I understand, for colleagues) to stop the flow of comfortably fluent language and substitute the gender-neutral pronoun for the familiar 'he' or 'she' that is now rejected by an individual person. It's not just a matter of changing habitual patterns; it really does feel like the grammatical machinery has to be brought to a grinding halt so that a substitution can be dropped in. Switching out a proper noun is much easier, for example. But names aren't pronouns that participate in number agreement, anaphora, discourse cohesion, etc. — all the systems affected

    On the other hand, I was surprised to learn from a group of teenagers and 20-somethings that they have no trouble at all assigning singular 'they' to an individual person. They claim to be able to remember without any effort at all. (Remember the mosquito tone, btw?) So it's no surprise that they're doubly offended when they think it's similarly easy for older adults: 1) wrong pronoun that feels like opposition to their gender identity, 2) seems easy to fix, so must be intentional

    Very best wishes to everybody on this issue. I hope the discussion on Language Log enlightens all the way around

  7. Caitlin said,

    December 11, 2017 @ 2:25 pm

    Wow, it's almost as if those commenting to drop it and move on *weren't even listening* to marginalized people who are part of this language community. Huh.

    Thank you for this post!

  8. Brooke said,

    December 11, 2017 @ 2:25 pm

    @Mark Whitty: I guess I disagree and think this is a great use of this website. In fact, I'd love to see more posts like this one!

  9. peter said,

    December 11, 2017 @ 2:30 pm

    @Philip Taylor wrote:

    "But "they", whilst gender-neutral, is plural, yet what is required is singular. And therefore "they" is not an option for me in this context."

    But in modern English, the word "you" is also both gender-neutral and plural, yet used when a singular pronoun is required. Do you also disavow the use of "you" in singular contexts?

  10. Yan said,

    December 11, 2017 @ 2:35 pm

    peter: In modern English, "you" can be either singular or plural. There is no other second-person singular pronoun in modern English. (Yes, I know about "thou", and yes, I'm stating that it's not used as a second-person singular pronoun in contemporary English.)

  11. peter said,

    December 11, 2017 @ 2:38 pm

    @Mark Whitty:

    On the contrary, this topic is precisely what Language Log should be about. If a blog devoted to language cannot discuss issues of language usage, then what good is it?

  12. Natasha Warner said,

    December 11, 2017 @ 2:41 pm

    @Phillip Taylor, if you're talking about someone who identifies as non-binary and uses the pronoun "they," and you refer to the person as "he" or "she," and the person tells you that what you're doing is hurtful to them, you can say something like 1) "I'm sorry. I'll try to use 'they' but this is new to me, and I might make mistakes." or 2) "I'm going to go ahead and keep hurting you even though you've just told me this is hurtful, because I'm not willing to try using 'they' in a new way." When you insist that "they" is plural and therefore you just can't use it for singular, you're choosing the second route.

  13. peter said,

    December 11, 2017 @ 2:42 pm

    @Yan: I don't disagree. I am pointing out the inconsistency involved in treating "they" as only plural, while allowing "you" to be both singular and plural.

  14. Brooke said,

    December 11, 2017 @ 2:43 pm

    @yan: could you explain how there being no other second-person singular pronoun is relevant to your point? There's also no other genderless 3rd person singular for human.

    I hesitate to wade in here, but I suspect that you're grasping at straws to try not to use 'they' and will cling to whatever marginally coherent post hoc rationale you can cook up not to use it

  15. Sam S. Barnes said,

    December 11, 2017 @ 2:47 pm

    The authors here are either willingly mis-characterizing Pullum's remarks, or are exhibiting a remarkable propensity to take offense at slights that are entirely perceived and not intentional nor even real. Two examples:

    a) Pullum very clearly explained in a footnote to his original post that he made the edit of "that he is — sorry, that they are" in a way that would reflect how that edit would have been made in a real life conversation. In a live conversation, one doesn't get to erase the words one spoke, and instead speaks exactly as Pullum did: this thing—no, wait, that other thing. Here is Pullum's explanation, which is a bold, red text block under the original post:
    "In case you thought "reveals that he is — sorry, that they are —" above was mockery, let me tell you that I originally wrote "reveals that he is", and then realized that I had already made my first slip, so instead of silently concealing it, I revealed my shame by making the self-edit overt. I'm whole-heartedly in political sympathy with Phillip Garcia; I'm on the same side as my non-binarist and gender-neutral and transsexual friends."

