Manning's pronouns

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Bradley Manning, just recently sentenced for leaking classified documents to Wikileaks, has released a statement announcing, "I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female." Manning also gave instructions on his-now-her preferred personal pronouns:

I hope that you will support me in this transition. I also request that, starting today, you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun (except in official mail to the confinement facility).

News organizations are struggling today with the pronominal quandary in reporting on Manning's new transgender identity. On Slate's XX Factor blog, Amanda Marcotte writes:

The transition is already awkward. Earlier today, the New York Times headline on a Reuters story on Manning's announcement danced around gender pronouns: "Manning Says Is Female and Wants to Live as a Woman." Clearing up the grammar for an updated headline just made the situation worse: "Manning Says He Is Female and Wants to Lives as a Woman." Well, if "he" is female, then isn't the word "she"? Manning has finally had a chance to express her gender preferences. Since most journalists had a notion this was coming, using confusion or surprise as an excuse for those headlines isn't an option.

On Twitter, New York Magazine editor Justin Miller also drew attention to the headline on the Reuters story as it originally appeared on the New York Times site:

It's important to note, however, that "Manning Says Is Female" is actually typical Reuters-ese, despite how peculiar it sounds. As we've discussed on Language Log several times, Reuters headlines often take the form "X say(s) C," where C is a complement clause with subject omitted, and the omitted subject would normally be a third-person pronoun coreferring with the antecedent X. (See "From the headline desk at Language Log Plaza" [7/28/07], "Reuters says guilty of elliptical headlines" [8/28/07], "An ursine crash blossom" [1/20/10], "'U.S. Supreme Court says upholds health care mandate'" [6/28/12].) It just so happens that in this case, the ellipticism glosses over the difficulty of assigning Manning a personal pronoun.

Of course, the outlets that syndicate Reuters stories are under no obligation to use the original headlines, so when the Times edited the headline on this story the editors had to make a conscious choice of which pronoun to use. One might argue that the "he" is necessary in the headline so as not to confuse the reader, and that the explanation of Manning's new identity and pronoun choice can then be spelled out explicitly in the article itself. Or one could simply honor Manning's wishes and use feminine pronouns right away. These debates are no doubt going on in newsrooms around the English-speaking world today.

While Marcotte has critiqued the Times's use of "he" in the revised headline, it's interesting to see what other editorial choices the Times is making. After featuring the Reuters wire report, the Times posted an article with its own reporting, written by Emmarie Huetteman and Brian Stelter, with the headline, "After Sentencing, Manning Says, ‘I Am Female’." Using the reported first-person pronoun "I" neatly sidesteps the "he"/"she" problem entirely.

And as is typical for breaking news, the Times story has been evolving online over the course of the day. The site NewsDiffs helpfully tracks such revisions — here are some changes made to Huetteman and Stelter's article after it was originally posted:

We can see that Times editors are currently dealing with the pronominal issue by avoiding personal pronouns wherever possible: "some of his supporters" becomes "some supporters," "his defense team" becomes "the defense team," and "his trial" becomes "the trial." Additionally, the use of the military title "Private" avoids having to decide on a gendered "courtesy title" ("Mr." vs. "Ms."/"Miss"/"Mrs."), which the Times would typically assign according to house style. Consider this the journalistic equivalent of "no-naming" — the sociolinguistic phenomenon wherein a speaker avoids address terms because of uncertainty over what to call an interlocutor. Such are the difficulties in a language that lacks a commonly accepted gender-neutral pronoun (no matter what inroads singular "they" has made).

[Update: New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan chimes in:

Here is the entry on it from The Times’s “Manual of Style and Usage,” a guidebook used by reporters and editors throughout the newsroom:

transgender (adj.) is an overall term for people whose current identity differs from their sex at birth, whether or not they have changed their biological characteristics. Cite a person’s transgender status only when it is pertinent and its pertinence is clear to the reader. Unless a former name is newsworthy or pertinent, use the name and pronouns (he, his, she, her, hers) preferred by the transgender person. If no preference is known, use the pronouns consistent with the way the subject lives publicly.

Susan Wessling, the deputy editor who supervises The Times’s copy editors, told me that there are two important considerations. “We want to respect the preferences of the subject,” she said, “and we want to provide clarity for readers.”

Toward that end, she said, “We’ll probably use more words than less.” In other words, The Times will explain the change in stories.

“We can’t just spring a new name and a new pronoun” on readers with no explanation, she said. She noted the importance in the stylebook entry of the words “unless a former name is newsworthy or pertinent,” which certainly applies here.

An article on The Times’s Web site on Thursday morning on the gender issue continued to use the masculine pronoun and courtesy title. That, said the associate managing editor Philip B. Corbett, will evolve over time.

It’s tricky, no doubt. But given Ms. Manning’s preference, it may be best to quickly change to the feminine and to explain that — rather than the other way around.

See further commentary from Ryan Kearney in The New Republic, Maureen O'Connor in New York Magazine's The Cut blog, and Andrew Beaujon in Poynter Online.]


  1. Daniel Ezra Johnson said,

    August 22, 2013 @ 11:24 am

    Wikipedia has gone full steam ahead in pronoun replacement, even to somewhat odd effect, e.g. "Raised as a boy, Manning was regarded as small for her age…"

  2. Dick Margulis said,

    August 22, 2013 @ 11:26 am

    Some months ago, the uncoontroversial pronoun of choice was "he." Some months hence, the uncontroversial pronoun of choice will be "she." In the meantime, as Private Manning is in the process of shedding one gender identity and donning a new one, it seems that "they" might be just the ticket.

    [(myl) This is actually a thing.]

  3. Dick Margulis said,

    August 22, 2013 @ 11:27 am

    Um, uncontroversial. Not uncoontroversial. Sorry.

