Sign of the Times

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Amy Harmon, "Which Box Do You Check? Some States Are Offering a Nonbinary Option", NYT 5/29/2019:

This is the first time that (I noticed that) the NYT used singular they as a reflection of  a specific person's pronoun choice — even if it is in an article about non-binary gender options.

 



51 Comments

  1. C said,

    May 29, 2019 @ 7:08 am

    I know the NYT is (in)famous for having some fusty editorial rules, so I'm unsurprised that singular "they" is generally proscribed, but surely El isn't the first non-binary person mentioned, so until now, has NYT deliberately mis-gendered people?!

  2. Amber M said,

    May 29, 2019 @ 7:37 am

    I don't know the first time they allowed it, but in the opinion section last week was a collection of poems by deaf and/or disabled people. Three out of seven of the poets had singular they used in their bio's! And I didn't see any mention of it in the article! It was like non-binary people are everywhere and we're okay.
    https://nyti.ms/2HqcL3P

  3. David44 said,

    May 29, 2019 @ 8:37 am

    I had a question about that. In the very first sentence, the NYT says " Ever since El Martinez started asking to be called by the gender-neutral pronouns "they/them" in the ninth grade, they have fielded skepticism". Surely it should be "they HAS fielded skepticism". I understood "they" as a singular pronoun, but I found the plural verb deeply confusing – I had to reread the sentence several times to check I hadn't missed something about it.

  4. Ben Zimmer said,

    May 29, 2019 @ 8:49 am

    This isn't the first time that the NYT has used they in this way… See the profile of Jill Soloway from Oct. 13, 2018, "They Live in Public." And for further metalinguistic discussion of the use of they as a non-binary singular pronoun, see: "She? Ze? They? What's In a Gender Pronoun" by Jessica Bennett (Jan. 30, 2016, discussing the American Dialect Society's choice of singular they as 2015 Word of the Year, quoting me among others), "Vague Guidelines Lead to a Misstep on Gender Pronouns" by Liz Spayd (May 25, 2017), "When a Student Says, 'I'm Not a Boy or a Girl" by Zoe Greenberg (Oct. 24, 2017), and "Asia Kate Dillon: 'This Is Who I Am'" (May 26, 2019).

    [(myl) Thanks for the links. But like the article I cited, the Jill Soloway article is specifically about the non-binary gender issue. Have their been any cases where they is used simply because it's the preferred pronoun of someone who is referenced for a reason unconnected to their pronoun or gender choices?]

  5. David Marjanović said,

    May 29, 2019 @ 9:03 am

    In the very first sentence, the NYT says " Ever since El Martinez started asking to be called by the gender-neutral pronouns "they/them" in the ninth grade, they have fielded skepticism". Surely it should be "they HAS fielded skepticism".

    Interestingly, nobody says "they has". I suppose they still strikes people as grammatically plural, even though it's semantically singular here.

  6. Gregory Kusnick said,

    May 29, 2019 @ 10:04 am

    Nobody says "you has" either. If people are fine with singular "you have", why shouldn't they be fine with singular "they have"?

  7. Alexander Browne said,

    May 29, 2019 @ 10:16 am

    On the subject of grammatically plural / semantically singular: does anyone know of a language with a T/V distinction that uses the singular verb with the the V pronoun?

  8. Ellen K. said,

    May 29, 2019 @ 11:18 am

    I wouldn't call using "have" with "they" and "you" as being because they strike people as grammatically plural. We also say "I have", not "I has". It's just the form we use with those words, whether singular or plural. And singular they for a nonspecific individual is centuries old and well established, and has always used "have". Why should it be different when used for a specified individual?

  9. David44 said,

    May 29, 2019 @ 11:56 am

    And singular they for a nonspecific individual is centuries old and well established, and has always used "have". Why should it be different when used for a specified individual?

    I guess … because it is for a specified individual. Offhand (counterexamples welcomed!) I can't think of a single other instance in English where a specified individual in the third person has a plural verb.

    More particularly, if we are to think of "they" as a pronoun that people might choose to have applied to themselves in exactly the same way as they would choose "he" or "she", it feels odd and anomalous that it does not take the same verb as "he" or "she". And because it feels odd and anomalous, a sentence like the one I quoted from the NYT makes me automatically search around for a plural subject in the context that I might have overlooked, in a way that "they" used of an unspecified individual does not. \

    "They has" would jar in a different way, because the grammar would be unfamiliar, but the very unfamiliarity would make the sense of the sentence immediately apparent, and in that respect would feel more natural to me.

  10. Chandra said,

    May 29, 2019 @ 1:05 pm

    Exactly what @Gregory Kusnick said. Our second-person pronouns underwent the very same shift (from the distinction between "thou" for the singular and "you" for the plural, to "you" being used for both) and we manage just fine applying the verb forms associated with plural "you" to singular referents. Any potential ambiguity is clarified by context.

    I suspect this is merely an issue of familiarity, as "they have" doesn't seem jarring to me at all when referring to one person, whereas nobody ever says "they has" so that sounds supremely weird to me. And as it becomes even more common there will be fewer people who find it notable.

