Linguists and change

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In recent years, a rapid and important cultural change in the understanding of gender has been taking place in American society and beyond. A Harris poll from this year, reported in a Time Magazine cover story, found that "20% of millennials say they are something other than strictly straight and cisgender, compared to 7% of boomers". At the University of Pennsylvania, many staff members specify preferred pronouns in their email signatures, and introductory meetings for first-year students often start by asking everyone present to specify their pronouns. Many schools, including Harvard, ask undergraduates to choose their pronouns upon registration. Several states have added the option of X as a third gender category on official government documents. At the same time, gender identity has become a polarizing issue in political debates, and gender non-conforming people are more at risk of violence and suicide. We offer this summary for readers who haven't been in the midst of this change themselves or had a front row seat on it, as some of us have.

Cultural change, personal vulnerability, generational difference, political hostilities, and changes in language use with grammatical implications, all in play. What could possibly go wrong?

Comments here and on Facebook following the recent series of posts on non-binary 'they' ("A letter saying they won"; "If you can't say something nice…"; "Courtesy and personal pronoun choice"; "On when listening is better than talking: A call for contemplation and empathy") have made it clear that all of us must choose our words carefully, listen closely, and make our position as transparent as possible.

We are linguists. We don't believe you can become a student of language, language use, or even grammar, without understanding something about the human condition and power relations between groups — mainstream and marginal, for example. A senior psycholinguist, Lila Gleitman (88 this month) recently reminded us of a time when sign language wasn't understood to be a language at all; linguistics brought that understanding to the culture. In the 1970's, sociolinguist Bill Labov, who turned 90 this month, testified that African American English was a dialect with its own rules, rather than just ungrammatical English. That linguistic insight has by now permeated the culture. Few things can illuminate the workings of marginalization more than an understanding of linguistic patterns.

In our opinion, knowledge of the history of linguistics and the sort of insights linguists work toward should be enough to give a linguist the benefit of the doubt about their intentions and their politics — particularly if they made an explicit statement like the one added at the end of "A letter saying they won". But the level of rage (e.g., "Geoff Pullum is highkey trash" now deleted on Facebook) triggered by even mentioning that a grammatical change can be hard to voluntarily implement — while nevertheless making the effort to do so — indicates that something different is happening here. The issue of gender identity strikes at one's most personal sense of integrity, and Language Log reaches many different kinds of readers. In the latest post on this topic, Bender, Warner & Bakovic suggest that what is needed is to express support and respect for those who have explicitly noted their preference to be referred to with this pronoun.

We at Language Log would like for there to be no room for doubt about our respect and ongoing support for those who have explicitly noted their preference for non-binary 'they'. We are interested and well-disposed observers and students of the gender revolution now underway, and are pleased to provide a forum where related linguistic issues can be discussed and clarified.



68 Comments

  1. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 10:11 am

    I'm not a linguist, but I'd like to take this opportunity to thank the people who said that Prof. Pullum's written mistake-and-correction was hurtful, sounded snide, etc., especially Julian, who provided an explanation. I'm afraid I'm very likely to make mistakes of that kind, and I might have corrected mine the same way.

  2. John said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 10:26 am

    I'm wondering why people who want these linguistic changes implemented feel they have the need and right to insult and demean anyone who doesn't immediately fall into line.

    Why not be polite about it? You'd get a lot further.

  3. Weltanschauung said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 10:45 am

    And Joab came into the house to the king, and said, Thou has shamed this day the faces of all thy servants … in that thou lovest thine enemies, and hatest thy friends. (2 Samuel 19:5-6)

    Shame on all the crybullies who were too intoxicated by the pleasures of piling-on to notice that Geoff Pullum is their friend and not their enemy. If they could see a little further past their own noses, they might realize that they have enemies enough already and no need to make new ones out of the excessively patient hosts of this forum.

  4. Julia P said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 10:51 am

    John, telling marginalized people that they have to be polite under all circumstances to someone who is being insulting and rude to them (that is to say, misgendering them, even if unintentionally) is not really a helpful or sensitive suggestion.

  5. Peter Klecha said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 10:53 am

    i hope the authors appreciate that for the vast majority of us who were critical of the original post, peoples' intentions and politics are not at the center of our concern, and therefore benefit of the doubt does not enter into it. (and in this way, the issue is similar to the one the flared up recently regarding use/mention of slurs.) i do acknowledge that it's hard not to feel as though one's intentions are not being called into question when actions are critiqued like this, so some measure of defensiveness is to be expected, but as was so well put in the most recent response by bender et al, what many of us really want to see is just some acknowledgement of harm done and an expression of interest in the concerns that others are raising. surely we are not all frothing, raging idiots? surely there is something true and worth reconsidering in what we're offering?

    two points have simply not been addressed at all in pullum's responses: the first — and this is absolutely crucial — is that it is possible to do harm without intending it. i don't doubt at all the sincerity of pullum's explanation of his original faux pas, and the righteousness of his original intention. that doesn't mean it wasn't still a mistake, that it might not have been hurtful.

    another important point is that while the literal truth of certain utterances may be unassailable (changing one's grammar is indeed hard), we as linguists certainly ought to be aware that it can instead be the implicatures of a certain utterance that are controversial. choosing to focus on the difficulty of the change, rather than so many other things, sends a disturbing message. again, perhaps unintentionally, but i don't bring this up to call into question anyone's intentions or politics. here i am, and i think many others are, only questioning the wisdom of certain actions.

  6. John said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 10:54 am

    Julia P,

    Reluctance in changing the way you speak isn't rude or insulting.

  7. Thorin said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 11:01 am

    @Weltanschauung

    Given how rampant transphobia is in American society, I don't think it's justified to be so vicious in your wording toward people who take offense to perceived transphobia.

  8. Tal said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 11:28 am

    This was (and still is) a fascinating discussion, even though I must say I was surprised by the level of the flames it reached.

    As a Hebrew speaker with a gender-neutral name (a name that is commonly given to both boys and girls), I find myself in a somewhat related situation when people who do not know me, and address me in a phonecall or in email, use the wrong-gendered pronoun. There is a different word in Hebrew for "singular male you" and for "singular female you", and people that address me have to make a choice — and they often get it wrong. It is a jarring experience at times, although I never take insult, and (if there's any point) I simple politely correct them. But it is also a learning experience, and one that I have come to appreciate as such. It is not a coincidence that we have named both our son and our daughter in such gender-neutral names, which are becoming increasingly common.

    (One interesting tidbit is that it is almost exclusively boy names that are becoming gender-neutral, as parents give them to girls; my own name was, to the best of my knowledge, originally applied only to boys, but by the time I was born it was rather common for both genders. I can think of only one gender-neutral name that was originally a girl's name; and that was the name we gave our son.)