  4. RP said,

    August 22, 2013 @ 11:29 am

    Presumably the task of avoiding gender is even harder in certain languages where some of these avoidance tactics aren't available (because adjectives and job titles are more likely to be gendered). Looking at Le Monde and Libération, both took the direct-quote approach ("I am female") in their titles, but use "il" in the body of the text in both cases. has "COMING-OUT – Bradley Manning : « Je suis Chelsea Manning. Je suis une femme. »" as the headline. "…'il souhaitait devenir une femme." [He announced that…] "he wished to become a woman". has "Manning: Je suis Chelsea, je suis une femme". In the article: "… a-t-il annoncé" – meaning "he announced".

  5. Benjamin Lukoff said,

    August 22, 2013 @ 11:29 am

    Imagine if Chelsea identified not as a woman, but as genderqueer. If the media can't handle referring to her with a female pronoun, they'd really be thrown for a loop in that case. We'd been discussing this on the Grammar Geeks LinkedIn group (thread) — it's something most people had never thought of having to deal with before.

    Consensus for the "easy" case was to refer to someone as "he" if they prefer "he" and "she" if they prefer "she." But other situations… we're just not sure.

  6. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 22, 2013 @ 11:29 am

    Since it is apparently quite subjectively important to Pvt. Manning to be considered female rather than male, sidestepping the problem via a gender-neutral pronoun might be insulting to . . . to . . . insulting to Private Manning, wouldn't it? In my experience, the typical pop-Whorfian social-political arguments against gendered pronouns are that they require a focus on gender when it isn't or shouldn't be salient to the issue at hand (or isn't actually known, with it thought problematic to e.g. treat masculine as a generic default), but Private Manning is rather obviously not someone for whom gender identity (and the social recognition thereof) is a matter of indifference. What grammatical gender to use for a referent whose gender is highly salient to the issue under discussion but is also potentially disputed is perhaps an unusual enough quandary that it wouldn't surprise me if relatively few languages have a standard smooth way of dealing with it.

    But there must be transgender people in Hungary. They certainly don't have the gendered-pronoun issue to deal with, but it wouldn't surprise me if they gave rise to other language-usage quandaries.

  7. Benjamin Lukoff said,

    August 22, 2013 @ 11:31 am

    And yes, as Dick notes above, "they" is a possibility for folks in nontraditional gender situations — though I'm not sure how they themselves feel about it.

  8. Georganna Hancock said,

    August 22, 2013 @ 11:35 am

    I feel an editor/publisher has a greater obligation to readers than to the preferences of writers or subjects. We report for readers (unless we're in PR).

  9. Catanea said,

    August 22, 2013 @ 11:44 am

    In every case, I continue to vote and write with E Nesbit, even though I think one of the members of her groups was almost always non-human (sand-fairies, phoenixes…):
    Everyone wiped its face with its handkerchief.
    I do not find this offensive.

  10. Kathryn Campbell-Kibler said,

    August 22, 2013 @ 12:00 pm

    It's really not difficult. Chelsea Manning has made her name and preferred pronouns perfectly clear, and they are not neologisms. All the people quoted can say she/her/hers just fine in other contexts. Any confusion or need to avoid pronouns is prompted by discomfort with and disrespect for the idea that people get to claim their own gender. That disrespect is the problem, not the issue of how to express it linguistically.

  11. Dan T. said,

    August 22, 2013 @ 12:29 pm

    The "reader confusion" issue comes in whenever anybody famous under one name, gender, etc. suddenly announces a change in preferences, e.g., Cassius Clay / Muhammad Ali. Eventually the new preference will probably eclipse the old one in the public eye, but early on the old one will be more familiar and less confusing. It's similar to the "rebranding" problem when a company or product changes its name and has to deal with existing customer relationships, especially problematic if they're a financial institution that needs the trust of its customers, but they have to confuse them with statements, invoices, etc. with an unfamiliar name on them. Even non-famous individuals sometimes go through this; I had a classmate as a kid who was known as Willie until he suddenly decided to be known as Jamie, and it took a while for people to make the mental switch fully.

  12. Dan T. said,

    August 22, 2013 @ 12:31 pm

    (Note that Willie/Jamie remained male; "Jamie" was still a male name in this case, even though I've also known female Jamies.)

  13. M Lee said,

    August 22, 2013 @ 12:35 pm

    I wonder why Reuters felt the need to include "Says." The headline "Manning Is Female and Wants to Live as a Woman" would have been elegant, clear, and true.

  14. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 22, 2013 @ 12:54 pm

    Even when released from custody, Private Manning will not be permitted to e.g. attend Smith College or the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival (unless either or both of those institutions change their relevant policies in the interim). For immediate purposes, most prisons segregate inmates by sex (typically in physically separate institutions, not even separate wings of the same facility) and have not necessarily gotten on board with the "claim your own gender" concept. The existence of people who may be treated as female by some/many/most persons/institutions in some/many/most relevant contexts but not by all persons/institutions in all relevant contexts is necessarily going to create some difficulties of reference.

    There has historically been some litigation as to the extent to which prisoners have the same right as ordinary U.S. residents to change their names legally (often involving black inmates who decided while in custody that they wanted to adopt a Muslim or Afrocentric-sounding name in lieu of their birth name), but I'm not sure what the current state of play is on that, and I suppose military prison might be different from civilian prison in any event. Since Private Manning was careful to specify that mail should be addressed to "him" under "his" prior name of Bradley (presumably because of the risk that mail addressed to "Chelsea" would not be delivered), this sounds like an issue that has not yet been worked through here.

  15. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 22, 2013 @ 1:24 pm

    I'm not sure if there's been a public explanation of why "Chelsea" was selected as the new name. It makes a certain amount of generational-cohort sense, as Private Manning was born in 1987 when Chelsea was still undergoing a rapid upswing in popularity as a given name (#47 for girls born in the US that year before peaking at #15 in the year Chelsea Clinton's father was first elected to the Presidency and then starting the downhill trajectory to its current #233 for girls born in 2012). So Private Manning can have a simple account of "I knew various girls my age named Chelsea when I was growing up and I always thought it was a pretty and feminine name" as opposed to Miss Clinton's potentially more embarrassing "um, apparently my parents named me that because they liked that old Joni Mitchell song, you know, the one with the line about 'the sun poured in like butterscotch and stuck to all my senses.'"

