Pronouns: identification by paradigm?

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A graduate student in classics expresses appreciation for the new norm of academic staff announcing their pronoun preferences, but wonders why everyone gives their preferences as three-element paradigm: she/her/hers, he/him/his, they/them/their. It's not like anyone is going to mix and match, she/him/their or whatever.

Two possible answers occur to me. For those who use pronouns not in the familiar set {he, she, they}, people may be puzzled about what the overall paradigm is like. This card from the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee gives a (non-exhaustive) sample:

Another possible answer is a desire to make it clear that the traditional case-related forms are OK — if I said "My preferred pronoun is he", it might seem that I want people to say "I saw he yesterday", or "He name is Mark".

In other signs of the pronominal times, this story in the Washington Post refers to a trans man throughout using singular they, without any explanation or excuse — Isaac Stanley-Becker, "'He made me transgender on purpose': Breast-removal surgery could boot Mormon student from Brigham Young", WaPo 8/24/2018:

Starting at age 11, they prayed for breast cancer. So distressing were the markers of their femininity that Kris Irvin — who identifies as a man and uses the pronouns they, them and their — would have welcomed abnormal cell growth in their "crappy and dysfunctional body."

Irvin knew of no other remedy for the physical and emotional agony that seemed to intertwine in their breasts, as they knew of no word to describe what they were experiencing.

Since they were 3 years old, Irvin said, they were certain that they were male. "But I didn't know the word 'transgender' until I was 28," said Irvin, who is now 31 and a student at Brigham Young University, a school bound so tightly to the Mormon faith that enrollment rests on evaluation by religious leaders. That requirement could place Irvin's education in jeopardy.

 



70 Comments

  1. Kristian said,

    August 25, 2018 @ 1:34 pm

    "It's not like anyone is going to mix and match, she/him/their or whatever."

    Why not?

  2. Tom S. Fox said,

    August 25, 2018 @ 2:12 pm

    It's sad that universities teach linguistic prescriptivism now.

  3. Rebecca said,

    August 25, 2018 @ 3:47 pm

    I don't understand what you mean when you say the article uses singular they throughout without explanation. The bit you quote explicitly states that that's what the subject uses. I wouldn't expect more explanation than that.

    [(myl) I'd call that more of an assertion than an explanation — can you imagine an article in a major national newspaper ten or even five years ago using they/them/their throughout in reference to a specific person, without saying anything more about it than that the subject "identifies as a man and uses the pronouns they, them and their"?]

  4. Rick Rubenstein said,

    August 25, 2018 @ 5:01 pm

    I understand Mark's point in his reply to Rebecca, but the assertion does feel to me at least in part like the writers/editors covering their butts: "We're going to use singular they, and here's why."

    Not that I object to this; I think it's quite nice that they're explicitly following Kris's preferred pronoun usage, calling attention to that is reasonable given the newness of the usage.

    In an unrelated note, it's cool that we so easily understand what's meant by the assertion that Kris "uses the pronouns they, them and their". I mean, so do all English speakers — I use them practically every day! I suspect this would be tricky for an AI with semantic ambitions.

  5. Rick Rubenstein said,

    August 25, 2018 @ 5:04 pm

    [My second paragraph above needed a copyeditor.]

    In an even more unrelated note, it's an interesting coincidence that an article about a man who felt he wrongly had a female body uses the word "breasts" and the phrase "bound so tightly", but the latter isn't referring to the former.

  6. Jake Wildstrom said,

    August 25, 2018 @ 5:28 pm

    I think the three-element paradigm is indeed useful if someone uses uncommon pronouns — the objective and possessive forms are often not obvious morphological changes of the subjective form, whereas the possessive pronoun and reflexive often are straightforwardly determinable from the possessive and objective respectively (with one exceptional rule: possessive -y becomes posessive pronoun -ine, as in first person my/mine, informal archaic second person thy/thine, or Gom's gender-neutral hy/hine).

    Apropos of morphological rules, there doesn't seem to be a universal consensus on whether the reflexive form of semantically-singular "they" is "themself" (following the singular semantics) or "themselves" (following the plural grammar).

  7. Andrew Usher said,

    August 25, 2018 @ 5:37 pm

    If there was any doubt that singular 'they' could cause confusion and ambiguity, that article should prove the point. One continually has to remind oneself, reading something like that, not to put a plural referent to 'they' even though one is plausible. I am trying – as you did – to make no comment about the actual subject of the article, just the grammar.

    Pronoun usage is a part of the English language, and a fundamental part, not like a single vocabulary item. The idea the one person, or a small group, should have the right to change it is to me incomprehensible. It's true that I will insist, when it comes up, that I should be referred to as 'he' and not 'they', but I am only comfortable doing that because I know grammar supports me.

    [By the way, my last sentence shows how the American use of the mandative subjunctive is superior to the British. To them 'should' would add nothing, but I can use 'should' in its normal sense even under the subjunctive.]

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo.com

  8. Alex Temple said,

    August 25, 2018 @ 6:18 pm

    I'm trans and have many nonbinary friends, and I've wondered about this too. At one point I started a Facebook thread asking about it, and the answers I got were:
    – It's harder to mishear than just one form.
    – It started with neopronouns (ze/hir/hirs, xey/xem/xirs, etc), and then became habit.
    – Whatever its origin, it's become a subcultural norm and people are learning from what they hear.