    Did the authors read this footnote? Do they care to address it?

    b) The authors demand 3 things of Pullum and others who would dare wade into this Maoist shaming ritual, the third being "nevertheless express support and respect for those who have explicitly noted their preference to be referred to with this pronoun, despite how difficult it may seem to him to be to master its use". And indeed Pullum wrote: "I'll do my best, but it will be a real struggle." The authors quote this excerpt. Can they clarify how it fails to live up to their demand? To an outside reader, it seems as though the authors of this post want Pullum to grovel to a degree that is unbecoming and undignified.

    To Professor Pullum, I have some words of advice. Sir, you have done nothing wrong, and have been a virtuous interlocutor in this discussion. Your opponents will make all manner of demands that you apologize, show empathy, recognize the hurt you have caused, etc, etc. This is all hogwash. They want an apology so they can use it as evidence of your guilt. It won't stop here. I have gone on too long already, but if you are interested in learning how to combat this kind of attack in the future, I recommend to you the books "SJWs Always Lie" and "SJWs Always Double Down" both by Vox Day. I repeat: these people won't stop—learn how to handle them.

    [ EB — I'll admit that I was also tempted to delete this comment before it was approved, specifically because of the references in the last paragraph. ]

  16. Peter Klecha said,

    December 11, 2017 @ 2:57 pm

    @Phillip Taylor:

    you are missing the point. we know it's "not an option" for you and others like you, in the sense that your idiolect does not contain singular "they". pullum made that clear from the get-go and no one has confused that point.

    the main points at issue here are: i) it is within your power to change what is "an option" for you (maybe it's not easy, but it's within your power); ii) to the extent that you do not use singular "they", you should be kind about that fact — avoid using a pronoun when you can, apologize if you mess up, generally respect the fact that your words can cause hurt. be nice.

  17. Brooke said,

    December 11, 2017 @ 2:58 pm

    @yan: I'm sorry, I do not intend to say anything about you personally, only that your apparent rationale for not using it is marginally coherent. I'm a trans linguist and I am so *tired* of hearing endless iterations of a small class of bad arguments about this stuff.

    Whatever, don't try to use 'they' if you don't want to (people can be rude if they want to). But if you don't, please stop attempting to make a linguistic argument about why you don't, it makes me wince, not from pain but vicarious embarrassment.

  18. Yuval said,

    December 11, 2017 @ 3:05 pm

    So Yan, would you consider "Please drop the subject." to be a helpful comment? Did you take the time to post that comment in order to help? Do you find Aman's comment, or Whitty's comments, helpful? Unhurtful? Do you see what you're doing here?

  19. Cass said,

    December 11, 2017 @ 3:19 pm

    Emily M. Bender, Natasha Warner, and Eric Baković:

    Thank you very much for this post. You covered just about everything that needed to be said, I think, and did so in a very reasonable and compassionate way.

    The only point that maybe not been covered enough yet is the very real privilege most cisgender people have of being gendered correctly almost all of the time. No one is going around using she pronouns for Geoffrey K. Pullum or calling him a woman or any other gender which is incorrect for him. I don't think he understands what it's like to constantly be referred to as something you very much are not.

    And that's the other thing: we're not making this up. Gender identity is very well studied and definitely real. Non-binary people are real. We are not men. We are not women. Not only is using "he" or "she" or "man" or "woman" insensitive, it's also incorrect. We are not male or female. A study of biology and psychology leads to only one possibly conclusion and that is that splitting all human beings into two groups (male and female) has absolutely no empirical basis.

