Non-binary "singular they" endorsed by Merriam-Webster

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"Singular 'they': Though singular 'they' is old, 'they' as a nonbinary proonoun is new — and useful", Merriam-Webster Words We're Watching:

Much has been written on they, and we aren't going to attempt to cover it here. We will note that they has been in consistent use as a singular pronoun since the late 1300s; that the development of singular they mirrors the development of the singular you from the plural you, yet we don't complain that singular you is ungrammatical; and that regardless of what detractors say, nearly everyone uses the singular they in casual conversation and often in formal writing.

They is taking on a new use, however: as a pronoun of choice for someone who doesn't identify as either male or female. This is a different use than the traditional singular they, which is used to refer to a person whose gender isn't known or isn't important in the context, as in the example above. The new use of they is direct, and it is for a person whose gender is known, but who does not identify as male or female. If I were introducing a friend who preferred to use the pronoun they, I would say, "This is my friend, Jay. I met them at work."

M-W's action got a lot of  media play, mostly positive or neutral — e.g. "Merriam-Webster adds non-binary pronoun 'they' to dictionary" (WaPo), "When Dictionaries Wade Into the Gender (Non)Binary" (NYT), "Merriam-Webster dictionary adds 'they' as nonbinary pronoun" (The Guardian), "Merriam-Webster adds nonbinary 'they' pronoun to dictionary" (NBC), and so on.

Predictably, there were some negative reactions as well, e.g. "'Non-Binary' Nonsense" (The National Review), "The problem with calling Sam Smith 'they'" (The Spectator), "Merriam-Webster Redefines 'They' to Include a Non-Binary Person" (Christian Headlines), etc.

Let's note that the usual political philosophies tend to be inverted in this case — the rightward end of the political spectrum, generally opposed to regulation and in favor of market forces in economic matters, comes down squarely in favor of central planning and control in matters of usage, at least when bottom-up innovations are at issue. See "Authoritarian rationalism is not conservatism", 12/11/2007; "Peever politics", 11/20/2011; "James Kilpatrick, Linguistic Socialist", 3/28/2008; "Querkopf von Klubstick returns", 6/10/2008.

Another politico-linguistic puzzle is the fact that Quaker thee began as a similar sort of authoritarian rationalism, which again seems contrary to the belief that every person can individually access the "inward light" — see "George Fox, Prescriptivist" (10/24/2010), and "That false and senseless Way of Speaking" (7/1/2016).




  1. ft said,

    September 22, 2019 @ 8:11 am

    > Let's note that the usual political philosophies tend to be inverted in this case — the rightward end of the political spectrum, generally opposed to regulation and in favor of market forces in economic matters

    in economic matters yes, but in social matters, generally in favour of regulation and opposed to freedom of choice; usually in the name of improving society in some manner. so the idea that society could be improved (or at least saved from harm) by regulating 'correct language' doesn't seem especially out of place there.

    [(myl) True. There's also a tradition of center-left elitist authoritarianism in matters of usage, as exemplified by the New Yorker:

    "Menand's acumen deserts him", 10/5/2003
    "Louis Menand's pronouns", 10/8/2003
    "Menand on linguistic morality", 10/22/2008
    "Still no subject postposing at The New Yorker", 6/9/2010
    "At last, the truth from The New Yorker", 4/1/2011
    "The New Yorker vs. the descriptivist specter", 5/29/2012
    "Screwball reasons and gloriously simple distinctions", 11/3/2014
    "Linguistic reaction at the New Yorker", 3/8/2016
    "New Yorker copy editors (probably) moving adverbs around", 2/22/2017

  2. Andrew Usher said,

    September 22, 2019 @ 12:11 pm

    Well, surely this deserves to be in dictionaries, if it is in consistent use as it seems to be. But this article from M-W is more than a little misleading.

    The singular 'they' has indeed, in the broadest sense, been in English for about the time they suggest. Its trajectory, though, has hardly paralleled that of singular 'you', which in a relatively short period of time entirely replaced the older pronoun (in standard usage). Even today one can hardly foresee 'they' replacing 'he, 'she', and possibly 'it' completely.