    I still just say "she" when people ask me my pronouns, and so far nobody has misunderstood.

  9. Chas Belov said,

    August 25, 2018 @ 6:47 pm

    Interesting. I was wondering the same thing but in the opposite direction, why people don't give "they/them/their/theirs". I had to consider it for my modest proposal for an English whose pronouns are non-gendered, which I posted several days before your Language Log post.

  10. Geoff said,

    August 25, 2018 @ 7:23 pm

    Andrew Usher: in the quoted passage at least (I haven't read the whole paywalled article) I have no trouble understanding the intended referent of 'they'.

    In general, promoting prescriptive rules as 'avoiding ambiguity' is greatly over-rated. On most points of argument, meaning and context disambiguate convincingly 99 per cent of the time.

    As for whether a small group has the right to change something: nobody is issuing decrees here. They're just *asking* to be treated in a certain way. Anyone is entitled to do that. Whether they succeed depends on how sympathetic the community as a whole is to their request. So in the end it's still a community decision.

  11. ===Dan said,

    August 25, 2018 @ 8:03 pm

    To follow up a bit on what Geoff said, I think it's a good thing if a school or organization or society were to make it easy for people to make such requests. And to address Tom S. Fox's point (as I understood it), it's not prescriptivism when you allow or even encourage someone to make their wishes known about how people would refer to them. It may be prescriptivism if you believe there's only one right answer for pronoun use.

    I think it's good that Andrew is comfortable making his wishes known regarding pronouns, and it's not for anybody else to judge how he came to such preferences. But I don't think he can generalize his reliance on grammar to apply to other people. After all, he apparently identifies as male and he believes the traditional he/him/his works for him. If the experience of self-identification for someone else is different, it's no longer a simple question of grammar.

  12. Andrew Usher said,

    August 25, 2018 @ 8:04 pm

    It's not paywalled for me, and I read through it and 'they' was repeated consistently even when there was a potential plural referent immediately adjacent. Your general point that context disambiguates the great majority of the time is true – but that doesn't mean the exceptions aren't a problem. I am in favor of rules that avoid ambiguity, as long as they can be followed without crippling the language e.g. the consistent use of the serial comma, or obeying the that/which distinction, do reduce ambiguity without impairing communication nor expression in the least.

    And I agree that your last point too: certainly anyone can _ask_ to be treated a certain way. The problem is that at least some of the time they argue or imply that they have a _right_ to be, which is quite different. Yes it should be a 'community decision', as with all language change; But when it becomes an imposition (even _de facto_), it grants special power to a minority group, which I always oppose.

  13. Andrew Usher said,

    August 25, 2018 @ 8:12 pm

    Of course I was replying to Geoff, and not the new post that showed up in between. It is abominable that editing one's comments is not possible here.

  14. stephen said,

    August 25, 2018 @ 8:17 pm

    How do you pronounce xe, ze and the related words?

  15. Rebecca said,

    August 25, 2018 @ 8:21 pm

    @Rick Rubinstein – I also thought it read a little as butt-covering, but I thought it justifiable not because of newness but because readers might otherwise erroneously think the author was unwilling to use he/him/his in reference to a trans man for some insulting reason.

    Regarding explaining the use: Even though it might confuse some of their readers, by simply stating it's the subject's choice, I think they are erring on the side of being considerate, since most people's preferred pronouns are used without comment at all. This seems to me to be the norm these days, which is what I meant by not expecting more explanation. But I teach in a public school system, and it's common for people to, eg, put their preferred pronouns in their email sig, sans explanation, so my reading of what's out there may be skewed.

  16. ===Dan said,

    August 25, 2018 @ 8:21 pm

    (It was clear to me that Andrew's 8:04 comment was written in reply to Geoff.)
    To reply to that comment, I'll offer that it may depend upon the nature of the "imposition." To ask that the wishes regarding an individual's identity be respected seems perfectly reasonable, and it seems reasonable to ask repeatedly, or to criticize someone for failing to show that respect.
    Consider a hypothetical, that someone, or a group, decided to refer to Andrew as "Andy" or "Ush," regardless of clear requests not to do that. Would it be an imposition for a group to give support to Andrew's preference, by criticizing the continued use of the annoying name?

  17. Ken said,

    August 25, 2018 @ 9:27 pm

    The only thing I find jarring about singular "they" is that it still takes the plural verb forms (though I guess they'd have to be considered singular). For example in the article: "they were… I was… who is…."

    However, the singular forms would be even more jarring: "They sings beautifully", "They was going to the store", etc.

  18. Stephen said,

    August 25, 2018 @ 11:35 pm

    @stephen – from my understanding, xe and ze are pronounced the same way, /zi/, although Wiktionary also lists /zə/ as a valid pronunciation of ze.

    According to this website (https://genderneutralpronoun.wordpress.com/2010/01/24/the-need-for-a-gender-neutral-pronoun/) , xe arose purely out of aesthetic reasons.

  19. Thomas Rees said,

    August 25, 2018 @ 11:51 pm

    Did Dr Johnson peeve about singular "you"? I believe it was standard by his time, but he was from Lichfield and in the 1960s I myself heard "thou" in rural Staffs.
    It seems to me that singular "you" arose from a desire to avoid an unwanted T–V distinction; today, singular "they" avoids unnecessary gender marking.