  16. Jason Cullen said,

    August 22, 2013 @ 1:49 pm

    Victor Mair posted an interesting article about pronoun usage in a newspaper article in China about a transgender person there. Maybe someone can find that article and compare.

  17. Sili said,

    August 22, 2013 @ 2:35 pm

    Additionally, the use of the military title "Private" avoids having to decide on a gendered "courtesy title"

    Won't manning have lost that title as a result of the dishonourable discharge?

  18. JQ said,

    August 22, 2013 @ 2:58 pm


    I think if one is saying that someone wants to become a woman, that means they are not a woman at the present time, and therefore "he" is the correct pronoun.

    If one's position is that she has always been a woman (in a man's body), then it is not accurate to say "he wants to become a woman" and instead one should be saying something like "she wants to transition from a man's body to a woman's body"

  19. tpr said,

    August 22, 2013 @ 4:19 pm

    There is obviously a question about whether merely asserting his or her identity as a woman makes him or her one. No matter how sincere I was in my belief that I was a wolf, I wouldn't be one. Whether Manning is a woman entirely depends on the definition you adopt for this word, and the individuals who identify with a particular label aren't in any privileged position to prescribe its meaning for the whole speech community, even if we would like to respect his or her wishes.

  20. Barney said,

    August 22, 2013 @ 4:36 pm

    tpr: I think it's a bit of a myth that we habitually "adopt definitions" for the words we use. We can read definitions in dictionaries, but hopefully we recognize them as fairly crude attempts to describe how words are used, not a complete version of the meaning of any word.

    Wittgenstein famously pointed out that it's pretty much impossible to come up with a complete definition even for a seemingly simple word like "lemon".

  21. Barney said,

    August 22, 2013 @ 4:44 pm

    I was wrong — Wittgenstein argument was about the word 'game' (or a close German equivalent). Norman Swartz applies the argument to 'lemon'.

  22. Barney said,

    August 22, 2013 @ 4:47 pm

    Last comment – the reason your 'Wolf' analogy doesn't apply is that there is a simple defintion that could be used to distinguish all wolves from all humans. (But probably not all wolves from all dogs). There is no simple and reasonable definition that can distinguish all women from all men.

  23. tpr said,

    August 22, 2013 @ 5:01 pm

    @Barney, my point doesn't rely on the meaning being simple, or one that can be fully captured in a dictionary definition, or one that is contrary to anything Wittgenstein said about family resemblances. Note that Wittgenstein wasn't arguing that the lack of any common features that hold of all games means that the word can apply to anything.

    There are facts of the matter about what the words 'game' and 'woman' mean in a given circumstance. The facts are undoubtedly complex, and may vary somewhat from context to context and from one speech community to another, but they are to be discovered by examining usage, not by the accepting the assertions of individuals who are motivated by respect for someone's feelings.

  24. Silvercat said,

    August 22, 2013 @ 5:33 pm

    I probably won't have the energy to argue this very long but:

    There are biological differences between cis people's brains and trans* peoples's brains. A trans* man's brain resembles a cis man's brain. ( )

    I'm genderqueer. I personally don't care what pronoun people use. I'm used to the ones that reflect was sex I was assigned at birth. Others do. I don't understand why people get so hostile about that. How would you feel if you were continually treated as a different gender, with all the possible sexism inherent in that? (Because the majority of the time, it seems to be men refusing to give that respect.)

  25. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 22, 2013 @ 6:03 pm

    Re the "wolf" example, Walker Percy wrote: "Ask an L.S.U. fan at a football game: Who are you? He may reply: I am a tiger.* This was an instance of what he called "the cosmological self," but which might be loosely paraphrased as an argument that self-identification with the mystical totem animal of the clan or tribe is not a phenomenon limited to so-called primitive societies. (Are there languages where you use different pronouns to refer to people depending on their clan identification, maybe even tracking the pronouns you would use for the relevant totemic animals? Because that would be really cool, assuming you didn't have to actually live in the relevant society.) Of course, Wittgenstein would probably say that if a tiger could talk, we would not understand him, but I don't know how well Wittgenstein would have understood anyone if you had suddenly plunked him down at a pregame tailgate party in Baton Rouge.

  26. Eric P Smith said,

    August 22, 2013 @ 6:32 pm

    @tpr: I'm with you 99% of the way, and my instinct on reading what you said was to exclaim "Bravo!" There is indeed a fact of the matter as to what the word 'woman' means, and the facts are indeed complex, and they are indeed to be discovered by examining usage. I think however that the complex facts surrounding whether the word 'woman' applies to a person may nevertheless include some element of how that person self-identifies. 'Woman' differs from 'wolf' in that regard.

  27. Ted McClure said,

    August 22, 2013 @ 7:23 pm

    Re Kathryn Campbell-Kibler and J.W. Brewer: Manning gave up any right to respect within the military environment upon conviction. Irrespective of what we see in the press and elsewhere or of the prisoner's desires, the Army will treat Manning as male until Manning's release from confinement. Also, IIRC a soldier reduced to the lowest enlisted rank as part of a court martial sentence remains in that rank–without discharge or pay–until released from confinement. Then the dishonorable discharge is imposed. This keeps the prisoner under military discipline until then.

  28. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 22, 2013 @ 8:05 pm

    Here's an interesting problem for determining meaning from careful examination of usage (which I generally agree is ultimately the only game in town). If we say a word ultimately means no more and no less than what it is used to mean by members of the relevant speech community, are we implicitly adding a qualification on the order of "what it is used to mean when the speakers are sober, sane, well-rested, and being subjectively sincere and truthful – unless they are using sufficiently obvious intonation to convey sarcasm/irony/jocularity that we can make a note of that and adjust our analysis accordingly"?

