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And a little child will lead them
December 15, 2010 6:45 AM   Subscribe

Do you use Boy Words or Girl Words? My point is that kids get it. That this world is changing and that kids GET it. There are kids being raised to simply ask about gender if they are uncertain. Have you ever heard a person refrain from using a pronoun for an entire conversation instead of asking? It’s one of the most awkward things ever. Kids aren’t OK with that nonsense. They just ask. Via.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero (188 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite

 
Very interesting.

They had learned that momma’s friend, who may have long blonde hair and big boobs and be wearing a pink dress, might not use the pronouns she/her/hers.

This is where my disconnect starts, I think.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 6:51 AM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


I just don't get it. Using "they" slots naturally into just about any sentence where you're not sure and no-one notices. When I want to talk about my dad's partner without bothering to explain how I've got both a mum and a divorced gay dad I do that and no-one's every picked up on it - ever.
posted by Silentgoldfish at 6:53 AM on December 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


I think that kids that have more than two parents, all of whom are together in a polyamorous relationship, and some of whom are transgendered, understand a whole host of things the rest of society doesn't get.
posted by jabberjaw at 6:55 AM on December 15, 2010 [45 favorites]


I can get behind the sentiment of these words, but I would never teach kids to do this in practice. It's a quick way for them to piss off 90% of the people they meet.
posted by naju at 6:55 AM on December 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


My own 7 parents were way more strict regarding the use of pronouns.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:57 AM on December 15, 2010 [6 favorites]


(I wouldn't recommend for adults to do this either. To, for example, important clients.)
posted by naju at 6:57 AM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Using "they" slots naturally into just about any sentence where you're not sure and no-one notices.

Unless you're a grammar prescriptivist like me, in which case the plural used as singular drives you up the wall. Until we get a commonly accepted non-demeaning non-gendered third person singular pronoun in the English language (read: never, in all likelihood), then three cheers for the "boy words or girl words" question.

And yes, I'm happy to refer to someone as "ze" if ze prefers, but we all know it's not in common usage and probably never will be.
posted by Faint of Butt at 6:58 AM on December 15, 2010 [7 favorites]


and no-one's every picked up on it - ever.

Or they're just being polite.

I'm not saying the "they" solution is bad, but I ALWAYS notice it. I can't help it, because I was born in the 60s and no one talked like that. So as soon as someone says, "I just talked to my partner and they said..." I immediately notice and think that the speaker is trying to obscure gender. And, generally, I assume he's doing this because the partner is not of the gender usually associated with whatever role he's in.

I'm not saying there's anything wrong with any of this. I'm just countering your claim that no one notices. Although maybe people younger than me -- people who have grown up with "they" as common usage -- don't notice.

In any case, when I do notice, it's not like I'm going to say, "THEY? Come on! Are you talking about a man or a women?" That would be incredibly rude. Most people aren't rude, but that doesn't mean they don't pay attention to words.
posted by grumblebee at 7:00 AM on December 15, 2010 [20 favorites]


You. Ask.

You don’t guess or dance around the subject or hope somebody else clues you in or wait for another person to use a pronoun so you can use the same one. You ASK.


"Do you have a penis or a vagina?" Is that the question I should be asking?
posted by Pastabagel at 7:03 AM on December 15, 2010 [6 favorites]


In that 45 second exchange Alec showed me that he knew more about gender than most adults I’ve met in my 23 years on this planet.

Awwww, they're so cute at that age.

Look, it's swell that Alec is doing that thing that conforms to how you think the world show be as you quietly rage against people who do the same thing but in a different, but 98% of the world doesn't live an situation as unique as Alec's.
posted by nomadicink at 7:04 AM on December 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


Unless you're a grammar prescriptivist like me, in which case the plural used as singular drives you up the wall.

I don't use they in writing, though I may in casual speech. When I'm writing, I see my primary job as being communicating clear and specific images. (I recognize that not every writers shares this ethos to the extent than I do.)

And maybe this shows my age again, but I can't imagine a "they." When I try to imagine a person, my brain insists on resolving it into a he or a she. Even in the case of a mixed-gender person, I guess I think of a "he-she" mix, not a "they."

Writing "They [singluar] bought some beer at the corner store," is, to me, like writing "he picked up the thing at the corner store." No way!