  20. John Swindle said,

    August 26, 2018 @ 12:13 am

    Thomas Reese said, "It seems to me that singular 'you' arose from a desire to avoid an unwanted T–V distinction; today, singular 'they' avoids unnecessary gender marking."

    And (just to make the point explicit here) in each case the newly singular pronoun takes the existing plural verb forms.

  21. Pflaumbaum said,

    August 26, 2018 @ 12:30 am

    It's interesting that although I see and use singular they all the time, its usage in that article, with a definite referent already introduced in the discourse, was still kind of mind-bending for me.

    I found it had something of the character of an optical illusion: for a while I'd find it almost incomprehensible, and then everything would click into place and it sounded pretty much natural for a while, and then I'd lose it again. I guess as it becomes more standard in prestige writing I'll get the hang of it.

  22. Kristian said,

    August 26, 2018 @ 12:37 am

    "As for whether a small group has the right to change something: nobody is issuing decrees here. They're just *asking* to be treated in a certain way. Anyone is entitled to do that. Whether they succeed depends on how sympathetic the community as a whole is to their request. So in the end it's still a community decision."

    The universities and publications are the ones potentially issuing decrees. People are going to feel pressured to adapt these usages because they'll feel their jobs are at risk. Using novel pronouns that the majority of English speakers have never heard of is not trivially easy. These pronouns are a shibboleth for progressivism.

  23. John Swindle said,

    August 26, 2018 @ 1:24 am

    I'm sorry. My reference of course was to Thomas Rees.

  24. Rigelsen said,

    August 26, 2018 @ 8:17 am

    Dan, did you really mean to equate someone's name/nickname with pronouns? You do understand that these categories have traditionally played vastly differently roles in language, right?

  25. ===Dan said,

    August 26, 2018 @ 8:59 am

    Rigelsen, what the two have in common is that they both relate to a sense of identity. If I considered myself "Charles," I might ask someone not to call me "Chuck," if that were my preference as it related to my sense of identity. One's choice of pronoun shares that concept; it relates to a sense of identity.

    If someone asks you not to use "she," it is not an imposition of a grammatical rule on you, but a request that you acknowledge this declaration of a personal sense of identity. If you stick to your guns about "she" you're not just adhering to a grammatical rule, but making a declaration about the person's gender, about which you might not have enough information to override that person's wishes.

  26. Homer said,

    August 26, 2018 @ 10:38 am

    Not to be prescriptive, I understand why the forms – my, thy, his, her, our, your, their – are lumped together with pronouns because of the common referent. However, these forms are not "pronouns". Rather, both grammatically and syntactically, they operate in the category of "articles" and ought to be designated as "possessive articles" rather than "possessive pronouns". They occupy the same grammatical location as articles and do not occur without following nouns to which they act as markers. Including them in the "pronoun" category tends to create confusion as to their actual grammatical and syntactical function.

  27. Rebecca said,

    August 26, 2018 @ 10:42 am

    I'm in the same place as Pflaumbaum in reading thus usage: singular they is default in many circumstances, but not in this one, so I had to check what I was reading.

    I've similarly found it harder in speech. I recently had a trans girl student who had a gender queer sibling in another class. My student used female pronouns, her sibling used they etc. There was zero problem for me or anyone else to consistently use female pronouns for my student, it was exactly like using them with any other female student. But it took cognitive work to consistently use they etc in reference to her sibling, even though I was completely committed to do so. It had nothing to do with the child and everything to do with shifting my grammar habits.

  28. Philip Taylor said,

    August 26, 2018 @ 10:44 am

    I confess that I am not a fan of singular "they", even though I appreciate why some trans-gender people may prefer to be referenced that way, but when used in the possessive form I find it completely and utterly confusing/ambiguous, as in :

    Irvin knew of no other remedy for the physical and emotional agony that seemed to intertwine in their breasts, as they knew of no word to describe what they were experiencing.

    "Whose breasts ?", I find myself asking.

  29. David Marjanović said,

    August 26, 2018 @ 2:23 pm

    It seems to me that singular "you" arose from a desire to avoid an unwanted T–V distinction;

    The opposite. It is the V side of the distinction; the T side was restricted to fewer and fewer people until in the end it wasn't safe to address anyone that way, leaving only V.

    French almost went there, too. I've still met people who addressed their (then 90-year-old) mother as vous.

  30. Bob Ladd said,

    August 26, 2018 @ 2:42 pm

    @ David Marjanović:
    I don't think French "almost went there too". Even during the period where high-class people routinely addressed their parents as vous, there was no tendency whatsoever to stop addressing children and "inferiors" as tu. That is, the distinction was still alive and well; it's just that many more dyads used mutual vous or unequal vous+tu than is the case nowadays (or than was the case in English 200 years ago).

    Brazilian Portuguese, by contrast, really did go there. As far as I understand the situation, everybody now addresses everybody as você.