    And they gloss over an important distinction: for much the larger part of that centuries-long period in which we have used 'singular' they, it has been mostly restricted to indefinite contexts. Even the Dickinson quote they provide is phrased in the indefinite. This restriction is still obeyed, I have observed and know that others have, by older and more conservative speakers, including myself.

    Their conflation of that and the newly-popular 'all purpose' use (possibly deliberate) undercuts their argument for the non-binary sense being again different, for the example they give: "This is my friend Jay, I met them at work." could well be applied regardless of gender by the younger speakers with unrestricted singular 'they' (for me it would feel clearly ungrammatical). Obviously I'm not saying that the now-prominent use of 'they/them pronouns' by the 'non-binary community' isn't worthy of note, but this wasn't a good job at presenting it.

    As for the political aspect, I don't think linguistic prescriptivism has ever been strongly associated with any one political alignment; conservatism in language should not be equated with conservatism in politics – though perhaps the latter are more likely to be the former in their _personal_ usage. On this particular issue, as should be well-known, the apparent prescriptivism of the Right is really a reaction to the real and perceived prescriptivism of the Left in enforcing 'gender-neutral language' or whatever you call it.

    k_over_hbarc at

  3. david said,

    September 22, 2019 @ 1:52 pm

    Although George Fox can, by recent standards, be considered a prescriptionist (he advised numbering the days of the week, as is done in Hebrew, rather than use the names of pagan gods), his insistence on 'thee' was more of a protest against the requirement to address some people as 'you', particularly those involved in law enforcement. 'thee' was still in current use in England among family and friends, and that singular/plural distinction still exists in many other IE languages today.

  4. Chas Belov said,

    September 22, 2019 @ 3:19 pm

    @Andrew Usher: He, she, and it might not disappear, but you never know. I've already mostly eliminated he and she from my speech, although there's an ongoing battle for me between they and repeating the person's given name. I feel awkward any time I need to use a singular third-person reference as I'm acutely aware my usage is leading-edge. And yes, I would feel awkward if I went back to "he" and "she." But I feel it's a good fight, so it's an awkwardness that I find worth feeling.

    Still waiting for the language to come up with a non-gendered version of "sir" or "madam" and feeling awkward every time I use those as well.

  5. Chas Belov said,

    September 22, 2019 @ 3:27 pm

    For clarification, I only Sir or Ma'am someone if they've Sirred me.

  6. AntC said,

    September 22, 2019 @ 5:20 pm

    For me, singular/non-gender specific they is unproblematic. But I can't retrain my monkey brain for the oblique case. So I failed to navigate the "them" in

    If I were introducing a friend who preferred to use the pronoun they, I would say, "This is my friend, Jay. I met them at work."

    I rather suspect that in a face-to-face encounter I'd expose an involuntary reaction against "them", and thereby make Jay feel uncomfortable. So I'd like to apologise in advance and welcome them especially.

  7. Daniel Barkalow said,

    September 22, 2019 @ 6:13 pm

    The linked article seems to me to be wrong about the traditional use of singular "they". I think it was traditionally indefinite, i.e., referring to each of possibly multiple individuals in turn, rather than a particular individual. For a definite individual whose chosen pronoun is unknown (or being concealed), it seems to me that standard usage has shifted over the past 40 years from "he" first to "he or she" and later to "they".

    I'm curious as to whether many non-binary people see the choice of "they" as being distinct from how they would be appropriately referred to if their pronoun choice weren't known. I know some people who have gendered pronouns, but don't want them used in some contexts, and use "they" in those cases. And I've heard "ze" as an option, which might be more "something that's neither of those" as opposed to "not applicable".

  8. Rebecca said,

    September 22, 2019 @ 8:01 pm

    @Daniel Barkalow – you may be right about standard usage, but I took the article to be talking about common usage. FWIW, their characterization matches my experience: as a kid in the 60s, using singular they for an indefinite person was absolutely the norm. So much so that when our 7th grade English teacher started imposing "he" as the indefinite, the uniform reaction was "wut? why would we do that?" Then as now, this was one of the more conservative areas of the US, so I don't think our reaction had to do with any nascent social justice stirrings – it just was a grammatical choice that was utterly foreign to our ears.