I try to alternate between "he" and "she," (when I am writing about a general person) and I try to be sensitive about what roles I put them in. I don't always put her in the kitchen and him in the board room. I am not crazy about that solution, but to me it's better than a vague "they" when I'm trying to create an image.
posted by grumblebee at 7:07 AM on December 15, 2010


"Unless you're a grammar prescriptivist like me, in which case the plural used as singular drives you up the wall."

I used to be like that. I then I found this (literally, I found a random printout in a classroom.)

"This will surprise a few purists, but for centuries the universal pronoun was they. Writers as far back as Chaucer used it for singular and plural, masculine and feminine. Nobody seemed to mind that they, them and their were officially plural. As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage explains, writers were comfortable using they with an indefinite pronoun like everybody because it suggested a sexless plural."

If it's good enough for Chaucer, Austen, Eliot, and Dickens, it's good enough for me.
posted by oddman at 7:08 AM on December 15, 2010 [112 favorites]


I have psoriasis. I get a lot of people staring at me especially during the summer when I am wearing short sleeves. Sometimes they do a quick look and then pretend that I don't exist. Sometimes they decide that I have a scary disease and try to get as far away from me as possible. Adults rarely ask what my skin condition is; kids frequently ask. I'm one of those people who would prefer being asked to being stared at or studiously ignored. Sometimes when kids ask - either me or the person they're with - the adult/s with them get embarrassed and hush them.

While psoriasis is definitely a less loaded topic than gender, I understand this article far too well. Some of the rules of "politeness" end up being hindrances to communication and to the instinct for curiosity. I think that as adults, our instinct to ask questions and try to understand things has been atrophied.

I know that I would be nervous asking someone what form of pronoun they liked; I know that I'd be happier if I could use the one that the person identified with.
posted by sciencegeek at 7:08 AM on December 15, 2010 [8 favorites]


Unless you're a grammar prescriptivist like me, in which case the plural used as singular drives you up the wall.

You know it's got something like five hundred years of use as singular, right?
posted by echo target at 7:09 AM on December 15, 2010 [10 favorites]


Yeah, this is great within a small community of like-minded people, but it's only due to being isolated and/or naive that someone would conclude this is either what the next generation is learning as a whole, or what the vast majority of people would accept as polite (including some portion of transgendered people who wish to pass, or imply their preferred pronoun with their name). I mean, I totally get why that experience was cool, but the piece kind of read too far into it, I think...
posted by mdn at 7:09 AM on December 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


I bet most of us have had a handful of truly embarrassing moments in which we mistake a girl for a boy or vice versa. It's not embarrassing if we're talking about toddlers, but to make that mistake in interacting with, say, a 12-year old can be mortifying for all involved. Racial identity is one thing, but gender identity is another. (The FPP describes a situation unlike any most of us have experienced, I'm sure.)
posted by kozad at 7:14 AM on December 15, 2010


Unless you're a grammar prescriptivist like me, in which case the plural used as singular drives you up the wall.

But you are still using "you" to rather than the prescriptively-correct "one". And I didn't see a single "thou" in your comment at all.
posted by DU at 7:17 AM on December 15, 2010 [22 favorites]


It's not embarrassing if we're talking about toddlers, but to make that mistake in interacting with, say, a 12-year old can be mortifying for all involved

So mortifying a heteronormative person with a polite question about who they are is unacceptable but upsetting gender queer people by making incorrect assumptions is OK? What?
posted by public at 7:18 AM on December 15, 2010 [7 favorites]


Hilarity from the comment section:

> [pic] Heidi - December 3, 2010 at 1:27 pm
> You rock. And so does Andy.

AndyLC - December 4, 2010 at 9:30 pm
… I am Andy.
who rocks?
posted by stp123 at 7:19 AM on December 15, 2010


> "Do you have a penis or a vagina?" Is that the question I should be asking?

No. Sex and gender are not the same thing. This diagram may be useful.
posted by pts at 7:22 AM on December 15, 2010 [86 favorites]


I have many trans friends and loved ones, and when one of them posted this on Facebook awhile ago, it was interesting how many people fixated on the first sentence about the polyamory. They couldn't even discuss the pronoun thing, because they were so hung up on the big cloud o' parents. I like that it's different here.

For me, one take away from this that I wish more people got is the idea that you should respect a person's own choice about gender identity and pronouns. I am astonished by how disrespectful most people are about this. Some years ago, I was a graduate student in a couse on African-American Film & Literature, and for some reason we had read an article that was partly about a transsexual woman. The prof--who prided himself on his liberal-ness--kept referring to this woman as "this guy." When I spoke up and asked that we please refer to her by the pronoun she chooses, he defended his choice. When I pointed out that every single transsexual I know (and I know a lot--three of my serious lovers, for instance, have been FTMs) prefers that their chosen name and gender be used even when referring to their life pre-transition, he said, "I know more than you do about transsexuals." I have always wished I had replied, "Sir, unless you are yourself a transsexual, that is extremely unlikely." *sigh* This is only one example of many similar experiences I've had.

