They triumphs?

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Farhad Manjoo, "Call Me 'They'", NYT 7/10/2019:

The singular "they" is inclusive and flexible, and it breaks the stifling prison of gender expectations. Let's all use it.

I am your stereotypical, cisgender, middle-aged suburban dad. I dabble in woodworking, I take out the garbage, and I covet my neighbor's Porsche. Though I do think men should wear makeup (it looks nice!), my tepid masculinity apparently rings loudly enough online and in person that most people guess that I go by "he" and "him." And that's fine; I will not be offended if you refer to me by those traditional, uselessly gendered pronouns.

But "he" is not what you should call me. If we lived in a just, rational, inclusive universe — one in which we were not all so irredeemably obsessed by the particulars of the parts dangling between our fellow humans' legs, nor the ridiculous expectations signified by those parts about how we should act and speak and dress and feel — there would be no requirement for you to have to assume my gender just to refer to me in the common tongue.

Usage of singular they has seen a progression from indefinite singular referents of unspecified gender, to definite  singular referents of unspecified gender, to definite singular referents of  known gender but unspecified identity, to definite singular referents of known birth sex and specified identity — with the last-named stage sometimes just a new kind of 3rd-singular pronoun applied indiscriminately to any referent at all, and sometimes seen as an option to be applied to certain people who have chosen to opt out of the binary gender system.

Manjoo is apparently suggesting that everyone should choose the opt-out option, at least with respect to pronoun choices,  so that they replaces he and she just as you replaced thou. This will certainly get pushback from traditionalists like Mary Norris. Will there also be objections from people on the other side, who want to see explicit non-gendered pronoun choice retained as an expression of personal identity?

A sample of LLOG posts on the topic over the years:

"They are a prophet", 10/21/2004
"The SAT fails a grammar test", 1/31/2005
"Singular they and plural he/she/it", 10/12/2005
"Singular they with known sex", 1/3/2006
"Shakespeare used they with singular antecedents so there", 1/5/2006
"Is singular they verbally and plenarily inspired of God?", 8/21/2006
"'Singular they': God said it, I believe it, that settles it", 9/13/2006
"Everyone knows each other", 3/26/2008
"Canadian Department of Justice: use 'singular they'", 4/13/2008
"Xtreme singular they", 4/18/2008
"'im or 'em?", 5/9/2008
"Presidential pronoun watch", 5/20/2008
"Prescriptivist Science", 5/30/2008
"Facebook phases out singular they", 6/27/2008
"Knuckling under", 3/16/2009
"Candidates must be a student", 4/16/2009
"As they arrive", 6/9/2009
"The President and the pronoun", 8/3/2009
"Singular they trudges on", 1/24/2010
"What he used to be and who they are now", 2/2/2010
"Their mouth … its mouths", 5/15/2010
"Sometimes Strunk and White are right", 7/1/2010
"David Pogue assails singular they", 7/7/2010
"Singular they with personal name antecedent", 9/1/2010
"Annals of singular their", 9/21/2010
"'Dan has noot filled out their profile yet'", 7/31/2011
"Sweden's gender-neutral 3rd-person singular pronoun", 4/13/2012
"Plural it in E. Nesbit", 6/2/2012
"'The nurse who has a low opinion of oneself", 7/19/2012
"We all need someone who relies on", 11/16/2012
"Popes and prophets", 2/12/2013
"The future of singular they", 3/8/2013
"I met someone and they make me happy", 12/4/2013
"Enlightened singular they", 1/22/2014
"The manuscript they would have written", 1/29/2015
"Typical options like “he� and “she�", 9/15/2015
"Annals of singular 'they': another case with known sex", 11/30/2015
"The Washington Post concedes on singular they", 12/13/2015
"Linguistic reaction at The New Yorker", 3/8/2016
"Choosing their pronouns for oneself", 9/15/2016
"The craven feminine pronoun", 2/8/2017
"The Daily Mail deluding themselves", 2/28/2017
"What a woman can't do with their body", 3/10.2017
"Singular They of the day", 4/14/2016
"Schooled on singular 'they'", 4/21/2017
"Pronominal reference to the arbitrary dog", 4/22/2017
"Or the arbitrary cat, horse, or pig", 4/23/2017
"Terror of singular 'they'", 10/13/2017
"A letter saying they won", 12/4/2017
"If you can't say something nice…", 12/5/2017
"Courtesy and personal pronoun choice", 12/6/2017
"On when listening is better than talking: A call for contemplation and empathy", 12/11/2017
"Linguists and change", 12/15/2017
"Tolerance for singular they", 9/4/2018

And for a seventeenth-century precedent, see

"George Fox, Prescriptivist", 10/24/2010
"Fox redux", 9/26/2015
"That false and senseless Way of Speaking", 7/1/2016

Update — Rachel L. Harris and Lisa Tarchak, "I'm with 'They'" ("What's the big deal with gender-neutral pronouns? Some readers and our columnist disagreed"), NYT 7/12/2019.



68 Comments

  1. Annie Gottlieb said,

    July 12, 2019 @ 7:37 am

    The pain and confusion some of us experience at the singular use of "they" is partly just being unaccustomed to it (that's the pain) and partly the real ambiguity it can introduce regarding how many people we are talking about (that's the confusion). But my reaction as a copy editor depends entirely on its placement and function in the sentence. The "everyone has their pronoun preference" usage goes down easy, and "his or her" in that construction now feels exclusionary and actually rigid and oppressive, as if it is an enforcement of traditional gender norms and an impoverishment of possibility. Of course there are multiple genders, and of course gender is also a continuum, a sliding scale.

    But when they is used as the up-front subject of a sentence, as in "They are showing their work at X gallery," I experience . . . as I write this I realize I experience two things, not one.

