Pronouns

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Today's Dumbing of Age:

Mouseover title: "the pronouns are coming from INSIDE the sentence!!!"

The strip shows the third exhibit in Mary's Halloween "Hell House of Original Sin: Past, Present, and Future".

The mouseover title, of course, is an instance of the "The Calls Are Coming from Inside the House" trope, most famously used in the movie When a Stranger Calls.

And here it's underlining the status of "pronouns" as a dog whistle for various deviations from strict gender binarity.

 



40 Comments »

  1. Yuval said,

    August 2, 2022 @ 7:21 am

    I feel like this is necessary context for the timing of this publication.

    [(myl) True and apt. Though David Willis probably wrote this strip several months ago, the "pronouns" meme has been around for a while.]

  2. Seth said,

    August 2, 2022 @ 7:44 am

    The punchline doesn't make sense to me in context. The setup seems to be that the speaker is a Christian evangelist, with the humor coming from them trying to speak in the dialect of the kids these days, and failing in amusing ways. But for the jokes to work, the speaker needs to mangle that dialect in a way which is reasonable from their perspective. The knock on kids these days is concerned with using neopronouns, or declaring pronouns as a ritual, not about using pronouns at all. That doesn't work as a humorous exaggeration or wrong usage, because it's too far from the actual complaint to be an effective parody. I would have expected the line to be something like "Perhaps they used misgendering pronouns". Which still wouldn't work well because that's not evil as the evangelist would see it. But it might be marginal as something to connect with what the presumed audience regards as the epitome of evil.

    [(myl) You're assuming that Mary knows what the word "pronoun" means, which is not necessarily true. See Yuval's link, at which Florida congressional candidate Lavern Spicer tweets that "There are no pronouns in the Constitution", although (as pointed out repeatedly in responses on Twitter) that document's first sentence begins "We the people"…]

  3. Mark P said,

    August 2, 2022 @ 8:03 am

    All that’s necessary for the humor to work is the understanding that the person speaking is a fundamentalist (not just evangelical) Christian, and that fundamentalists come down on a particular side of the non-binary sex controversy. Anyone familiar with both aspects can provide all the context needed. Whether this particular instance of humor is funny is a judgement call.

  4. Tim Finin said,

    August 2, 2022 @ 8:10 am

    Following up on Yuval's comment on Lavern Spicer's tweet that "There are no pronouns in the Constitution", a quick grep showed many, including 23:he; 12:they; 12:them; 9:it; 6:his; 20:their; 2:my; 2:we.

  5. Francois Lang said,

    August 2, 2022 @ 8:35 am

    Thanks, Tim, for that quick grep–you beat me to it!

    [(myl) From Greig Isles on 7/26:

    ]

  6. David Marjanović said,

    August 2, 2022 @ 9:50 am

    Seth, this particular webcomic is a blog. It has comments. They provide a lot of background, like experiences with people who don't know what "pronoun" means, but do "know" they're against it.

  7. Kenny Easwaran said,

    August 2, 2022 @ 10:51 am

    I think the main humor is meant to be "God doesn't cancel anyone – so let's talk about the time that he canceled all life on Earth".

  8. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 2, 2022 @ 11:40 am

    @Kenny E.: But He promised not to do it again. (Well, at least not by flood.)

  9. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 2, 2022 @ 11:50 am

    The Greig Isles list seems to imply that e.g. "him," "it," and "its" (all found in the original text of the Constitution w/o having to look at any amendments) are not pronouns? Or is the better inference that the post was not the result of a particularly comprehensive search and count?

    [(myl) No doubt it's the latter — my point, to the extent I had one, was just that the idea of a larger constitutional pronoun count had come up quickly…]

  10. Philip Taylor said,

    August 2, 2022 @ 1:01 pm

    I would be interested to know what fraction of my fellow Britons who comment here were able to understand the cartoon. It is clear from the comments above that understanding was by no means universal, but to me the cartoon was completely meaningless, and although the comments have shed some light on the cartoonist's probable intentions I still find the cartoon totally without humour. Or would I be wrong to think that all strip cartoons of this genre are intended to be humorous ?

    [(myl) You seem to be missing the point. Try reading a random few weeks worth of the strip — and maybe read some of the readers' comments as well.

    As the Wikipedia article explains: "The story follows a large ensemble cast, most of which are Indiana University first-years living in the same co-ed dorm. Major characters including a Christian girl who was homeschooled, an atheist who is her best friend, a cheerleader who has been disgraced, and many other characters. There are themes of parental abuse, depression, attempted suicide, sexual assault, and some instance of homophobic and transphobic sayings, along with other mature themes."