So, yeah, maybe we don't or shouldn't go around asking everyone we meet what pronouns they prefer. But if we did, maybe it would help get across this idea of basic respect for a person's self-identity, even if it is unfamiliar or seems weird (like the person mentioned above, who seems to present as female but prefers male pronouns).
posted by not that girl at 7:22 AM on December 15, 2010 [13 favorites]


and no-one's every picked up on it - ever.

Or they're just being polite.


Grumblebee has it exactly. If someone tosses in a "they" for a singular once in a while in situations where the gender is actually unknown to the speaker ("If someone steals my briefcase, they are in for a big surprise"), I barely notice, but if a speaker consistently uses "they" to camouflage a third party's identity, it becomes obvious in very short order to an attentive listener.

If no one has ever called you on it - which is not the same as no one noticing -- I think the only possible options are that the people you talk with are extremely dim or quite polite. You must cut the cloth to measure for them individually as you see fit.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:23 AM on December 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


You know it's got something like five hundred years of use as singular, right?

Oferhleapan min lifleas bodig!
posted by Threeway Handshake at 7:24 AM on December 15, 2010 [17 favorites]


Alec showed me that he knew more about gender

No, he just didn't have any preconceived notions. There's a big difference - one that shouldn't be ignored as knowing implies that children have already learned something bigger about human relations and the political and macro-social relevance of this subject (they likely haven't). They just haven't developed the biases that people typically develop as they get older. Alec is certainly not going to be raised to see gender as a binary the way kids in more traditional households do, but it's a mistake to think that he has an understanding of the importance of doing so right now.

But my point is that kids get it. That this world is changing and that kids GET it.

It's similar to people pointing out that racism is learned - kids don't really 'get' it at all. They just go with the flow and pick up on external stimuli. They haven't yet been exposed to the social, cultural and political mechanisms that creates all the hate in the first place. This sort of statement implies that they have some tools or knowledge to deal with these forces that they'll encounter later in life, whereas really they're really just neutral and will be just as likely to become a racist as any other kid.
posted by jimmythefish at 7:26 AM on December 15, 2010 [13 favorites]


No. Sex and gender are not the same thing. This diagram may be useful.

My problem with things like this is that it's just wrong. Gender is simply not just some random label you decide to adopt. It *is* your sex. The problem isn't people's definition of the word, it's how people have come to expect a persons identity to be dictated by their gender. The wider issue of individual identity in general is much more interesting and powerful than simply discussing gender identity.
posted by public at 7:30 AM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


"Do you have a penis or a vagina?" Is that the question I should be asking?

No, because 'penis' is not a pronoun.
posted by shakespeherian at 7:30 AM on December 15, 2010 [11 favorites]


beyond the "aw shucks, kids say the darnedest things" moment, i felt in the end that it's just reinforcing constructs of gender binary. my go-to is still a tiny bit from Hedwig and the Angry Inch where the m.c. opens up Hedwig's performance by saying "Ladies and gentleman and everyone in between!"

if your kids are already to the point of understanding gender, why not also use it as a teaching point about how the gender binary can be really used in negative ways to reinforce stereotypes and force people to choose something they may not want in the first place?
posted by kuppajava at 7:31 AM on December 15, 2010


If it's good enough for Chaucer, Austen, Eliot, and Dickens, it's good enough for me.

This is the most tedious argument: arguing from exceptional cases. For any widely observed rule in Standard Written English, you can find scattered instances of it being violated in the canon. If we were talking about double negatives and you based your daily use of them on Othello's declaration "I am not sorry, neither," you woild be laughed out of the room. Shakespeare uses it because he is showing that in Othello's jealous rage, he is so deranged that he has lost all sense of compassion and grammatical construction.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:32 AM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Or of course you could just call it "gender identity" which actually makes sense…
posted by public at 7:32 AM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


You know it's got something like five hundred years of use as singular, right?

By that measure, male and female has a must longer standard for what's "right".
posted by nomadicink at 7:32 AM on December 15, 2010


So.... what are you?
posted by blue_beetle at 7:35 AM on December 15, 2010


"Do you have a penis or a vagina?" Is that the question I should be asking? no, because that question doesn't give you definitive information about their pronouns.