    There is a very large gray area of people whose biology and gender identity is quite clearly neither male nor female. Some of us prefer to be referred to with "they" pronouns. Some with other pronouns such as ey/em, zie/hir, etc. And some just with one binary set of pronouns or the other. We are not asking for special favors. We are simply explaining 1) what we would prefer, 2) what is actually correct for us, and 3) what causes us the least pain to be referred to as.

    Oh, and I suppose it should be said how insensitive and offensive it was for Pullum to describe his friend's kid as "militantly" transgender. That really seemed to hint that he doesn't think transgender people are valid or real and that him using the correct pronouns for this friend of his was some kind of favor rather than just basic respect.

    I have no idea why my response was singled out by Pullum in his follow-up post as I was just one of many calling him out. But this is my follow-up reply. Thank you for saying most of what I wanted to say in this post. It's much appreciated and the first time I've felt welcome here since the original post.

    Cass
    (they/them)

  20. Todd said,

    December 11, 2017 @ 3:24 pm

    Thank you Emily, Natasha, and Eric.

  21. Mark Whitty said,

    December 11, 2017 @ 3:55 pm

    Looks like my previous message was deleted?

    [(myl) I don't see any evidence that a comment from you was deleted. It's possible that it was caught by the spam filter, which catches too many mostly-spam comments every day (thousands) for us to check them all. I'll look into it when I have a spare few minutes.]

    I find that a bit concerning: I am open to talking about this, and I don't really see why my comment should have been deleted. Correct me if I am wrong – don't just delete my message entirely without cause.

    To clarify – I am fine with posts such as these if they are about the language, but not if they are veiled 'attacks' (using this word lightly) against Geoffrey Pullum; which this, and Mr. Kirby's post read as to me. Sure, Geoffrey Pullum's post may have offended or hurt some people. But that was not his intent, and a lot of people seem to be assuming that that /was/ his intent.

    Moderators or whoever you can delete this post if you like. I also personally don't agree with a binary view of gender… but I don't think language is the place to begin with, when arguing that point. People's perception must change before their use of language would ever change… and that will take more than a few posts or comments here or anywhere.

    I'm slightly offended that my comment was simply deleted, but maybe it read a bit curt. If so, I apologise.

    [ EB — thanks for this follow-up comment, Mark. I take responsibility for deleting your comment, which I read (incorrectly, it seems) as being incendiary, especially in reply to a post explicitly calling for civility. I apologize for misreading, and am happy to let your current comment stand. ]

  22. Mark Whitty said,

    December 11, 2017 @ 4:16 pm

    @Eric, I understand, that's fine. I see how I may have seemed a little combative in my previous comment. Thanks.

  23. Todd said,

    December 11, 2017 @ 4:23 pm

    @Mark Whitty:

    Your previous comment *should* have been deleted, as its content was wholly devoid of content. 'This isn't necessary' isn't a helpful or useful comment, and it's also quite clearly false, as the above post makes clear. See also the string of commenters chiming in to refute that assessment.

    Furthermore, your *second* comment *should* also be deleted. Even leaving aside (a) your labeling this post an "attack"; and (b) the question of "intent"—both the current post, and Kirby's earlier responses, make it explicit that Pullum's intent is not what's important here—; there's the matter of (c) your misgendering of Kirby. Given the tone of your other comments, I am inclined to presume that this (harmful act) is intentional, on your part, especially in the context of reading about how harmful Pullum's misgendering has been. But, in the spirit of generosity, even if I take this to be accidental, it's still unacceptable, and should be deleted.

  24. Todd said,

    December 11, 2017 @ 4:30 pm

    @Sam S. Barnes:

    The authors of this post *do* take into account the content of Pullum's footnote, the one in which he explains his intent, in the following line:

    "Whatever his intentions in these three paragraphs, the result has sent a clear message to those who support and respect personal pronoun preferences: that Geoffrey K. Pullum, Professor of Linguistics, considers his individual grammaticality judgments on singular they to be more significant than referring to people with pronouns that correctly reflect their gender."