  31. jih said,

    August 26, 2018 @ 4:30 pm

    The fact that English does not have gender agreement with either adjectives or verbs is a huge advantage. This has allowed for the relatively easy general adoption of non-sexist usage, compared with languages like German, French, Italian or Spanish where writing or saying simple things like "dear reader" or "all citizens" in a non-sexist manner is still a problem (although different proposals have been put forward).
    Adopting third person forms that are not marked for gender also seems relatively straighforward in English. Granted, the use of forms like "they" as singular may create some ambiguity in some contexts, but as has already been remarked by other people leaving comments here, the use as second person singular of terms of address and verbal forms that variously can also be second person plural (you are, vous êtes), third person singular (lei è) or third person plural (Sie sind), has also introduced potential ambiguity, and speakers of these languages happily live with this ambiguity. It's a matter of knowning the that these forms have more than one usage in the relevant language; not too difficult.
    On the other hand, in languages like, say, Spanish, almost every time you use an adjective to talk about you, the addressee or someone else you must specify the gender of the referent as either masculine or feminine. You can say estoy cansada "I am tired (and I am female)" or estoy cansado "I am tired (and I am male)" there is no non-gendered option. I wonder if someone with knowledge about the facts could write a report here on what solutions have been proposed for Spanish, Italian or any other language with a masculine/feminine contrast in adjectives to allow for non-binarity.
    I also wonder about languages like Hebrew where gender-agreement rules force you to choose between masculine and feminine verb forms for your addressee (so that when you say "you sing" you are identifying the person you are talking to as either M or F). Does anybody here know of any proposals that have been made for linguistic gender non-binarity in Hebrew, Arabic or other languages with gendered verb forms?

  32. Alexander said,

    August 26, 2018 @ 5:04 pm

    @ Bob Ladd:
    Yes, my Portuguese college textbook didn't even mention the second person conjugation (since você uses third person), and my instructor said they only use it to address god in prayers.

  33. Andrew Usher said,

    August 26, 2018 @ 9:08 pm

    Dan:
    I think intent needs to be taken into account. If someone called me by a name I didn't wish to be called, and continued after I'd explained politely, I'd have to assume that the person was trying to embarrass, insult, or bully me, or in short that he was acting from a hostile intent – and it would be the same for anyone else being called by a 'wrong' name. I do not think people objecting to different pronouns generally have any such hostile intent toward any specific person demanding them. Your comment about its being just a similar matter of politeness might, I grant, be true if the only options were 'he' and 'she' – but using 'they' really does violate many people's sense of grammar, as one can see here. For both reasons, it seems that refusing to use different pronouns is more defensible that calling someone by the wrong name – even if, in both cases, it was originally an innocent mistake.

    But really, what this is about isn't any one person's preferences, it is that (quoting Kristian) 'The universities and publications are the ones potentially issuing decrees. People are going to feel pressured to adapt these usages because they'll feel their jobs are at risk.' In other words, the problematic things are going to be those clearly on the coercive side (I agree that boundary can be fuzzy) and you _can not_ overestimate how big a threat losing one's job is to most people. It doesn't need to be, and rarely is, explicitly 'do X or you're fired'. That is the insidious side of the capitalist system that we're not supposed to talk about.

    As to singular/plural 'you':

    I suppose it was a loss to English to lose the number distinction in 2nd person, but ditching the T/V distinction (which interferes with that anyway) more than made up for it. I don't think this kind of singular 'they' is really analogous because number distinction is much more important in the third person than second (and even more in first, but no language has tampered with that). But on the subject, it seems that requesting to be spoken to using 'thou' (which would surely not be honored, and would brand one as crazy) would be about as much of a grammar issue as requesting 'they' is.

  34. Chas Belov said,

    August 26, 2018 @ 11:30 pm

    I see Broadway World uses just he/him or she/her https://www.broadwayworld.com/los-angeles/article/Photo-Flash-First-Look-at-California-Shakespeare-Theaters-WAR-OF-THE-ROSES-20180824

  35. Kristian said,

    August 27, 2018 @ 1:29 am

    As many of you doubtless know, Finnish doesn't have separate pronouns for masculine and feminine (and colloquially not even necessarily for animate and inanimate). When Joyce's Ulysses was re-translated into Finnish some years ago, the translator decided to use "hen" as a feminine third person pronoun (instead of "hän"). He thought too many nuances were lost without it, and that the style of the book made it possible to take liberties like that. More or less at the same time, "hen" was what some Swedes were advocating as a singular gender neutral pronoun (instead of han/hon).

  36. rosie said,

    August 27, 2018 @ 2:05 am

    @Andrew Usher The "small group", I take it, is non-binary people. They have a right to change the pronoun system because the existing system is not adequate. In this case, new concepts entail new usages.

    @Kristian "People are going to feel pressured to adapt these usages". I don't know whether you meant "adapt to these usages" or "adopt these usages". At any rate, we're all used to having to learn the name by which each individual we meet should be addressed, and a gendered pronoun is only one bit of further information to learn. Now some people want alternative pronouns. They are a very small minority, true, but that means that the extra burden is also very small. Far smaller than that which came with the addition of "Ms" to the set of possible titles for a woman.

  37. Philip Taylor said,

    August 27, 2018 @ 5:42 am

    Rosie, I don't think any group "has a right to change the pronoun system", or indeed to change any aspect of our language. It is our language, not theirs, and changes can (and will) be made only by general consensus, not by fiat. There was (grudging) acceptance that "Ms" might be incorporated into the language; there is, as yet, little acceptance that the same be true for "(f)ae/e/ey/per/(singular) they/ve/xe/ze/zie". If (as currently seems unlikely) the trans-gender group can identify a single set of pronouns by which they prefer to be referred, then general acceptance remains a possibility, but unless/until they can reach such agreement, general acceptance seems very unlikely to me.