If it's good enough for Chaucer, Austen, Eliot, and Dickens, it's good enough for me.
That's definitely true in cases of the hypothetical and the general, such as "if someone spills their drink, they should clean it up." But what about in cases the individual? A very close friend of mine recently started to use "they" the pronoun they wanted to refer to them. But that creates confusion because when you say something like "Yesterday, I saw Pat* and they told me about their sweet guitar," which is a construction that implies a separate party from Pat and myself. Certainly, English is among the more mutable languages and maybe it's my brain that has to adapt to the existence of a homonym (heh) for "they," but it definitely can lead to confusion. One example is "Pat and I ordered from Taco Bell, and they were really rude to them at the counter."

*not their real name
posted by Jon_Evil at 7:35 AM on December 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


Gender is simply not just some random label you decide to adopt. It *is* your sex.

This gets explained a lot here: Gender is not the same thing as sex. In the romance languages, inanimate objects have gender. They never have sex.
posted by shakespeherian at 7:35 AM on December 15, 2010 [16 favorites]


If someone tosses in a "they" for a singular once in a while in situations where the gender is actually unknown to the speaker ("If someone steals my briefcase, they are in for a big surprise"), I barely notice, but if a speaker consistently uses "they" to camouflage a third party's identity, it becomes obvious in very short order to an attentive listener.

I used to feel that "they" sounded a bit wrong and weird, even after reading all the "oh, Chaucer and Jane Austen totally use singular 'they' all the time, it's fine" stuff; I stuck with "he or she", even when it was cumbersome. I thought "they" was fine, but I felt uncomfortable actually using it.

And then I was in the women's toilets at some restaurant, and a woman came in with a kid; and there was only one stall, so the two of them had to wait for me. "Can you hold on a minute," the woman said, "until they're finished", gesturing I suppose at the door. And I went: oh, yes. That's a completely natural usage, that sounds absolutely fine - it's a women's toilet, she could have been pretty sure what pronouns I use, but she didn't know who I was, so she said "they".

And once I'd got my head around "they" to mean "indeterminate person who I don't know who they are", I slowly got used to it in other contexts as well: when you don't know who the person is, when you don't know their gender, when you don't want to specify, whatever. It's pretty great, I promise! And it's our best chance by far for a widely accepted gender-neutral third-person pronoun, which, come on, we really really need.

The more it's used, the less odd it will sound. Surely it's worth gritting your teeth and quashing a bit of prescriptivist spirit in order to make words genuinely more useful. Most prescriptivist grumbling is about changes that do actually make words worse - I want to be able to distinguish between uninterested and disinterested, damn it, they're totally different things! - but this is adding functionality to the language, not taking it away.
posted by severalbees at 7:36 AM on December 15, 2010 [12 favorites]


In the romance languages, inanimate objects have gender. They never have sex.

Clearly you never played with Barbie and Kenny and GI Joe.
posted by nomadicink at 7:37 AM on December 15, 2010 [13 favorites]


For any widely observed rule in Standard Written English, you can find scattered instances of it being violated in the canon.

I always cite Ludacris' materpiece, Yous a Ho.
posted by Threeway Handshake at 7:37 AM on December 15, 2010 [12 favorites]


At a certain age kids can get used to anything, it's their greatest strength but something they don't really question.

At a certain age, kids unfortunately believe anything, it's their greatest weakness and if you don't believe me compare and contrast this with the Elizabeth Smart thread below.
posted by 2bucksplus at 7:39 AM on December 15, 2010


It's funny to me that analog->digital conversions can cause such heartache.
posted by DU at 7:39 AM on December 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


That this world is changing and that kids GET it.

I had met some of Alec’s parents (4 of the 7 of them)

The idea that this child is representative of "the world" and the way it's "changing" and "kids" generally is something like saying that a young Mennonite child and his family is representative of the way our world is turning away from excessive parental conspicuous consumption and TVs-as-babysitters.

I have many trans friends and loved ones, and when one of them posted this on Facebook awhile ago, it was interesting how many people fixated on the first sentence about the polyamory. They couldn't even discuss the pronoun thing, because they were so hung up on the big cloud o' parents. I like that it's different here.

Why shouldn't the people fixate on the polyamory? The rest of the post is completely dependent on it.