    Sociolinguistics needs to account for the fact that many people in many social situations like to be polite and/or avoid contentiousness even at the cost of being mildly untruthful ("no, don't worry, you look fabulous in that dress. It does not at all make your butt look too big."). Will this phenomenon complicate our data collection in this sort of politically/socially-charged context? If a speaker calls someone who is known to subjectively prefer to be called a woman (despite being in some relevant way a borderline or disputable case given the divergence of views in the speech community about the exact outer semantic boundaries of that word) a woman, is that a reliable datapoint about what "woman" means for that speaker, or can it alternatively be understood as the semantic equivalent of a "little white lie," or at least of a euphemism? I expect the answer to that (assuming the distinction I am trying to draw is coherent and meaningful) will vary from speaker to speaker, but I'm not entirely sure how to design ones linguistic fieldwork to capture that.

    I guess you can finesse the whole issue by just saying that one current meaning of "woman" used by some but not all members of the AmEng speech community (pay attention OED) is "someone who subjectively prefers to be referred to as a woman." That's probably workable except in contexts where you need for some administrative reason to have paired technical definitions of "man" and "woman" that preclude a given individual from being classified as both (e.g., if all you have in your criminal-punishment infrastructure is men-only prisons and women-only prisons and you need to decide which kind to lock Private Manning up in — I assume by contrast that the issue of whether Private Manning would be eligible to compete in the men's slalom v. the women's slalom at the forthcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi is probably a purely theoretical one), and when push comes to shove linguistic fieldwork is probably not going to be able to provide an appropriate resolution for those contexts.

  29. Monty said,

    August 22, 2013 @ 9:03 pm

    Why not refer to Bradley/Chelsea simply as 'Manning' and thereby skip the impersonal pronouns?

    Despite my sad lack of expertise in English (my native language) and linguistics in general, I have some degree of fluency in French and Spanish – both of which are rife with gender-based nouns. (My spanish teacher made an interesting remark; IIRC, basically that english is a very pragmatic language)

    For example, in Spanish, 'the traitor' is expressed as a masculine noun: 'el traidor.'
    ¿Cómo debo hacer referencia a Manning en español … con lo que los pronombres?

  30. Jon said,

    August 23, 2013 @ 2:29 am

    Dick Margulis said "it seems that "they" might be just the ticket."

    I run a medical website that includes lists of doctors and other specialists with relevant expertise, either recommended by patients or suggested by themselves. In the latter case, I would include a note, "Suggested her own listing" or "Suggested his own listing". But there were too many cases where the sex was not obvious from the name, so they are now "Suggested their own listing".

  31. Dick Gregory said,

    August 23, 2013 @ 2:47 am


  32. tpr said,

    August 23, 2013 @ 4:40 am

    @Silvercat said:

    There are biological differences between cis people's brains and trans* peoples's brains. A trans* man's brain resembles a cis man's brain.

    Given that most people in history have succeeded in using the words 'man' and 'woman' without knowing anything about neurological differences between the sexes, it would be hard to argue that such features are relevant for understanding what people mean by these words. The chemical formula 'H20' can't be part of the meaning of 'water' either, and for the same reason.

    @Eric P Smith said:

    the complex facts surrounding whether the word 'woman' applies to a person may nevertheless include some element of how that person self-identifies. 'Woman' differs from 'wolf' in that regard.

    Self-identification is certainly relevant for the meaning of 'woman' as a technical term used in gender studies departments, but I have my doubts that it's relevant for the meaning of 'woman' as a term that exists in the wild. Note that self-identification doesn't seem to be relevant for assessing whether any other animal or plant species is male or female.

    In any case, I think most of us agree that it is respectful and kind to refer to Manning as a 'woman', but whether it is also true is another matter.

  33. Piotr Gąsiorowski said,

    August 23, 2013 @ 5:51 am

    "they" is a possibility for folks in nontraditional gender situations — though I'm not sure how they themselves feel about it.

    Or perhaps "how they themself feels about it".

  34. Alon Lischinsky said,

    August 23, 2013 @ 6:38 am


    For example, in Spanish, 'the traitor' is expressed as a masculine noun

    Not really. In Spanish, traidor is a nominal adjective rather than a noun, and therefore varies with the gender of the referent:

    El coronel le arranca la fotografía de la mano y de pronto hierve de furia, pega un puñetazo en la mesa, grita la puta madre que la parió, traidora hija de puta, me la va a pagar, desgraciada, ésta sí que me la va a pagar. (Galeano, Eduardo. 1979. Días y noches de amor y de guerra. Barcelona: Laia, p. 35)

    In any case, the Spanish-language media seem to be sticking to masculine forms for Manning.

  35. Matthew Stuckwisch said,

    August 23, 2013 @ 7:09 am

    Monty: you can often work around things, either by using invariable nouns such as person: "Es una persona traidora", or you can just try to use verbs most of the way, since they can omit direct reference to the subject: "Traicionó". Consider the difference between "Es rubio/a" (indicates gender) and "Tiene pelo rubio" (hides gender).

    You can also substitute "le" in place of gendered direct objects lo/la, although you'd want to avoid that as it's not part of Standard Spanish (unless it's an animate male, which means we go back to implying a gender) but it's certainly used across a number dialects.

  36. Diz Pareunia said,

    August 23, 2013 @ 8:56 am

    PC nonsense; he can call himself a rutabega, but as long as his rap sheet says Bradley Manning he is Bradley Manning.
    Maybe he should change his last name to Personing.

  37. A Reader said,

    August 23, 2013 @ 10:33 am

    tpr, it should be clear enough from the fact that bulls are not men (but are male) that sex and 'manhood'/'womanhood' are not the same thing. Different idiolects are of course going to vary about how 'woman' is used – some probably have the definition 'human female', others might claim that definition but in practice rely on a variety of cultural cues or secondary sex characteristics, and others yet will apply the word on the basis of self-identification (often with a further grounding in the brain structures these are based on, though of course these can only be indirectly inferred most of the time).

    These things are usage facts. Under these facts, whether it's 'true' that Manning is a woman is going to depend entirely on which idiolect you select. Looking more broadly, it might be said that the definition of 'woman' in society is changing. (Not surprising, given that we're slowly realizing that reproductive organs, secondary sex characteristics, various social habits, and internal identity don't all fundamentally need to go together, and can occur in various combinations.) So what should news outlets do? Should they not pick the 'respectful' and 'kind' option, given that this is in no way less 'true' than the unkind and disrespectful choice?

