ASA pronouns

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I'm in Seattle, attending the 181st meeting of the Acoustical Society of America. It's been a few years since I attended an ASA meeting in person, so I'm not sure whether this is the first time they've offered pronoun stickers for attendees to add to their badges. But it's the first time I've encountered this option. The ASA's explanation:

And the bulletin board advertising the sheets of stickers — which were mostly gone by the time I took this picture:


  1. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 30, 2021 @ 9:26 pm

    This is perhaps a side issue, but my eye was caught by the nomenclature "subjective and objective case," which initially struck me as peculiar and non-standard in context. Some googling suggests, however, that it is quite common Out There on the internet, although generally in sources that seem more likely to have learned jargon about English grammar in a university's school of education than its linguistics department. Indeed, Pullum & Huddleston, with something of a track record in other areas for rejecting traditional nomenclature for their own, seem to stick with "nominative" and "accusative" for these English pronoun cases. But what I found most intriguing was a statement on wikipedia asserting that "English is now often described as having a subjective case, instead of a nominative, to draw attention to the differences between the 'standard' generic nominative and the way that it is used in English." This statement was accompanied by a footnote to no fewer than five linked references, none of which, however, seemed to substantiate the assertion – i.e., try explain why "subjective" was a better label to use for English because the so-called "nominative" in English differs from the generic sort of nominative case one might find in other languages. And the various other sources using the nomenclature that I haphazardly googled up generally made no attempt to compare or contrast the English pronoun case system to that of any other language.

    I can understand a motivation for this nomenclature that is nothing more than hoping it will be transparent to students because e.g. the SUBJECTive case is used for a pronoun which is the SUBJECT of a sentence, although I might think it patronizing to assume that students and/or members of learned societies cannot be expected to grasp a technical term like "nominative." But I should be interested in becoming better-informed about the claim that the I/we/he/she/they case in English is sufficiently different from a cross-linguistically generic nominative case that that should motivate a different label, if any of LL's stable of learned commenters have any information to offer.

  2. Y said,

    November 30, 2021 @ 11:02 pm

    I like the pronoun identification idea, but specifying a pronoun by these particular two cases could be improved on. For some well-known pronouns (they, she), the subject pronoun alone suffices to imply the rest. For others (e.g. Subj. e, Obj. em, Poss. eir, aka "Spivak") two cases are insufficient.

  3. Lars said,

    November 30, 2021 @ 11:24 pm

    Given that this is an ASA meeting, I'd expect the pronunciations to be written out in IPA. I'd still be left to guess with some of these.

  4. Pau Amma said,

    November 30, 2021 @ 11:52 pm

    I assume the intent is to memorize those pronoun sets when in presence of the person (which, if talking to them, you'd presumably use the 2nd person), so that once no longer with them,you can refer to them with the right pronouns when talking about them to 3rd parties.

  5. Brett said,

    November 30, 2021 @ 11:55 pm

    @J.W. Brewer: I learned the cases of English as subjective and objective in school decades ago. So they seem entirely normal, although nominative is perfectly fine as a synonym for subjective. On the other hand, accusative seems to me to be pragmatically wrong, since it the English objective case collapses (at a minimum) both the accusative and dative cases found in related languages; there is only one case for objects in English—direct, indirect, or prepositional. Once one is forced to use a different name for this case in English, it does not seem illogical to give the nominative case a new and more transparent name in parallel. (And does the English subjected correspond exactly to the Latin nominative anyway? I don't honestly know.)

  6. Natasha Warner said,

    December 1, 2021 @ 12:21 am

    I'm delighted to hear the ASA is doing this.

  7. Andreas Johansson said,

    December 1, 2021 @ 2:08 am

    @J. W. Brewer:

    An argument I've seen for the English subject forms not being proper nominatives is the tendency to use the object ones as the default when the words stands outside syntactical structures. ("Who wants ice cream?" "Me!")

    Actually, using the oblique form as the default and the nominative just for actual subjects is more or less the definition of marked nominative alignment, so this is perhaps better taken as an argument that English pronouns exhibit such.

  8. Tom Dawkes said,

    December 1, 2021 @ 7:34 am

    With 'ze' as a possibility, I wonder what your Dutch readers will make of this.