Yeah, this is great within a small community of like-minded people, but it's only due to being isolated and/or naive that someone would conclude this is either what the next generation is learning as a whole, or what the vast majority of people would accept as polite (including some portion of transgendered people who wish to pass, or imply their preferred pronoun with their name).

This.
posted by fugitivefromchaingang at 7:40 AM on December 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


This is the most tedious argument: arguing from exceptional cases.

Then I'm even more glad that that was not my argument. The argument is made by O'Connor and Kellerman in the article. That line was a bit of throwaway snark.
posted by oddman at 7:42 AM on December 15, 2010


Public: I see where you're coming from, but "gender" and "sex" are two different words that mean different things.

Sex is what's between your legs.

Gender is a construct made up of stuff in your own head plus the stuff in the heads of people around you.

We live in a society where genitalia are covered. This means that your assumptions that a person's sex can be reliably indicated by their gender are just that--assumptions.

Now I'll agree that gender isn't only what you think you should be; it's a social construct, which means the society around you gets to have a say in it. The unstated thesis of this blog is, I'm sure, that if you tell society, "hey, this is my gender," then society ought to more or less respect your statement, without waggling its finger at your crotch and telling you that you're sadly mistaken.

This kid has been raised around people who make it a point to respect people's performed genders. Sometimes it's not obvious which pronouns a person prefers. So he asks.

It's manifestly not the same as asking point-blank about sex (e.g. "Do you have a penis or a vagina?").
posted by pts at 7:42 AM on December 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


My problem with things like this is that it's just wrong. Gender is simply not just some random label you decide to adopt. It *is* your sex.

No. No, it's not. I'd like you to maybe read some stuff about this before you start claiming that. Like, scientific examinations about the myriad ways in which sex and gender are distinct. Claiming they're the same just because you've been raised to believe so all your life is not too different from a person clinging to creationism because it's all they've ever known, and considering evolution means calling into question a whole bunch of other assumptions, and that's uncomfortable for them.
posted by Jon_Evil at 7:45 AM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Claiming they're the same just because you've been raised to believe so all your life is not too different from a person clinging to creationism because it's all they've ever known, and considering evolution means calling into question a whole bunch of other assumptions, and that's uncomfortable for them.

That's really apples and oranges. There's a lot of scientific research that talks about gender dimorphism, and whether it's a mental construct or a hormone issue, or something else isn't really known in the way that we known creationism isn't the real culprit.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 7:49 AM on December 15, 2010


My preferred pronouns are Fuck.You. but thanks for asking.
posted by unSane at 7:51 AM on December 15, 2010 [7 favorites]


See, I can't see that working in my world. Sometimes I wait on people who give the total appearance of being male and then they open their mouth and I realize there is an 80 percent chance they are female. Which means they are either lesbian, transmale, or simply a masculine looking woman who considers herself a woman. (I know older women in that category. Trust me.) If I came out and asked I am almost positive my customer would be offended. And yet I am not a mind reader!

In this case I just avoid pronouns and carry on. It's easier if it turns out they are sending flowers to another woman.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 7:57 AM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


"Do you have a penis or a vagina?" Is that the question I should be asking?

Please, please don't ask anyone that. Typically one keeps the details of one's private parts private. Also, some people might be desperately wishing for bottom surgery or not really into all the trauma of bottom surgery or a host of other things. For some people, that's a really painful question to hear.
posted by honeydew at 8:08 AM on December 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


Also, thanks for posting this, ThePinkSuperhero. I really dug it.
posted by honeydew at 8:09 AM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


I know the "they" sticks in a lot of people's craw (sometimes mine own as well), but I suspect it is going to become more common until it is accepted usage, that is how language works. Given the choice between a wholly new word and retooling an existing word for a new use I would wager the existing word wins out most of the time.

Within my own life time I've seen the erosion of the universal 'he', where 20 years ago even fairly feminist orientated professors would insist on always using 'he' as the gender inclusive term in writing. I've also seen the ever more popular use of "my partner" instead of husband/wife. I even use it, and I am in a "traditional marriage". So, when someone uses "my partner" (or "her partner", or "his partner") do people automatically assume the person is in a non-standard relationship? 10-15 years ago I would have instantly, nowadays much less so/less often. I am guessing "They" will end up in the same boat, with some insisting it is not proper use until they die, but in real usage it will come to mean what it has to mean, and gradually will be the norm.

or so I think
posted by edgeways at 8:14 AM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'd like you to maybe read some stuff about this before you start claiming that

I have done an awful lot of reading and am an active member of several gender fluid communities and am in a loving relationship with a gender queer individual. I'm fairly familiar with the background. Assuming I'm naive because I disagree with the dominant attitude in this area is silly.