    One is confusion about how many people are being referred to. For that reason I try to restructure such sentences to dodge the issue altogether.

    But the other (which would particularly take hold if Manjoo's recommendation were followed) is that the person's gender is masked, whatever it is; I can't SEE them (see, there's a usage that feels completely natural to me, because of the down-stress rather than self-conscious showcasing of the word). Gender is still a relevant part of a person's identity, to themselves and to others. If someone chooses and even flaunts "they," at least I know SOMETHING about them: either that they are not at either end of the gender spectrum, OR that even if they are (like Manjoo), they want to be activists, "allies" on the issue. That's better than putting a grammatical burka over them and trying to force us not to factor gender into our interactions at all.

    We are, hopefully, gradually becoming more able to notice and accept gender (ANY gender) yet to treat the human being who comes dressed in it as the human being. In language and in life, I'd rather learn to enjoy but "see through" gender variety than to have it masked lest I react in some retro, knee-jerk way. Working through those reactions with awareness is better than trying to ban and suppress them.

    Therefore my preference would be to let people choose what they wish to be called, and try to shape writing to accommodate it gracefully, minimizing confusion.

  2. Coby Lubliner said,

    July 12, 2019 @ 8:16 am

    I wonder if Manjoo's use of "the common tongue" is a reference to Game of Thrones.

  3. JJM said,

    July 12, 2019 @ 8:19 am

    The conflation of ideological gender with grammatical gender in certain circles continues.

  4. enker said,

    July 12, 2019 @ 8:39 am

    At this point, it's hard to imagine someone continuing to insist on using the bigoted he/she pronouns unless they're a Trump-worshiping MAGA-droid who just can't fathom the idea of someone not fitting into their tidy gender binary. Respecting the identities of others is just basic decency.

    [(myl) But when they becomes the default 3rd singular pronoun, as Manjoo recommends, there may be people who insist that their identity requires recognition of the "tidy gender binary" by referring to them as "he" or "she". ]

  5. Stephen Coombs said,

    July 12, 2019 @ 8:43 am

    So "The newest recruit should be ready to take this task upon themselves"? Or "themself"? I don't think so. "A person is only as nice as they are to their employees"? Or "they is"? Only a cloth-eared (and cloth-minded) writer can be satisfied with extreme cases of singulartheyism.

    On Twitter @stephanuscoombs I've taken to using subject heshe, object himher, possessive/reflexive hisher(s/self) and am very satisfied with the clarity and general effect. So – as usual – there are options available. Après moi le deluge, not avant. But let every reader make up hisher own mind, just as heshe may think fit.

  6. KeithB said,

    July 12, 2019 @ 8:46 am

    Coby:
    Or the Lord of the Rings where I believe that Westron was called the "Common Tongue".

  7. mistah charley, ph.d. said,

    July 12, 2019 @ 8:48 am

    When I was in psychology grad school (1970s-80s) the APA Publication Manual was coming to grips with gender issues in language. At that time they recommended dealing with the assumption that people were male by writing in the plural as much as possible – instead of "the subject made his response" say "the subjects made their responses" and so on – also it's nicer to say "research participant" rather than subject. There was an earlier convention about abbreviating given names in reference lists UNLESS they were female. I believe they dealt with this by deciding to abbreviate everybody's given names – I thought at the time it would be better to let everyone have their full names. The last edition of the publication manual I consulted was the fourth – they are now on the sixth – so I am admittedly out of date here. I sometimes say I am a time traveler from the twentieth century.

  8. DMD said,

    July 12, 2019 @ 9:30 am

    I teach on-line and often can't tell the sex of an individual from the name. For me, referring to them as "they" is quite useful. The Chinese "ta" would be useful as well but unrealistic in an Anglophile environment.

  9. Robert Coren said,

    July 12, 2019 @ 9:31 am

    KeithB: Hmm. I remember "Common Speech" from Lord of the Rings, not sure about "Comon Tongue".

  10. Reading: Language Log » They triumphs? | Morgan's Log said,

    July 12, 2019 @ 9:31 am

    […] Source […]

  11. John Roth said,

    July 12, 2019 @ 9:51 am

    Stephen Coombs: I started using a real epicene pronoun a few years ago, before epicene they started becoming popular, and I'm going to continue, not least because it's a real singular, taking "is" as the verb instead of the faux singular of they, which still takes "are" as the verb.

    Granted, that train has left the station, but at my age I'm simply going to continue to do it, and let anyone who objects deal with it. So far, no one has objected.

    For the record, it's ce, cis, cim, cimself, but pronounced with a soft c (an s). It's spelled that way to avoid being confused with Spanish si.

  12. the Viking Diva said,

    July 12, 2019 @ 12:40 pm

    @Stephen Coombs – this doesn't solve the problem; it just reifies the gender binary by assuming that everyone's gender is some linear combination of he and she.

  13. RP said,

    July 12, 2019 @ 12:54 pm

    Like most people, I make use of "they" as a gender-neutral pronoun in various circumstances, including where it's the preferred pronoun of the individual, but the vast majority of the time I use the traditional "he" and "she" pronouns.

    Like some of the other commenters here, I would perhaps have reservations about using "they" for everyone indiscriminately, because there are cases where the "he"/"she"/"they" distinction allows the reader or listener to disambiguate based on number or gender. Although this is being eroded somewhat, if we got rid of this completely then sooner or later people would replace "they"-plural with new words like "they-all" ("th'all") and (ironically, quasi-gendered) periphrastics such as "those guys". If we had chosen a different epicene pronoun instead of reusing "they", the concern would clearly be lesser. Finnish already has no he/she/they-sg distinction.