  9. Ken said,

    September 22, 2019 @ 8:51 pm

    I've noticed that when singular "they" is used, speakers still use the plural verb forms, not the singular forms that "he" or "she" would take. Thus: "This is Jay, they are from New York", or "This is Jay, they speak three languages". Do linguists also refer to "singular are" or "singular speak"?

  10. Sean s Bentley said,

    September 22, 2019 @ 9:31 pm

    So here's my two cents, from a purely grammatical standpoint:

    If "they" is used interchangeably for plural and singular regardless of context, then it's simply confusing. That said, using "they" in conversation (which folks' examples generally seem to be) seems fairly easy, given that the context is probably clear.
    But what about usage in written text where it's harder to keep track of who we're talking about?

    For example, when referring to two or more people, at least one of whom is other-gendered — how do you distinguish "They1" from "They2," or "They1" from the rest of the group?
    Also does "they" used singularly use a singular verb, or a plural verb?

    Here's an example of an admittedly unlikely sentence:
    Jayden told him repeatedly that she is bringing all of the skills she'd honed in teaching the class to the fore when she finally tests them.
    Here it is using non-gender-specifics:
    Jayden told them repeatedly that they is bringing all of the skills they'd honed in teaching the class to the fore when they finally tests them.

    I'm sure someone will enlighten me. :-)

  11. stephen said,

    September 22, 2019 @ 10:01 pm

    There are lots of other words in English, many of them obscure–wouldn't anybody want to repurpose them? The letter Z is apparently a homophone for ze, xi, xie, which could be a problem, couldn't it?

  12. rosie said,

    September 23, 2019 @ 1:19 am

    I'm glad that Webster is studying this usage of "they", which is needed for the growing number of non-binary people.

    @Ken When "they" is used as a singular, the verb forms are indeed those which "they" has always taken. But calling those verb forms "plural" is misleading, given that the subject is singular. Perhaps we should talk instead of the unmarked verb form. We don't say that singular "you" takes the plural verb form, do we?

    One morphological way in which people can distinguish singular "they" from plural "they" is that the reflexive of singular "they" may be "themself".

  13. Philip Taylor said,

    September 23, 2019 @ 6:06 am

    Rosie, I would seriously question whether there is "a growing number of non-binary people", as you suggest. Unless genetic mutation has suddenly accelerated, there are probably no more (and no fewer) "non-binary people" than there were a century ago, or even a millenium. What I would accept is that there is an ever-increasing number of people who self-identify as "non-binary", but I have grave doubts as to whether the number who so self-identify is an accurate representation of the prevalence (or otherwise) of "non-binarality" (if there is such a word) in the population as a whole. For a reasoned perspective on possible reasons for the increasing number of such self-identifications, a related article by Celia Walden may be relevant.

  14. Andrew Usher said,

    September 23, 2019 @ 6:52 am

    I agree with the last but really don't wish to get into that topic again. It does stand to reason that the more you tell people that 'non-binary' gender exists, the more will identify as such – marginal cases, as it were.

    The reflexive of singular 'they' is still usually 'themselves', but that will likely change in time; singular and plural 'they' will have to be taught as distinct, just as singular and plural 'you' are.

    Daniel Barkalow:
    Your first paragraph says just what mine did. Again, it looks like my idea was put in someone else's words, who then took sole credit for it. Even when the idea is one that lots of people would have independently (as this is), it's still annoying.

    Also I don't really think 'he or she' was ever the natural spoken pronoun; though it does exist, the choice to use it is probably always deliberate.

    And is anyone really that shocked that generic 'he' is an alternative to 'they'? I suspect that anyone that is must not read very much! In any type of English writing from the past few centuries, you'll find examples of the masculine used that way, at least comparable to 'they' in frequency. I not only recognise but use this alternative, and I don't think that is strange.