  9. Aaron said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 11:28 am

    John's innocent suggestion "Why not be polite about it? You'd get a lot further" makes for an extraordinary (if unplanned) contrast with Weltanschauung's rude, heartless, and self-congratulatory comment that immediately follows.

    Politeness goes both ways. As a transgender person I try very hard to be kind to people who mean well but don't understand, even when their clumsy words are hurting me. Where I take issue is when it is stated or implied that the burden of "being polite about it" ought to rest solely or primarily upon me, and that when marginalized people lose their tempers and are rude, their actions reflect upon the entire group and discredit all of their arguments.

    It is very tiring to see minority groups kicked and kicked and kicked again, and when they finally cry out OUCH, to see them scolded for making so much noise.

  10. CL said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 11:31 am

    @Peter Klecha Seconded. Thank you.

    On the whole, I appreciate this post, but with Peter, I have some reservations about the suggestion that the benefit of the doubt is (a) due to linguists simply by virtue of the field's past contributions or (b) a fair and reasonable thing to expect from people who deal with the constant irritation (to put it mildly) of explaining their gender, reminding people of their pronouns, dealing with misgendering, and the other attendant difficulties.

    You know how you get irritable if you there's an itchy tag in your clothes that you can't get rid of, or if your upstairs neighbors are always thumping around, or if your office mate is constantly making annoying chewing noises? No single instance of the irritant is, in itself, something to get worked up about, but the cumulative effect can be maddening.

    A lot of the pushback against Kirby and others who objected to Pullum's posts seems to be analyzing their reaction as though it is a response to a single instance of misgendering and apparent callousness. What they don't seem to take into account is that for many, this is one instance in a long string of similar events. Moreover, it's coming from someone (a linguist even, look at the history of linguistics!, if we're taking that tack) who ought to know better. Yes, it can be painted as a relatively mild, well-enough intentioned error, but for non-binary or frequently misgendered people it's *yet another* such error, and the cumulative effect is painful.

    As a cis woman who is essentially never misgendered, but who listens hard to people who are, I have just enough emotional remove from the situation that I can afford to give the benefit of the doubt with respect to Pullum's intentions. But that's a lot to expect from people this touches more personally, and as Peter says, it's important to acknowledge that intention isn't everything. A small harm is still a harm, and a small harm as part of a larger pattern may not be so small after all.

  11. Vardibidian said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 11:32 am

    "In our opinion, knowledge of the history of linguistics and the sort of insights linguists work toward should be enough to give a linguist the benefit of the doubt about their intentions and their politics."

    While y'all are surely entitled to your opinion, that is an amazing, startling, incredible statement. I wonder if there is any other field of endeavor that you feel is entitled to such a presumption. Biologists? Historians? Art Historians? Political scientists? Librarians? Journalists? Doctors? Lawyers? Priests? Actors? Or is the field of linguistics unique in their history and the sorts of insights they work towards?

    I'm not a linguist. I read Language Log, and have read Language Log for years, in large part because I am not a linguist, but only interested in language and in people. I also read blogs by scholars of literature, history, political science and art history—because I am interested in people and the world. My reaction to the original post was grim head-shaking that such a poorly thought-out bit of snark was left out in public, but I have certainly read worse. Prof. Pullum's initial defense was… worse. But this claim is so breathtakingly, insultingly, risibly awful that I cannot remember anything from any other academic blog that approaches it.

    I am disappointed, and hope that you reconsider the 'but linguists are inherently above reproach' defense that exacerbates the earlier decision to publish what was, by proved observation, a hurtful post.

    -Vardibidian.

  12. cliff arroyo said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 11:38 am

    Just as if things weren't volatile enough already I'm wondering how this will play out in other languages. To limit it to two languages with considerable speaking populations/status in North America, how does this work with Spanish and French?

  13. John said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 11:42 am

    Aaron,

    Politeness does go both ways. Geoffrey wasn't being rude. If he caused pain, he apologized. He clearly didn't intend to insult. If the response to that is to berate someone (I'm commenting on the discussion in our society at large, not what's going on on this site), then you'll lose an ally.

    There's no reason there can't be compromise on some things. If transgender people are willing to let the occasional pronoun use slide, others will be more willing to try.

  14. Ellen K. said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 11:44 am

    Julia P, I didn't see John telling anyone what they should do. Yes, his comment can be taken as a suggestion. But it's a legitimate question too. Why do people who feel they are being disrespectful sometimes speak up about in such an insulting way?

  15. John Roth said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 11:46 am

    I participate in a number of forums. The two that are the most pleasant and productive are both moderated – one lightly, one heavily (all posts have to be approved by the forum owner before being put through.)

    This is the moderation notice on John Michael Greer's Ecosophia forum: Courteous, concise comments relevant to the topic of the current post are welcome, whether or not they agree with the views expressed here, and I try to respond to each comment as time permits. Long screeds proclaiming the infallibility of some ideology or other, however, will be deleted; so will repeated attempts to hammer on a point already addressed; so will comments containing profanity, abusive language, flamebaiting and the like — I filled up my supply of Troll Bingo cards years ago and have no interest in adding any more to my collection; and so will sales spam and offers of "guest posts" pitching products. I'm quite aware that the concept of polite discourse is hopelessly dowdy and out of date, but then some people would say the same thing about the traditions this blog is meant to discuss . Thank you for reading Ecosophia! — JMG

    I know that hand-moderating a forum is a pain, but in the current environment, it's the only way that works.

  16. Dan T. said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 11:53 am

    I share the idiolect noted by Pullum whereby use of "they" with antecedents such as "somebody" is fine, but with an actual individual's name still seems jarring, ungrammatical, and confusing.

    As an individualist, I respect people's views of how they personally wish to be identified, even if they make no sense to me.

    When it gets into politics, I dislike the concept that words are labeled as "violence" and certain topics become tripwires for discussion; intellectually I think no ideas should be banned from discussion, because how is the truth ever to be determined if some things are off limits?

    Some areas of gender theory popular among academics seem highly questionable, like when they deny the existence of biological sex altogether and claim everything is a social construct. There are concepts there which need vigorous challenge, which is not possible when you get attacked for even bringing them up.

  17. Eric Baković said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 12:17 pm

    Thank you, Mark and Geoff, for this thoughtful post.

    As the Bender, Warner, & Bakovic post clarified, and as many commenters have made the effort to restate, Geoff's good intentions were not in question. But there were also many other commenters, including the Facebook commenter who has since deleted the comment that Mark and Geoff quote in this post, who either implied or claimed outright that there was some (malicious) intent on Geoff's part. I do not agree with those commenters, and though I didn't choose to counter them (or anyone else) in previous comment threads, I was relieved to find that others were willing to take the time to restate the point that I had thought had been made sufficiently clearly.