    However, as for the concern that some people would prefer to be known as "he" or "she", and calling them "they" might thus be less satisfactory from their point of view, if this were true then would it also mean that the use of "they" for a person of unknown gender ("has anyone lost their umbrella?") might in future come to be seen as suitable only for situations where the person concerned prefers the pronoun "they"? If so, that would be rather inconvenient. Where previously people said "they" (or "he or she" or "he/she"), they would now have to resort to "they/he/she" for indeterminate referents!

  14. RP said,

    July 12, 2019 @ 12:58 pm

    @Stephen Coombs,
    When I use "they"-sg., I prefer a plural verb ("are", "have"), and after all, we always use a plural verb with "you"-sg., at least in standard English, so I'm not sure why some people think it should or will be different with "they"-sg.

    However, with "you"-sg, the reflexive is "yourself", and I would definitely favour "themself" as the reflexive of singular "they". I would not necessarily use it in all contexts because I'm not sure if it would be considered formally correct (although perhaps using it in formal contexts is precisely what one ought to do, in order to change that).

  15. Peter B. Golden said,

    July 12, 2019 @ 1:19 pm

    I read Manjoo's article yesterday. Rolled my eyes a few times. This is all getting out of hand. Perhaps – for those who want it – a dual can be introduced (although duals can, I suppose, be gendered as well). At this point, the words of an old Russian song, from the time of the Revolution-Civil War, that a family friend used to say whenever something was just too complicated (or unnecessarily complicated) came up : ой, моя бедная грузинская голова (Oh, my poor Georgian head), apparently a popular song at the time.

    Clearly, it is also time to give official status to: y'all, youse (as in "youse guys").
    In Turkish, in which o ("he/she/it") is used, gender cues are given by context, as with Chinese, Hungarian et al.). Turkish friends of mine regularly used "bu herif" (lit. "this scoundrel" but often meaning "this guy") or even less politely bu pezevenk "this pimp," but also used like Eng. SOB) for "he."
    Interestingly enough, in Turkic the first person possessive form of some titles became the feminine equivalent of that title or at least a polite form of address: Modern Turk. Hanım ("Mrs., Ms.") placed after the name from Khanım ("my khan"), Chaghatay Begim ("lady, Mrs. etc.") from begi-im "My Beg") borrowed into Urdu as Begum (<Begüm). In Turkic these post-positioned honorifics are the normal form of polite address; surnames (relatively recent) are not used, e.g. Hasan Bey, Saadet Hanım.

  16. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 12, 2019 @ 1:39 pm

    Robert Coren: "…the language is that of Mordor, which I will not utter here. But this in the Common Tongue is what is said, close enough:

    One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
    One Ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them.

    There's another example when Gandalf is talking to the guards of Edoras.

  17. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 12, 2019 @ 1:40 pm

    Have a quotation mark, everybody: "

  18. April Arcus said,

    July 12, 2019 @ 1:47 pm

    RP wrote:
    > if we got rid of this completely then sooner or later people would replace "they"-plural with new words like "they-all" ("th'all") and (ironically, quasi-gendered) periphrastics such as "those guys".

    Let me take this opportunity to introduce you to my favorite neologistic third person plural paradigm.

    Subject Pronoun: th'all
    Object Pronoun: all'em
    Possessive Determiner: …


    wait for it…

    Possessive Determiner: all th'all's

    It's the perfect thing! It obviates this plural-singular confusion, and it indexes nobody's gender except your own, insofar as it marks you as belonging to a speech community which finds such a construct practical!

  19. CN Wilson said,

    July 12, 2019 @ 2:00 pm

    Gottlieb: I would challenge your implication that you need to "see" the other person via their gender, say, before you ever interact with them directly. The only utility of this that I can imagine is being able to thereby tap into a host of preconceived deas about how you, given your particular demographic, "should" interact with another particular gender, age, race, etc. What you're "seeing" may just be a set of stereotypes, along with a matrix of how the other person fulfills or transcends them. I find this rather depressing.

    What I think you mean in general, that gender expression is a delightfully flavorful part of identity, is of course understandable…but much of the time gender is irrelevant. Think of how many professional interactions are skewed a priori by sexist prejudice. Singular "they" isn't just about demolishing the binary; it's also an expression of how unnecessary it is to know the gender of many, many people with whom one casually interacts.

  20. Bloix said,

    July 12, 2019 @ 2:29 pm

    The loss of thou/thy is problem for English, and has led to various unsatisfactory work -arounds and a fair amount of confusion. Y'all, you guys, yinz, you folk – these phrases met a felt need, and do it poorly. Most languages don't have this problem.

    More generally, our pronoun system is not very good in several areas. Take the ambiguity of we/our – does it mean we not you, or does it mean we and you? "We agree with the terms" means I and my client agree to the terms. "Can we agree to the terms?" means can I and my client agree with you and your client to the terms? Why don't have two different we's for the two different meanings?

    And they already is the source of ambiguity because of its use, in place of passive voice or other constructions, to mean "an unknown person or institution." I often find in the office context, where precision and detail are important, stopping people to ask them, who is they? Which they?

    Plus in current spoken English people routinely perform conversations, so that they switch back and forth between pronouns depending on whether they are reciting or recounting. More confusion.

    We do just fine with non-gendered first and second person singular pronouns, and it would be great to have a non-gendered third-party singular pronoun to remove gender bias without introducing unnecessary lack of clarity. But it's not so great to press they into service as a singular because it's already non-gendered. Singular they creates ambiguity in an area that already has more ambiguity than necessary.

    I understand that this is not gonna happen. The effort to spread the non-gendered singular third party pronoun ze and zir seems to have failed while singular they is gaining acceptance. IMHO opinion that's unfortunate. I'm not going to peeve about it but I don't have to like it.

  21. sicherhalten said,

    July 12, 2019 @ 2:33 pm

    It depends on who's listening. Whether or not they know the person in question makes a big difference.