  38. arianne said,

    August 23, 2013 @ 11:03 am

    I'm curious as to how this news and Chelsea's words were translated for the Hebrew-speaking world.

    As someone who loves languages and learning, last December, I briefly studied Hebrew via conversational CD's. While I certainly earned no right no call myself proficient, if I remember correctly, in order to communicate, one must know the gender of the speaker and the gender of the audience.

    Does anyone know how this potential problem was resolved in translating the request for a new name and pronoun reference by Manning? Or is this linguistic phenomenon somehow irrelevant to these sentences, and I've just revealed to the world that I need to seriously study up on my Hebrew before commenting on posts?

  39. Coby Lubliner said,

    August 23, 2013 @ 11:19 am

    Matthew Stuckwisch: Es rubio/a indicates the (grammatical) gender of the subject of es, for example su pelo es rubio and su cabellera es rubia. If the subject is a person, such a phrase indicates their biological "gender" only if this coincides with the grammatical gender. Una criatura rubia may be either a male or a female child.

  40. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 23, 2013 @ 11:43 am

    I'm not sure whether or not it's a good journalistic norm to err on the side of "respectful" and "kind" (not that they should necessarily intentionally err in the other direction) and I doubt that norm is consistently applied to people who are newsworthy because they have been convicted of quite serious crimes and given a quite lengthy prison sentence. Obviously, the NY Times has a house style that assumes Boring = Serious, so they're not going to go all tabloidy and call a convicted criminal a SICKO TERROR FIEND in a headline, but I do have a memory (maybe unreliable, or at least I couldn't immediately verify) that NYT house style used to be to always give a male criminal defendant the honorific "Mr." in stories about the trial as it was going on (unless there was some posher title available) but strip the title and refer to the fellow by surname alone in subsequent stories if and when the verdict came in guilty.

    Via corpus linguistics, someone could perhaps do a historical study of a particular well-known name "transition" like Cassius Clay -> Muhammed Ali (the man himself started using the new name circa 1965, if wikipedia is accurate) and see how different publications handled it and on what sort of timeline. By the time his conviction for draft-dodging was reversed by the Supreme Court in 1971 he was in official court documents Clay a/k/a Ali, but Clay for short. Although note that when one sees an a/k/a in the naming of a defendant in a criminal case, it is not necessarily motivated by kindness or respect, as witness the famous mob prosecution in which defendants were specified in the caption as, e.g. "Anthony Salerno, also known as Fat Tony" and "Matthew Ianniello, also known as Matty the Horse" and many many more.

  41. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 23, 2013 @ 11:57 am

    A minimal pair of tabloid-usage datapoints: refers to Manning with masculine pronouns while noting the subject's contrary preference and using feminine pronouns within direct quotes from people (including a military spokesperson) who were honoring that preference. By contrast another story in the same edition of the same paper uses "she" for the transgender subject, perhaps simply because "she" was not previously newsworthy under a prior male public identity and unfortunately only became newsworthy as a result of being killed. One could also hypothesize that the respect-and-kindness dynamic might be different when referring to (alleged) crime victims than when referring to convicted criminals.

  42. Ellen K. said,

    August 23, 2013 @ 1:10 pm

    Coby Lubliner, with only two exceptions that I know of, grammatical gender agrees with social gender (which usually agrees with biological gender) for people. (Other than mixed groups.) One of those exceptions, though, is "la persona", so a fairly significant exception.

    And in a sentence like "es rubio/a", if said without a preceeding noun, like someone you see and are talking about, (and maybe even otherwise) it's it's not a matter of grammatical gender of the grammatical subject (there isn't any), it's a simple matter of the gender of the person you are talking about.

  43. tpr said,

    August 23, 2013 @ 1:19 pm

    @A Reader said:

    it should be clear enough from the fact that bulls are not men (but are male) that sex and 'manhood'/'womanhood' are not the same thing.

    It is clear. I'm assuming that it is true for basically any definition in use that a woman is a kind of female, an adult, human female (though sometimes sexually mature rather than adult and sometimes other varieties of hominin instead of human, but approximately that). I think it is also very clear that Manning was making an assertion about being female rather than those other elements of the word's meaning.

    whether it's 'true' that Manning is a woman is going to depend entirely on which idiolect you select.

    If you want to be understood, you need to rely the conventions that apply within your speech community, but there does seem to be more than one convention to choose from.

  44. tpr said,

    August 23, 2013 @ 2:49 pm

    @J.W. Brewer said

    many people in many social situations like to be polite and/or avoid contentiousness even at the cost of being mildly untruthful … If a speaker calls someone who is known to subjectively prefer to be called a woman (despite being in some relevant way a borderline or disputable case given the divergence of views in the speech community about the exact outer semantic boundaries of that word) a woman, is that a reliable datapoint about what "woman" means for that speaker?

    I think this is a good question. I suppose that if there is a conformity effect, there will be more inconsistencies in usage (much as there are in the use of the word 'data' by people who pretend it's a plural rather than singular mass noun).

    I guess you can finesse the whole issue by just saying that one current meaning of "woman" used by some but not all members of the AmEng speech community (pay attention OED) is "someone who subjectively prefers to be referred to as a woman."

    But that's a recursive definition.

  45. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 23, 2013 @ 3:14 pm

    What's wrong with a recursive definition, if it accounts for the observed usage of some AmEng speakers? You could also rephrase it as "someone who by social convention is commonly treated as if a woman in sense 1.a just above (which would involve genotype/phenotype)." Is that better? Obviously you can try to make the definition more exact by trying to specify the conditions under which the relevant social convention is likely to obtain, but dictionary definitions at least often run terse in that regard. And in any event, this is natural language; it doesn't necessarily have to meet any sort of formal standard of mathematical or logical rigor.