  9. Phillip Helbig said,

    December 1, 2021 @ 9:58 am

    As mentioned above, when speaking to a person, I use the second-person pronouns. Otherwise, the person is not there, so the idea is for third parties to constantly emphasize the gender of the person involved. To me, that seems a bit backwards. For decades we‘ve been trying to make a person‘s gender (or sex) irrelevant in contexts where it doesn‘t matter, and the LGB community has been at the forefront of this “people are people” idea, judging people by what they say and do, rather than what group they belong to. Hence, (over-)emphasizing such groups seems to me like a step backward.

    For most people, the pronouns are obvious. They are not for people who claim that their gender differs from their sex. (I’m leaving out true intersex people here, because they are a very small minority and are not behind the new pronoun fetish. They usually want the opposite as well, i.e. be recognized for being neither, rather than as definitely belonging to a certain gender (which in the case of many pronoun activists is not the one which matches their sex).)

    It all seems like a big leap backward to me. If gender is defined solely via self-identification, then, even leaving aside the potential for abuse (which is a real problem), then we are back to the 1950s gender roles: feminine is high heels and lipstick and long hair, male is muscles and being macho and so on. I thought that it was progress that we had left that behind. Back then, gender was supposed to follow sex. Now, people have the biologically stupid idea that sex is supposed to follow gender. (Some people even claim that the only reason girls perform less well at some sports is because less is expected of them and they are fed different food. Really. One can’t make this stuff up.). In- between, we had a better idea: forget the gender roles (which vary with time and place anyway), judge people by what they say and do, sex is irrelevant unless one has a sexual relationship with a person (or, perhaps, wants one). One could be a dandy and still be a straight male, and I’m probably not the only straight “cis” (really hate that term; yes, I like puns and know where it comes from, but it seems out of place here) man who found tomboys attractive (and vice versa) back in the day.

    Sic transit gloria mundi! O tempora o mores!

    I once suppressed the urge to specify my pronoun as the royal we. :-)

  10. Dwight Williams said,

    December 1, 2021 @ 10:41 am

    I like this path to encouraging mutual kindness and politeness.

  11. Philip Taylor said,

    December 1, 2021 @ 11:34 am

    If it were "[a] path to encouraging mutual kindness and politeness", then I too would be in favour. But I very much fear that it is not. Look typically female, wear a badge saying "please refer to me as 'he'", and what is the most probable reaction ? Certainly not one in which mutual kindness and politeness are to the fore. If you do look typically female, and want others to refer to you as "he", then ask them discretely if they would mind doing so, and explain why. Only by being far less "in one's face" is such a person likely to be treated with the politeness and respect that they deserve.

  12. Kenny Easwaran said,

    December 1, 2021 @ 11:47 am

    Phillip Helbig – if you are suggesting that we should refer to all individuals by use of the singular "they", so that we don't emphasize *anyone's* gender in our language any more than we emphasize their race or their age, then you are not alone:;rgn=main

  13. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 1, 2021 @ 12:05 pm

    It would be interesting to know how many different preprinted options different events like this are typically offering. Pronouns cross-linguistically are (almost?) invariably a closed word class. Repurposing "they" to cover individuals whose sense of identity does not jibe well with either "he" or "she" is a tweak within the existing system parallel to plenty of historical examples, e.g. the repurposing in German and Spanish of the analogue of "they" to also be a polite second-person pronoun. Some may find it culturally jarring, but it fits smoothly within the existing structure of the language, just as prior uses of "singular they" with somewhat different scope have. But supplementing "they" with two different novel coinages plus an open-ended "Ask Me" is in extreme tension with the basic idea of a closed class and seems highly unlikely to establish a workable and stable equilibrium. In particular, as best as I can tell "xe" and "ze" are rival proposals to fill the same slot in an improved (in the view of its advocates) closed-class pronoun system, not complementary proposals to fill two different slots addressing two different sorts of referents.

    Philip Helbig's comment makes me wonder about the possible-to-probable existence of people of conventional and easily-assessed gender identity whose preference as to how others refer to them would be to be referred to by gendered pronouns (M or F, depending on the individual) in contexts where their gender is salient but by non-gendered* pronouns in contexts where their gender is irrelevant. That seems like a perfectly plausible goal under current social/political/circumstances, but how would you fit it on a sticker? We already, of course, have some strategies available to do that, as for example when you refer to someone generically as "my doctor" and then use "they" even though you would probably use "he" or "she," as appropriate, if you had referred to the same individual as "Dr. SURNAME."

    *This gets us back to an issue that has been raised in prior threads about the pros and cons of pronoun polysemy, where the same pronoun may be used both to refer to an individual of specifically non-binary gender identity or to an individual of unspecified (sometimes intentionally unspecified) gender identity who could in fact be M, F, or non-binary.