    I'd like to share my experience. Being gay as I am, I use singular they rather strategically.

    Can you imagine?

    I'm trying to explain. It takes gender out of the picture. People will have less info to judge me by.

    It makes talking to my parents easier. And talking to str8 guys, lol

    When we both know the person, then I really like he and she. In lgbt, gender is too meaningful to be ignored.

  22. April Arcus said,

    July 12, 2019 @ 2:39 pm

    > The effort to spread the non-gendered singular third party pronoun ze and zir seems to have failed while singular they is gaining acceptance.

    Speaking from my boots on the ground perspective in the Bay Area, ze/zir and its friends (sie/hir, zie/hir, ey/eir, xey/xyr, and so forth) have significant current, even daily usage with fluent second language speaker proficiency within queer, nonbinary and genderqueer communities here.

    They are not, however, "non-gendered" pronouns in colloquial usage. Rather, they index the particular gender expressions of individuals who don't think of their gender identity as localizable on a male-female axis.

  23. Bloix said,

    July 12, 2019 @ 2:53 pm

    April Arcus – I'm glad to hear it. I visit the Bay Area often and have never run into ze/zir, but I am an old guy and I spend too much of my time with stodgy business people so I miss out on a lot.

  24. annie gottlieb said,

    July 12, 2019 @ 3:40 pm

    CN Wilson: that's not exactly what I said; I like to "see" through words generally, and that includes getting a sense of who is talking or being talked about, including something about their gender presentation, whether it's M, F, or none of the above. We now miss having that third (and fourth, fifth, sixth) alternative if only "he" or "she" is allowed. … If everyone used the same pronoun, that aspect would be concealed. Of course, in Chinese or, I guess, Finnish, it's absent from language to begin with. That's refreshing, we're just not used to it.

    This article at the link is an example of the confusion that can ensue when the singular "they" is enthusiastically embraced. At any given moment I had no idea how many people were being talked about. However, this wonderful sentence of Dorian Electra's is also in the article: "The core of my being is not gendered at all."

    https://www.theguardian.com/music/2019/jul/12/pop-sensation-dorian-electra-im-not-a-woman-dressing-as-a-man-its-more-complex?utm_term=RWRpdG9yaWFsX0d1YXJkaWFuVG9kYXlVUy0xOTA3MTI%3D&utm_source=esp&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=GuardianTodayUS&CMP=GTUS_email

  25. DWalker07 said,

    July 12, 2019 @ 3:48 pm

    @Annie Gottlieb:

    I agree with what CN Wilson said.

    You say one issue "is that the person's gender is masked, whatever it is;" … Do you experience that as a problem? Do you NEED to see the person's gender in your mind's eye?

    I know that the first question everyone asks about a newborn baby is "boy or girl?".
    This has struck me as weird. What real difference does it make to others whether Bill and Mary had a boy, or a girl? Maybe Bill and Mary had an intersex child.

    If you heard "He is showing his work at X gallery," instead of "They are showing their work at X gallery", would you also need to know his age, his race, how long his hair is, what color his eyes are, and how many fingers he has on each hand, before being comfortable? Those things are masked too.

  26. DWalker07 said,

    July 12, 2019 @ 3:51 pm

    @Annie: And I see you have posted a followup. I didn't mean to be too harsh, and I understand that many things are invisible. It is true that gender is one of the more obvious markers of… just about everything about a person in our privileged culture… and maybe the fact that gender is (or should be) becoming a "more diffuse/less visible" marker is a good thing.

  27. Julian Hook said,

    July 12, 2019 @ 5:32 pm

    I'm interested in the fact that the Times columnist and many of the commenters use the word "grammarian" to mean "grammar snoot"–someone who is very picky about ostensibly correct use of grammar.

    That definition of "grammarian" does not appear in any dictionary I have consulted. Dictionaries all say that a grammarian is a specialist in grammar, someone who studies the subject professionally. As readers of Language Log know well, these two meanings do not always, or even usually, align.

    Perhaps our lexicographers haven't caught up with the changing uses of the word "grammarian"?

  28. Davek said,

    July 12, 2019 @ 5:42 pm

    What bothers me about Manjoo's article is the assumption that if we just started using a non-gendered pronoun, we would suddenly become less obsessed with binary gender and so much more relaxed about gender roles in society.
    Most of what I know about linguistics I've learned on this site, but isn't Manjoo falling into the Whorfian fallacy? I'm sure there are any number of cultures with rigid, binary gender roles that have no gendered pronouns at all

  29. Andrew Usher said,

    July 12, 2019 @ 7:05 pm

    I think this guy is just messed up by an excess of political correctness. Look, when people call you 'he', it's just any sort of judgement, it's just instrictvely folowing the rules of our language. It isn't even any sort of prescriptivism, and in any case the kind of prescriptivism that has real influence today is in favor of the 'singular they', not against it.

    It's saying that there's a problem with 'he' and 'she' that is a political intrusion into language. We don't even need to mention the so-called non-binary people here – if a person that raises no objection to being identified as male feels possibly (?) offended by 'he', it's time to find something more important to think about, to make the least strong statement I can about the matter.

    And I heartily endorse the last post – in addition to all this, he falls into the silly 'Whorfian' trap. All cultures have a history of definite gender roles (which certainly has a biological component, but they went beyond it), regardless of language. I can be sure of that!