    If there's one thing that this whole fiasco has reminded me of, it's that the lizard-brain's impulse to share a quick reaction on the internet is too often stronger than the prefrontal cortex's ability to read carefully and to think things through. There has been ample evidence of this, in my view, on all sides of this debate: we're all guilty as charged. But I do remain convinced that it is important for those of us with certain privileges to recognize that we have a been dealt a better nurture-hand for handling this problem in particular situations, and that we should therefore expect more than what may feel like our fair share of the demands for thoughtful civility. This doesn't excuse apparently unthoughtful incivility on the part of those without certain privileges; rather, it contextualizes it and offers us all an opportunity to address it properly.

  18. Eric Baković said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 12:26 pm

    @Tal — while your experience is interesting and certainly not irrelevant, I don't know that it approaches the transgender experience of being misgendered. I doubt, for example, that you have any experience of people being puzzled when you correct them, or continuing to make the mistake after being corrected, or making the mistake when they see you, or insisting on misgendering you because they can "see" that you're not the gender you say you are, or…

    I don't have either experience, but it seems to me that there's ample room between your experience and feeling comfortable with it and the experience of a transgender person and feeling constantly assaulted by it.

  19. Aaron said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 12:34 pm

    John, I'm sorry for singling you out. I do think your comments are well-intentioned. What I was trying to point out was the stark contrast of the seemingly reasonable suggestion that trans/nonbinary people should just be nicer and that would solve the whole thing, against the reality of how very-very-not-nice many people are to us on a daily basis.

    Geoff's faux pas does not exist in a vacuum, nor do more aggressive comments like Weltanschauung's. When we react to someone's words – in any situation, not just this – we take context into account. If twenty different people have asked you today whether you remembered to file your TPS report at work, you might be forgiven for snapping at the twenty-first. If we were friends and you told me that story, I would say that your co-workers should get off your case. I would probably not suggest that you should have just been more polite.

    I transitioned nearly twenty years ago and have long since lost count of how many times I have been misgendered – accidentally, carelessly, intentionally, rudely, crudely, and what have you. It's hard to describe my feelings when someone – perhaps innocently, perhaps hopefully – informs me that I should just learn how to let it slide. The emotion is something like "frustrated, exhausted laughter". Because of course, I do let it slide, I do let it go, I do compromise, I do kindly explain, over and over and over again. I have been doing that for twenty years. Many have been doing it for much longer. Yet, somehow, the problem hasn't gone away, and every time it comes up it is always our fault for being so difficult and demanding and different, and not the responsibility of the person who does it.

    I believe my point (and I do have one – I apologize for the ramble) is that the "just try being polite" advice suggests that we bring our problems on ourselves and could solve them unilaterally if only we would not get so upset. I am afraid that solution has proven hilariously ineffective. You cannot end marginalization by exhorting the marginalized people to turn the other cheek, and you're far from the first who's tried. The pressure ought to be on the majority to treat the minority better, not on the minority to take their mistreatment with good grace.

  20. Weltanschauung said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 12:34 pm

    Peter Klecha,

    Good point about implicatures. But implicatures can be canceled.

    "Would you like a cup of coffee?" is an offer if I ask the question in my own house. But I can still say "Would you like a cup of coffee? If you would, I'm afraid we'll have to go out somewhere because I'm all out."

    "Following your wishes will be difficult" can express a refusal, and indeed, I believe the Japanese for "that will be difficult" is the standard form in that language for refusing a request. But when Geoff said "I'll do my best, but it will be a real struggle," I think he should be allowed to have canceled any implicature of refusal.

  21. EN said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 12:59 pm

    Dear Geoff,

    I want to thank you and the other Language Log posters for years of fascinating commentary. I also very much appreciate how LL posts opposing views in the interest of fostering civil conversation. It's in that spirit that I offer my two cents on the debate about pronouns and civility.

    I empathize with your feelings of being attacked. It feels really crappy to be called "immensely transphobic" for what you feel is an honest mistake made in trying to talk about what it's been like for you to be try to be an ally to trans people. Feeling hurt is normal.

    I also think that whatever your feelings, you had an opportunity in that second post to de-escalate, to take the high road, to say to yourself "However I feel about that commenter's tone, I'm going to see whether their criticism has any truth to it. If it does, I'll own up to it and make it right." That's the road that brings your actions back in line with your values. You can't control how others react to you, but you can do your best to do the right thing yourself.

    Let's take the analogy of your original post being accidentally stepping on a person's toe in passing. The best option there is to say "Whoops, I'm sorry about that!" The equivalent in this situation would have been for your second post to say something like:

    "What I meant in my post the other day was: "I'm trying to make sure I use the correct pronouns for trans people because I believe it's important. I've noticed that I have a hard time doing it, and I want to point that out as another example of the linguistic phenomenon of it being difficult for people to change their internalized grammar." Unintentionally, I wrote the post in a way that came off as dismissive of pronoun choices. I didn't mean to do that, and I apologize for it. I also realize that much of society is dismissive of trans people much of the time, which can make life extremely tough for them. I can see that that makes it important to be extra-careful to not be dismissive, even by accident. Thanks to those who pointed this out to me, and I'll be more careful in the future."

    Your actual second post clarified what you'd meant in the first post, but didn't quite get to the "Whoops, sorry" part. Getting back to our analogy, it's a bit like saying "Maybe my foot compressed yours against the ground, but you yelped too loudly, and I'm not a foot-stepper, so why are you so peeved?" In any context it's an odd reaction, a bit convoluted, defensive and a bit childish.

    For every reader out there who immediately puts you in the "transphobic" pile for a mistake like your first one, there are probably many more like me, who are bothered but who give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you meant well. When I saw your first post, I winced, and I waited for the "Whoops!" that I expected would come. But it was when I saw your second post that I really thought "Uh, oh." Omitting the "whoops" would usually just be in the "childish" category. But failing to acknowledge that you (however unintentionally) were dismissive toward a group of people who suffer immense misery from constant dismissal, it started to turn into something else, an active denial of the harrowing trans experience, an experience in which imperfect allies, no matter how well-intentioned, can contribute to the hurt. An imperfect ally who can't acknowledge that they are imperfect and strive for better is starting the slide toward not being an ally at all in practice, whatever their abstract beliefs and however often and strongly and publicly those abstract beliefs are stated (see: your third post). Stating your beliefs is great, but it will ring hollow until you make it to the "Whoops" for the original post, and now a "Sorry" that the "Whoops" didn't come sooner.