  11. Kay MacDonald said,

    May 29, 2019 @ 1:37 pm

    A few thoughts, not super related to the specifics of the NYT's editorial standards.

    I use they/them pronouns for myself and have done so for about a year. When I first encountered this usage about six years ago, it also "made me crazy", as one of the politicians quoted in the NYT article put it. However, going by my assigned pronouns was by this point making me crazier, so I was motivated to wrap my eye and ear around the new usage. This took maybe six months of conscious effort in writing, a little longer in speech. It was maybe a year before it seemed natural enough to consider applying it to myself, and a few years more before I asked others to do so.

    The use of "have" in the third-person singular stopped sounding plural to me around the time that "they", in reference to a definite subject as opposed to a hypothetical one, stopped sounding necessarily plural. This was partly just retraining my ear, a bit like learning to hear "lei" in Italian as either "she" or "you", depending on the verb and the context. It helped to internalize the point made by Gregory and Ellen above, that "have" also goes with "you" and "I", as well as that "they" already takes "have" in reference to a single, indeterminate subject, like, "Whoever comes to pick up the plywood, ask them if they have room for the copper piping, too."

    Something that I say that still sounds very weird to me is "themself": saying "themselves" would get the number wrong, but "themself" sounds almost as uneducated to me as "hisself". I don't have a solution, other than getting used to it — every other option sounds or feels worse to me.

    It makes perfect sense to me that someone less open to new linguistic experiences, without significant motivation to try, would find singular "they", as a matter of accommodating someone's gender identity, basically impossible to get over, at least for a while. Again, I don't have a solution, beyond being open about how uncomfortable my assigned pronouns make me feel, asking people to make an effort, and trying to assure them that it does get easier with practice.

    Of course, I think many people do not want to find it easier, much as they would not want to find it easier to, say, watch an execution or commit incest. If you believe that your aversion to something is morally grounded, then you will not want to dull the sense of wrongness. If, in addition, you know that your refusal to adopt the usage is hurtful to people whom you see as sinners or freaks, then so much the better.

  12. Ellen K. said,

    May 29, 2019 @ 1:53 pm

    How is the form with use with the first person singular pronoun a plural verb? Why even call this form plural? Call it the plain form.

  13. David44 said,

    May 29, 2019 @ 2:43 pm

    Let me put my problem with "they have" used of a single specified individual in a different way.

    English does not have gendered verb-forms. Some languages (e.g. Hebrew) do; English does not. So the same verb-form is used of all individuals, regardless of their gender. (Again, if there is an exception I haven't thought of, do let me know!)

    Now, with the non-gendered personal use of "they", English appears suddenly to be gendering its verbs. With individuals who are gendered "he" or "she", or indeed with non-people who are "it", we use one verb form – but we are expected to use a completely different verb-form with individuals who are gendered (or un-gendered, if you prefer) as "they". To me this still sounds weird and anomalous, and I'm not convinced that it is simply because I'm not used to it yet. I can easily imagine getting used to "they has"; I find it much harder to imagine getting used to "they have" used of a single specified person.

    (By the way, it's off the topic, but what DOES happen in Hebrew – or other languages where people gender verbs – with individuals who don't want to be associated with a gender? Does anyone know? It seems to me that pronouns would be the least of their problems!)

  14. Ellen K. said,

    May 29, 2019 @ 3:49 pm

    Oops… typo in my previous comment. Should be:

    How is the form we use with the first person singular pronoun a plural verb? Why even call this form plural? Call it the plain form.

  15. Noel Hunt said,

    May 29, 2019 @ 5:11 pm

    There is a small tobaconist-cum-newsagent in the centre of Sydney, the proprietor of which has shown himself to be a true pioneer in the vanguard of opening up vistas of exciting, new linguistic experience. When one wants to purchase a box of matches, one says "I do not want this record, it is scratched.'

  16. Gwen Katz said,

    May 29, 2019 @ 6:04 pm

    There seem to be all kinds of cases where a particular pronoun requires a verb form normally used for a different person/number–"on" in French, for example.

  17. Idran said,

    May 29, 2019 @ 6:22 pm

    @David44: The fact that many people in this thread have told you that they are used to it, including one person who actually uses they/them pronouns, should be a sign that it is just not being used to it, yes. Every person I've met who uses they/them pronouns, and everyone I've met in their friend circles, has no issue with using "have" or "are" or any other otherwise-plural verb form with "they"; I've never even met someone who insisted on using the singular verb form with "they", either for themselves or for someone else.

    And honestly, even if it sounds "wrong" to you, if that's how someone wants to be referred to then that's how you ought refer to them. That ought to be considered a rule not just in the matter of pronouns or names, but in any matter of reference whatsoever, and pronoun-verb agreement is just another aspect of personal reference.