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo dot com

  30. Ray said,

    July 12, 2019 @ 7:13 pm

    and… yup, it's happened, once again, in the media. when paid writers (this time, for the nyt) confuse/conflate sex with gender.

    in this case, manjoo's very first sentence falls into this trap: "I am your stereotypical, cisgender, middle-aged suburban dad. I dabble in woodworking, I take out the garbage, and I covet my neighbor's Porsche. Though I do think men should wear makeup (it looks nice!), my tepid masculinity apparently rings loudly enough online and in person that most people guess that I go by "he" and "him." And that's fine; I will not be offended if you refer to me by those traditional, uselessly gendered pronouns."

    dear manjoo: you should have written: "Though I do think MALES should wear makeup" if you're going to write "I will not be offended if you refer to me by those traditional, uselessly gendered pronouns."

    now let's watch how manjoo performs the same hat trick at the end of the article:

    "But it was only when I had a son and a daughter of my own that I recognized how powerfully gendered constructs shape our development. From their very earliest days, my kids, fed by marketing and entertainment and (surely) their parents' modeling, seemed to hem themselves into silly gender norms. They gravitated to boy toys and girl toys, boy colors and girl colors, boy TV shows and girl TV shows. This was all so sad to me"

    dear manjoo, you should have written: "They gravitated to MALE toys and FEMALE toys, MASCULINE colors and FEMININE colors, MACHO TV shows and FEM TV shows"

    because, after all, dear manjoo, paid opinion columnist writer for the nyt, no one calls it the little male's room or the female's room, we call it the little boy's room or the ladies' room.

    arghh. :-)

  31. Anthony said,

    July 12, 2019 @ 8:43 pm

    For years I had work-related conversations with someone 5 to 10 times a day, never longer than a minute. I figured he was a youngish go-getter finance bro type…he turned out to be a pot-bellied older gent. Did that matter to me or have an effect on work? No. My mental image changed, but I shouldn't have had a very specific one in the first place. Yes, I was right about his being male, but I could have been wrong about that, too.

  32. John Roth said,

    July 12, 2019 @ 8:56 pm

    Davek:

    To expand on my comment above, I started using an epicene pronoun in my personal writing of backgrounds for stories. I did it to see if it would make any difference in the way I saw characters. In fact, it did have a small but discernible effect, so I kept using it. Eventually, it started leaking out into other writing where other people saw it. So far, there has been zero reaction. I suspect some people think it's a spelling error.

    As far as zie/zir etc is concerned, I agree with what's reported to be the consensus in the Bay Area – it's a gendered pronoun for people who do not fit, for one reason or another, in the conventional gender binary. It's in my toolkit, but I have very little cause to use it.

  33. Chas Belov said,

    July 12, 2019 @ 11:09 pm

    My pronoun usage is definitely undergoing transformation. I find myself uncomfortable using he or she unless someone has told me they definitely prefer it. I find myself alternating between "they" and repeating the proper noun. I'm not comfortable using "they" in a business email yet for anyone who hasn't specifically identified that way, but also don't want to misidentify anyone, so definitely am making much more use of eschewing third-person pronouns in favor of proper nouns in such emails.

    Yes, it's uncomfortable but not any more uncomfortable that I say URL (url) as a word where most people say it as an initialism (you are ell).

    And I remind everyone that spoken Chinese gets by just fine with non-gendered pronouns and non-differentiation between singular and plural.

  34. Chas Belov said,

    July 12, 2019 @ 11:15 pm

    Not to mention some languages might look askance at our only distinguishing between singular and plural, or our only having one first-person plural pronoun.

  35. Jenny Chu said,

    July 12, 2019 @ 11:35 pm

    In case I haven't already brought it up, I recommend Ada Palmer's Terra Ignota series for a good, solid look at how they can be used as a mainstream third person pronoun.

  36. rosie said,

    July 13, 2019 @ 1:45 am

    John Roth: the faux singular of they, which still takes "are" as the verb.

    Where "you are" refers to one person, is that a faux singular? Surely its meaning implies that it is a *real* singular. Likewise, where "they" refers to one person, it's a real singular, even if it takes the same verb forms as plural "they".

    Bloix: "our pronoun system is not very good in several areas. Take the ambiguity of we/our"
    If our pronoun system is deficient in not distinguishing between inclusive "we/us" ("them, you and me") and exclusive "we/us" ("them and me but not you"), then does it also need to distinguish dual "we/us" ("you and me but not anybody else")?

    I agree that precision and detail are important — lack of ambiguity, anyway. But there is danger of ambiguity with "he" and "she", too, not only with "they".

  37. Michael Watts said,

    July 13, 2019 @ 6:09 am

    And I remind everyone that spoken Chinese gets by just fine with non-gendered pronouns and non-differentiation between singular and plural.

    It gets by just fine with non-gendered pronouns, and (separately) with non-differentiation between singular and plural, but there's not a lot of non-differentiation between singular and plural in pronouns, making it somewhat weird to mention those in the same breath like that.

    Is failing to distinguish singular from plural in pronouns even an option?

  38. Rodger C said,

    July 13, 2019 @ 7:01 am

    Is failing to distinguish singular from plural in pronouns even an option?

    Well, you know …

  39. Michael Watts said,

    July 13, 2019 @ 7:32 am

    Is failing to distinguish singular from plural in pronouns even an option?

    Well, you know …

    If the context of responding to a comment about Chinese with another comment about Chinese didn't make it clear, I was talking about Chinese.

  40. RP said,

    July 13, 2019 @ 8:21 am

    The fact that some languages get by without singular and plural pronouns doesn't necessarily mean nothing is lost if English loses them. Those languages often have other distinctions that English doesn't. The fact that English doesn't distinguish between dual and plural or between inclusive and exclusive "we" doesn't mean other languages would lose nothing if they copied us.

    German doesn't distinguish between "this" and "that". That doesn't necessarily mean that nothing useful is lost if the distinction ceases to exist.

    As others observed, the disappearance of the thou/you distinction doesn't seem to have be regarded as universally satisfactory, given that many dialects colloquially have invented new plurals such as y'all and youse.