    I believe that you believe in full rights and equal treatment for marginalized people. I also think it would be a sign of good character to acknowledge when you mess up, even when the person educating you about to be a better ally (e.g. Kirby Conrod) isn't doing it in your favorite way. I believe in your ability to do this. That's why I'm writing to you, because I respect you and I know you truly want to do the right thing. I think you can live up the Language Log value of promoting civil discourse by acknowledging your part in escalating this. I can make no promises about whether the internet will change its opinion of you, but I know it would make a huge difference to me, and I suspect many other readers, perhaps the majority, are with me on this.

  22. Rubrick said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 1:09 pm

    @CL: A lot of the pushback against Kirby and others who objected to Pullum's posts seems to be analyzing their reaction as though it is a response to a single instance of misgendering and apparent callousness.

    But that's what it was. Kirby's guest post wasn't an open letter to all those who misgender, whether callously or carelessly; it was an attack directly on Prof. Pullum. I don't think a lack of civility towards an individual should be forgiven on the grounds that many other individuals have done something wrong.

  23. ~flow said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 1:10 pm

    I think one crucial aspect in this discussion is how much of concepts around gender are built into our languages, how much we are willing to challenge those givens, and how able we even are to recognize conventions and tell them apart from facts proper.

    In German, for example, there are three genders: der Mann, die Frau, das Kind (this is the classical enumeration and look what a nice trinity gives and what a perfect picture of the nuclear family it is). Picking up from my last comment on this forum, may I suggest that we stop calling German der/die/das a gender distinction when talking about grammar, because overwhelmingly it is not about gender, it's about noun classes (most things have an arbitrary class: der Löffel, die Gabel, das Messer—a spoon, a fork and a knife, and a few nouns vascillate in usage between two classes). Calling this phenomenon 'gender' is somewhat jarring to me, especially given that the German equivalent of the term, Geschlecht, has a number of meanings, the most acceptable being 'a class or family of persons', and the most unacceptable in this very context being 'the male member'. Talking about grammatical gender reasserts that these purely conventional classes are a direct und unequivocal depiction—are icons of—natural facts and can't and shouldn't be meddled with. Parts of this statements are probably correct but the way these good parts are knit together gives a false sense of congruity.

    It is still true that German noun classes and perceived biological gender have lots of interaction. Maybe we should loosen those ties, and why not? Many languages have different numbers of noun classes and have other or no spots (?) in their grammars where you must identify a binary gender in a human counterpart to form an acceptable sentence. From a German point of view, English is part there but not quite.

    Let me just tell you a funny story. The other day I talked with an acquaintance about the unwelcome shift from daylight saving(s) time to winter time and remarked how strange it is that all of France and Spain share a common time zone with Germany. They fully agreed that the switchover twice a year is an unnecessary burden and spoke out in favor of keeping one time all the year. Then they added, "except for the time zones of course, those we cannot change".

  24. Tal said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 1:17 pm

    @Eric Baković – you are, of course, correct. I would never presume to claim that my experience is nearly on the same class as the experiences described here (and elsewhere) by others; all I did say is that even these "micro mistakes" can be jarring. By implication, when the mistake is more severe, or even intentional, I can only barely even guess how jarring (or annoying, or scary, etc.) is the experience.

    I do wish gender would, at some time in the future of humanity, stop being such a key aspect of language. Why does one person have to address another in a different way based on that other person's gender, anyway?

  25. jick said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 1:26 pm

    This whole debate reminded me of my native language's troublesome grammar rules regarding "politeness". As some might know, Korean infamously has ~6 levels of politeness (though 2 of them are out of fashion these days, thank god): they attach to the main verb of almost every sentence, and you have to navigate yourself carefully depending on the social relation, context, relative age and seniority, and what not.

    Some people say this makes Korean a particularly polite language. Being a native speaker for 40 years, I actually think Korean is a particularly *rude* language: there can't be that many languages where you can turn "I really enjoyed this cake." or "Is it sunny outside?" into a dreadful insult while perfectly preserving the original meaning. Every day there's likely thousands of hours collectively lost in pointless bickering that ends up in "How old are you?"

    I cannot dictate how English pronoun system should evolve: after all, it's not my language, so my opinion doesn't count. But I have a feeling that, if the language changes in such a way that the use of a wrong personal pronoun is perceived as personal insult (instead of simply being a wrong expression), then English speakers will be worse off as a result.

    Because, when there are several distinct forms where only one is considered "respectful", it won't be used to foster respect among speakers: it will be used to subtly insult each other and ascertain pecking order between individuals. I hope English does not go down that path.

  26. RfP said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 1:44 pm

    Geoff Pullum is one of the best and most skillful writers I have ever read. His mastery of nuance is so deeply engrained that he seldom makes a serious mistake.

    I understand how this would make it harder to apologize, but that's what he needs to do—simply, clearly, and unequivocally.

    All needs to do is say, "I'm sorry."

    Is it really that hard?

  27. RfP said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 2:01 pm

    Sorry, Geoff—I didn't mean to ungender you!

    I meant to say, "All he needs to do is say, 'I'm sorry.' "

  28. Eric Baković said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 2:19 pm

    @~flow — you (and others) may find James W. Harris's 1991 article "The Exponence of Gender in Spanish" interesting, regarding to the question of the relationship between biological sex, gender identity, grammatical gender, and noun class: http://linguistics.fas.harvard.edu/files/linguistics/files/james_harris_on_sp_gender.pdf.

    It may also be worth pointing out here that the term "gender" has been in use in the grammatical, noun-class sense far longer than it has been in use in the (current) social sense: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gender. Not that this means its use in the grammatical sense shouldn't be jarring, but there is a reason why that use persists despite the readily available (and also regularly used) alternative term "noun class".