  38. ===Dan said,

    August 27, 2018 @ 6:03 am

    Andrew, the original post was about the card that makes it easier for people to communicate their preferences regarding the way others will refer to them. The preferences intrinsically connected to declarations of personal identity, not grammatical choices. And some people believe neither "he" nor "she" applies to them, not because of grammar, but as a matter of personal identity. Maybe biology. So you might not like "they," but there's no perfect alternative. That's why there are so many choices, alternative suggestions. If you use "he" or "she" you'll be using a word that conflicts with their sense of identity (and their explicit polite request).

    Intent certainly matters. An innocent mistake may be an annoyance to some, but something that's understandable or forgivable. But if the request has been made, to refuse to make that accommodation seems impolite or hostile, putting one's own sense of the rule of grammar over respect for the sense of identity of a human being. (And it can be seen as a mistaken sense, because if you use "he" to refer to a person who does not accept that designation as a matter of biology, it could be said that you're misusing the pronoun.)

    If the card were to have an option: "when including my name in a list, use the Oxford comma" I'd think that would be a ridiculous imposition, about a rule of grammar. Some people care a lot about that comma, but it is not the same kind of social issue. Pronouns are about personal identity, not grammar. Or one's preferences about some grammatical choices may be part of one's sense of identity, but not nearly in the same way as attribution of gender.

    And regarding coercion, this seems rather speculative and hypothetical so far. I would have no problem with an organization's policy to be that explicit preferences should be respected as a matter of showing respect, and I imagine it would take a substantial and well-documented history of disrespect before one's job would be in jeopardy. And if you're bringing "capitalism" into this, I imagine that it might just as big a risk to one's job in some places to merely make a request not to use the standard "he" or "she."

  39. Julian said,

    August 27, 2018 @ 12:29 pm

    Where I'm at, with the heavily queer circles I run in, I don't remember the last time I head somebody give their pronouns in a three-element paradigm (though I will sometimes still see it that way in writing). It's been shortened to a two-element paradigm. ex. "My pronouns are they/them," or sometimes "I use she/her pronouns." But also I know zero people who use pronouns other than he/him, he/her, or they/them, so the longer paradigm might be more common in communities with a greater diversity of neutral pronouns.

    It means that the potential usefulness of outlining the whole paradigm doesn't fully explain why they're given in such a form. These three are common enough that we can assume that we don't need to explain them, so even when that usefulness is removed we don't switch to a simple "they". And in these circles there's never any doubt that you're supposed to use the case-related forms as per normal. If someone for some reason told me "I use he pronouns," I would never assume he wanted me to say *"I just met he."

    Instead, I think there's a third potential factor: it makes it clear you're mentioning the set of pronouns rather than using a pronoun. There are plausible utterances with a single pronoun before the word "pronoun". ex. "What are their pronouns?"

    I also think there's a lexical, and therefore somewhat arbitrary, aspect. We don't really have a good way, traditionally, to talk about what pronouns a person uses, or how to refer to those pronouns. At least not in any common vernacular. It's just wasn't a topic that we thought to discuss. Pronouns were applied by the speaker based on the perceived gender of the referent. Well now that people talk about their pronouns more, we need a way to refer to the gendered sets. We probably could just as easily have landed on "I use neutral pronouns", but I think the existence of alternative sets of neutral pronouns makes that a less attractive option; it lacks clarity, and also costs more syllables and sounds more formal.

  40. Philip Taylor said,

    August 27, 2018 @ 2:35 pm

    "Queer". I notice that three contributors have used this adjective, presumably in reference to homosexuality. In the UK, it is regarded as pejorative; is that no longer true in the U.S. (or elsewhere) ?

  41. Julian said,

    August 27, 2018 @ 3:58 pm

    Yes and no, to both. (And note this is purely anecdotal from my own experience, and not something I've conducted proper studies regarding)

    Like most of our words for this outside of the most clinical, it's a reclaimed pejorative. "Queer" in particular has a "…and fuck you for thinking that's a bad thing" vibe to it. It's still a little dicey when people outside the community use it.

    It's not specifically homosexual, at least not in this use. It's a term that includes the entire LGBTQIA+ community, so a heterosexual trans person or an asexual person might still identify as queer. I think part of its use is rooted in wanting a term that includes the whole alphabet soup that's not as unwieldy in casual conversation.

  42. Andrew Usher said,

    August 27, 2018 @ 7:00 pm

    Well, Dan has his opinion – I think it's an ill-considered one, but I can certainly understand why someone would have it – and we're not going to agree there. I do think, though, that he is not using the word 'grammar' in a standard sense, and that was the root of my argument..

    The reason we don't have a traditional way to ask someone about pronoun choice is precisely that people just followed grammar (their mental intrinsic, not prescriptive rules). There have always been a few people that tried to 'pass' as the other sex and if successful, they would of course have the appropriate pronouns used and no one could think that a grammatical issue.

    Finally, I have to make the obvious comment that I really doubt anyone seriously uses those 'other' pronouns than he, she, they – they are made up and feel too silly (or ambiguous) to use in speech, which is precisely why 'they' gets chosen despite the problems with it.

  43. Julian said,

    August 27, 2018 @ 7:14 pm

    Andrew: Enh, if your idiolect hasn't caught up to the increasingly standard usage of singular they, that's on you.