    As for your question as to what happens in languages that do have innate genders, I believe that in most such languages there are pushes to include nongendered forms that aren't just repurposing of inanimate or similar forms. Wikipedia has a good summary of such movements here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gender_neutrality_in_languages_with_grammatical_gender

    And here's a good article on efforts towards enby inclusivism for Hebrew specifically: https://www.them.us/story/queer-inclusive-judaism

  18. Mike-SMO said,

    May 29, 2019 @ 8:13 pm

    The babble aside, "X" rather defeats the whole intent of identification documents which taditionally noted easily verifiable physical characteristics such as height, weight, sex, etc. That was usually the biological sex, not who, or what, you did it with, or what you actually "wanted" to be.

  19. Ben Zimmer said,

    May 29, 2019 @ 9:12 pm

    One more recent NYT article with non-binary singular they: "Bar or Bat Mitzvah? Hey, What About a Both Mitzvah?" by Alyson Krueger (Mar. 27, 2019):

    Lion is a 13-year-old who lives in Brooklyn. The middle school student identifies as pangender, a term for feeling like you are every gender at once, and likes to go by "they" because it's an inclusive pronoun. "I can identify with male and female and others in between," they said. "I don't really feel masculine, and I don't really feel feminine."
    They are also of the Jewish faith, and on Sept. 1, 2018, when they turned 13, they participated in a traditional coming-of-age ceremony: the one in which children become adults and mature members of their religious community.
    Traditionally 13-year-old boys celebrate becoming bar mitzvahs (meaning "sons of commandment") and 12- or 13-year-old girls celebrate becoming bat mitzvahs ("daughters of commandment"). But Lion went an alternative route: a "they" mitzvah, if you will.

    On Twitter, Dennis Baron noted that the article features (in a quote) the unusual usage of singular they with a singular verb:

    "If someone uses the wrong pronoun it can feel like a weight is added to your back," said Lion. "I have a friend who is nonbinary, gender-fluid, and their parents weren't as accepting. They still had a bar mitzvah even though they doesn't identify as a gender. It wasn't comfortable."

  20. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 29, 2019 @ 10:06 pm

    Alexander Browne: On the subject of grammatically plural / semantically singular: does anyone know of a language with a T/V distinction that uses the singular verb with the the V pronoun?

    Kay MacDonald has now mentioned Italian lei, and there's also Spanish usted. If I'm not mistaken, both of those started as very polite third-person forms of address.

  21. Andrew Usher said,

    May 29, 2019 @ 10:27 pm

    Well, modern uses of 'singular they' might strike some as ungrammatical, but using it with a singular verb is no better, because 'they has' just sounds, and is, wrong. It might change someday, but as mentioned languages with the T/V distinction all keep the original verb forms for V and do not use the same ones as T, and of course there's English 'you' with the same history (which actually has been used in dialect with singular verbs, but never had a chance of becoming standard). It is not a proper use of grammar to try to make those you disagree with look ridiculous.

    And as it seems to lie behind much of the discourse on this subject, here is why I believe transgender and esp. 'non-binary' people make many (including some gays) uncomfortable – even though many won't publicly admit it. Homosexuality at least is about whom you're sexually and/or romantically atttracted to, which is something most everyone is familar with. Not so for gender identity.

    For example, if I were asked my gender and replied honestly, I would say 'I am male', never 'I identify as male. This is not from any desire to spite anyone, nor from English grammar, but simply the way I think of it, as overwhelmingly do others that think of it. Now with transgenderism, it's at least conceivable that someone feels so strongly that he/she 'is' the other gender – but with the 'non-binary' declarations, there is none such, for what exactly does it mean to be 'non-binary'? The only conceivable meaning is not fitting exactly the perceived gender roles of either sex; yet, men and women (esp. gays) do that already without having to be 'non-binary'.

    The declaration can appear to be, then, just a cry for attention. Now people making such are not always conscious of it, so they may honestly deny that's what they are doing, but that's the simplest explanation. I won't say if that's _true_ because I can't get inside their heads, but it sounds like a good general theory to me. I wouldn't propose any test of it because there are no observers that couldn't be credibly accused of bias one way or the other.

    Finally Mike-SMO makes a valid point two posts above: identification documents, when listing sex/gender, really want biological sex – not out of bias, but because it's the one really most useful for identification! Allowing people to choose their own really defeats the purpose there, and if you object to having your gender declared, then you should object as strongly to the idea of such ID documents at all.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo dot com

  22. Chas Belov said,

    May 30, 2019 @ 12:46 am

    I've been using plural verbs for singular they, but "themself" for the reflexive. I suspect, though, that as usage becomes more common, we will be more comfortable using singular verbs with singular they.

    I not only use "I identify as male," I am starting to prefer "I identify as cis male." Language changes. Eventually this usage will be unremarkable.

    I don't believe identifying as non-binary is about getting attention. I believe it's about feeling safe to be who you are. It's only remarkable because we remark on it. Compare coverage of homosexuality in the 1960s – when gay folks were accussed of trying to draw attention when all we wanted was to be able to live our lives and socialize – with coverage today. We're in the 1960s with regard to recognition of non-binary. Language will follow. It always does. We will work it out.