  29. Peter Klecha said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 2:19 pm

    @Weltanschauung:

    two things:

    first, yes, i totally agree, implicatures can be canceled, but in order to be canceled, you have to actually cancel them. GP didn't in the original post. perhaps since then he has canceled some of them ("retracted" would be a better word for it, when it's retroactive), but i brought this up in response to the following line in the above post:

    "But the level of rage […] triggered by even mentioning that a grammatical change can be hard to voluntarily implement — while nevertheless making the effort to do so — indicates that something different is happening here."

    this suggests that the authors of the above post do not understand that the rage they mention is not about the literal meaning of what was said, but rather, the implicatures.

    second, i didn't mean to suggest that the implicature GP's post gave rise to was "it's going to be hard — so i'm not going to do it." for the sake of clarity, here three implicatures i think the post did give rise to:

    a) "I'm not sure what I'm going to do about this, because for me singular 'they' is ungrammatical with a personal name as antecedent."

    this implicates a misunderstanding of singular/name-anteceded "they" (henceforth just "they"). probably everyone who considers "they" grammatical weren't raised to. probably nearly everyone who considers it grammatical does so because they trained themselves to do it. nobody expects GP or anyone else to just have already passively acquired it. but this line implicates that finding "they" ungrammatical is a peculiar situation which those who do use it don't face. i, and many like me, find this an implicature worthy of strenuous push-back.

    b) "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."

    the real offender here is the first sentence, not the second. this implicates, quite strongly, that others do expect him to start saying such things. it implicates that he was responding to having been recently excoriated for not doing it, yet in the context of the post, there is no indication of anything of the sort. the second sentence, in the context of the first, then seems to implicate that doing one's best but struggling is something that is frowned upon generally. i would say most people on the other side of this issue are very much willing to accept good-faith efforts even if they are not perfect. such people would be within their rights to push-back on the implicatures here.

    c) "Suppose someone said they wanted any object pronoun referring to them to be positioned before the verb, as in French, rather than after the verb, as in English. Could you manage that? Could you them accommodate by making the requested change to the positioning of pronouns that them denote?"

    this is the most egregious. it clearly implicates that such a scenario would be no different in substance from the present one, which belies a serious misunderstanding of the reason people want to be referred to by different pronouns — it is not a whim, it's a matter of preserving their sanity and dignity. it's not about arbitrary morphosyntactic features, it's about semantics — i.e., it's about other people saying you're male or female when you're not. again, it's reasonable for this implicature to meet stiff resistance.

  30. CL said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 2:30 pm

    @Rubrick Perhaps I should have written "as though it is ONLY a response to a single instance…". Yes, it is a response to a single instance, but it's also a response that grows out of a long, lived experience with a wide variety of well- or not-so-well-intentioned errors and actual intentional jabs. Eric says it well, I think: "This doesn't excuse apparently unthoughtful incivility… rather, it contextualizes it"

    We understand speech acts in context, and react to them more strongly when they seem disproportionate. My point is primarily that Kirby's and others' responses seem much less disproportionate when looked at in the context of their daily battle to be recognized for who they are, than when they're looked at as reactions to an isolated event.

  31. Naitnin said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 3:20 pm

    It has been pointed out in the debate that Pullum's comments have caused damage to people. I would like readers to consider the following questions:

    1. Have Pullum's comments caused lasting damage to any person?
    2. Has the criticism of his comments caused lasting damage to Pullum?
    3. Are Pullum's comments so immoral that they justify the lasting damage caused by the criticism of them?

    My own assessment is as follows:

    1. No. No person has sustained lasting damage from Pullum's comments.
    2. Yes. Pullum's reputation is forever ruined. Five hundred years from now, histories of linguistics will say that Geoffrey K. Pullum was a great linguist but had insufficiently high moral standards, implying that he is not to be respected on par with history's other great scientists. It will never be possible to name, say, a building for him, because of his place in the history of transphobia.
    3. No. It is not inarguable that Pullum's intentions weren't pure, and when making a moral assessment of someone, their intention is everything. The criticism levied at Pullum's comments has the unavoidable effect of forever branding him insufficiently
    moral. His critics, being people of normal intelligence, knew all about this effect but intentionally chose to ignore it. As it is not inarguable that Pullum's intentions weren't pure, he cannot deserve the irreparable damage to his reputation inflicted on him by his critics.

  32. Geoffrey K. Pullum said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 4:32 pm

    I have eight points to make that might be of interest to readers of this thread, though the passions that have unfortunately been roused will probably not subside (perhaps, indeed, they shouldn't). All I can promise you is that none of this is crafted with political ends in view; like it or not, what I say here will be open and sincere, and the product of long reflection.

    1. My December 4th upost "A letter saying they won" was a feeble effort. By accident it caused a huge outcry. I bitterly regret publishing it, or even starting it. To be frank, I started it out of a sense of duty: November was an unbelievably packed month for me, and I had not had time to contribute anything to Language Log except two small items, both trivial. (The second, "Just press Pay", elicited a direct attack by email from a stranger who said it had nothing to do with language and wasn't even well written and I should leave posting on Language Log to people who were better at it. Perhaps I should.)

    2. All I had as content for "A letter saying they won" was a tiny point about ordinary singular they with indefinite antecedents being used by a journalist. It was written up and already posted when its relevance collapsed completely: Daniel Sterman informed me that he had discovered that all uses of they in the article cited were simply Phillip Garcia's pronoun preference. I should have deleted the post instantly. I apologise to you all for not doing so; it was a weak post anyway, and nothing good came of what followed.

    3. I thought perhaps I could leave the post up on the site if I just admitted the mistake and briefly made the point about the difficulty over finding personal name antecedents for they ungrammatical. So I hastily tacked that on. I added an attempt at an analogy, an imaginary case of trying to voluntarily alter your syntax. But Peter Klecha is right to critique it above: it was a word order point, and the analogy is nowhere near close enough. The interesting thing about personal pronoun uses, whether it's masculine he, feminine she, neuter it, or singular epicene they, is about the real-world claim pronouns make: when you use he you make a commitment to a claim of malesness (that's the point made in The Cambridge Grammar's unusually judgmental tirade against "purportedly sex-neutral he"). Pronoun use is special because it's tied to metaphysics. My attempt at an analogy just wasn't any good.

    4. In the hasty rewriting I unintentionally misgendered Phillip Garcia against the express wish that Sterman had just told me about. Now, when I offend someone, I apologize to them directly and sincerely. People who know me will know that. If Phillip Garcia approached me and reported having been hurt by my pronoun gaffe, I would apologize very straightforwardly.

    5. I didn't misgender anyone else but Phillip. I'm sure I sometimes will misgender people by accident in the future, and on those occasions I will apologize to the offended person at the time.

    6. On going back into my misbegotten post to fix the misgendering I decided to leave my slip in there (it illustrated my own fallibility, which I was not trying to conceal), and just popped in "—sorry, they are" after "he is". This caused great offense which I did not foresee, and I wish I had done a radical replacement edit instead. My bad. It has most unfortunately been interpreted as snarky, as if I were sneering at trans people everywhere. I was not. And the two other things I'll say here are both extensions of this point. One is minor and concerns my writing; the other is much deeper.

    7. The minor point is that I'm shocked that any of you would think I don't know how to make it obvious that I'm sneering. I like to think that when I sneer at something, it stays sneered at. I hope I'm not mellowing. Perhaps I should redouble my efforts. I thought I had the writing talent to make it very clear indeed when I'm embarking on ridicule.