  14. Terry K. said,

    December 1, 2021 @ 12:17 pm

    @Phillip Helbig

    In addition to speaking to a person (2nd person pronouns) and speaking about a person when they aren't there we may:

    Speaking about someone to a group where they are one of the people listening.
    Speak about someone in something being recorded that the person might later hear.
    Use a pronoun in the process of introducing the person to someone else.
    Write about the person in something they will read or might read, but where we aren't directly talking to them.

    Furthermore, pronouns are not always obvious. There are people who it's not obvious if they are male or female when we see them. And there's written forums such as this one. Several people who have commented have used names that don't indicate their gender.

  15. Terpomo said,

    December 1, 2021 @ 1:48 pm

    Philip Helbig, I don't know that biological sex and stereotypical gender roles are the only two possible criteria to go by. Most people who want to be referred to by a pronoun other than that of their biological sex want to because they suffer gender dysphoria, i.e. a discomfort with their biological sex in and of itself, as a terminal value.
    Philip Taylor, it seems uncharitable to blame the person for acting in a way that provokes unkindness, rather than blaming people for being unkind about it. Even if it's an unusual preference, it's one that takes relatively little effort to satisfy and can in some cases be very good for people's mental well-being.

  16. Joshua K. said,

    December 1, 2021 @ 2:08 pm

    If someone says that their pronouns are "xe/xem" or "ze/zir," how offensive is it considered to be to refer to that person as "they/them" instead?

  17. Philip Taylor said,

    December 1, 2021 @ 3:12 pm

    Terpomo, I did not intend to be uncharitable, merely realistic. If someone wishes to be referred to by a pronoun other than the one which their appearance would naturally suggest, then they should ask others to respect their preference, not seek to force it on them by wearing a pronoun badge.

  18. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 1, 2021 @ 3:37 pm

    I wonder what badges are allowed at the Women in Acoustics meetings.

    sj Miller is a colleague of mine. sj doesn't want to be referred to by any third-person singular personal pronouns, including "they" when used with a singular referent—in other words, no pronouns in syntactic situations where gendered pronouns are used in English. I suppose that at a meeting with pronoun badges like the ASA's, sj would have to make sj's own badge or not wear one, which might lead to explanations of why sj wasn't wearing one.

    Philip Taylor: I don't see wearing a badge as forcing as opposed to asking.

  19. Lance (he/him) said,

    December 1, 2021 @ 4:17 pm

    Philip Taylor wrote:

    If you do look typically female, and want others to refer to you as "he", then ask them discretely if they would mind doing so, and explain why. Only by being far less "in one's face" is such a person likely to be treated with the politeness and respect that they deserve.

    You and I seem to have very different conceptions of what counts as "in one's face". A sticker on a name badge seems to be to be a quiet, not-in-one's-face way to let people know. Whereas asking me to pull aside every single person I interact with to tell them "my preferred pronouns are he/him" is far more disruptive and intrusive, to say nothing of outright exhausting. (Also: "explain why"? I don't think I'm obligated to "explain why" my pronouns are he/him any more than I'm obligated to "explain why" my name is Lance, which is also information available on my name badge, present so that people can quietly observe it rather than my having to pull them aside and tell them one by one how to refer to me.)

  20. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 1, 2021 @ 5:30 pm

    On the side topic of interest to me, I appreciate Andreas Johansson's comment, but share the skepticism that being the default/unmarked version of the (pro)noun is a definitional element of a "regular" nominative case. I am reminded that when the nominal case system (outside pronouns, I guess) of Latin collapsed as Italian was emerging as a distinct new Romance language, the caseless new Italian noun that survived was typically the descendant of the Latin accusative singular, not the nominative singular. (Oftentimes it is orthographically identical to the Latin ablative singular, but that's apparently something of a coincidence.)

  21. neil. said,

    December 1, 2021 @ 5:32 pm

    I have often wondered: why do we refer to our pronouns in those two cases? If you want "she/her," isn't that implied with just "she"? And if you prefer "she/they," why not the nominative for both?

  22. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 1, 2021 @ 6:07 pm

    It's been several years since I attended a large event where everyone was wearing nametags issued by the organizers, although I expect to do so again next year. But maybe it's useful to think of nametags in general as presumptively governed by Gricean principles – they're supposed to provide accurate information about the wearer that is likely to be relevant to other attendees who are interacting with them but may not previously know them, but also supposed to not provide excessive or irrelevant information. What's relevant will vary with context — some sorts of gatherings will include not only name but the wearer's employer or other institutional affiliation; others won't. U.S. military "dog tags" specify the wearer's blood type and religious affiliation, if any, for reasons that make sense in that particular context but would probably not make sense for the annual meeting of a learned society.