Gender is a construct made up of stuff in your own head plus the stuff in the heads of people around you.

I know in the social sciences "gender" is used for the psychological concept but I think this is really a terrible way to think about it and it provides gender identity unfair attention when really the same concepts apply to a whole range of issues surrounding personal identity.

In biology gender refers simply to the sexual dimorphism of individuals and I disagree with the re-use of that word by the social science community for various reasons. I'm perfectly happy to discuss gender identity though, that makes sense as a concept. Just because you really like playing dress up and identify as one sex doesn't change your genetics. I think we'll have to agree to disagree about the definition of some words but please don't call me a creationist because of that Jon_Evil :-/
posted by public at 8:16 AM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


I know the "they" sticks in a lot of people's craw (sometimes mine own as well), but I suspect it is going to become more common until it is accepted usage, that is how language works.

Well, but this assumes that things only move one way. What seems to be the trend now will not necessarily be the trend forever. I mean, if we look upthread, someone's suggesting that language actually evolved in the opposite direction:

"This will surprise a few purists, but for centuries the universal pronoun was they. Writers as far back as Chaucer used it for singular and plural, masculine and feminine. Nobody seemed to mind that they, them and their were officially plural.
posted by fugitivefromchaingang at 8:18 AM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


I fear that when Alec grows up he will inevitably become a Catholic priest. Probably a Jesuit.
posted by Segundus at 8:23 AM on December 15, 2010


My problem with things like this is that it's just wrong. Gender is simply not just some random label you decide to adopt. It *is* your sex.

No. No, it's not.

I'd wager some form of this argument crops up on metafilter every day:

Fred: the word blurg means "a curved walking stick with a round knob on the end."

Bill: no it doesn't.

There is nowhere for this debate to go, unless Fred and Bill define what "means" means. (I know I sound like Bill Clinton.)

When you guys say, "Gender MEANS this" and "No it doesn't! It means THAT," what do you mean? Who decides what a word means and what gives him authority? How is he going to exercise his authority to force us all to abide by his meaning?

Let's say I make up a word, as I did above with "blurg." I make up "znoop," and I say it means a brownish sort of yellow. Are you right or wrong if you say, "No, it doesn't"? Well, you're wrong if we all agree to play by the rule that the person who first made up the word gets to define what it means and we all have to agree to use his definition. But we HAVEN'T all agreed to follow that rule.

What if znoop becomes really popular, but, despite my wishes, almost everyone uses it to mean a kind of bird. Are they right and I'm wrong? Yes, if we all agree that common usage is always correct usage. But we don't all agree to that.

Here's the truth: when Fred says "Gender means sex," that IS what it means TO HIM; when Bill says it doesn't mean sex, it doesn't mean sex TO HIM. I know many people want to live in a less subjective world than that. They want to be able to say, "No! It means what it says it means in the dictionary!" (which dictionary?) or "No! It means what it means in popular usage!" (have you taken a poll?) or "No! It means what specialists say it means!" (which specialists and why should I have to agree with them?)

You're free to agree to any of those rules, but why should anyone else? And even if they SHOULD, why will they? Do you think they will start doing so because you insist, like a child, "IS SO!" or "IS NOT!"

One CAN talk about utility. For instance, here's what I'd say about sex and gender: there IS such a thing as a male body and a female body. There are bodies that don't fall neatly into either of those categories, but most bodies are recognizabl one or the other. Since that's a trait of the real world, it's useful to have a word to describe it. It's also true that people have powerful mental constructs of being male, female or something other/in-between/mixed, and that these feelings don't always align with physiology. Since those are very real mental constructs, it's useful to have something to call them. We could call the body-categories bleeps and the mental-categories bloops, or we could use the common terms sex and gender.

I think that's a reasonable and useful way to employ those two words. But it's also really important to remember that, whether I think that's useful or not, I can't enforce my suggestion. MANY people have and will continue use gender and sex as synonyms. They ARE synonyms TO MANY PEOPLE. You can scream about it all you want, but it's not going to change anything. You can feel superior to those people if you want, but that's all you can do. I am not saying that's a good thing. I wish it was otherwise. But screaming "THAT'S NOT WHAT GENDER MEANS" is both nonsensical and pointless.