    8. But this is the serious point. There are of course many people out there who will always react in a hostile way to anyone whose gender or sexuality is not what they think of as the norm. They will be eager to derogate or ridicule or attack people who prefer to be regarded as non-binary and referenced with they (or who exhibit non-standard non-cis gender or sexuality attributes in any other way), and pass laws designed to hurt or inconvenience them. You know the shameful legislative moves I'm referring to. But the extent to which I oppose the values of such people would be hard to overstate. As I see it, for a million years we humans have been unnecessarily turning our biological sexual differentiation into verbal and cultural prisonhouses of stereotype and constraint. In recent decades, in several western societies, millions of young people of many and varied gender identities (and allies of all ages who are prepared to think radically about sex and gender) have been trying to break down the prison walls. That's enormously heartening. It's a liberation that gives me optimism about a world that in many political respects sometimes seems to be retrogressing. I don't just vaguely nod with approval toward this movement; I'm positively thrilled to see it. I wholeheartedly support and embrace it. If you're a part of the movement, or you support it, I salute you. That's where I stand.

  33. cs said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 4:41 pm

    Throwing in my 2 cents:

    1. For people who were hurt by Pullum's post, I think it should be enough (in some sense) that you are able to express, in this forum, that you were hurt and how you think people should do better going forward. I don't get the point of asking Pullum to personally acknowledge that you were hurt, or asking Pullum to personally apologize, I don't see how that is particularly helpful to anyone.

    2. I think the only objectionable thing about Pullum's original post was the tone – the focus on the fact that he was finding it personally difficult to use "they" in a certain context was a useful observation from a linguistic point of view (which is the main subject of this blog after all). However, he did seem to express annoyance with having to make some change in his vocabulary, and that is what has obviously rubbed some the wrong way.

  34. RP said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 4:53 pm

    @Geoffrey Pullum,
    A very comprehensive explanation, thank you.
    I for one hope you will continue to write for LL.

  35. Levantine said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 5:28 pm

    Regarding Professor Pullum's Point 7, it's precisely because he is such a good writer that it's difficult to credit that he could have made such a mistake in his phrasing. As a commenter called Julian noted in one of the earlier threads, the "construction 'X – sorry Y' . . . is used for the express purpose of invalidating the nature of Y and implying that Y is actually X." This is not to say that Professor Pullum was using the construction with this intent — I believe him when he says he wasn't — but I do find it odd that he won't acknowledge that his (usually impeccable) sense of idiom failed him on this occasion. His incredulity at being misunderstood ("I'm shocked that any of you would think I don't know how to make it obvious that I'm sneering") is difficult to square with the fact that he must surely recognise, even if only in retrospect, that he unwittingly employed a construction that would in most circumstances be understood as sneering.

  36. GH said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 5:43 pm

    @Peter Klecha:

    b) "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."

    the real offender here is the first sentence, not the second. this implicates, quite strongly, that others do expect him to start saying such things. it implicates that he was responding to having been recently excoriated for not doing it, yet in the context of the post, there is no indication of anything of the sort.

    I… find it difficult to respond to this without sarcasm.

    Whether or not the implicature is present, the claim is clearly true: Others do expect Pullum to make the strongest possible effort to use the preferred pronoun even if it results in sentences that are "clearly and decisively ungrammatical" according to his internalized grammar. The outcry over his post makes that abundantly clear.

  37. cliff arroyo said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 5:49 pm

    "All he needs to do is say, 'I'm sorry.' "

    I think it's fairly clear by now that that will not satisfy a significant percentage of those criticising him. I'm not sure what will satisfy them and I'm not entirely sure if they know themselves (that's not criticism – there are obviously a lot of non-completely-processed ideas and emotions in play).

  38. Geoffrey K. Pullum said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 5:50 pm

    Yes, Levantine, it was a construction that I now know it would have been vastly better for me not to use, because it could be interpreted as a way to sneer. I acknowledge that. You are right. Don't make me say it in capital letters.

  39. Levantine said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 5:52 pm

    Thank you for your frank response, Professor Pullum.

  40. RfP said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 5:55 pm

    Thanks for the clear and sincere apology, Geoff!

    Please keep writing for Language Log!

  41. Mike Casey said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 6:55 pm

    Regarding any valuable change that would be beneficial to individuals and society as a whole, why isn't "I will try." and "I am trying." good enough? And if I assure people that I will try to change my behaviour, should I not be surprised if they monitor me and set a time limit on my attempts to change from that point on?

  42. Peter Klecha said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 7:00 pm

    @Geoff Pullum

    thank you for the very forthright response. for myself, i greatly appreciate it.

    @GH

    i appreciate your restraint.

    perhaps i didn't make myself clear. i took him to be saying "it's a bit much to expect me to be perfect"; i objected to that because no one expects perfection. if he was instead saying "it's a bit much to expect me to make a good faith effort" that would be extremely strange, since he asserts in the same paragraph that he is indeed making a good faith effort.

  43. MikeyC said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 7:03 pm

    Yes, there's been outcry, but outcry can also be unreasonable at times.

  44. Weltanschauung said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 7:12 pm

    I smugly congratulate myself on having my comment acknowledged as vicious, rude, heartless, and aggressive, and yet I have miserably failed to draw the attention of my gender dysphoric fellow readers to the distinction between enemy and friend.

    On which side of this line do they place our generous and magnanimous hosts? Generous in having liberally entertained and enlightened us for so many years on every sort of linguistic topic under the sun, and magnanimous not only in posting today's ringing affirmation of gender-revisionist dreams and aspirations, but also in leaving comments open, with the results we can all see displayed. I repeat: Geoff Pullum is your friend. If this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you find yourselves marginalized.

    If, as I fear, Pullum weighs the competing claims on his time and decides he doesn't need the grief of posting here, despite the permission to do so graciously given by RP and RfP, I wonder who will be able to fill the much-needed gap.

  45. Ellen Kozisek said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 7:40 pm

    Levantine, we don't usually get to see the first drafts of good writers. Part of what makes a writer a good writer is good editing, even if it's self editing.

  46. Xmun said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 8:01 pm

    I am an occasional reader of Language Log, and have usually found the posts and comments reasonably interesting, informative, and worthwhile. But I cannot say the same of this latest thread, since so much of it consisted of tiresome repetitive whining. If there's another eruption of the same, I shall cease reading Language Log — and that'll show you, won't it!