  46. tpr said,

    August 23, 2013 @ 3:33 pm

    But a recursive definition couldn't account for usage. Expanded, it would be "someone who subjectively prefers to be referred to as a someone who subjectively prefers to be referred to as someone who subjectively prefers to be referred to as…" and so on. You could fix it by having the definition contain an alternative sense of 'woman' as in your revision, but I suspect that Manning wouldn't be content with the "as if a woman" part.

  47. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 23, 2013 @ 5:23 pm

    I think there are lots of nouns that can be said to have multiple senses that are something like "Sense One: an object fully meeting criteria X, Y and Z" and "Sense Two: an object sufficiently similar in one or more salient-in-context ways to an object-strictly-satisfying-the-Sense-One-definition that people often call it that." The problem here is that I think many people want there to be definitions of "man" and "woman" that are mutually exclusive so that if you are properly categorized as one you can't by definition be the other, and that's just difficult-to-impossible to do once you enter into the sort of outer-boundary fuzziness that's perfectly common with lots of words, because such fuzziness tends to create overlap of the semantic ranges of the words (um, assume some illustrative Venn diagrams here). I guess one way to capture this problem is that if Private Manning says "I am female" there's a sensible way to interpret that as a true statement for at least one salient (and currently in use by at least some members of the speech community) sense of "female," but if Private Manning were to amplify that statement with an unqualified "and I am NOT male," that's in some sense a harder sell because there are going to be *some* salient senses of "male" for which that's not plausibly true. (Is this an instance of a general asymmetry, where "I am X" may be considered truthful if it's true for at least one commonly-used meaning of X that is sensible in context whereas I am not-Y needs to satisfy all common meanings of Y that would be plausible in context and haven't been explicitly disclaimed in order to be considered truthful?) None of this tells you what to do with pronoun usage, of course.

  48. David Morris said,

    August 23, 2013 @ 6:31 pm

    There is more to becoming/being a woman than simply saying 'I am a woman'. *I* could *say* 'I am a woman' and approximately no-one would believe me.
    Some news outlets have taken to referring to 'Chelsea' and 'she/her' retrospectively, referring to 'her' childhood, even though 'she' was 'Bradley' and 'he/him' then.

  49. Silvercat said,

    August 23, 2013 @ 7:36 pm

    @TPR and others, if the AP has already recognized trans* people as the sex they have transitioned to, you've lost that battle. You can play your transphobic word games as long as you want with your claims of 'subjectivity'. If you're not actually a jerk, you might do some research on transsexualism to see why you're coming off as one (it starts with the conflation of sex and gender).

    @David Morris, that would probably be because the vast majority of trans* people realize they're trans* at a very early age, whether or not they feel like they can go through with that. Since there's been rumors that Bradley was trans* for quite a while (she was talking about her difficulties with Wikileaks), it's reasonable to assume she's one. It's also basic politeness – I believe it's common to refer to Muhammad Ali's childhood with that name even though he was born Cassius Clay.

    And I'm done.

  50. Silvercat said,

    August 23, 2013 @ 7:40 pm

    (Okay, almost done)

    I made a mistake above because I'm bad with names. Should have been: Since there's been rumors that *Manning* was.

    My apologies.

  51. tpr said,

    August 24, 2013 @ 5:11 am

    @Silvercat said:

    it starts with the conflation of sex and gender

    I'm aware of the distinction used in gender studies between these terms. There is also a distinction between these two terms in linguistics, but it's a different one. These are areas of technical discourse with their own terminology, but out in the wilderness of the general speech community where word meanings evolve naturally rather than being consciously prescribed, these words are often used interchangeably. These are observable facts about usage, nothing subjective about them.

    you've lost that battle

    I'm not fighting a battle. Activism and academic inquiry make poor bedfellows in my opinion.

  52. dw said,

    August 25, 2013 @ 8:05 am

    @Daniel Ezra Johnson:

    Wikipedia has gone full steam ahead in pronoun replacement, even to somewhat odd effect, e.g. "Raised as a boy, Manning was regarded as small for her age…"

    Wikipedia is merely following its own longstanding Manual of Style:

    Any person whose gender might be questioned should be referred to by the gendered nouns (for example "man/woman", "waiter/waitress", "chairman/chairwoman"), pronouns, and possessive adjectives that reflect that person's latest expressed gender self-identification. This applies in references to any phase of that person's life. Direct quotations may need to be handled as exceptions. Nevertheless, avoid confusing or seemingly logically impossible text that could result from pronoun usage (for example: instead of He gave birth to his first child, write He became a parent for the first time).

  53. Eric P Smith said,

    August 25, 2013 @ 11:50 am

    Surely the juxtaposition "Raised as a boy, Manning was regarded as small for her age" is just such an incongruity as the Wikipedia Manual of Style seeks to avoid. When the page protection is lifted I expect someone will edit it to avoid the incongruity. Indeed, I know someone will.

  54. tpr said,

    August 25, 2013 @ 12:14 pm

    @Eric P Smith,
    The idea of a girl being raised as a boy is perfectly intelligible to me, so it would make sense if Manning is claiming to have been female from birth and only now deciding to live as one, but not if people want to say Manning was male in his/her youth.

  55. tpr said,

    August 25, 2013 @ 4:02 pm

    Some interesting data from a fairy tale that involves a magical gender transition:

    The hermit followed at their heels, but seeing it was impossible to overtake the thief, he fell on his knees and called his most deadly curse down on her head, praying that if the thief was a man, he might become a woman; and if she was a woman, that she might become a man. In either case he thought that the punishment would be severe.

    But punishments are things about which people do not always agree, and when the princess suddenly felt she was really the man she had pretended to be, she was delighted, and if the hermit had only been within reach she would have thanked him from her heart.
    –"The Girl who Pretended to be a Boy" From Andrew Lang (Ed) The Violet Fairy Book, 1901.

    Immediately after the transition, the princess is still referred to using the feminine pronoun, quite intelligibly and without their being any doubt that she is now a man. This is true while the antecedent of the pronoun is 'princess', but shifts to the masculine pronoun in subsequent paragraphs, particularly where the antecedent is 'young man'.