    The more salient question becomes: why does your internalized grammar fail to start throwing exceptions when you encounter a situation where you need to apply a pronoun to a person of known nonbinary gender? He/him cannot be grammatical, the person is not male. She/her cannot be grammatical, the person is not female. Using a strict "apply grammatical agreement to pronouns" model, both options should feel intuitively wrong. The only possible conclusion is that you fail to see the person as their actual gender.

    THAT'S the root of the problem.

  44. ===Dan said,

    August 27, 2018 @ 7:37 pm

    As Julian said: I think there's some judgment reflected in Andrew's latest comment that isn't strictly a language issue. First, in recent years, male and female are increasingly widely no longer seen as the only two possible states. Second, the term "pass" suggests that identification with a gender not the one assigned at birth is deceitful or otherwise incorrect. This is a judgment that I think Andrew has insufficient knowledge to make. And it's not a language issue.
    So if someone thinking along the same lines as Andrew were to see a person and come to a conclusion that the person is male, he might think it natural to call that person "he." That seems to be the "mental intrinsic." But when notified by that person that the assumption of maleness is incorrect, then "he" would no longer be appropriate. And "she" might be equally inappropriate.

    So if the language does not work with the way the world is now perceived, some sort of adjustment needs to be made to the language. And it's not an easy adjustment for some (or many), possibly because of inexperience with the people for whom it's a profound issue. Language doesn't always adapt smoothly; changes often come with strident opposition. The strong opposition felt by some to the singular "they" has brought about attempts to find other alternatives. I don't know how many people have chosen these other options, and maybe Andrew is right that they won't survive. But alternatives to the traditional gender binary seem to be with us for good.

    Normally language is a matter of personal choice, not to be dictated. But the individual you're talking about has a stake in the identification you make, and it seems like a good thing to provide support and encouragement for everyone to respect the individual's choice. It's not language prescriptivism, but an insistence for human respect.

  45. Andrew Usher said,

    August 27, 2018 @ 7:38 pm

    Julian: I am hardly the only one here or elsewhere to express discomfort with this use of 'they'.

    I can't answer your hypothetical question but it seems that my failing to see someone's self-identified gender would be no more my problem or fault than failing to see "the emperor's new clothes".

  46. ===Dan said,

    August 27, 2018 @ 7:42 pm

    "my failing to see someone's self-identified gender would be no more my problem or fault than failing to see "the emperor's new clothes".

    This approach is precisely the issue. You seem not to care about the sexual or gender identity reported by someone you see and really don't know, and you think your own perception matters more.

    This is not a language issue by any means.

  47. Andrew Usher said,

    August 27, 2018 @ 8:03 pm

    Dan, I am not sure I have anything more to say now. As you note yourself, the matters you are now raising go entirely beyond language; perhaps in a different forum (or in private) I would be able to go into the requisite detail, but I can't see it here. Sorry.

  48. ===Dan said,

    August 27, 2018 @ 8:05 pm

    No need to apologize for that. This is Language Log, after all.

  49. Matt Heath said,

    August 28, 2018 @ 5:31 am

    @Alexander
    I'm guessing you studied somewhere in the Americas. In European and African Portuguese close friends and family are "tu".

  50. Len said,

    August 28, 2018 @ 5:45 am

    Wikipedia (here and here) states that the tu/você distinction survives for many speakers in Brazil, especially in rural areas.

  51. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 28, 2018 @ 8:09 am

    Do these pronoun-cue-cards only occur in contexts where discourse is so informal (perhaps self-consciously so) that everyone is on a first-name basis with total strangers? Or are there parallel cue-cards that enable the wearer to communicate personal preference with respect to being addressed as Sir/Ma'am/Other, or Mr./Ms./Mrs./Miss/Dr./Prof./Other SURNAME?

  52. Julian said,

    August 28, 2018 @ 10:17 am

    Even the most socially conservative speaker of English (one rejecting Ms., for instance) needs some way to differentiate between Mr./Mrs./Miss and Dr./Prof. etc. so there are established social norms for how to assert the appropriate honorifics. I'd expect those methods in conjunction with your pronouns (which are useful in either context) to be sufficient.

    There isn't a commonly-accepted nonbinary alternative to Sir/Ma'am yet and it's relatively easy to naively stumble into the wrong one even when one of those would be correct. How many times have you heard about a man with a full beard and long hair being called Ma'am when only seen from behind? The least-bad solution I've seen is just to avoid using them entirely, but that's unsatisfactory for obvious reasons.

  53. Philip Taylor said,

    August 28, 2018 @ 11:20 am

    Julian — If "Ms" could be generalised to be an acceptable form of address for all, not just for women, would not the problem to which you refer in your second paragraph be solved ? I work from time to time behind the bar in my wife's hotel, and I normally address customers as "Sir" and "Madam" (note the "d" in the latter), but would not feel it unreasonable if a trans-gender person asked to be addressed as /Mz/ (or something similar).

  54. rosie said,

    August 28, 2018 @ 12:18 pm

    @Philip Johnson 'It is our language, not theirs' You speak of them as if they were distinct from us. They are some of us. The language belongs to all of us, including them.

    'I don't think any group "has a right to change the pronoun system", or indeed to change any aspect of our language. … changes can (and will) be made only by general consensus, not by fiat.'

    But people do change aspects of our language — by using language in the changed way. That's not by fiat. But when it comes to a person's name and pronouns, I wouldn't begrudge them their fiat if that's what is needed to get us to refer to them correctly.