    Note the first three words. Spelling out his intention doesn't change the consequences of his actions.

    If you'd like a more direct response to Pullum's footnote, see Kirby's post on Medium, which the authors include in their second footnote, also here: [https://medium.com/@kconrod/dear-geoff-bcd84286faa9]. There's more to the story than intent.

  25. Mark Whitty said,

    December 11, 2017 @ 4:38 pm

    @Todd,

    To clarify one final point: I didn't intentionally misgender Kirby. I just assumed they were male because I misremembered 'Conrad' as being their first name ( I now realise it's their surname, and it's 'Conrod'). That was a mistake. I'm sorry about that, as it was a fairly direct on my part.

    I won't complain further if any and all of my comments are deleted, if that is better for the thread here.

  26. Julian said,

    December 11, 2017 @ 4:52 pm

    @hip old Linguist: 33 year old linguist here, and I'm someone who naturally produces they/them pronouns with personal names of known gender. ex: "Geoff exposed their unwillingness to take responsibility for their mistakes in the follow-up post."

    I think you're almost there, about finding it doubly offensive, but the second piece needs to be broadened. For me and for the 20-somethings I regularly interact with, it's less that we view actual production as an easy fix, it's that we view the attempt itself as an easy fix. We understand that for most people it's a difficult change and that many mistakes will occur along the way. You don't have to do it right every time, you just have show us that you care and you're doing your best.

    And getting defensive about your intentions and making excuses accomplishes the opposite of that.

  27. Ethan said,

    December 11, 2017 @ 4:53 pm

    @Cass

    Something I've long been curious about is the "competition" (sorry I can't summon a better word for it) between the different proposed gender-neutral pronouns. What makes someone prefer xe, for example, rather than singular they? And if I refer to a non-binary individual who prefers xe as "they", did I misgender them, or did I do something less serious?

    Also, I don't exactly who to ask about this, but why do the recently-invented gender-neutral pronouns all have different nominative and accusative forms? For ease of learning, wouldn't it be more convenient if they were like the second-person and had identical forms for both cases?

  28. Emily M. Bender said,

    December 11, 2017 @ 5:04 pm

    @Cass

    Thank you for taking the time to comment and to highlight the very important point about the reality of non-binary people.

    I'm very glad to know that you appreciate our post.

  29. RP said,

    December 11, 2017 @ 5:20 pm

    I can understand why Pullum's comments caused offence. The advice to listen to marginalised voices makes sense. However, it is impossible to read the above post without noticing that whenever the categories of oppressed or marginalised groups are listed, the poor are never mentioned a single time. Nor is wealth or property ownership or economic dominance mentioned among the formers of privilege. Presumably, the relationship of economic domination falls under the category of "other" mentioned in "gender identity, sexual orientation, race, position in academia, age, or any other category".

    Now, there is no doubt that on average, people of colour, for example, are more likely to be poor. And it is also true that someone can be well-off economically and still suffer the weight of society's social prejudices. I am not saying we should go back to an old-style Marxist where only the economic dimension matters. But the notion that you can write a piece on "privilege", in apparent seriousness, and not mention wealth or capital or the economy, just seems absurd.

    Class exploitation is a key form of oppression. Are those American liberals who downplay or ignore or brush over the evils of capitalism any better than the misogynists, racists, homophobes and transphobes they rightly condemn?

  30. Rubrick said,

    December 11, 2017 @ 5:21 pm

    This post seems to say, in many words, that if you offend someone, you have two options: agree that they are entirely right and you are entirely wrong, or shut up. This seems to me to be totally contrary to the spirit of academic inquiry.

    I believe Professor Pullum has, in his original post, in its addendum, and especially in his lengthy followup post (which this post and most of its comments seem to have largely ignored), been quite honest about both the linguistic facts and his own difficulties in dealing with this particular aspect of an evolving language. I feel that that honesty is worth more than a grovelling apology would be.