    If you were reading a novel with those themes, you might or might not enjoy it, but would you be concerned about whether you found it funny?]

  11. Quinn C said,

    August 2, 2022 @ 2:18 pm

    It seems that many of the commenters are not familiar with the (pretty common) type of detractors of novel pronoun uses who word their criticism in the form "I don't have pronouns", "I don't know how to use pronouns" etc. (restricting the meaning of "pronouns" to "novel use of pronouns")

    [(myl) As you say, the wording no doubt starts as synecdoche ("part for whole") or metonymy ("attribute for thing associated with it"), in constructions like "my pronouns are __". But some people really have no idea what a "pronoun" is, and generalize from statements related to the controversy that "pronoun" means "optional non-binary gender identity" or something of the sort…]

  12. Terry K. said,

    August 2, 2022 @ 2:23 pm

    Quinn C, thanks. The comic wasn't quite making sense to me. You're comment helps a lot.

  13. Chas Belov said,

    August 2, 2022 @ 2:51 pm

    Um, referring to God as "he" uses pronouns. I'm surprised I'm the first one to mention that.

  14. bks said,

    August 2, 2022 @ 5:41 pm

    Chas Belov, I thought that was the joke.

  15. Terry K. said,

    August 2, 2022 @ 5:49 pm

    "your", not "you're" (in my above comment).

  16. AntC said,

    August 2, 2022 @ 6:06 pm

    I'm alarmed and astonished to discover I had the same reactions as @PhilipTaylor. (Yes, I'm a Brit too, but I feel rather wider travelled.) I must be turning into a grinch.

    In my defence, I've never followed comic-strips as a vehicle for serious commentary/I regard them only as delivering humour.

    Thank you all for the explanations. Of course an explained meme falls as flat as an explained joke.

    Sorry.

    Lavern Spicer There are no pronouns in the Constitution.

    Of the pronouns that appear and are gendered, they're all male. Is Lavern going to tell us the Founding _Fathers_ meant 'he'/'his' to be taken as gender-neutral? That seems anachronistically woke of them, considering there was no female suffrage. Indeed at first voting was limited to white, wealthy males. Lavern wouldn't have been allowed to vote, let alone stand for office in Miami.

  17. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 2, 2022 @ 8:44 pm

    @AntC: In the original Constitution w/o any amendments it might well have been subjectively anticipated that the various office-holders referred to with he/him/his would in practice inevitably be male, but the phrasing was broader, e.g. "No Person shall be a Senator … who shall not, when elected, be an Inhabitant of that State for which he shall be chosen." Use of the non-gendered "Person" meant that when, in future generations, it became politically plausible for women to be elected Senators no formal sex requirement in the Constitution needed to be removed.

    Once you add the Bill of Rights (more or less part of the same process by which the Constitution was ratified) you get more undeniable instances of "generic he" in, e.g. the rights of a "person" not to "be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself" and of an "accused" in a criminal matter "to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense." No doubt then as now it was assumed that the generic/prototypical criminal defendant would be male, but I doubt it was thought that that population would be 100% male. And female defendants in federal court have always been taken to have those same rights.

    Another example from the Naturalization Act of 1790 enacted nearly contemporaneously with ratification: "any Alien being a free white person, who shall have resided within the limits and under the jurisdiction of the United States for the term of two years, may be admitted to become a citizen thereof on application to any common law Court of record in any one of the States wherein he shall have resided for the term of one year at least, and making proof to the satisfaction of such Court that he is a person of good character." I don't think the "he" pronouns were ever interpreted to exclude women from eligibility for naturalization.

    The territory of the United States in those days did not include Florida, which was under Spanish rule, but the Constitution did make provision for the admission of new states and (at least implicitly) for the acquisition of new territory via treaty or conquest.

  18. Terry Hunt said,

    August 2, 2022 @ 8:57 pm

    @ AntC — "I've never followed comic-strips as a vehicle for serious commentary/I regard them only as delivering humour."

    As a 65-y-o Brit, I don't claim to be au fait with all the nuances of international 'comic strips' (though I do follow Dumbing of Age amongst a couple of dozen others).

    But – really? That's like regarding novels as only fit for delivering bodice-ripping romance.

    Admittedly a greater proportion of comic strips contain elements of humour than is the case for general text fiction, but it often only counterpoints the serious and even tragic themes pursued, and many "comics" contain no overt humour at all. The form has expanded far beyond its late 19th-century (?) roots when humour was the norm: in this context, the term "comic" is a historical relic.

  19. wanda said,

    August 2, 2022 @ 10:24 pm

    @ J.W. Brewer: "I don't think the "he" pronouns were ever interpreted to exclude women from eligibility for naturalization." Please don't give Alito any ideas!