    @Andrew Usher 'I really doubt anyone seriously uses those 'other' pronouns than he, she, they – they are made up and feel too silly (or ambiguous) to use in speech'

    The use of "xe" is a thing. One of my friends, when introducing xyrself, after stating xyr name, says "my pronoun's xe or they" — xe also uses "xe" in reference to someone else (I haven't met the latter).

  55. Julian said,

    August 28, 2018 @ 12:23 pm

    Obviously, I'll follow whatever norms shake out, but I'm not sure Ms. is a great choice for a few reasons.

    Most importantly, it's a feminine form. A trans man would likely interpret that as you misgendering him rather than the intended novel usage. You'd need to build broad acceptance among cis men FIRST, before this could be safely used with trans men.

    There are neutral/nonbinary alternatives to Mr./Ms., the most popular one being Mx., but even then those aren't in the same category as Sir/Ma'am, which is the other issue with it. Part of the reason that they/them succeeded where alternatives failed is that singular they as a pronoun for a person of indeterminate gender was already in widespread use, and all its adoption requires is an expansion of its use to semantically adjacent contexts. The distance between the usage of Ms. and the usage of Sir/Ma'am is enough to make it intelligible but mean a different thing. "Excuse me, sir, is this your coat?" vs. "Excuse me, mister, is this your coat?" exist in different registers and convey different connotations. It's most likely that Ms. will be interpreted as the latter.

  56. Philip Taylor said,

    August 28, 2018 @ 3:51 pm

    '"Excuse me, sir, is this your coat?" vs. "Excuse me, mister, is this your coat?" exist in different registers and convey different connotations. It's most likely that Ms. will be interpreted as the latter'. Well, maybe. But for me, /mz/ would seem to be in the same register as /mɪs/, which is used in the same contexts as "Sir" and "Madam" but for a younger female, so I personally feel that it would be acceptable. But who am I to judge ? Are there any female contributors who would be willing to tell us whether they (would) find being addressed as /mz/, without a following surname, socially acceptable ? Or for that matter, any trans-gender contributors who could tell us whether /mz/ would seem to them to be an appropriate form of address ?

  57. Ellen K. said,

    August 28, 2018 @ 6:30 pm

    Replying to jih.

    I don't know what done actually within Spanish, But in English, the term Latinx if often used, rather than the latino/latina of traditional Spanish grammar.

    It's worth noting, in Spanish, adjectives agree in (gramatical) gender with the noun. "Una persona latina" can be male or female (the word "persona" is gramatically feminine, but means person). So, for the most part, there's not an issue with gender of adjectives (they agree with the nouns), but with the gender of nouns.

  58. Julian said,

    August 28, 2018 @ 6:58 pm

    I mean, the register is a secondary concern. The main issue is that it's an explicitly gendered term.

    So for context I live with several trans people, and I'm nonbinary myself.

    I took a quick FB poll, and the overwhelming majority of respondents, which includes people of a variety of genders including trans and nonbinary people, said that they would interpret such a usage as "unambiguously feminine" rather than "Neutral/nonbinary". If you know a man is trans and call him "Ms.", he's going to think you're intentionally misgendering him.

    I think it's an interesting idea, and I genuinely appreciate what you're trying to do, but at least right now it's absolutely not a neutral term.

  59. Ellen K. said,

    August 28, 2018 @ 7:03 pm

    @Phillip Taylor

    Well, "Mister" in the sense used in your discussion with Julian doesn't exist in the English I hear around me, just "Sir" and "Ma'am". And I've no clue what a female equivalent of that use of "mister" would be (if distinguishing from "sir"). So I can't comment on that difference in register.

    But I can say that my guess is that is someone used "Ms" instead of "Ma'am" to me in this sort of usage, I'd find it highly odd. And I would certainly take it as a female form, even if puzzled by it.

  60. Martha said,

    August 28, 2018 @ 7:35 pm

    I agree with Ellen regarding the use of "Ms" instead of "ma'am." If I heard it, I'd think someone either mispronounced "miss" or uttered "Ms" before realizing they didn't know my last name.

    Regarding the following: "I don't think this kind of singular 'they' is really analogous because number distinction is much more important in the third person than second (and even more in first, but no language has tampered with that). "
    I don't agree. I think we're just used to "you" being used for singular or plural and he/she existing on one hand and "they" on the other. But if the distinction really were of minimal importance, "you guys," "y'all," etc. wouldn't be so commonplace.

    Regarding the use of singular "they" to refer to this Brigham Young student: My local news did a report on this the other day, and they used "they" throughout the whole report without any sort of explanation of all, not even to indicate this is what is preferred. It was jarring at first, because it isn't really typical, but I did not at any point suffer any confusion.

  61. Doug said,

    August 29, 2018 @ 8:27 am

    Ellen K. said:
    "I don't know what done actually within Spanish, But in English, the term Latinx if often used, rather than the latino/latina of traditional Spanish grammar."

    I recall reading somewhere that in printed Spanish, some people use "@" in place of "a" or "o" to make a gender-neutral form. That was a while back; perhaps it didn't catch on.