  23. Chas Belov said,

    May 30, 2019 @ 12:47 am

    accused

  24. David44 said,

    May 30, 2019 @ 3:35 am

    Idran said:

    And honestly, even if it sounds "wrong" to you, if that's how someone wants to be referred to then that's how you ought refer to them. That ought to be considered a rule not just in the matter of pronouns or names, but in any matter of reference whatsoever, and pronoun-verb agreement is just another aspect of personal reference.

    That's fair enough – IF someone expresses a personal preference on pronoun-verb agreement. But in practice people usually don't explicitly carry their preferences that far. My issue relates to the vast majority of cases, where people say they want to be referred to as "they", but do not set out the verbs which they wish to be used with the pronoun. (You yourself, in your first paragraph, didn't identify anyone who INSISTED on plural verbs with "they" – you only said that they and their circle did it, and that they didn't insist on the singular.) And my feeling is that, in those cases where no preference is expressed, the singular is more straightforward and less jarring – and the article that Ben Zimmer quoted, which does use the singular with "they", suggests that I am not alone in this.

    And, interestingly (and revealingly), neither of those articles you linked to discusses the problem of gendered verbs (which seems to me vastly more problematic than any of the other issues with gendered language) – except to say that it's a problem. The long Wikipedia article barely mentions verbs, except to describe languages like Serbian which do gender them, and they don't explain what solution is adopted. The one on queer Judaism notes that it's being driven primarily by non-Hebrew speakers, and for the practicalities as they apply to Hebrew speakers, all they say is "Hebrew speakers who use gender-neutral pronouns have switched between male and female phrasing, even in the same sentence", which I could imagine working for someone speaking of themselves, but not for speaking of someone else, where one might only have a single phrase in any particular context to play with.

  25. R. Fenwick said,

    May 30, 2019 @ 6:08 am

    @Andrew Usher:
    Homosexuality at least is about whom you're sexually and/or romantically atttracted to, which is something most everyone is familar with. Not so for gender identity.

    One might counter that point by saying that gender identity actually is something everyone is familiar with – perhaps so much so that when a person states that the gender identity they have/feel/sense doesn't match the one they've been assigned, others are so familiar with their gender identity, and so comfortable with the congruence between their assigned and their sensed identity, that they can't even contemplate what it might mean to not feel that way. Everybody is familiar with gender identity, they're just not so used to encountering people whose gender identity is not congruent with the one they were assigned at birth based upon the shape of their genitalia.

    The declaration can appear to be, then, just a cry for attention.

    Your phrasing is sounding a little dismissive of non-binary experiences here. I suspect it's quite the opposite, and that it may be used more as a means of trying to avoid conflict with a more circumspect, stated-from-personal-perspective "I identify as" declaration rather than a bald, stated-as-unarguable-fact "I am" declaration that might be more likely to invite debate from the prejudiced. For the non-binary people I've known, in openly queer-friendly spaces they've generally been quite happy to say simply "I'm non-binary" or even just "I'm enby".

    identification documents, when listing sex/gender, really want biological sex – not out of bias, but because it's the one really most useful for identification!

    When was the last time someone used your genitalia as the primary organ by which they identify you out of a crowd?

    The "identification by biological sex" thing is itself nothing more than an overt manifestation of unconscious bias towards a binary-gender view of the world. I have a female friend who's cisgender but is 6'1", solidly built, and wears size 12 shoes. People have asked her before if she's trans – as if that were any of their business – solely because she's a physically big woman with a relatively low voice. It's time we moved past such simplistic boxes for categorising people, and on identity documents (which are almost all photographic these days anyway) doubly so; there are so many more useful and sophisticated ways to sieve an individual out from a population.

  26. David Morris said,

    May 30, 2019 @ 8:06 am

    I have a student who looks like a 17-year-old boy but is actually a woman in her later 20s. She introduced herself by a gender-neutral English nickname and my non-existent knowledge of names from her country didn't give me any clue. I assumed she was a boy, but I can't think that I referred to her by any pronouns. At some point I noticed that she was listed as 'Ms' on the class roll, but that was no guarantee, because an undoubted man in the class was listed as 'Ms'. I asked 'Should that be Mr or Ms?' and she said 'Ms', but I thought that she might have misunderstood the question. She went back to her own country for a few weeks and when she returned I asked my manager, and she told me that she was quite definitely 'she'. But even knowing that she is 'she', I find myself speaking convoluted sentences to avoid using pronouns. I suspect that the same would happen if any student requested to be referred to as 'they'.

  27. Ellen K. said,

    May 30, 2019 @ 9:24 am

    @Mike-SMO. Biological sex is not easily verifiable when it doesn't match with gender presentation. Gender presentation, not private parts or DNA, is what we see. (And, yes, I know this has nothing to do with language, although the same idea sometimes applies to pronoun use.)

  28. David Marjanović said,

    May 30, 2019 @ 12:54 pm

    The babble aside,

    The babble is the topic of this thread…

    "X" rather defeats the whole intent of identification documents which taditionally noted easily verifiable physical characteristics such as height, weight, sex, etc. That was usually the biological sex, not who, or what, you did it with, or what you actually "wanted" to be.