  41. Tom Dawkes said,

    July 13, 2019 @ 9:01 am

    It's interesting that no-one, I think, has suggested that we might as well do without any expression of NUMBER, if it can be regarded as unambiguous to use 'they' as both singular and plural.

    As for gender-neutral singular 3rd person pronouns, can anyone seriously argue that Hungary (with ő ==he/she) and Turkey (with o==he/she) are more enlightened and less concerned with gender roles?

  42. Martha said,

    July 13, 2019 @ 9:50 am

    I am pro singular 'they" (and "themself"), as I've used it as long as I can remember and find it completely unremarkable.

    However, I think any argument that it's "okay" not to differentiate between genders in English because X language doesn't do it is akin to saying we shouldn't split infinitives in English because you can't in Latin. Sure, it's a thing, but it doesn't have anything to do with English. (And I agree with RP.)

  43. Coby Lubliner said,

    July 13, 2019 @ 11:24 am

    Pronoun confusion happens in many languages. Take the "polite" second person singular: in French it's the same as the second person plural; in Italian it's the feminine third person singular; in German it's the third person plural. The fact that in the latter two it's capitalized in writing is irrelevant in speech, just like the use of different characters for tā 'she' (她) and 'he' (他) is in Chinese.

  44. Theophylact said,

    July 13, 2019 @ 12:02 pm

    "Sarah Caudwell" (Sarah Cockburn) wrote four murder mysteries in which the detective and narrator is a Professor Hilary Tamar. The sex or gender of this person is never revealed, directly through pronoun or indirectly through action. Let your imagination run riot, I say.

    Tom Dawkes: Do you suggest the use of the Royal first person singular?

  45. Daniel Barkalow said,

    July 13, 2019 @ 12:24 pm

    I don't see any confusion between an individual and a group. "Them" always refers to one person; if you wanted to refer to more than one, you'd use "th'all" (or "thinz" in Pittsburgh). It's been that way pretty much universally since the late 21st century.

  46. The Other Mark P said,

    July 13, 2019 @ 5:07 pm

    "I am your stereotypical, cisgender, middle-aged suburban dad."

    Presumably he means parent.

    "But it was only when I had a son and a daughter of my own"

    Presumably he means two children.

    He seems to be struggling with the concept or getting rid of the binary as much as anyone else. But the current fashion is to get worked up about the pronouns, not the rest of it. He could at least be consistent with his fashionability.

    "They gravitated to boy toys and girl toys, boy colors and girl colors, boy TV shows and girl TV shows."

    I wonder if he considers that they do it because that is how people naturally are? I raised my daughters in a very non-typical female environment. As a result they never fancied pink or bows or many of the "gendered" irrelevancies. But they still became distinctly girls and distinctly not boys. I suspect the XX chromosomes are the reason, not society.

  47. Chas Belov said,

    July 13, 2019 @ 11:01 pm

    We also need a non-gendered equivalent to Sir and Madam. That said, we (inclusive) can start with they.

    That X language has Y feature was not my attempt to justify that we must do it, only that it is possible to do it without harming the language.

  48. LR said,

    July 14, 2019 @ 4:26 am

    @enker…"At this point, it's hard to imagine someone continuing to insist on using the bigoted he/she pronouns unless they're a Trump-worshiping MAGA-droid who just can't fathom the idea of someone not fitting into their tidy gender binary. Respecting the identities of others is just basic decency."

    Someone actually thinks this garbage? Where does this kind of ridiculous thinking come from? Using he/she has nothing to do with being 'bigoted'. And insisting on using he/she doesn't automatically mean one is a 'Trump-worshipping MAGA-droid.'

  49. RP said,

    July 14, 2019 @ 6:43 am

    @LR: I am not sure whether enker was referring to any use of the he/she pronouns *at all* (i.e. strongly agreeing with Farhad Manjoo) or whether they were condemning the practice of insisting upon these pronouns for someone who would prefer "they" or a different pronoun. I am also not sure, when you say that using he/she isn't bigoted, which circumstance you're referring to. Are you saying that not everyone who uses these pronouns (for example, where "she" or "he" is the preferred pronoun of the referent) is bigoted, or are you saying that not everyone who uses "he"/"she" to refer to those who object to those two pronouns is bigoted? Those are two very different propositions!

  50. nemanja said,

    July 14, 2019 @ 6:51 am

    I honestly can't understand why this is so difficult for people: just use a person's preferred pronouns, and if you aren't sure what those are, ask! And if that seems hard, imagine how you'd feel if someone obdurately persisted in calling you by the wrong name despite you correcting them, and ask yourself whether you want to be that kind of asshole when it comes to pronoun use.

  51. nemanja said,

    July 14, 2019 @ 6:59 am

    LR, insisting on using he/she to refer to someone who has asked you to use "they" is practically the very definition of bigoted.

  52. James Wimberley said,

    July 14, 2019 @ 10:17 am

    The vast size and great diversity of the community of English speakers will make the "they" change slow. I guess it will make more radical changes and new pronouns impossible. Second-language speakers are likely to be conservative, and protective of the rules they have invested a lot of effort to learn. How is this issue presented today in leading textbooks and manuals for teachers of English as a foreign language?

  53. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    July 14, 2019 @ 12:42 pm

    Let us all lay down the arms we have borne and agree to disagree. He is him and they are/is them, and never/sometimes the twain shall meet.

    Perhaps a general moratorium on commenting how how any particular speaker "or group of speakers ought" or "ought not" to use language? Or else, open the flood gates for all the various and sundry "opinions" of internet commenters, and all the "value" we create thereby?

  54. JJM said,

    July 14, 2019 @ 3:34 pm

    James Wimberley: "The vast size and great diversity of the community of English speakers will make the 'they' change slow."

    I agree – and that's assuming such a change even occurs.