  56. Kate Y. said,

    August 25, 2013 @ 4:40 pm

    Meanwhile, we have the deputy editor at the Times saying, “We’ll probably use more words than less.”

  57. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 25, 2013 @ 5:42 pm

    If the wikipedia article is implementing a (mandatory?) stylebook rule, then it is unsurprising but also becomes less interesting as a datapoint if we are trying to gauge usage in a complex situation where people's grammatical intuitions are uncertain and/or are at least partially driven by social attitudes where there is no current societywide consensus. Adherence to stylebooks and copyediting conventions can distort usage data in quite serious ways, unless and until a particular prescriptivist rule *takes* and a critical mass of native speakers start consistently using it even before their drafts are edited (or without the self-consciousness necessary to adhere to an unnatural-feeling rule just because you know doing so will create less hassle with the editor or whoever is going to be reviewing the work). That said, using stylebooks to impose uniformity on a particular usage point where usage might otherwise vary is the prerogative of any publication. I don't know how that works in general in the wikipedia subculture – although I can see an argument that on particular sorts of politically/emotionally-charged usage issues there's something to be said for having an arbitrary stylebook resolution of This Is How We Do It Here to prevent endless cycling through edit wars.

    That said, the current wikipedia articles on "Wendy Carlos" and "Switched-On Bach" are imho really badly-written from a usefully-informing-the-reader perspective. There is probably a way to rewrite both articles to make it clearer (by introducing the point earlier and more clearly) that the recording artist was contemporaneously known as "Walter Carlos" at the relevant point in history, while still adhering to the stylebook on pronouns and the like. Someone who thinks the stylebook convention is a good idea should take a crack at that. This might be a particularly relevant precedent because, frankly (and there's no shame in this – popular musical taste is fickle and one-hit wonders are common) Wendy Carlos is likely only notable enough to be the subject of a wikipedia article because of what happened during the "Walter Carlos" era, and likewise no one would be interested in Chelsea Manning but for what happened during the "Bradley Manning" era. (Plus the fact that at an earlier point Manning apparently experimented with at least an online persona named "Breanna" I think underscores that it's one thing to use feminine pronouns in writing historically about a pre-transition context but it's potentially more problematic to use a probably-not-yet-chosen-at-the-time name retroactively. It is one thing to claim that in some deep metaphysical or neurological sense Manning always was female even before that was publicly acknowledged but another to claim that Manning's first name in some similar metaphysical sense always was Chelsea.)

  58. maxh said,

    August 25, 2013 @ 8:51 pm

    I don't think it's as confusing as some have claimed to use a new name to refer to someone in a historical context. If one were to say that "Mrs Smith did well in school", no one would complain, even though at the time she would have been Ms Smith — or perhaps even Ms Jones, if she adopted her spouse's name.

  59. Garret said,

    August 26, 2013 @ 1:00 am

    I agree with maxh and tpr:

    The sentence "Raised as a boy, Manning was regarded as small for her age" might need some getting-used-to for many people, but as transsexuality is becoming more frequently acknowledged and a public topic, there is no way around it and it is factually accurate, no incongruity.

    That is, if we want to respect a persons identity (as is quietly assumed for all non-trans* persons). In this case you would always use the article they identify with. Just imagine how switching pronouns is easily an insult to many self-conscious people.

  60. Jonathan Gress-Wright said,

    August 26, 2013 @ 7:23 am

    I admit, if I was going to spend the rest of my life in prison, I'd want to be "female", too.

  61. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 26, 2013 @ 11:04 am

    Right now the Chelsea Manning wiki article contains the phrase "When she told her roommate she was gay" which seems rather difficult to follow (since interpreting "gay" as "attracted romantically/sexually to other females" will probably not lead to the intended meaning). Consider by contrast the earlier pronounless sentence "Manning was by then living as an openly gay man," which is at least not inconsistent with having nonetheless in some metaphysical sense been female at the time. (Similarly, the "Raised as a boy" sentence is not particularly hard to interpret that way if it's been set up correctly.)

    But by contrast the wiki bios of, e.g., Muhammed Ali and Hillary Clinton provide good examples of how to give a historical narrative using the various names the subject publicly used at the relevant point in time (and in the case of the latter, she did not in practice switch from "Rodham" to "Clinton" immediately upon marriage even though that was the point when her status/identity changed as it were ontologically, and the narrative thus keeps her as "Rodham" post-marriage until the year she did in fact switch in practice and briefly explains the circumstances of that switch). When there has been a public name change, using the current name to write about pre-change events can cause certain sorts of confusion while using a prior name without sufficient explanation can cause different sorts of confusion. (The same thing can apply to toponyms, when "Leopoldville" has become "Kinshasa" or "Constantinople" has become "Istanbul," for example.) Both approaches can be carried out well or badly, and which makes more sense (assuming in each case the competence to execute the selected approach well . . .) may to some extent depend on the focus and purpose of the narrative at hand (i.e. is it more about past events as prologue to the present or about trying to understand the past events on their own terms or as they was contemporaneously perceived). If someone's public identity at a particular point in the past was in fact (although not generally known to observers at the time) in conflict with some sort of true inner identity, that itself may be a potentially noteworthy fact, but it seems to me that as with many other potentially noteworthy facts about the subject of the story, reasonable people can reach different judgments as to whether in context it is a fact that should be foregrounded, backgrounded, or even omitted, in a particular historical narrative.

  62. Garret said,

    August 26, 2013 @ 8:00 pm

    Dear Jonathan Gress-Wright,

    I sincerely doubt that Ms Manning made this decision based on opportunistic thinking. Ask yourself, would you invite the kind of offensive comments, the jokes and the abuse a person with trans* identity is subjected to? Would you risk the violence? Would you go into a prison environment unveiling a socially unaccepted persona, making yourself a target? Or would you make the kind of statement she did in front of a world audience, if you just want to be in another prison.

    Please consider these implications. I am sure you didn't meant to, but your comment makes it look as if being trans* gives you some kind of advantage in life. It is a tough choice to live your life freely, if you are a trans* person.