  20. AntC said,

    August 2, 2022 @ 10:26 pm

    @Terry I can only apologies for being a 65+-y-o (ex-)Brit who doesn't get it. (Fair warning: neither do I 'get' Lord of the Rings' cut-out characters at tedious length; nor why Hollywood keeps turning comics with paper-thin plots into movies full of cardboard characters.)

    Now having had this Dumbing of Age explained; arriving at little enlightenment/less than a typical Zits strip, I'm not enthused to see more.

    novels as only fit for delivering bodice-ripping romance.

    No neither Don Quixote nor Tristram Shandy are that — as exemplars of the early forms of European 'novel'. You might be talking about "romance"s (pulp form)? But since I shun any book with a lurid cover, I'm none too sure.

  21. rosie said,

    August 3, 2022 @ 4:00 am

    '"pronouns" as a dog whistle for various deviations from strict gender binarity.'

    As I understand the term "dog-whistle", the word "pronouns" is not a dog-whistle. Dog-whistles are innocuous-sounding terms used by those in the out-group to signal this fact covertly to others in the out-group. In this case non-binary people are the in-group, and the haters are the out-group. If a hater wanted to signal their viewpoint, using "pronouns" the way Lavern Spicer did would be pretty blatant.

    @Philip Taylor, I don't claim to have got every nuance, but if I missed any, it's not because of being British. Transphobia, deliberate misgendering, and mockery of the use of neo-pronouns are, unfortunately, present in Britain.

  22. Philip Taylor said,

    August 3, 2022 @ 4:01 am

    Mark — yes, I clearly was missing the point. But, like AntC, I don't regard comic-strips as a vehicle for serious commentary — I regard them only as [a vehicle for] delivering humour. And, based on the exemplar found at the top of this thread, I would have no interest whatsoever in reading a random few weeks worth of the strip — a single instance was more than sufficient. I do wonder, though, whether there may be a genuine geographical divide here, with North Americans typically more interested in reading/following such things than Britons.

  23. Philip Taylor said,

    August 3, 2022 @ 4:15 am

    Rosie [sorry, your comment appeared only after I had posted the preceding] — "Transphobia, deliberate misgendering, and mockery of the use of neo-pronouns are, unfortunately, present in Britain". I am sure that you are correct — I have long though that the 'woke' movement was eventually going to result in a massive backlash, and with British politicians at the very highest level pledging to "wipe out woke culture 'nonsense'", I believe that that backlash is already under way. I personally believe that Rishi Sunak is right, and that he is the best candidate for leadership of the Conservative Party, even though I loathe and despise his policies on immigration — you may well differ.

  24. KeithB said,

    August 3, 2022 @ 7:41 am

    Mary Worth and Mark Trail were never particularly funny.

  25. Robot Therapist said,

    August 3, 2022 @ 8:01 am

    Binarity? I just learned a new word!

    (Binarity, binaryness, binarosity, binescence… )

  26. David Marjanović said,

    August 3, 2022 @ 8:19 am

    What Terry Hunt said. There's humor in Dumbing of Age, but it's not the point.

    There are also geographic cultural differences here – adults are basically not allowed to read comics in German-speaking places, but businessmen read Mickey Mouse (Topolino) on public transport in Italy.

  27. klu9 said,

    August 3, 2022 @ 4:00 pm

    Despite the wailings of the woke brigade, there are only two kinds of people in the world and no PC, cancel-culture Guardian-reading storm troopers of wokery can stop me referring to MISS Lavern Spicer with the one correct pronoun for that kind of person… "you muppet!"

  28. klu9 said,

    August 3, 2022 @ 4:04 pm

    (And in this binary world, the other kind of person is of course "non-muppet".)

  29. Philip Taylor said,

    August 3, 2022 @ 4:47 pm

    « no [-one] can stop me referring to MISS Lavern Spicer with the one correct pronoun for that kind of person… "you muppet!" » — as opposed to "thou muppet!", presumably.

  30. Joshua K. said,

    August 3, 2022 @ 7:13 pm

    @AntC: At the time the U.S. Constitution was originally written, even wealthy white male Americans would have been unable to run for office in Miami, as the city was more than a century away from being founded, and the territory where it now sits was still under Spanish rule.

  31. James Wimberley said,

    August 4, 2022 @ 11:03 am

    J.D Brewer: "…. you get more undeniable instances of "generic he" in, e.g. the rights of a "person" not to "be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself" ".

    It is odd that while singular "they" is now widespread and does not raise many eyebrows, its logical corollary "themself" is rare and a bit jarring. But I propose to use it, for instance if I am asked to update the US Constitution, which clearly needs much more than a lick of woke paint. If traditionalists insist, as Reviser I could get round the problem by putting the phrase in the plural, with "No persons … themselves". I don't like this in a list of individual rights.