    Notwithstanding the essentially ideological arguments for its extended use being put forward by many here, I'm not hearing any boring old common or garden English speakers using it.

  55. William S Berry said,

    July 14, 2019 @ 4:06 pm

    Props to Manjoo for trying hard, I guess, but doesn't he step in it a bit himself when he refers to "the parts dangling between our fellow humans' legs", given that fifty percent of the human population don't actually have those "dangling" parts?

  56. sicherhalten said,

    July 14, 2019 @ 4:09 pm

    As a second language learner, I think it's easier… the same way swearing in the language

  57. the other Mark P said,

    July 14, 2019 @ 4:16 pm

    I honestly can't understand why this is so difficult for people: just use a person's preferred pronouns, and if you aren't sure what those are, ask! And if that seems hard, imagine how you'd feel if someone obdurately persisted in calling you by the wrong name despite you correcting them, and ask yourself whether you want to be that kind of asshole when it comes to pronoun use.

    You're not always in a position to ask, for a start.

    There are also issues of not liking potential outcomes. My preferred pronoun is "Emperor" / "Emperor's" and if you won't refer to me as that, then your that kind of asshole who doesn't use the pronouns that people wish to be referred by.

    As for people obdurately using the wrong name, then we pretty much all have to face it from time to time. My "Mark" has a non-rhotic r, and I dislike the way most North Americans insist on saying the r. However, I do not insist that they pronounce my name the way I prefer it to be pronounced. Nor do I get worked up about Asians and their struggles with the r/l distinction and my name.

  58. Frank Southworth said,

    July 15, 2019 @ 1:26 pm

    I am a 90-yearold retired linguist. Having read all the preceding posts, I feel the same as I did before reading Manjoo's original op-ed—while I am totally in favor of finding a gender-neutral 3dsing. pronoun, I'm not satisfied with any of the existing suggestions. "they/them" to me is impossibly awkward because of the sing.-plur. confusion—though I do use it in speech in very limited contexts when discussing. a "someone" of unknown gender.

    In my own usage, I avoid gendered pronouns when gender is unknown or irrelevant by various circumlocutions, resorting to "he/she" or "she/he" only as a last resort. I don't interact much with people who use unconventional pronouns, though I have acqaintances and even family members of LGBTQ status. I have a trans cousin, whom I knew for decades as a male and who is now a female. I know that she prefers female pronouns, so I use them in referring to her (except when I forget).

    I think we need to be patient. Languages do change when there is consciousness of a need. The preceding discussion makes it clear that some innovations are in use among some groups in some areas. But they are a long way still from general usage.

    Of all the suggestions for a gender-neutral pronoun that I know of, the one I consider most likely to succeed is "per". It is a contraction of "person", a naturally occurring gender-neutral noun. In her book "Woman on the Edge of Time ", published in 1976, Marge Percy used "person" in this way. It seemed to me to fit the usage rather naturally—or at least unobtrusively.

    In the meantime, I don't think the situation is helped by condemning others for failure to go along with proposed changes.

  59. Michèle Sharik Pituley said,

    July 15, 2019 @ 1:37 pm

    @the other Mark P: "However, I do not insist that they pronounce my name the way I prefer it to be pronounced." Etc

    Ok so we can just start calling you Peter, and you'd be ok with that?

  60. RfP said,

    July 15, 2019 @ 6:40 pm

    I seem to recall a magazine article from the late 1960s—probably in Look magazine. In that article, a white Southerner in a position of power—probably a sheriff—is asking a Black person, "Is you a n—-r? Or is you a nigra?" With "nigra" being the local pronunciation of "Negro," and in some ways, offensive in its own right.

    Anyone who can recall such times… from, oh, let's say around 1619 or so, until today… Well, anyone who can complain about having to call someone what they would like to be called, especially if they have a good idea of what that might be in advance—such a person runs the risk of making a stand with that sheriff, and the White Citizens Councils, the KKK and any number of other, similarly traditional-minded people.


    And I'm sure there were many good Germans in the 1930s and early 1940s who had similar complaints about having to refer to the people of a certain faith by the name they preferred to be called, instead of by the names invoked in the popular press of that country at the time.

    These examples may be extreme, but so are the times we live in.

    Is it really all that hard to see the harm in such behavior?

  61. Andrew Usher said,

    July 15, 2019 @ 11:39 pm

    RfP, really? The times we live in are 'extreme', and compared to (the stereotypes of) historical racism and Nazism? Now that's extreme, and let me say, I always have to remind myself that people on the Left actually aren't joking when they say things like that.

    It is not necessary for me to further critique Manjoo, as others have already done so; his own words betray him. The current English pronoun system is quite stable and natural and not likely to change (except for the 2pl.) without prescriptive/political (for it is both) meddling. And indeed the fact that people are uncomfortable with the lack of number distinction even in the second person (where it is least important) suggests that they're hardly likely to want to surrender it in the third. It is still more important in the first, of course, and even to the extent that one would wish to distinguish the inclusive and exclusive meanings of 'we'; as English does not.

    As for gender, the distinction isn't absolutely necessary, but is unsurprisingly most likely to show up in the 3sg. Sure, if I were designing a language from scratch, the pronoun would be gender-neutral with optional affixes to make it when desired. But none of us gets to do that, and the uniform failure of attempt to make standard a gender-neutral 3sg. pronoun reflects that.

    And really, is there any language but English where people try to make moral issues out of the simple facts of its grammar, and are taken seriously? When learning a foreign language for actual use, you don't get to say you don't like such-and-such feature of the grammar (for whatever reason), refuse to use it, and campaign to change it; so why should it be different for English?