    Are you completely unfamiliar with the concept of intersex people? Even if so, have you never seen a face and found yourself unable to tell if that's a man or a woman? In a small but noticeable proportion of cases it's not "easily verifiable".

    The declaration can appear to be, then, just a cry for attention. Now people making such are not always conscious of it, so they may honestly deny that's what they are doing, but that's the simplest explanation. I won't say if that's _true_ because I can't get inside their heads, but it sounds like a good general theory to me. I wouldn't propose any test of it because there are no observers that couldn't be credibly accused of bias one way or the other.

    I never cease to be amazed by projecting extroverts who assume anybody wants attention.

    To me, wanting attention is as alien as not having a sexual orientation, not having a romantic orientation, or not having a gender identity – and yes, all three of these exist.

  29. JTL said,

    May 30, 2019 @ 1:22 pm

    It's worth noting (with all appropriate hedging about the difference between prescriptive and descriptive grammar) that The Chicago Manual of Style (5.48) prescribes "they have." I edit trans studies work frequently, and using "plural" verb forms is by far most frequently used by the trans and gendernonconforming authors I work with to the point that I would consider that usage to consensus usage.

    Like singular you, singular they takes a plural verb. So when the context requires it, they/them/their/theirs, like you/your/yours (long used as both singular and plural forms), can be used to refer to one person {they have a degree in molecular biology} {their favorite color is blue}. And themself (like yourself) may be used to signal the singular antecedent (though some people will prefer themselves) {they blamed themself [or themselves]}.

  30. Chandra said,

    May 30, 2019 @ 1:57 pm

    As a member of the LGBTQ community, I probably know a far few more trans and/or nonbinary people than average, and I can assure you that all they want is to be accepted for who they are and then go on about their lives. They most certainly are not doing it "just for attention", as the attention they get for it is often pretty bad, and in fact many of them come out much much later in life than they would prefer to, expressly because they were trying to AVOID this type of attention.

    As for "easily verifiable physical characteristics", you might have been led to believe by social stereotyping that you can always tell a person's biological sex by their physical characteristics, but in fact you cannot. There are intersex people, there are cis people who don't present with typical physical characteristics, and there are trans people who are indistinguishable from cis people. Gender and biological sex do not fit into neat and tidy boxes, no matter how much people might wish them to.

  31. Mary Kuhner said,

    May 30, 2019 @ 5:14 pm

    As a case in point, I am fairly sure that if I grew my beard out, the "F" on my identification documents would not help anyone in identifying me, and in fact would be a positive detriment. I am a cis woman with polycystic ovarian syndrome and the associated facial and body hair. I do get mistaken for a trans woman moderately often, though I try to keep clean-shaven to reduce this, as a few of the people who have made this mistake have threatened me physically.

    I can't imagine many people would want to be perceived as trans or non-binary if they were not. It can lead to discrimination and threat of physical harm.

  32. Gwen Katz said,

    May 30, 2019 @ 11:58 pm

    I have a student who looks like a 17-year-old boy but is actually a woman in her later 20s. She introduced herself by a gender-neutral English nickname and my non-existent knowledge of names from her country didn't give me any clue. I assumed she was a boy, but I can't think that I referred to her by any pronouns. At some point I noticed that she was listed as 'Ms' on the class roll, but that was no guarantee, because an undoubted man in the class was listed as 'Ms'. I asked 'Should that be Mr or Ms?' and she said 'Ms', but I thought that she might have misunderstood the question. She went back to her own country for a few weeks and when she returned I asked my manager, and she told me that she was quite definitely 'she'. But even knowing that she is 'she', I find myself speaking convoluted sentences to avoid using pronouns. I suspect that the same would happen if any student requested to be referred to as 'they'.

    I hope this was a learning experience and in the future you'll accept people's gender identifications as given rather than second-guessing them even after multiple confirmations.

  33. Andrew Usher said,

    May 31, 2019 @ 7:38 am

    First, I think the grammatical issue is settled – the great majority using singular 'they', for any reason, find plural verbs more natural with it; it doesn't seem likely to change. Even if 'they' completely replaced 'he' and 'she' it might not, just as when 'you' replaced 'thou'.

    Second, it seems someone else has trouble with the italic markers (JTL); I really, really dislike the fact of not being able to edit one's posts, and no preview either means one typo, which we all make, can affect the entire post, with no recourse but to get an admin to fix it (and thanks for fixing mine, but it shouldn't be necessary).

    Getting to the real issue the last half of this thread has focused on, I simply can't reply to everyone here. Even with all the time in the world, it's just too painful in a flat (unthreaded) discussion. I've read them all, though; there are good points, and silly ones. David Marjanovic's claim that I am a 'projecting extrovert' (!) takes the cake, though. Not only is that about as wrong about me as possible, it's self-contradictory (if he meant 'everybody' for 'anybody', it's not a contradiction, but it's an even worse claim about me). Unlike him, apparently, I have no trouble realising that other people aren't all like me – and one doesn't have to be extroverted to seek some kinds of attention. I shouldn't have to spell it out but in the clause 'they are just seeking attention' (and similar statements), 'they' must be read most, or many, of them – 'all' (or 'none') would be absurd. Nor does that imply any dishonesty, as completely truthful statements can be made in a way calculated to draw attention (examples are everywhere).