  31. Natasha Warner said,

    December 11, 2017 @ 5:36 pm

    @RP, I actually thought about adding several more groups to the lists of types of lack of privilege, including coming from a background of poverty, being a first-generation student (for conversations in the academic setting), or some others. Yes, there are many dimensions a person can be marginalized for, and being middle class vs in poverty is a very important one. The discussion started with non-binary gender. Within the last few months, I've had conversations where very parallel things about lack of power, respect for others, and learning from others came up that involved race and female gender (around topics of sexual harassment). A lot of the pieces I've read that I really learned from revolved around race or addressed sexual harassment. So to the extent that I added wording relating to marginalized groups other than non-binary people in order to point out the parallels with other groups, I stuck to ones I've had related discussions on recently. We could have tried to add a list of every way someone can be at a disadvantage, but that doesn't seem possible. This is not meant in any way to deny the importance of financial differences.

  32. Sam S. Barnes said,

    December 11, 2017 @ 5:48 pm

    @Todd

    It is clear—from Pullum's footnote *and* from his follow-up post (http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=35688)—that the reason why he made the edit the way he did was to highlight that it is difficult for him to naturally slip into a usage he finds ungrammatical. Furthermore, he clarified that the edit was done so as to mimic live speech. Here is the quote from his second post:

    "… 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."

    Is the point under contention here that Pullum should not have made the edit in such a way as to mimic speech, thereby showing his error and willingness to correct himself when committing said error? Is your stance and that of the authors that Pullum should have masked his error—unintentional though it was, and readily corrected—and therefore hidden his "shame," shame which he readily admits to in the footnote? If yes, one wonders what your reaction and that of the authors would be if the exchange had indeed taken place in real life and not on a blog… How much groveling and begging for forgiveness would one have to do for failing to always override their intuitive sense of grammar? Or would the construct "he—sorry, I mean they" suffice? If it would suffice in person, why is it so unacceptable in print, on a linguistics blog?

    To recap the matter: Pullum made an error and instantly corrected it: he did not defend the error, nor dismiss the matter. He corrected his error in an overt way so as to draw attention to the error and "reveal [his] shame" and shortcomings. And he said that going forward "[He'll] do [his] best," at the same time conceding like any flawed son of Adam that "it will be a real struggle." And he went out of his way to explicitly proclaim his allegiance to the socio-political faction that seems hellbent on devouring him or censoring him or otherwise casting him out (and his devils with him!) Do you understand that to any third-party observer like me this whole situation makes the authors seem demented, unforgiving, cruel, petty?

    One last point: the statement that Pullum "considers his individual grammaticality judgments on singular they to be more significant than referring to people with pronouns that correctly reflect their gender" is blatantly, objectively, and provably false. Pullum corrected himself when he misgendered Garcia. And he explained in great detail his thought process. And he declared his willingness to "do [his] best" going forward. And he has said nothing to the effect of "I refuse to go along with this!" but merely conceded that it will be a challenge, for him. There is an implied request for patience and kindness in that statement, but there is none forthcoming from the authors here. The entire matter is puzzling.

  33. B R George said,

    December 11, 2017 @ 5:59 pm

    Thanks to all three of you and to Mx. Conrod for speaking out on this. It's made me feel a lot less alone, and less vulnerable, as a nonbinary linguist.

  34. Jonathan D said,

    December 11, 2017 @ 6:05 pm

    This post points out that one of the offensive parts of Pullum's post was the decision to say anything at all about singular they as someone's preferred pronoun, and suggests that one option was not to post anything at all. This skips the fact that Pullum's original post completely missed the fact that the usage in question was a matter of gender identity, and didn't say anything about his personal grammatical judgment. All that came in an edit after he realised that his claim that the use of 'they' wasn't about gender was wrong.

    Most of the time, I feel strongly that readers/listeners should pay more attention to when corrections like this are being made. Pullum's choice is perhaps slightly more understandable in this context. But in this case, where someone is broadcasting on a popular blog about a marginalised group it's worth pointing out to the writer that these things are usually overlooked. When the topic has this sort of potential for harm, you can't simply write a correction in a hurry – you need to write it knowing that people will not read it that differently to an uncorrected post, and think about how it comes across in totality.