  47. Andrew Usher said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 8:56 pm

    Well, I suppose I had better get my say in before this thread is locked as well; I feel I must speak (I agree with the immediately preceding comment, though):

    First, though I don't want to debate the whole thing, one sentence in this blog post is disturbing: "We don't believe you can become a student of language, language use, or even grammar, without understanding something about the human condition and power relations between groups …"; while not completely false, that appears to express a quite unscientific attitude that one must be 'politically correct' in order to know anything about linguistics. If the field is indeed to be a genuine science, such ideas must not prevail.

    with your examples that follow, I don't believe they show any genuine change. Whether sign language should be called a language, to anyone informed, is not a matter about the status of sign language, but about how one is to define the term 'language'. Sometimes it is useful to include sign languages, but not always. Similarly with the African-American dialect (or group of dialects?) – there's no doubt they are language, but whether equal to the standard dialect is more a matter of perspective, or taste, than a hard fact. The latter does illustrate cultural change, but I'm not sure how much linguists should be taking the credit.

    To get back to the main focus, it's pretty clear the people attacking Pullum were not justified, regardless of where (if anywhere) he stood, and it's worth considering if that kind of people ever deserve an apology. I had no problem with his original post, nor its analogy (I would have used a similar one), and I will assert that no one has a right to dictate how others may address him (even if he has the power to). Yes, it is necessary to communication (and also politeness) that we do so most of the time, but as a general rule it can't be. My personal experience that has bearing on this is that, I have a few times been mistakenly referred to as 'she' and felt no offence, but when referred to as 'they' I do feel offence even if none was intended. Should I object to this 'misgendering' and complain, even if their usage was simply natural to their idiolect? That's a serious question, and not one I know how to answer.

    There has to be a limit on what we will accept and some recognition that sometimes people declaring that they are offended just need to deal with it. I'm not terribly judgemental, and I understand that most homosexuals and even the usual kind of transsexuals can be said to be 'born that way', but surely no one can be born with any instinct to declare oneself 'non-binary' and demand to be referred to by a plural pronoun. Most everyone I suppose at one time questions their being fit into one 'gender role' (including myself), but few think that a cause to publicly declare anything about 'gender identity'. I could give multiple examples but think it unwarranted right here.

    Finally, as to the original grammatical matter that actually was relevant: Like Geoff Pullum, I use 'singular they' in speech even though I don't consider it strictly correct in many cases – but never to refer to a specified known person. That strikes me as not just unsuitable for formal English, but for any kind of English. I know no one person can pass absolute grammaticality judgements and language does change; someday that may be universally accepted. But it should be of linguistic interest to note that, if it does, it was largely in response to _prescriptive_ demands that people should change (which is also a natural process). And that I must end with as I have gone long enough.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo.com

  48. Emily M. Bender said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 9:40 pm

    Thank you Geoff for your post above (@4:32pm).

    @Andrew Usher — Since I'm commenting just below you, I guess I should reply to some of that. The public's understanding of signed languages as languages is absolutely critical in ensuring that Deaf children get access to linguistic input from birth (and are not forced into oralism which is damaging for their linguistic development). And, speaking as a linguist, I can't think of a single context in which it is helpful to not include signed languages as languages. If you're talking about spoken languages, then you can specify spoken languages. But the vast majority of questions about human language in general (basically everything that doesn't involve phonetics) are better answered with consideration for all human languages—including signed languages.

    Similarly, the fact that African American varieties of English are *still* considered "inferior" as language by many in the lay public is intimately tied up with the American racial construct and all of the damage that it does.

    Finally, and most relevantly to this thread, by declaring that "no one has a right to dictate how others may address him" you are essentially saying: "I choose to be disrespectful of people I interact with when their expressed identities challenge my world view" and you are saying this in the context of an actual world in which trans people are disproportionately subject to violence. That is the population that you are declaring yourself free from any need to be respectful towards.

    Fortunately, many people here (including Geoff, who maybe you were trying to come to the defense of? Unclear) don't agree with you.

  49. Aaron Toivo said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 9:58 pm

    Without passing judgement on any particular person's behavior, I would like to add my voice to whatever degree of call there is for a little more charitability all around. in case anyone finds my experience helpful: Whenever I read things that tick me off, I make an effort to not blow up at it immediately but instead sit back and think for a while before replying, and to re-read the offending material closely in case I missed something. And I believe this policy has done wonders for both my mental health and the quality of my replies when I do decide to make them.

    I would also like to thank Language Log for having taken the time to do the same in making the above post.

  50. Levantine said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 9:59 pm

    Ellen Kozisek, what we read wasn't a first draft, though. Professor Pullum himself has made clear that "—sorry, they are" was something he added while editing the post.

  51. Ellen Kozisek said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 10:08 pm

    Yes, exactly. His misgendering was what he originally wrote, and he added the correction. In this case, as he has noted, he chose to leave the original along with the correction. And he has now acknowledged that it would have been better had he not written it as he did since it could be interpreted as a sneer, which he has made clear he didn't intend.

  52. Levantine said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 10:47 pm

    Ellen Kozisek, I don't really understand how your point relates to mine. I simply noted that the form his correction took happened to be exactly the same as a construction that is usually employed sarcastically or sneeringly. While I fully accept that this was not intended, I was surprised that someone who writes so well should have chosen such infelicitous phrasing to begin with. To be clear, I'm talking about the form of the correction, not the correction itself. There are other ways in which he might have indicated or discussed his initial slip.

  53. Bloix said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 11:03 pm

    Eric Bucovic, who has literally never written a single post on this blog saying anything worth reading about language, chose to give his space over to an extraordinarily rude, snide, arrogant, and ageist post by a grad student with no claim on even a minute of my time. Mark, this "why can't we all get along" post completely misses the point. Conrod is a massive jerk and Bocovic is equally a jerk for sponsoring him. They need to be called out.

  54. Brooke said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 11:16 pm

    As a trans linguist, I'm happy that linguistics as a field generally takes a very sensible and rational stance on the legitimacy and value of marginalized communities, be they trans, deaf, black, etc.

    And I'm happy that the inane sputterings of peripheral cranks who disagree are relegated to the comment section. Feel free to continue exposing your sad mental world here while I go out an educate the next generation

  55. ngage92 said,

    December 16, 2017 @ 12:20 am

    Ugh, this is so difficult to read. Pullum is obviously and trollishly punching down on a marginalized group, yet the prevailing response seems to be "gotta hear both sides"

  56. David Morris said,

    December 16, 2017 @ 12:35 am

    Change happens.
    Some changes are very easy.
    Some changes are very hard.

  57. Natasha Warner said,

    December 16, 2017 @ 12:55 am

    I would also like to thank Geoff and Mark for this post, and Geoff for the comment above that lays out what order things happened in. Both of those help a lot with this situation.