    Chas Belov:
    Yes, difficult as it may be for me to see why, I can understand that by a conscious effort one can eliminate most use of 'he' and 'she', and if one does that for long enough, returning to the old usage would feel strange and perhaps even wrong. But you can hardly escape hearing the traditional use and remaining familiar with it.

    I can speak to that from personal experience: while I have never tried to do so around that kind of choice (and dislike even considering it), I have regarding grammar and especially pronunciation, in my life-long endeavor to speak 'perfect' General American (which is not the same as formal style) – and, indeed, returning to my childhood manner would seem not only strange and wrong, but in the larger part impossible.

    Last, to Sean Bentley:
    Yes, the singular 'they' can add confusion. It is not a new kind, though, as ambiguous uses of pronouns abound in the language. It does however threaten what is perhaps the most-often needed distinction, that between 3sg. and 3pl. Although context usually clears up confusion – more often in speech than in writing – I have been misled by singular 'they' a few times that I can remember.

  15. Twill said,

    September 23, 2019 @ 7:16 am

    Without trying to kick up a hornet's nest, isn't using "they" as a blanket unisex/neutral pronoun antithetical to the "respect people's pronouns" catchphrase we hear nowadays? While I won't claim to taking any injury at being referred to with "they", I do feel that insistently refusing to use the pronouns that are conventionally afforded to someone of known gender conveys some level of disrespect regardless of how noble the intentions might be. Non-gendered language would avoid all present contention and politicization of pronouns, but because of that it can't just be bluntly imposed over the top of the language.

  16. Andrew Usher said,

    September 23, 2019 @ 7:22 am

    Agreed there, also. I do involuntarily take some offence when referred to as they, though that's as much to the perceived violation of grammar as to that of my 'gender identity' (not words I'd normally use for it).

  17. Philip Taylor said,

    September 23, 2019 @ 8:11 am

    I find it interesting that Andrew (who has made a "life-long endeavor to speak 'perfect' General American", and is therefore presumably resident in North America) has been in a situation in which it was possible for him to "take some offence when referred to as they". I have never been referred to as 'they' (or at least, I have never heard myself being so referred to), so I begin to suspect that take-up of singular 'they' is more widespread in North America than it is in Great Britain. If this suspicion is borne out by fact, then I would be interested to know whether the take-up of singular 'they' is equally common in the United States and in (Anglophone) Canada, or whether there is also some disparity there.

  18. Rose Eneri said,

    September 23, 2019 @ 9:03 am

    The "grammar" part of my brain is incapable of processing "they" as a referent to a know person. If I were in a situation of referring to a non-binary person whose pronouns include "they", I would simply have to avoid using pronouns at all.

    So if I would have said, "Taylor (I'll take this from the non-binary character in the TV show Billions) had a great idea. They will tell us about it." I would have to say, "Taylor had a great idea. Taylor will tell us about it." So by extension, I would do this for all people so as to not single out the non-binary person.

  19. Ellen K. said,

    September 23, 2019 @ 3:49 pm

    In discussion of different uses of singular they, no mention here yet of using "they" when the speakers knows the specific person they are speaking of, and knows their gender (and they are binary), but is speaking anonymously or generalizing. For me, it is very natural, if I don't want to reveal the identify of the person I am talking about, to use "they" as the pronoun.

  20. Philip Taylor said,

    September 23, 2019 @ 4:45 pm

    In those circumstances, Ellen, I invariably use "he or she". Such a conversation took place very recently, when I told my wife that "I had been told" of something that would affect her business "by someone who did not want his or her identity disclosed".

  21. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    September 23, 2019 @ 6:20 pm

    @Ellen K.

    In Spanish we tend to use "this/said person" for such contexts; would those feel too formal in English?

  22. AntC said,

    September 23, 2019 @ 7:06 pm

    Hi Antonio, yes "I met this person at work." would be too formal if they were actually in the room with you.

    If I could control my monkey brain enough, I might repeat their name: "This is my friend, Jay. I met Jay at work." I fear that if I tried to say "them", it would involuntary come out as "him" or "her".