(You can work to change popular usage, though that's a long and non-straightforward process, but even if that's what you're trying to do, saying, "THAT'S NOT WHAT IT MEANS" is an odd way of doing it. Try "That's not what I want it to mean" or "that meaning is offensive or not-very-useful, so please don't use it.")

Having said all that, I think these continual battles about what words mean generally are masks for other battles. I suspect that when many -- maybe not all -- people say, "Gender does NOT mean what's between your legs," they mean, "Mental categories are really important. They have profound effects on people's lives. Please don't minimize it by defining people by what sort of genitals they have."

And please note that someone who balks at "Gender does NOT mean sex" isn't necessarily someone who marginalizes people who define themselves in various ways. I balk at it, though I've had many good friends of who define themselves in various non-traditional ways (friends that I respect, including a deep respect for how they define themselves). I balk because I care about language and logic and argumentation. Not because I'm a bigot.
posted by grumblebee at 8:25 AM on December 15, 2010 [6 favorites]


In the early 1980s, I taught a postsecondary beginners' French course to a big class. One student was from the People's Republic of China. From visual cues (clothing, facial hair, body shape) and voice pitch, I couldn't tell if the student was male or female. The student's name didn't help either, as I was (and still am) totally unversed in Chinese, never mind which name on the class list was first or last. I approached a Hong Kong student in the class regarding the names but he said either of them could be a first or last name and neither was gender specific. The latter surprised me, and I'm not sure it's accurate (anyone know?).

After other unsuccessful attempts to determine the person's gender, and to make a long story short, I never did discover if the student was male or female. And it didn't really matter on the great scale of things. Maybe if the class had been taught to children, one of them might have simply asked: Are you a boy or a girl? But back then I thought discretion was the greater part of valour and refrained from asking the obvious question.
posted by drogien at 8:27 AM on December 15, 2010


I've always used "they" as a singular pronoun; nobody has ever blinked at it once.

"That person is carrying a heavy box; they must be tired."

as opposed to "He or she must be tired" or other more tedious constructions. As mentioned above, that particular usage has a long and accepted history, even as recently as a few decades ago.

That it tweaks the twitch button of a few OCD grammarians is no reason to give it up. It's too useful.
posted by Aquaman at 8:28 AM on December 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


pts: > "Do you have a penis or a vagina?" Is that the question I should be asking?

No. Sex and gender are not the same thing. This diagram may be useful


So, just to clarify, your wonderfully inclusive system still perpetuates the idea that there are Masculine and Feminine ways to present oneself?

Gender is just some weird idea in your head, but gender roles, those are pretty important, apparently. Sad.
posted by paisley henosis at 8:34 AM on December 15, 2010


grumblebee: I wasn't trying to start an argument about semantics but I understand why you interpreted it as one. It's really not about the specific semantics of those words.
posted by public at 8:40 AM on December 15, 2010


When my son was about 5yo or so, we were at a holiday party at a friend's house. The host's sister was there with her partner. The partner tended toward a somewhat androgynous/slightly masculine style that, apparently, perplexed my son. He intently studied her for quite a long time. You could see his little brain trying to work-out the associations in his head so he could ascribe some sort of identity to her.

She noticed his studying her and nicely asked him if he had a question. My son simply asked whether she was a girl or a boy. She thought that was pretty cute of him and got a good chuckle from it. Then, she simply asked "What do you think I am?" My son thought for a moment and then voiced his thought process based on the visual and performance cues she provided. Then, he concluded that she was, in fact, a girl. The two of them went on to have a nice little conversation.

Made my holiday.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:44 AM on December 15, 2010 [12 favorites]


As someone with (only) two parents, one of whom came out as transgendered only about six years ago, I can tell you that the pronoun business is the hardest. Calling my biological mother by his new name only took a couple of weeks, but I still get tripped up on pronouns - I may never be able to fully make the switch without having to think about it just a little bit.

Having spent all my life in the queer community, and in the last few years getting to know a lot of trans and gender queer individuals, I have only met a few people whose gender expression left me questioning which pronouns to use, and when queried they all have genially informed me of their preference without a tinge of awkwardness.
posted by Thomas Tallis is my Homeboy at 8:44 AM on December 15, 2010 [5 favorites]


No. Sex and gender are not the same thing. This diagram may be useful

and thank you so much, pts, for this diagram. I think I'll be using it for a long time :)
posted by Thomas Tallis is my Homeboy at 8:47 AM on December 15, 2010


An old NPR story about a gender neutral pronoun at a highschool in Baltimore.
posted by tayknight at 8:48 AM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm not saying the "they" solution is bad, but I ALWAYS notice it. I can't help it, because I was born in the 60s and no one talked like that.