    I believe I was getting at the apparent fact that, unlike 'homosexual' or 'transgender', being 'non-binary' doesn't seem to require one to do anything different to be taken seriously, except perhaps tell sob-stories about being 'misunderstood'. Nothing shows that being 'non-binary' is anything outside the continuum of normal feelings about that; Occam's razor …

    On the issue raised by Mike-SMO of sex marking on identity documents: it seems others have missed the point. It's not that biological sex is a perfectly accurate way of identifying people (although, at last resort, seeing their genitals would be pretty conclusive), but that it is better than the alternative of 'current gender presentation' – because it is less changeable, and that's what you want to ID people. Further, when those laws were first put into effect, their writers probably were not concerned about any gender mis-identifications other than deliberate attempts at disguise – and for that, biological sex is the only option, and would be effective given how often transgender people are fingered as such. Nowadays when people don't usually wear _obviously_ sex-specific clothing, there are accidental mistakes and ambiguities, but we still get it right most of the time, and we all do identify persons that way all the time, consciously or not; and, though they may not be technically genitals, female breasts or their absence are used for this, as might male genitals be if we didn't have a (sensible) aversion to staring at that place.

  34. Andrew Usher said,

    May 31, 2019 @ 7:42 am

    And to the last:
    David's actions may seem a bit off in this case, but his final point, that any circumlocution is preferable to violating one's own grammar of someone else's whim (someone that should have no power over one, at that) is more than sound.

  35. Gwen Katz said,

    May 31, 2019 @ 12:23 pm

    On the issue raised by Mike-SMO of sex marking on identity documents: it seems others have missed the point. It's not that biological sex is a perfectly accurate way of identifying people (although, at last resort, seeing their genitals would be pretty conclusive), but that it is better than the alternative of 'current gender presentation' – because it is less changeable, and that's what you want to ID people. Further, when those laws were first put into effect, their writers probably were not concerned about any gender mis-identifications other than deliberate attempts at disguise – and for that, biological sex is the only option, and would be effective given how often transgender people are fingered as such. Nowadays when people don't usually wear _obviously_ sex-specific clothing, there are accidental mistakes and ambiguities, but we still get it right most of the time, and we all do identify persons that way all the time, consciously or not; and, though they may not be technically genitals, female breasts or their absence are used for this, as might male genitals be if we didn't have a (sensible) aversion to staring at that place.

    Okay, now you're just being deliberately obtuse. Aside from people you have personally had sex with, you have no idea whether your personal evaluation of people's biology matches what's in their pants. People in this thread have given numerous examples of times when they were wrong about a person's biological sex. Hell, I just have a pixie cut, and that alone is enough to throw people off sometimes.

    Even if you're sticking with the sole policy of "stare at their junk," there are any number of reasons you could be wrong. Lesbians and trans men sometimes wear packers. Trans women may tuck or pad their bras. Some cis women have mastectomies. Some cis men have medical conditions that make them grow breast tissue. Even a thick sweater and baggy pants are enough to completely derail your identification scheme.

    I did like your inadvertent admission that people shouldn't stare at penises but staring at breasts is A-OK, though.

  36. Ellen K. said,

    May 31, 2019 @ 12:47 pm

    Off the language topic, but. Gwen, noticing that someone has breasts very often does not require staring, and no reason to think Andrew Usher was thinking about those cases where it would. He's not suggesting anything more than noticing the obvious (with an apparent lack of awareness that it's not always obvious).

  37. Andrew Usher said,

    May 31, 2019 @ 7:06 pm

    That's right – and I think I adequately covered "that it's not always obvious"; no need to go through details on that point.

  38. Julie said,

    June 2, 2019 @ 4:37 pm

    Can this typo please be corrected in the comments above in the response to Ben Zimmer's comment?

    "Have their been any cases where they is used simply because"

    Or is this really a play on words??

  39. Chandra said,

    June 3, 2019 @ 12:58 pm

    What an utter load of dismissive and misinformed nonsense.

    Yes, nonbinary people often have to do things to change their appearance and name etc. just as binary trans people do. You seem to think that people only transition for the sake of being "taken seriously" by the straights, which completely disregards the significant psychological effects of gender dysphoria.

    No, even seeing genitals is not in fact conclusive of anything. Again, intersex people exist. Some trans (and nonbinary!) people have sex reassignment surgery. Some don't.

    You only think trans people are easily identified as such because the only ones that you know are trans are the ones you can easily identify as such. People who transition before puberty can pass very easily as cis, and this is much more common than you probably realize.

    Gender identity, apart from a very small percentage of genderfluid people, is not "changeable". The vast majority of trans and nonbinary people who choose to come out and publicly transition will continue to present as the gender they know themselves to be for the rest of their lives (and many of them knew it was their gender long before they publicly came out). Why on Earth should they not then have identity documents that match their firmly established presentation? There is literally no good reason other than simple prejudice. Stop trying to pass it off as anything else.