  32. Mark P said,

    August 4, 2022 @ 1:17 pm

    @James Wimberly — I suggest that James Wimberly do away entirely with pronouns in James Wemberly’s revision of the Constitution. Pronouns are dangerous, and the use of pronouns is to be avoided at all costs.

  33. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 4, 2022 @ 5:29 pm

    @James Wimberley: The strategy of using the plural to avoid gendered pronouns was already extant in 18th century America, as witness "We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights …" If anyone is going to find that phrasing un-woke, it ain't because of the pronouns.

  34. Terry K. said,

    August 4, 2022 @ 8:19 pm

    @J.W. Brewer. I don't see how that's using the plural to avoid gendered pronouns. The antecedent of "they" is gendered, and I don't see how it could be worded in the singular. One person can't be created equal. There has to be someone else for them to be equal or not to.

    [(myl) For further discussion of the long history of "singular they" in English, see this from the OED, or this long list of LLOG posts. Or just "'Singular they': God said it, I believe it, that settles it", 9/13/2006.]

  35. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 5, 2022 @ 11:43 am

    @Terry K.: Here's a 21st-century paraphrase of something Kant allegedly said: "Each member of the state is equal to every other member of the state before the law. " "All members of the state are equal to each other before the law" would work just as well, but the singular phrasing is not ungrammatical or particularly stylistically weird within the relevant register. You could similarly put the famous DoI passage into the singular with gendered pronouns as e.g. "each Man is created equal to every other Man, and endowed by his Creator with certain unalienable rights."

    For a pre-1776 example that is part of the philosophical backstory to the DOI, consider the famous statement (in the singular) by the radical-for-his-day Thos. Rainsborough in 1647: "For really I think that the poorest hee that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest hee; and therefore truly, Sir, I think it clear, that every Man that is to live under a Government ought first by his own Consent to put himself under that Government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that Government that he hath not had a voice to put Himself under."

  36. David L said,

    August 5, 2022 @ 12:26 pm

    @KeithB:

    Mary Worth and Mark Trail were never particularly funny.

    I recommend a daily visit to The Comics Curmudgeon for insight into the ample humor in both strips (not to mention Judge Parker, Family Circus etc).

  37. Philip Anderson said,

    August 5, 2022 @ 3:36 pm

    I’m British, although under 65, and I am see nothing odd in comic strips making serious points whilst being humorous; humour has always done that, including the one-frame political cartoons that appear in British newspapers.
    As to the anti-woke sloganeering from right-wing politicians, here as in the US, there’s nothing new in that.

  38. Terry K. said,

    August 6, 2022 @ 1:48 pm

    @J.W. Brewer. Interesting to see that there are wordings that keep it in the singular. Still doesn't change that when you have a distinctly masculine antecedent for the pronouns, it's not gonna be a case of using plural to avoid gendered pronouns. The pronouns refer to the masculine antecedent "men".

  39. AntC said,

    August 6, 2022 @ 6:08 pm

    Ted Cruz: "My pronouns are kiss-my-arse".

  40. Shannon said,

    August 9, 2022 @ 5:21 am

    > But some people really have no idea what a "pronoun" is, and generalize from statements related to the controversy that "pronoun" means "optional non-binary gender identity" or something of the sort…]

    Don't people still remember from elementary school days when we were taught parts of speech — nouns, verbs, pronouns etc.?

    In any case, it seems like there's a parallelism with "having pronouns" meaning "going out of one's way to show gender identity in pronouns or display (beforehand) what pronouns you use" and people denying they have pronouns with other concepts people are unaware of…

    Not realizing that "accents" are a general thing that everyone has "e.g. I don't have an accent". Belief that only foreigners/people who speak with the non-standard/non-majority dialect have an accent.

    Not realizing that "diet" means one's own food regimen (e.g. when a doctor asks about one's diet, or when talks about the typical "American diet"), many people will be unaware of their own diet and that everyone technically has a diet, not just people with non-standard diets… "e.g. I'm not on a diet, e.g. for weight loss, health, for religious/cultural reasons".

    In a similar way, people seem to have taken pronouns to mean or be associated with stuff like novel use/display of pronouns, denying or not showing awareness that they use them too.

    It seems like with the other two example, e.g. "accent", "diet", there's a thing where people aren't aware of "thing" unless it's brought to their attention by people having non-standard or unfamiliar (from *their* point of view) versions of "thing", which leads to them denying that their own standard "thing" is also a "thing" or that they also use their own version of "thing".

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