  62. Philip Taylor said,

    July 16, 2019 @ 8:45 am

    Enker ("At this point, it's hard to imagine someone continuing to insist on using the bigoted he/she pronouns unless they're a Trump-worshiping MAGA-droid who just can't fathom the idea of someone not fitting into their tidy gender binary"). I continue to use he/she pronouns as a matter of course (I don't "insist" on so doing, I just do it because it comes naturally to me), with "he/she" as the initial form where the sex of the person to whom reference is being made is significant but unknown, frequently lapse into the "the male encompasses the female" model after an initial token "he/she", and would not dream of using singular "they" other than in the traditional time-honoured contexts. Yet I loathe and detest President Trump and everything that he stands for, and have no idea what a MAGA-droid is. So I think you need to allow your imagination to run a little wilder, and accept that politics may have little if anything to do with linguistic choices. Age, residence, social circle and resistance to change are, I would suggest, far more relevant factors.

  63. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    July 16, 2019 @ 11:24 am

    I think there's some Law of the Internet that declares any particular blog discussion thread "over" as soon as one's opponent has been rhetorically linked to the Third Reich, but can't we all get behind the sentiment expressed in 4 of the last 6 comments, namely: "Assume the good faith of your interlocutors and treat them with charity"?

    If I believe that there exists such things as "maleness" and "femaleness", and craft my language use accordingly, and you don't, and craft your language use accordingly, we're both just going to have to be okay with that. We can each try to convince each other of the respective merits of our respective positions, but it does no good to vilify those with whom one disagrees by saying: "You use [x] to describe what I intend by [y], so you must therefore be the rottenest fruit in the basket of deplorables." It may get you your dopamine hit if others rally around your (can I say this?) "intolerance", but it ain't changing any hearts and minds none.

    In wars of prescriptivism, nobody wins.

    To conclude, yakka foob mog. Grug pubbawup zink wattoom gazork. Chumble spuzz.

  64. Bathrobe said,

    July 24, 2019 @ 6:04 pm

    From the Wikipedia article on Farhad Manjoo, written in his preferred style:

    Manjoo wrote for Wired News before taking a staff position at Salon.com. In July 2008, Manjoo accepted a job at Slate magazine writing a twice-weekly technology column. In September 2013, Manjoo joined The Wall Street Journal as a technology columnist; their final column for Slate, in which they urged men to wear makeup, was published on September 20. They later moved to The New York Times.

    Manjoo has written about technology, new media, politics, and controversies in journalism.

    They are the author of the book True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

    In March 2018, Manjoo published a column in the Times about a personal experiment in getting most of their news from print sources for two months. The piece drew criticism from the Columbia Journalism Review and the Nieman Foundation for Journalism for the article's assertion Manjoo had "unplugged from Twitter" for this period when in fact they continued to use the social media service daily. Manjoo felt the piece was sufficiently clear that they made exceptions to their "unplugged" policy, and The New York Times stood by the piece.
    ……………….
    This pretty much gives the lie to Manjoo's assertion that "There are, after all, few obvious linguistic advantages to the requirement." Those pronouns (he, she, it, they) bring clarity to who is being spoken about. With "he" the passage would be readable and understandable. With "they", much of the interpretation falls on the context, with room for misinterpretation at multiple points. This is a linguistic fact.

  65. Bathrobe said,

    July 24, 2019 @ 8:39 pm

    Just in case I should be taken as a Trump supporter or (heaven forbid) a supporter of the Third Reich, my point is purely linguistic. You are free to advocate the abolition of third-person, gendered, singular pronouns, just as you are free to advocate Brexit, a surgical nuclear attack on North Korea, or anything else you like. But such arguments should be based on facts, not on unsupported assertions.

  66. Bathrobe said,

    July 24, 2019 @ 9:57 pm

    Let me elaborate on the changes that Manjoo is proposing. Take these unexceptionable sentences in spoken English:

    — Bill went out with his mother, and Sheila went out with her mother.

    These are partly ambiguous because it's not 100% clear whether "his mother" is "Bill's mother" and "her mother" is "Sheila's mother". But most people would interpret them as each person going out with their respective mother.

    Apply Manjoo's new rule and you get:

    — Bill went out with their mother, and Sheila went out with their mother.

    Suddenly the referent of "their mother" is completely impenetrable. Was it each person's respective mother? Someone else's mother (where someone else could be one person or multiple people)? Or did they swap roles and go out with each other's mothers?

    Using pronouns throughout, the following:

    — He went out with his mother and she went out with her mother.

    is transformed into:

    — They went out with their mother and they went out with their mother.

    Unfortunately for Manjoo's case, for historical reasons English as it is currently spoken does rely on both gender and number to clarify referents. There are some pretty obvious linguistic advantages to the requirement that gender and number should be specified. His proposal would require some major changes to English grammar and usage.

    There are people who feel that gendered pronouns are unjust or irrational. There is no denying that specifying gender does slant our consciousness of the world around us. The old, now largely discarded practice of using "he/him" wherever gender was irrelevant did lead us to assume that (for instance) a doctor or a scientist would be a man, with tangible effects on how we saw the world. I am not dismissing the motivations for wanting to do away with gendered language. What I am challenging is the assertion of those who maintain that adopting "they" would be a wholly positive development with no disadvantages. Such assertions are spurious and (I would venture to add) dishonest.

    So let's discuss this in accordance with the facts rather than through wild statements about "traditional, uselessly gendered pronouns". They are not "uselessly gendered" and acknowledging this should be the first step in proposing a better solution.

  67. Bathrobe said,

    July 25, 2019 @ 12:20 am

    Final comment: Sorry, calling Manjoo dishonest was uncalled for. Perhaps he just doesn't know.

  68. Bathrobe said,

    July 25, 2019 @ 12:34 am

    What is clear is that he is deliberately roiling the waters with uninformed opinion. Enker's extreme response demonstrates that there are plenty of waters to be roiled.

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