    Dear J.W. Brewer,
    I am speculating, but I don't think that Ms. Manning would invoke a "metaphysical sense of having been female all the time". I think your new sentence makes it more clear, but the old one is also intelligible: She identified as a male then, and told her roomate she was gay. It should be clear from context that she identified as male, though.

    I think it is great that trans* is being discussed and it is important to look through all the stereotypes. If readers know that Ms Manning is trans* they will read the article more aware of gender and pay attention to the time she came out as trans* and the time before that.

    Misunderstandings about her gender won‘t be a problem in the future, I believe.

  63. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 26, 2013 @ 8:57 pm

    Garret: I'm not sure whether you're saying that using feminine pronouns to refer to Manning during the period when Manning [himself/herself?] may have subjectively self-identified as male is or is not unhelpful/confusing. Are you saying that [his/her] contemporaneous self-understanding was in some in principle objectively verifiable way incorrect at the time? Or is it a separate claim that that prior contemporaneous self-understanding is now subjectively believed in 20/20 hindsight by Manning to have been incorrect? Even if so, it's not intuitively clear what should govern pronoun choice in such a morass. Even if courtesy were to be the overriding principle, it seems a long way from "going forward, call people what they want to be called once they've made you aware of their preferences" to "refer to people in a historical context not by the way they were referred to or even subjectively wanted to be referred to at the time, but in the way they should and would have wanted to be referred to at the time if only they had had a more accurate self-understanding than they in fact did at the time."

  64. Jonathan Gress-Wright said,

    August 27, 2013 @ 1:31 pm

    Dear Garret,

    You just made my point. If I was faced with life in a male prison, where I would probably be anally raped every day for years, if not decades, I would certainly consider suddenly declaring myself a "woman". Last time I checked the incidence of rape is significantly lower in female prisons.


  65. Garret said,

    August 27, 2013 @ 8:37 pm

    Dear J.W. Brewer and Jonathan,
    thank you for your replies!

    I think I understand your point. Why should we rewrite the whole story for a twist at the end, or even a metaphysical revelation? My understanding is that trans* people are very self conscious about their gender. Therefore, just using the wrong article can be an used as an attack on their identity. The reason is probably that in our cis-gendered world gender is a huge part of a persons identity that we don't think about that often. But if we start doing that, we can easily imagine why using the wrong gender in any context is troublesome. As you suggested: Switching pronouns is unhelpful/confusing, especially in an article addressing a broader audience. So why not stick with "she"? With that question out of the way we can get down to what is important when talking about Ms Manning, her life, her troubles and her courage. Our would you say that the idea of trans* identities should be left out, because people will never understand?

    You are assuming that Chelsea did go through the trouble of pretending being trans* or use a similar inclination to have a better time in prison. I cannot imagine someone doing that, especially with the manifest/declaration in front of the world press, but you never know. However, please help me understand why you chose "anal rape" as the reason for going to another prison. Why didn't you say "gang violence" or sexual abuse? I am just curious.

  66. Jonathan Gress-Wright said,

    August 28, 2013 @ 8:01 am


    I'm not talking about Manning; you're the one making inferences about him/her/it. I'm saying that, in a similar situation, being able to change my sexual identity on a whim would be highly convenient in order to avoid the violence (sodomy, assault, whatever) that is endemic to male prisons. Sure, there is violence in female prisons, but as a male with greater physical strength than most women, I would be more likely to be able to defend myself.

  67. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 28, 2013 @ 10:30 am

    Oddly enough, even if women's prisons are nicer places to be, as a general statistical matter women themselves seem to avoid taking full advantage of that amenity by consistently declining to commit their pro rata share of serious crimes, with the U.S. prison population (as an artifact of the sex ratio in convictions, tweaked by the fact that that ratio may be different for the crimes that typically attract longer sentences) being somewhere north of 85% male, with any disputes about the proper classification of transsexual criminals being close to rounding error. Pushing the prison population closer to a 50/50 ratio does not seem to be particularly high on anyone's egalitarian reform agenda. So Mr. Gress-Wright might want to think about opportunistically abandoning his male identity before it gets him in trouble with the law in the first place. (To be fair, I have never seen any stats as to whether or not the rate and type of crimes committed by transgender persons matches the general tendency for their self-identified gender.)

  68. Ray Dillinger said,

    September 1, 2013 @ 4:55 pm

    In America, at least on the coasts, it is very much in vogue in most places that people are and should be allowed to claim their gender as they choose.

    In many other places, such a statement would be regarded as an outright lie about which variety of biological equipment one is equipped with.

    I feel very deeply that I can not truly address the issue because I am not in that situation and don't fully understand it. But I have definitely decided that when it is someone I care about I treat them as they wish to be treated. At the same time I don't feel that I am being respectful to the people I'm speaking to if I know that they're of the latter opinion and will see the statement simply as a lie.

    It is a conundrum.

    As for a headline, I'd probably have written "Bradley Manning becomes Chelsea Manning" and then explained about the gender (and name) switch below the fold. The readers have to have the name "Bradley Manning" to be sure that we're talking about the same person, and it is the duty of a paper to be understandable to their readers. At the same time it is the duty of a paper not lie to the readers, and in areas where much of the audience will see the claiming of a gender as a direct untruth, the paper will have to respect that. I'd probably have written using the male gendered pronoun when referring to "Bradley" (which name would be dropped after the first explanatory paragraph) and the female when referring to "Chelsea" – ie, for the rest of the article and in subsequent stories, and braced myself for a fury of protest from readers who felt that the paper was lying to them.

    There really wasn't an easy way out.

  69. Philip TAYLOR said,

    September 14, 2013 @ 1:04 pm

    Ted McClure wrote : "Manning gave up any right to respect within the military environment upon conviction".   I would respectfully disagree.   He did not "give up" the right to respect; that would imply a voluntary action on his part, for which there is zero evidence.   Whether he will be afforded respect within the military environment will depend almost exclusively on the humanity of his guards and of his fellow prisoners.

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