  62. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 29, 2018 @ 9:21 am

    Come to think of it, in traditional usage, the polite/high-register form of address that is to "Sir/Ma'am" what "they" is to "he/she" is "Ladies and Gentlemen." That obviously doesn't work well in the singular — the equivalent for traditional "singular they" (used where the gender of the person referred to is unknown to the speaker, but is assumed to be either M or F) is "Dear Sir or Madam," used exclusively or near-exclusively in writing. I tend to agree with the notion suggested that an expanded use of "singular they" for individuals who self-identify outside the M/F dichotomy has ended up being an easier sell for a wider number of users than novel coinages have, because it is easier for most other speakers to expand the semantic scope of a usage they already have than adopt such a coinage, but there may not be an obvious already-used candidate for repurposing for finding a non-binary singular equivalent to Sir/Ma'am or Mr./Ms. etc. Unless we can arrange for a helpful university to bestow honorary doctorates on everyone in need of a non-gendered form of direct honorific address?

  63. Eneri Rose said,

    August 29, 2018 @ 10:06 am

    It is relatively easy for writers to adjust pronouns because we have time to do so. But, while reading the subject article, I had to stop repeatedly and re-evaluate the pronouns to understand the meaning. While watching "Billions," I find it difficult to follow anytime the speaker is referring to Taylor (played by Asia Kate Dillon) as "they."

    For me, it would make the meaning more clear if, when using a plural pronoun to refer to a single, known person, singular verbs were used. It might sound odd, but the meaning would be more clear (to me).

    Although I have not had the occasion, I don't think I could easily use plural pronouns to refer to a specific person. I would have to resort to never using pronouns and only ever using the person's name.

    I hope we will eventually move toward using more non-gendered words, or alternatively, to no longer assigning genders to words (e.g. "sir" used for all). I am reminded of an awkward moment when I was in a paint store and wanted go get the attention of the employee behind the counter. I said, "Excuse me, miss." I regretted the form of address as soon as I uttered it, because I think the employee might have preferred to be addressed as "sir." When my husband and I left the store, I asked him about it and he agreed.

    I had another occasion of using an incorrectly gendered form of address while working at a reception desk. When the client seemed offended, I apologized by saying it was just a slip of the tongue because I had waited on so many clients that day.

  64. Ellen K. said,

    August 29, 2018 @ 11:08 am

    Sir for all, though, is gender-biased towards males.

  65. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 29, 2018 @ 12:03 pm

    I agree that "Sir" seems at present a quite unpromising candidate for degendering, but given what has happened (in some varieties of English) with, e.g., the degendering of vocative "dude," we should realize that these things are hard to predict. One might also note the contrast between the job-title "actress" being relabeled in some quarters as "actor," on the one hand, with the rise of the new-in-this-context job-title "server" to relabel both "waiter" and "waitress" in a degendered way because apparently degendering "waiter" was not thought feasible. I'm not sure there's any strong pattern here rather than just a lot of historical contingency and ad-hoccery.

  66. Julian said,

    August 29, 2018 @ 12:19 pm

    "Dude" is an interesting example, precisely because it highlights the reasons that attempting to degender a term for this usage is unsatisfactory. Any trans woman, or anyone with transfeminine friends, could tell you that "dude" is still gendered. Literally every trans woman I know has specifically asked not to be called "dude", even by speakers of the California dialect that universal usage originates from. Analogy to "dude" is a large factor in why I hesitate to recommend trying to universalize a gendered term, if your objective is to accommodate trans and nonbinary folks.

    I think there's something much more complex and interesting happening there, where gendered terms are being used to refer to things of other genders. For instance, when something is characterized by wholesome goodness, I've found myself calling it a "good boy." Like, "That movie Trolls is one of my guilty pleasures. It's a good boy," or "I really like this character. She's a good boy." "Dude" feels more like that to me, where it's not that it's been stripped of gender, it's that its usage has transcended gender.

  67. Richard said,

    August 30, 2018 @ 12:16 am

    What's oddly missing from this conversation is the very common use of "hisself," "theirself," and "theirselves" in many non-standard varieties of American English. I'm sure that a significant number of people who announce their pronouns speak these varieties and yet rarely include them in their announcements.

  68. Ryan said,

    August 30, 2018 @ 1:07 am

    @J. W. Brewer

    I'm not sure if vocative "dude" is a good example of a word that has undergone degendering, since what seems to be a vocative use of the word "dude" is really more of an interjection, i.e. it's not actually referring to anyone in particular.

    I think a better example would be the partial degendering of "guy". In my experience, "that guy" still generally refers to a male, but I have definitely heard "those guys" commonly used for a group of all females.

  69. Philip Taylor said,

    August 30, 2018 @ 3:14 am

    "Hi guys", as used on many YouTube videos produced by younger people, appears to be completely gender-neutral to my ears/mind.

  70. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 30, 2018 @ 12:29 pm

    Vocative "dude" may have been a suboptimal example because it is still in transition, so different speakers/listeners may have had different experiences with it and thus different intuitions regarding its scope of use. My broader point is that sometimes gendered words become degendered and sometimes they don't, such that another approach is necessary to find a gender-inclusive substitute when desired (and sometimes words remain gendered in some senses or contexts while having become degendered in others, with as noted above the degendering of "guy" thus far limited to the plural and perhaps only some uses of the plural).
    It's imho difficult to figure out a pattern that would have reliably predicted ex ante which would be which. The lack of clear patterns in this area I think makes it harder to anticipate whether any given proposed self-conscious innovation will or won't "stick."

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