    Similar thoughts apply to the "corrected" misgendering in Pullum's correction, but that's already been covered by several people.

  35. Philip Taylor said,

    December 11, 2017 @ 6:49 pm

    Jonathan D wrote: "This post points out that one of the offensive parts of Pullum's post was the decision to say anything at all about singular they as someone's preferred pronoun, …". Does this not pre-suppose that there were "offensive parts" in Professor Pullum's post ? It seems to me that what is offensive to one person may well be perfectly innocuous to another, and therefore rather than there being "offensive parts" per se, there were at most "parts that some readers might find offensive".

  36. Jonathan D said,

    December 11, 2017 @ 6:57 pm

    Phillip Taylor, I agree that what is offensive to one person is often not offensive to another. For that reason, I see little point in circumlocutions such as "parts that some readers might find offensive", especially talking after the fact when it is obvious that some readers have been offended. "Offensive parts" does not imply that every reader will be offended.

  37. RfP said,

    December 11, 2017 @ 6:58 pm

    Thank you so much for this post!

    I have been waiting on tenterhooks to see if Language Log as a group was going to address Geoff's posts. In the meantime, speaking as someone who has been an avid reader since 2004, I have come to the painful conclusion that I just can't keep reading this blog if the authors act as if nothing happened.

    The beginning of the last paragraph of your post gets right to the point:

    "To conclude, we advocate for thoughtful, respectful, introspective behavior among academics toward other academics. This means that people with privilege (whether because of gender identity, sexual orientation, race, position in academia, age, or any other category) should avoid inflicting hurt on people without that privilege."

    It's not that I don't feel safe here at this point. It's that I don't feel welcome.

    Your post helped, but I'm waiting for Geoff or Mark to step up.

  38. Julian said,

    December 11, 2017 @ 7:01 pm

    @Sam S. Barnes:

    My issue with "Phillip Garcia's profile reveals that he is — sorry, that they are…" is that there exists an identical construction "X – sorry Y" that is used for the express purpose of invalidating the nature of Y and implying that Y is actually X.

    "The mutt – sorry the dog – is eating their chow," conveys that the speaker believes the dog to be a mutt.

    In face-to-face spoken communication, we have intonation and nonverbal cues to help guide us away from the faux-correction reading. There are ways you could say "he is –
    sorry they are" in person that I would find perfectly acceptable as an earnest self-correction, but there are also a whole lot of ways you could say it that I would find to be intentionally derisive.

    A main component in arriving at the mocking meaning is a sense that it was conceived of and considered as a whole prior to utterance. A planned "correction" is no correction at all.

    This is a major component in my difficulty in accepting it as a genuine correction and not a mock-correction, because of the differences between spoken words and text. In spoken language, it's not possible to go back and alter one's speech after the fact, so we must make do with such extemporaneous corrections. On a blog post, you can go back and alter the original to remove the harmful instance of misgendering. This does not preclude owning up to the error or using it as an example, it simply requires you to present it in an unambiguous manner. The alternative that GKP selected necessitated looking at the whole sentence, correction and all, and deciding that it was acceptable.

    This case is particularly egregious because that particular construction is commonly used to intentionally demean transgender people. I have witnessed people say, things like "She – sorry he – was late today" to mock a trans man and call his gender into question. It is implausible that somebody who had much personal experience with and sympathy for transgender people to look at that construction and have an instant negative gut reaction because those connotations are so strong.

    For an example of an alternate method of making such a correction while acknowledging that you made an error in the first place, see my comment on Kirby's guest post here: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=35668#comment-1542943

  39. Julian said,

    December 11, 2017 @ 7:07 pm

    Erratum:

    For "It is implausible that somebody who had much personal experience with and sympathy for transgender people to look at that construction and have an instant negative gut reaction because those connotations are so strong."

    Read "It is implausible to me that somebody who had much personal experience with and sympathy for transgender people would look at that construction and not have an instant negative gut reaction because those connotations are so strong."