  40. Chandra said,

    June 3, 2019 @ 12:59 pm

    The comment above was @Andrew Usher in case that wasn't clear.

  41. Ben Zimmer said,

    June 4, 2019 @ 7:15 pm

    The New York Times Magazine has a new article out, "The Struggles of Rejecting the Gender Binary," which likely sets various records for the Timesian use of singular they — with reflexive themself appearing a whopping 19 times. (This recent article from New York Magazine's The Cut opts for themselves, but that usage appears to be on the wane.)

  42. Andrew Usher said,

    June 5, 2019 @ 7:22 am

    That use of 'themself' is a change not in English but in the standards of copy-editors, I would think, as the word is common in the exact contexts it should be. The prohibition against it in edited writing is comparable to prohibition of the spelling 'alright'; it's just zombie conservatism.

    This is different from the use of singular verbs with 'they', again we can compare the situation of second-person pronouns where the yourself/yourselves distinction is universal, but both types of 'you' take only plural verb forms in the standard.

    Chandra:

    No need to add that second post, it was quite obvious. I'm never sure whether to laugh at replies such as yours, that start with an assumption about me being on the Wrong Side and then cherry-pick words of mine to exemplify such. I choose my words carefully but what's the point if people are going to misunderstand them anyway?

    I won't raise any new points but will quickly rebut those you just did, which I can do sticking only to facts:

    – You just _assert_ that 'nonbinary people actually have to do things …'. It doesn't look as if the person shown at the top of this thread has done anything to change 'their' appearance.

    – Your complaint that I disregard 'gender dysphoria' is both wrong (I would not if that were the matter at hand) and irrelevant to my point.

    – That 'seeing genitals is not evidence of anything' is absurd; and I only said it was 'pretty conclusive', leaving some room for doubt. I know that intersex people exist, but as they are rare and, as you should know, different from transgender people, saw no need to mention them specifically.

    – You say I think 'trans people are easily identified', putting an 'always' I would never say before my words. Actually, I said they are 'often', which does not even mean most of the time, merely that it (identifying them) is common enough to be of note, as it surely is.

    – You state the gender identity is not 'changeable' but then contradict yourself the next sentence by saying that trans people 'choose' to come out. If they choose whether or not to change their identity (in the sense relevant here), then it is changeable. In any case I said, and meant, only that it was 'more changeable' than biological sex; since the latter is fixed (again excluding intersex people, if you must), it is zero, and _any_ changeability of gender identity (as you admit exists) is greater than zero.

    – You assert that I claimed that identity documents should never recognise gender identity different from biological sex. I did not. I only was – responding to a man that may well have been trolling – giving one possible argument for that position, and admitted that it is less convincing now than it was in the past. In fact, I really don't care about that issue, except as it causes unnecessary hassle.

    Now, who is prejudiced? I identified the majority of your post as based on unwarranted assumptions without trying very hard.

    I had more to say in general but doubt anyone else is still following this – a serious drawback of blog comments – so end, for now.

  43. Chandra said,

    June 5, 2019 @ 11:59 am

    I know that some nonbinary people have to do things to change their appearance, because I personally know several who have had to do so in order to alleviate their gender dysphoria. You have literally no idea what the person in that photo may have done to change their appearance, and even if they did nothing, one anecdote does not contradict the experiences of many others.

    Gender dysphoria is the matter at hand. The fact that you seem to think it isn't only shows your lack of understanding of this issue.

    I am well aware that intersex and trans people are different, which is why I specifically mentioned both. You've proposed that for gender nonconforming people, their assigned sex at birth can be determined by looking at their genitals. This is incorrect for the reasons I have already stated.

    Gender identity is not changeable for the vast majority. Gender presentation is changeable. Most trans people change their presentation exactly once, to match their stable identity. I did not contradict myself; you are conflating two different things and misunderstanding my point.

    If you don't want to be seen as prejudiced, maybe don't use language like "crying for attention" and "telling sob stories", and put scare quotes around the pronouns people have requested to be used.

  44. Andrew Usher said,

    June 6, 2019 @ 7:32 am

    This dispute is narrowing down – a good thing, I'd say, as it allows getting more to the point. First I admit that I used 'gender identity' to mean what you are calling 'gender presentation'; the latter phrase is not part of my vocabulary, and did not come to mind. Since I did indicate the difference of senses I did not make any error; but I was wrong in accusing you of contradiction on that point. I am happy to agree that (using the distinction your way now) 'gender identity' is almost always fixed, while 'gender presentation' is obviously changeable. However, presentation was clearly the relevant one there, and you should have gotten that.

    The fact that some non-binary people do change their appearance, etc., is certain, and is no argument against my original statement, which was to merely raise the possibility of being 'non-binary' without making any substantial change, not to assert how often that actually happens.

    The other remaining areas of disagreement are ones on which I think I've said all I have to say, and there can be no change – except one, which I think is the most fundamental here and you probably do also. That is the one behind your writing 'gender dysphoria is the matter at hand', though I (who made the first post straying into this area) never intended it to be.