    One possible analogy to including "here's my preferred set of pronouns" on a nametag is including a phonetic pronunciation for an unusual (in context) name, to minimize the odds of well-intentioned strangers getting it wrong and to minimize the burden on the wearer of having to give the same explanation over and over again. The difference that I find interesting is that in situations like the ASA meeting there seems to be at least some degree of institutional encouragement for people at no risk of being misgendered (i.e. the pronouns they are comfortable with are exactly those that a stranger would infer from their first name, physical appearance, and wardrobe) to nonetheless don a "he/his" or "she/her" sticker, presumably as a well-intentioned gesture of support for the smaller number of individuals where such a sticker does convey non-obvious information. By contrast it would be peculiar (because obviously time-wasting and counterproductive) for people with common names at no real risk of being mispronounced to wear badges giving pronunciation instructions. That would be a pretty clear violation of the Gricean submaxim "Do not make your contribution more informative than is required." On the other hand, there are plenty of gatherings where name tags are worn where there are a few "celebrity" attendees whom everyone knows that everyone else will correctly recognize and identify without the benefit of a name tag, yet there may be genuine social benefits (group solidarity and a pretense of egalitarianism) in those people wearing name tags anyway.

    I don't presume to know to what extent the putative beneficiaries of the gesture of uninformative-because-redundant pronoun stickers being worn do or don't feel supported and/or feel less self-conscious about wearing their own (informative) stickers, but I find the social trend of un-Gricean (because apparently unnecessary in the individual case) pronoun disclosure interesting and it seems like it might illuminate broader issues of a sociolinguistic nature if perchance it could be analyzed and discussed dispassionately.

  23. Jim said,

    December 1, 2021 @ 8:43 pm

    I have zero (or xero?) problem when someone presents the pronouns they want to be used to describe themselves, especially when it helps to clarify things. (When it doesn't clarify because the pronouns already match the gender display, it feels performative, but .)

    I am somewhere between annoyed and angered when I am told that I have to display *my* desired pronouns — whether it is required or merely "expected" (not technically required but we will pester you until you give in).

    Requiring it of everyone is a form of outing. There is a huge difference between "I reveal this info" and "You need to reveal this info." ("Papers please, comrade.")

  24. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 1, 2021 @ 8:43 pm

    J. W. Brewer: In 1826, James Brown (the grammarian, not the soul singer) used "subjective", "objective", and "possessive" in The American System of Grammar, but didn't explain that choice, as far as I can tell.

  25. Marty said,

    December 2, 2021 @ 3:17 pm


    We refer to both cases because they aren't necessarily obvious from one to the other. Let's take 'xe' as an example. Is the objective for 'xim' or 'xer'? Given we are all familiar with this, we can probably guess 'xim', but that isn't guaranteed to be right. And that is presuming that someone is using something relatively standard; if they are using something truly weird, then there may be absolutely no way to guess.

  26. neil. said,

    December 2, 2021 @ 5:15 pm


    That makes a lot of sense for the more uncommon forms.

    But why the objective form when you have a more standard set? The overwhelming majority of twitter profile pronouns are the standard "they/them," "she/her," or "he/him." Is it just habit/tradition?

  27. Philip Taylor said,

    December 2, 2021 @ 5:24 pm

    Marty — "Let's take 'xe' as an example […] we can probably guess 'xim', […] that is presuming that someone is using something relatively standard". For this reader at least (and perhaps for some others) "xe" counts as "truly weird" rather than "something relatively standard".

  28. R. Fenwick said,

    December 3, 2021 @ 1:36 am

    @Jim: Requiring it of everyone is a form of outing. There is a huge difference between "I reveal this info" and "You need to reveal this info." ("Papers please, comrade.")

    The second sentence of LL's post is: they've offered pronoun stickers for attendees to add to their badges (emphasis added for clarity). The photo of the explanatory information makes this abundantly clear. If one does not wish to offer one's pronouns, one does not need to get the sticker. Simples.

    @Phillip Helbig: I and many other trans people have spent too much energy on this topic in too many fora, including in comment threads here on Language Log, for me to have enough spoons to deconstruct every individual's misconceptions individually – these have been exhaustively addressed elsewhere should one approach researching the topic without the preconceptions that your loaded language suggests – but let me only address this from your earlier comment:

    Sic transit gloria mundi! O tempora o mores!