  23. Martha said,

    September 23, 2019 @ 8:16 pm

    My two cents:

    My experience in school in the '90s US was similar to Rebecca's: singular "they" for indefinite people. I never fully realized this was nonstandard/informal until I was typing an essay and spellcheck didn't like "themself." (I say informal, because the way "he or she" was presented to us was as what you'd say in formal writing. I was never given the impression that it was "wrong.")

    Like Ellen K., I would also be totally okay with using they/them to describe someone whose gender I know to be male or female but whose identity I don't want to divulge.

    Nevertheless, I too find "This is my friend, Jay. I met them at work" if not ungrammatical, rather odd, probably simply because I haven't encountered many situations where I'd need to say something like that. However, my discomfort at such a sentence pales in comparison to the discomfort I would feel at misgendering someone.

    Also, I'm an ESL teacher, and I was discussing a student's use of indefinite "he" with a colleague in her late 20s recently (in the past year or so). She somehow managed to avoid the prescription to avoid singular "they" because she found the use of "he" completely ungrammatical and was confused when I wondered whether the student had been taught to use "he" in that way.

    Chas Belov, do you avoid "he" and "she" even if you know those are someone's preferred pronouns?

  24. chris said,

    September 23, 2019 @ 8:22 pm

    In those circumstances, Ellen, I invariably use "he or she".
    That doesn't cover all possibilities anymore. (Or to be more precise, it never did, but some of us have stopped pretending that it does.)

    Most people are either male or female, but surely this audience ought to be able to unpack the Gricean implicature in the use of "most"?

    If you tell people often enough and long enough that there are only two possibilities, few will be stubborn enough to reject you anyway, and you will have effectively gaslighted the rest (or at least forced them into a closet of sorts). Then you just classify the sufficiently determined nonbinary people as pathological so they're not really exceptions. Voila, your system is now perfect and orderly (in the same sort of way that Procrustes' bed was one-size-fits-all).

    So it's not surprising that when you *stop* doing that, or even part of your society stops doing that, you get a lot more people admitting to feeling nonbinary.

    Perhaps I'm straying from the strictly linguistic here, but it seems to be that kind of thread.

    @Antonio Banderas (really?): I've heard that Japanese has a similar construct that can take the place of pronouns, too. Maybe someone who speaks it can comment more knowledgeably?

  25. Chas Belov said,

    September 24, 2019 @ 12:37 am

    One of the issues with using "he" or "she" as opposed to "they" is that unless someone has specifically told me they (indefinite) consider themselves male/he or female/she, I am making an assumption based on my perception of their (indefinite) presentation. While I'd guess that my perception is usually correct, it's still an assumption.

  26. Chas Belov (he/him/himself) said,

    September 24, 2019 @ 12:39 am

    Anyway, a society who is willing to correct me if I misgender their dog or cat can bloody well be bothered to get people's self-identified gender correct, including if the appropriate pronoun for that gender is "they."

  27. Philip Taylor said,

    September 24, 2019 @ 3:45 am

    Chris — "['he or she'] doesn't cover all possibilities anymore. (Or to be more precise, it never did, but some of us have stopped pretending that it does.)" — It may not cover all the possibilities, but it covers everyone that we know, so there would be no point in using language with which neither of us feel comfortable simply to include a (rather small) group of people whom neither of us have met. Or if we have met one or more members of that group, then they have never sought to point out the fact, and have tacitly gone along with the he/she terminilogy without apparently feeling the need to make explicit the fact that that terminology makes no allowance for their special needs.

  28. GH said,

    September 24, 2019 @ 4:04 am

    @Philip Taylor

    It may not cover all the possibilities, but it covers everyone that we know

    I see you have decided to move from singular "they" to singular "we."

  29. Philip Taylor said,

    September 24, 2019 @ 4:57 am

    GH — 'I see you have decided to move from singular "they" to singular "we"'. No, "we" refers to my wife and I, since it was she with whom I was having the conversation about the person who did not wish to be identified.

  30. Philip Taylor said,

    September 24, 2019 @ 5:05 am

    I.e., zámen, not wǒmen, a distinction that English sadly lacks.