    The reason that you would say that is a belief that gender dysphoria is always 'the issue'; that is, that it's somehow wrong to discuss matters related to gender identity without primarily respecting the personal feelings of those claiming gender dysphoria, that is, believing that they have a need to express their felt gender identity. I can't agree; the principal reason being that that restricts discussion and automatically privileges one side. If nothing else I consistently support freedom of inquiry and oppose any form of censorship, and when I asked the question I was merely expressing my natural curiosity as to what this 'non-binary' thing really means. The fact that I'd get jumped on by posts like yours was I suppose predictable – but does it say more about me, or them?

    Last, this is Language Log. This is not necessarily directed at you personally, but at the group you seem to be representing: I expect to have here persons with a genuine interest in language as such (in any of its aspects), regardless of their opinions on other matters. I do not expect those whose only interest in language is in the service of some other political matter – while they may not be actually trolling, the effect is not totally dissimilar.

  45. Ellen K. said,

    June 6, 2019 @ 1:01 pm

    Unless we run around naked, never cut our hair, and never style our hair (no pony tails), we all do things to change our appearance.

  46. Joke Kalisvaart said,

    June 6, 2019 @ 2:22 pm

    Alexander Browne said,
    May 29, 2019 @ 10:16 am
    "On the subject of grammatically plural / semantically singular: does anyone know of a language with a T/V distinction that uses the singular verb with the the V pronoun?"

    Dutch' formal 'u' originally started as third person singular, but is now ususally conjugated with second person verbs (although for most verbs, you can't tell the difference between 2nd and 3rd person, and if you can, sometimes still both are correct).
    But never with plural verbs.

  47. Andrew Usher said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 5:14 pm

    Yes, there is an example! Of course the etymology explains why: though 'u' is originally plural, the polite (V-form) use derives from a singular phrase. However, 'jig/'gig' also was originally plural, and if it takes/took the original 2sg. verb form, that would be an even better example – from modern Dutch inflection I can't immediately judge, as it seems there's been other 'remodeling'. If indeed it did, it would be interesting to know why Dutch differed from English, French, etc.

    Ellen: Well, of course, but that's not exactly what I was getting at …

  48. Chandra said,

    June 10, 2019 @ 1:11 pm

    @Andrew Usher

    I did "get that" and I disagree with your reasoning, and I explained thoroughly why and will not repeat myself again.

    Nobody "jumped on" your post because of your questions about what it means to be nobinary. We reacted to the incredibly condescending assumptions you made. Had you merely been asking questions without obvious preconceived bias, the responses would have been very different. But instead you used dismissive and insulting language and now pretend that your "freedom of inquiry" is being attacked when people call you out on it.

    Gender dysphoria may not always be the main factor in a person's presentation choices, but it is a significant factor for a great majority of people. And yes, I definitely think it's wrong to discuss matters of anyone else's identity without respecting the personal feelings of the people under discussion. The fact that you do not says plenty. Respecting people does not mean never asking any questions, it means being civil about it and actually receptive to hearing about other people's lived experiences. You have done neither.

    Finally, you have the absolute gall to act as if your blatant disdain and willful ignorance regarding a category of people is apolitical, and anyone reacting to that is the one dragging politics into it. I don't represent anyone other than myself, I am a longtime commenter here who has had plenty to say about language for its own sake, and frankly if anybody here is behaving like a troll it's you.

  49. Chandra said,

    June 10, 2019 @ 1:41 pm

    Essentially you're behaving as though your opinion, as a cis person with no firsthand (or even second-hand as far as I can tell) experience of what you're forming those opinions about, is equally or more valid than the self-professed lived experiences of actual nonbinary people. Then you further condescend to, deflect and put down anyone who attempts to point out the flaws in your approach and reasoning.

    You can't discuss the language of identity without discussing identity. There are ways to do that and keep genuine inquiry open without offending people. If you are in fact interested in the former and not the latter, listen when people tell you that you're doing it wrong instead of getting defensive.

    I'm done.

  50. Andrew Usher said,

    June 10, 2019 @ 6:07 pm

    Well, I don't like repeating myself either. Yes, I may have made some unwarranted assumptions about you – I don't recall having come across you before, but I probably have, seeing as this topic has come up before – because I'm not prefect nor is my memory, so I can apologise for that.

    I won't debate what is or isn't political because that's really a matter of definition. If you try to give your definition, I would try to give mine. But ultimately, assumptions about motives (conscious or not) matter more than that.

    You've just laid it out yourself: you say personal feelings matter more than the freedom to ask questions; I say otherwise. (Obviously there are corner cases, but when I speak generally it may be assumed that I mean it is so in the general case.) That's that, and it doesn't look as if it's going to change. If I avoid this topic the next time, it won't be because of your admonition but because I see that it won't lead to constructive comments in the manner I desire, and if so it's better not to cause whatever amount of grief it does cause.

  51. Chandra said,

    June 11, 2019 @ 1:52 pm

    Nope, I said nothing of the sort. I made it quite clear that I support the freedom to ask questions. What I do not support is doing so in a disrespectful manner.

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