    One might counter this Latin quote with a far older Greek one, which is not as commonly known but perhaps should be:

    μή με λέγε κύριον, ἐγὼ γὰρ κυρία εἰμί.
    Call me not lord, for I am a lady.
    (attrib. Elagabalus by Cassius Dio, Historiae Romanae LXXX.16.5)

    When it comes to gender diversity, there really is no "transit" to speak of; there is nothing new under the sun.

  29. Terpomo said,

    December 3, 2021 @ 5:43 pm

    Jim, I have heard that complaint; that is, that asking everyone to give their pronouns essentially amounts to forcing any trans people present, should they not yet be completely out, to either out themselves or misgender themselves, given that a refusal to give a preferred pronoun is also salient. Personally I attempt to get around the issue by saying that my pronouns are "take a wild guess".

  30. Philip Taylor said,

    December 4, 2021 @ 11:52 am

    May I ask, Terpomo, since it will be clear to you and other readers of Language Log that I have never been asked my preferred pronouns nor knowingly spoken to anyone who prefers pronouns other than those traditionally associated with his/her sex, how often a situation arises in which you need to « attempt to get around the issue by saying that [your] pronouns are "take a wild guess" » ?

  31. TR said,

    December 4, 2021 @ 3:52 pm

    Philip Taylor, the stickers are a way of doing precisely what you suggest ("asking others to respect their preference"). At a conference where one may meets hundreds of people it's hardly possible to have a discreet face-to-face on the subject with every one of them. And describing the act of wearing a sticker with the verb "force" is a very odd use of the word.

    I fail to see why anyone would object to this (as opposed to generally objecting to the desire of trans people to be talked about in ways that conform to their gender identity). If I'm uncertain about someone's gender, then I appreciate being informed about it, and if I'm wrongly certain, then I would want to know that too.

  32. Terpomo said,

    December 4, 2021 @ 10:30 pm

    What I mean, Phillip, is that whenever I'm in some sort of group setting where my pronouns are asked, or whenever someone asks my pronouns individually because they're unsure of my sex (I'm somewhat androgynous apparently), I answer "take a wild guess". I can recall about two or three times so far this semester that it's happened.

  33. Philip Taylor said,

    December 5, 2021 @ 8:59 am

    OK, so "two or three times a semester", which would be (roughly) half a dozen times a year. I will have to ask my former colleagues who are still gainfully employed within academia (I have been retired for almost 15 years) whether anyone asks their pronouns at anything like this frequency. Certainly no-one has ever asked me mine, either before or post-retirement, nor has anyone ever mentioned to me that their pronouns have been queried, so I do wonder whether this is more of an American than a British phenomenon (I am assuming that you are within American academe — please correct me if I am wrong).

    TR — this too may indicate cultural differences. If someone seemingly male wears a badge reading « [please]" refer to me as "she" or "her" », then as a Briton I would regard this as very much an overt, "in my face" demand, whereas if the same person were to wear no badge and were to politely request me (and others present) to refer to him/her as "she/her" on the first occasion that I or others referred to him/her as "he/him", then I would regard this as a perfectly reasonable request and would do my best to comply therewith thereafter.

  34. Terpomo said,

    December 5, 2021 @ 7:22 pm

    I'd just like to note that I may not be the best indicator of this since I'm not very social and don't do much that involves interacting with other people in person other than going to classes and periodically hanging out with friends.

  35. Philip Taylor said,

    December 6, 2021 @ 5:19 am

    Even so, Terpomo, you have been involved in pronoun situations roughly half a dozen times a year, presumably for several years, whereas I have never been in a pronoun situation at all. Other than when, of course, I addressed Rhona Fenwick as "Mr Fenwick" on this forum on the basis of her forum name ("R Fenwick") and she then responded indicating her preferred forms of address, including "Dr Fenwick" and "Rhona".

  36. Terry K. said,

    December 6, 2021 @ 12:27 pm

    @Philip Taylor, I would think it's not particular common for people who appear clearly male to request she/her or vice versa. More common, I would think, is people with an androgynous or ambiguous appearance, or with traits of both genders in their appearance. As well as people who's pronoun choice actually does match their appearance.

  37. Terpomo said,

    December 6, 2021 @ 8:07 pm

    I also think that people whose appearance doesn't currently match their pronouns are likely to want to change their appearance to be more in line with it, mainly for its own sake but also for the sake of getting gendered correctly.

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