  31. Andrew Usher said,

    September 24, 2019 @ 7:03 am

    You mean the distinction between inclusive and exclusive 'we', I take it. Yes, that is one of the few clear deficiencies that our language suffers from. The alternative interpretation (and I think the one most people would have taken) is that your 'we' meant I and my listener(s). That is a standard usage and not a case of 'singular we'!

    I also can't answer your question about the relative frequency of the 'new' use of 'they' in America and Britain; the conclusion that it's more American seems warranted by our conversation, and Canada almost always follows America in preference to Britain.

    The situation of deliberately keeping someone anonymous while referring to me is surely one of those that does make it natural to use 'he or she', because you are deliberately considering it while speaking. (Although it's certainly possible not to, and reveal the gender without revealing any other identifying information.) Again it seems to me that 'he or she' is never really a spontaneous use, except, I suppose, for those used to saying or writing it over and over in the same context.

    Chas Belov:
    Yes, it is an assumption. But we all make assumptions about other people, spoken and unspoken, all the time. It's not possible to avoid, and I'd emphatically add that many of our assumptions have a much higher potential for causing actual, objective harm than that of possible 'misgendering' a person once. If you really worry about that, you should re-think. Further, this is an assumption that almost all people at least won't mind your making.

    And the belief, expressed by Chris in the statement that 'he or she' "doesn't cover all possibilities", makes the assumption that the grammatical pronouns he and she ought to be equated to (his perception of) the gender identities male and female. That is at least arguable.

    If someone (the student) really is using generic 'he' naturally, that should be cause for praise if anything, for being (as I've suggested) literate enough to pick up on that. It only might be a problem if he insists that 'they' is wrong (but that's hardly an unprecedented thing for schools to deal with).

    Last I'd like to finally comment on this thread's title: a dictionary including a usage does not necessarily mean 'endorsing' it. That blanket equation is usually associated with ignorant prescriptivism, and I hope no one here is guilty of the same thing.

  32. Vulcan With a Mullet said,

    September 24, 2019 @ 8:02 am

    Let's make it easier for everyone of us in the English-speaking world and just switch to Mandarin.

    Assuming current global trends and extrapolating them into the future, that would probably be a wise choice anyway

  33. Philip Taylor said,

    September 24, 2019 @ 8:41 am

    Andrew — ;You mean the distinction between inclusive and exclusive 'we', I take it. Yes, that is one of the few clear deficiencies that our language suffers from. The alternative interpretation (and I think the one most people would have taken) is that your 'we' meant I and my listener(s). That is a standard usage and not a case of 'singular we' — Yes, that is the distinction to which I was referring, but what interests me more is your assertion that my "'we' might have meant 'I and my listener(s)'". That is a usage of 'we' with which I always feel uncomfortable, particularly when encountering it here (i.e., on Language Log) since to me it seems to imply that the writer believes that he or she has something in common with all of his/her readers (apart, of course, from an interest in language). When that assumption includes one of nationality, I find it very odd (and disturbing) indeed.

  34. Ellen K. said,

    September 24, 2019 @ 6:06 pm

    @Antonio L. Banderas. Using "that/this person" seems rather too formal. Though maybe sometimes it could work. But there's the issue of possessive pronouns. Take the example from Philip, Taylor, "by someone who did not want his or her identity disclosed". In Spanish, the possessive pronouns agree in gender and number (when there's agreement) with the thing possessed (identity here), with "su" and "suyo" and it's forms covering all 3rd person and some 2nd person usage, so no issue. But in English, we have "his", "her(s)", and "their(s)", and replacing those with "that person's" would be rather a mouthful I think.

    @AntC. In the situation I am talking about, that Antonio L. Banderas was replying to, we wouldn't use a person's name, because we are speaking without revealing who we are talking about.

    Although I was only noting a usage as out there and not commenting on what should be done, Chris makes a good point that "he or she" doesn't cover all the possibilities, since some people are non-binary (and non-binary is what the original post is about). Though at least when speaking about someone in anonymous terms and, when doing so, calling a non-binary person "he or she" the person unlikely to hear it to be offended. (And, relating to Antonio's comment that I replied to above, there it seemed preferable to use "the person" rather than "they" because of it following the mention of "he or she".)