  58. Chas Belov said,

    December 16, 2017 @ 1:09 am

    Um, my understanding was that this was not about transmen (who, to my cis male understanding are binary men properly pronouned individually as "he") or transwomen (who, again to my understanding, are binary women properly pronouned individually as "she") but about non-binary people (who are, I guess unless they express a wish to be addressed by some other pronoun, properly pronouned individually as singular "they"). I find it jarring, as someone who knows several transgendered individuals of both definite genders but am just now within the last couple of years becoming familiar with genderqueerness, to read the two (transgender and non-binary) as conflated with one another, and I wonder whether it might lead non-binary individuals to feel unheard. (That said, if non-binary people consider themselves to be transgender, I'm happy to adjust my perception on the matter.)

  59. Chas Belov said,

    December 16, 2017 @ 1:11 am

    For clarity "both definite genders" means I know both male transmen and female transwomen.

  60. Dan T. said,

    December 16, 2017 @ 1:12 am

    Linguists find sign language and Black English to be valid languages because they meet objective scientific definitions of such, not based on how marginalized those populations are.

  61. postageincluded said,

    December 16, 2017 @ 1:41 am

    Leaving aside political considerations, I think adapting to using novel pronouns is intrinsically more difficult than adopting other forms of non-discriminatory language based on lexis. Pronouns seem to me (as pretty much a non-linguist) to be representations of grammatical categories. We are used to choosing lexical items, but not used to choosing our grammar.

  62. Mike Casey said,

    December 16, 2017 @ 1:52 am

    Elderly people are also marginalised in many countries. Shouldn't we then also call out ageism? Shouldn't we support elderly people in their fight against ageism and other forms of discrimination? I'm fully in support of marginalised people who wish to be referred to by their chosen pronoun, and I would ask those people to also avoid discriminating against other marginalised people.

  63. Mike Casey said,

    December 16, 2017 @ 2:28 am

    Has Baković been commenting on, or been a self-elected mouthpiece for, gender-linguistics for a long time now? If so, can someone point me in the direction of past threads of theirs?

  64. eub said,

    December 16, 2017 @ 4:28 am

    After all this back-and-forth by smart people, there still isn't a meeting of minds to get beyond "good intentions". This post said people should assume Geoff has good intentions because linguist. Geoff's extensive 4:32 comment explains the editing process and states his broader good intentions (and I believe those), and does in the end acknowledge a phrasing that admits an interpretation of snark. Acknowledging when one makes a misstep in phrasing is a step beyond "good intentions", great! But jeez, there's so much more around, and piecemeal it feels like pulling teeth, and I think this discussion is about wrapped. Consider for next time how you might go past intentions?

    You can both personally value friends of non-binary gender, and also hurt them more than you want and more than you realize. It's as simple as not fully grasping what you're doing, so that you don't avoid doing it. For example, misgendering somebody and not feeling the sting of it, not reacting "yikes, fix that." Or misgendering somebody and expressing that they would be due an apology only if they approach you and confirm they were hurt (because you wouldn't waste an expensive apology on some fraction of people going by "they" who wouldn't want an apology?). And that only they would warrant one, not the public audience of your post: I guess not appreciating that some non-binary people in your audience would find flippant misgendering to be a corrosive environment. And that they would grit their teeth at reading this from a senior colleague of some and a person with social power, having to know that this senior person is apt to misgender and at best take much time and persuasion to realize that's an error. Persuasion from more social position that the reader can necessarily bring to bear themselves.

    (You may think this is angels on the head of a pin? Please believe all of this is common real effects on real people, that they might not even take the time to unpack to this level of detail, but I'm trying to give a blueprint if you don't have the intuitive response they do.)

    You can both be professionally able to describe the effects of power and language, and also demonstrate those effects yourself without wanting to. Geoff may not have meant to communicate "I'll make an effort, but it's 'a bit much', you can't blame me if I flub a pronoun, and I'm in a position not to need to care," but he's coming after a pretty high prior probability of people doing that.

    This stuff happens, so you handle it. You look at what you did and you show that you understand it. You assume people you care about assume you have good intentions — especially those who never said you didn't — so you don't sink much time into that, you listen to what people are saying about your actions.

  65. Geoffrey K. Pullum said,

    December 16, 2017 @ 4:33 am

    Some people, of course, are going to be forever unreachable. No utterance of mine, and no testimony from people who know me, could change their minds. We see one commenting above, I think:

    Pullum is obviously and trollishly punching down on a marginalized group, yet the prevailing response seems to be "gotta hear both sides"

    I will probably have to just live with the hostility of people who still beliefs like this, and I can handle that. But in a spirit of optimism about humans always being reachable in principle, I will just give this very brief précis of my stance on this affair, and hereafter I'll remain silent.

    The way I phrased things in the last four paragraphs of my December 4th post on this site offended many members of a marginalized group with whom I am firmly in sympathy. To all of them I say, sorry.

  66. B R George said,

    December 16, 2017 @ 7:01 am

    Chas – There are many trans people who are not nonbinary (that is, who are just women or just men, who have a history of being gendered differently/incorrectly at birth). Many nonbinary people are trans. Under many definitions, all or virtually all nonbinary people are trans, so you'll often encounter people talking in a way that presupposes that the nonbinary population is a subset of the trans population.

    There are many nonbinary people don't medically transition, but there are also a lot of us who do. (I happen to belong to the latter group.) The goals and physiological details of medical transition will be different for different nonbinary people. Similar things could be said about the diversity of medical transition experiences (or non-experiences) among trans men and among trans women. Different people pursue different medical transition paths – or pursue none – for a variety of medical, personal, social, financial, and other reasons.

  67. Brooke said,

    December 16, 2017 @ 8:05 am

    @Dan T: I was speaking of the legitimacy and value of marginalized *communities* and I maybe mistakenly took it to be obvious that I wasn't claiming that the linguistic concerns of those communities are identical.

    everyone: When I speak of the legitimacy of those communities, I mean in part the acknowledgement that we are not irrational ideologues, but adults, like you, who never asked to be the target of society-wide ignorance. We think about these issues all the time, not because they are fun abstractions, but because they impact our lives in serious way. This leads to a different yet deeper understanding of the issues at hand.

    That we've thought longer and harder about these topics leads us to say things that will not align with many people's lay, casual reflections. This is a good thing, but the fact that we are marginalized inverts this and results in the half-baked fancies of the people who have considered the issues the least to be taken more seriously and given more charity.

    This exasperates me, but again I'm optimistic. I teach hundreds of students a year at an R1 university. My views and the views of other trans people are the future of the field and will supplant the previous ignorance on their merits and the fact that we have a compelling, rational, and liberating approach to the subject

  68. MikeyC said,

    December 16, 2017 @ 8:07 am

    Moving on…?

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