  40. Philip Taylor said,

    December 11, 2017 @ 7:30 pm

    Jonathan D: Agreed. I should have written "… parts that some readers clearly found offensive …".

  41. Todd said,

    December 11, 2017 @ 7:31 pm

    @Sam S. Barnes:

    I'll address your questions in turn:

    "Is the point under contention here that Pullum should not have made the edit in such a way as to mimic speech, thereby showing his error and willingness to correct himself when committing said error?"

    Yes. This isn't spontaneous speech, it's a blog post, and he had the time and opportunity to correct it in a way that *wouldn't* have been harmful, and he chose not to take that corrective action. His performative 'error awareness' could have been demonstrated in some way which didn't include actual misgendering (but made reference to his inclination to err, for instance), but he instead chose to include it. This was a choice.

    "Is your stance and that of the authors that Pullum should have masked his error—unintentional though it was, and readily corrected—and therefore hidden his "shame," shame which he readily admits to in the footnote?"

    I won't speak for the authors of the current post, but, see above. There are ways he could have talked openly about his "error", his "shame", without needing to include it.

    "If yes, one wonders what your reaction and that of the authors would be if the exchange had indeed taken place in real life and not on a blog…"

    In spontaneous speech, I'd expect him to apologize, correct himself, and move on, as quickly as possible, without making a big deal about it. (I've needed to do this myself.) In spontaneous speech, we don't have the option to undo the mistake, so we do what we can to acknowledge it and then minimize the harm. This, however, wasn't spontaneous speech—no matter how much we might liken the tone/style of a blog post to the tone/style of spontaneous speech—and Pullum had other options that we don't have in "real life".

    "How much groveling and begging for forgiveness would one have to do for failing to always override their intuitive sense of grammar?"

    Despite this line that you and Rubrick seem to be echoing, nobody has asked Pullum to "grovel". We can discuss errors in public and talk about ways we as a community can do better. Why must you liken such discussions to a demand to "grovel"? Nobody here wants that.

    "Or would the construct "he—sorry, I mean they" suffice?"

    No, not if such misgendering could be otherwise avoided entirely. Which was possible in this case.

    "If it would suffice in person, why is it so unacceptable in print, on a linguistics blog?"

    A blog post isn't spontaneous speech. See above.

    "To recap the matter: Pullum made an error and instantly corrected it: he did not defend the error, nor dismiss the matter."

    No. Pullum made an error, and then chose to include that error in a post which was otherwise (presumably) proofread and edited. He had alternative strategies available to him, and he chose to include it. This isn't to impugn any intention to harm here, but, the fact remains.
    And, one certainly could (and many obviously did) read his rebuttal to Kirby's LL post precisely as a defense of his actions and a dismissal of his critics.

    "the socio-political faction that seems hellbent on devouring him or censoring him or otherwise casting him out (and his devils with him!)"

    We want to encourage our linguistics community to do better. Not to castigate Pullum for the sake of it, but to make those who are already in the community, those who these issues affect directly, feel welcome. To not respond would have been to silently assent to the marginalization, the exclusion, of trans and non-binary linguists.

    "Do you understand that to any third-party observer like me this whole situation makes the authors seem demented, unforgiving, cruel, petty?"

    I hear what you're saying, but I wish it weren't so. I see the responses of these authors, for instance, as a noble attempt to show their peers—especially linguists in marginalized communities, but also those who interact with them—how the linguistics community feels about respecting them, and that Pullum (by no means a devil) does not speak for the entire community when he willfully misgenders and opines about his feelings on respecting others' pronouns. It would be shameful if nobody spoke up. Fortunately, many have.

    (And, by even just the comments on this post, it seems to have made a positive difference, at least for some linguists in the community. That seems hardly "demented, unforgiving, cruel, petty".)

  42. Eric Baković said,

    December 11, 2017 @ 8:04 pm

    OK, things here have gone far enough, I think. As before, I'm shutting down comments now. Thanks.

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