  35. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    September 25, 2019 @ 3:57 am

    @Ellen K,

    Taking "he or she" or "she or he" as a continuum from -1 to 1, or from 1 to -1, not respectively, and with an inclusive OR, the value "0" would be the grammatically neuter term for non-binaries, included in the expressions "he or she" or "she or he".

  36. DJL said,

    September 25, 2019 @ 5:50 am

    I find that I hardly ever use third person, singular pronouns in front of the person I'm referring to. When in a group, I would normally use proper names to refer to anyone I am not addressing directly. That's why I find the M-W example a little odd. I don't think I would ever say "this is my friend, Jay, I met them at work", but "we met at work". In fact, I think I mostly use third person, singular pronouns when talking about someone who is not present to someone who is present.

  37. Ellen K. said,

    September 25, 2019 @ 6:38 am

    But "he or she" is not a continuum. Why would I expect those reading or listening to me to take it as something it's not?

    And why would I switch to using it when, as I said, I already have a perfectly serviceable pronoun in my vocabulary?

    Plus, "he or she" drawns much more attention than using "they" for someone who, for the listener/reader, is an indefinite person.

  38. Philip Taylor said,

    September 25, 2019 @ 6:57 am

    I agree with Ellen that ' "he or she" drawns much more attention than using "they" for someone who, for the listener/reader, is an indefinite person ', and in the context reported earlier in which I used this expression in conversation with my wife, this was intentional, making it clear that I was not willing even to divulge the sex of my informant, let alone his/her actual identity.

  39. Andrew Usher said,

    September 25, 2019 @ 7:01 am

    You may not like that use of 'we', Philip, but it exists and not taking account of it runs the risk of being misunderstood. Certainly, even re-reading it, I find no real clue that 'we' in that post meant 'my wife and I'. In the paradigmatic meaning you wanted to get across, the singular pronoun would be the better choice, as your wife is not relevant to the point.

    Yeah, that's really what third-person pronouns are for! Now there's another problem I see with the example sentence: if actually spoken (with any phrasing), it would have to be as two separate sentences (just imagine it in your head). But I don't blame the writer for either, because coming up with example sentence is enough work without thinking of those things; to illustrate a grammatical point it's not necessary to come up with something anyone would _actually say_.

  40. Chandra said,

    September 25, 2019 @ 2:59 pm

    Regarding the matter of more people identifying as nonbinary, a valid perspective on why they do so cannot come from someone outside of that demographic, given that such a person does not have access to these people's lived experiences or the insides of their heads to know what their reasons actually are, and can only conjecture based on their own preconceived ideas and biases.

    When certain identities are stigmatized or suppressed by the dominant culture, people very naturally respond to that by suppressing these identities within themselves as well. When the dominant culture beings to show more acceptance of these identities, more people feel safe to express them. It then looks like there are more gay or trans or nonbinary etc. people, but in fact there are simply more people able to be themselves in public. It truly isn't rocket science.

  41. Andrew Usher said,

    September 25, 2019 @ 5:49 pm

    … …

  42. Andrew Usher said,

    September 25, 2019 @ 5:51 pm

    … [facepalm] …

  43. Andrew Usher said,

    September 26, 2019 @ 6:52 am

    The software doesn't like angle brackets, I see. That's HTML based but one would think stuff would be intelligent enough know to send through anything that's not a HTML intstruction. Clearly not.

    I started to compose a real reply but abandoned it as pointless and wasting my time. She will continue to throw that nonsense everywhere the subject comes up, and no one but me will dare to say anything to it. That's sad.

  44. Benjamin E Orsatti said,

    September 26, 2019 @ 8:08 am

    Cheer up, mate! Here, let me save you from an exercise in ventumicturation; I'll finish the conversation for you both:

    AU: It's intellectually dishonest to stifle dialogue by shutting down your interlocutor's argument with a claim of "bias blindness".

    C: But this is a discussion about whether or not you should refer to people by your best guess as to what sex they are, or by words that they wish to be referred by — how can you do that unless you're inside their heads?

    AU: But you're trying to tell people how they _should_ be using language (prescriptivism); how can you presume to do that if you don't have the "lived experience" of people who believe that sex is binary?

    C: It is historically-oppressed, self-defined minority groups who need protection from the majority culture, not vice-versa.

    AU: …except when the minority is trying to force the majority into thinking and speaking the way that the minority does, on pain of public shaming and potential loss of livelihood.

    C: There is a common baseline of civility — I believe that every person has an affirmative duty to rid their speech of gendered reference, except where the referent expressly requests as much because society demands thus.

    AU: I believe that you have not met the threshold sufficient to justify fundamentally altering the speech of 7 billion people, after (tens? hundreds?) of thousands of years of human language, because I do not believe that you have overcome the presumption of the fundamental duality of the sexes which has informed culture for all of human history.

    C: Then there is no common field for us to conduct our logomachy.

    AU: It appears so.

    C: Do you like cats?

    AU: I @#$%ing _love_ cats!

    C: Me too.

    AU: Then we are of one accord.

  45. Philip Taylor said,

    September 26, 2019 @ 11:58 am

    Beautifully analysed, beautifully synthesised, and beautifully concluded, Benjamin — I hereby nominate you for the Nobel Peace prize for contributions to Language Log.

  46. chandra said,

    September 26, 2019 @ 5:38 pm

    That isn't even remotely what I was getting at, but go off. If you don't want people critiquing you for speaking about issues that you have no actual knowledge or experience with, expressing views that run counter to current research, scientific best practices AND historical cultural precedent (of which there is plenty for both trans and nonbinary identities), maybe don't come to a science blog.

    Would you barge into a conversation about Samoans claiming that you know better than they do what it's like to be Samoan because you read all about it in an American magazine? That's precisely what you sound like. But hey, if you're ok with that identity, who am I to stop you. Have a fantastic day.

  47. Andrew Usher said,

    September 26, 2019 @ 6:17 pm

    That is marvelous, Mr. Orsatti! Truly funny (a rarity here), and pretty damned accurate – I even do like cats! You are a lawyer, aren't you? – that skill of being able to understand and summarise both sides of an argument evenly would do one well, I imagine, in that profession.

    I must admit, though, I can't understand 'ventumicturation', and somehow doubt it's a well-formed word. 'Logomachy' I had to look up, but then it was clear (and ridiculous as intended).

  48. Twill said,

    September 26, 2019 @ 8:24 pm

    @chandra I have to take exception to your comment here: this is a linguistics blog, not a science blog! While there is an unquestionably heavy scientific element to linguistics, and despite how latter-day advocates of scientism would brand any discipline they consider to possess any worth to be science, linguistics does not ultimately turn on science's epistemology, being a study which contains several non-scientific subdisciplines. And neither, I would point out, could gender identity be scientific if we consider it to be an interior experience entirely beyond being examined by someone who does not shared in it.

  49. Benjamin E Orsatti said,

    September 26, 2019 @ 9:03 pm

    (1) Thanks! And who _doesn't_ like cats?

    (2) Yes, I'm of the lawyerly profession. But while the study and practice of law does tend to hone one's skill in articulating all sides of an argument (and it is a skill; it doesn't come naturally, to me, at least), I take my inspiration more from St. Francis of Assisi than, say, Socrates, or Michael Mussmano. In other words, being charitable is far more important than winning an argument.

    (3) "Ventumicturation" is a perfectly cromulent word that I just made up. It's pseudo-Latin for "pissing into the wind", but doesn't it sound a bit less vulgar than its Anglo-Saxon counterpart?

  50. Chandra said,

    October 1, 2019 @ 3:28 pm

    @Twill – It may not be a blog focused on the pure sciences, but it is most certainly one that follows accepted standards of research and well-reasoned approaches to drawing conclusions from relevant sources. "Piers Morgan's scandal-chasing gossip columnist wife" hardly falls under the latter category.

    As for gender identity, I did not claim it to be a wholly interior experience, only that people's reasons for coming out are. Perhaps today's post on this very blog can shed some further light on certain aspects of it that can indeed be studied in concrete ways.

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