Me too, and it troubles me that I haven't so far acclimated my ear to its use as a singular pronoun, because I think it's fantastically useful for the purpose. I use it in my writing when it seems convenient because I want to do my part for making it commonplace amongst the reasonably literate crowd, but it still sort of sets my teeth on edge to do it.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 8:49 AM on December 15, 2010


Unless you're a grammar prescriptivist like me

I can't believe I actually just saw someone refer to themselves as a prescriptivist. On metafilter. That's like outing yourself as a transhumanist or an objectivist or something. I always thought "prescriptivist" was a derogatory label applied to language conservatives by other people. I'm lighting up the languagehat dietz lantern.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 8:49 AM on December 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


I can't believe I actually just saw someone refer to themselves as a prescriptivist.

That's "himself," sir. I have only one self.
posted by Faint of Butt at 8:59 AM on December 15, 2010 [9 favorites]


Unless you're a grammar prescriptivist like me, in which case the plural generic pronoun used as singular drives you up the wall.

Lordy, not again: Previously [most recently].


Meanwhile. . .

Are you a boy or are you a girl? Only Barbarians ask questions like that.
posted by Herodios at 9:03 AM on December 15, 2010


I've also seen the ever more popular use of "my partner" instead of husband/wife. I even use it, and I am in a "traditional marriage".

I know this is an irreversible trend, and in fact I think it's a good one, but it does mean that I get some funny looks when I refer to "my partner Dave". I have to get used to saying "my law partner Dave", as stilted as that sounds. IAAL. IANALGBTL.
posted by The Bellman at 9:04 AM on December 15, 2010 [8 favorites]


(You can work to change popular usage, though that's a long and non-straightforward process, but even if that's what you're trying to do, saying, "THAT'S NOT WHAT IT MEANS" is an odd way of doing it. Try "That's not what I want it to mean" or "that meaning is offensive or not-very-useful, so please don't use it.")

grumblebee, you're smart enough to know that when people say 'That's not what it means' they are using a shorthand for an appeal to societally-agreed-upon usage. This does not mean that every time someone wants to use a word they have to take a poll of all of that language's speakers to determine how best to use it. Language is complicated and convoluted, but I think you know how it works, yes?
posted by shakespeherian at 9:05 AM on December 15, 2010


I know this is an irreversible trend

What makes you think it's irreversible?
posted by fugitivefromchaingang at 9:07 AM on December 15, 2010


I get what the OP was going for, and I don't want to rain on anyone's triumphant celebration of a new age of understanding and enlightenment-- but this is a single edge case.

E.g. It's a trivial mental exercise to imagine myself visiting a good friend-- who, like myself, enjoys playing Eve Online. It is equally easy to imagine his five year old daughter greeting me with 'Die Gallente Scum!' This would not indicate a sea change in popular opinion-- nor the dawning of a beautiful, Eve-positive generation of children-- but rather be a strong indicator of my friend's home and parenting style.

My personal slant is I sort of miss the metafilter of yore, where I could get 10-15 'Best of the Web' type stories per day. Personal anecotes about children reflecting a poster's particular worldview are not 'Best of the Web.' I'm sure I could find toddlers wearing little three piece-suits and spouting Friedrich Hayek quotes, but this would please no one but myself.
posted by mrdaneri at 9:12 AM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


My problem with things like this is that it's just wrong. Gender is simply not just some random label you decide to adopt.

In my opinion, those statements come way too close to the following: "My problem with [people] like this is that [they're] just wrong. Gender is simply not just some random label you decide to adopt."

You're correct, it isn't a random label. It is something that is thought about very carefully indeed, often for years and accompanied by a lot of anxiety, by transgendered people as they discover themselves. The simple fact is that there are many people like this who exist out there in the world, and it is my belief that they know more about who they are inside and what they prefer to be called than you or I do. Unfortunately, some people have a difficult time with this concept in our culture because we have set up a binary must-be-man-or-woman system. Some cultures of different eras and different parts of the world had/have distinct words for people who were transgendered, and they were not marginalized.
posted by delicate_dahlias at 9:21 AM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


...sort of miss the metafilter of yore, where I could get 10-15 'Best of the Web' type stories per day.

Not snarky at all, but could you point me to a month's worth of that? (not including special contest months)
posted by edgeways at 9:22 AM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


In this case I just avoid pronouns and carry on.

Yep. I'm not a huge fan of the theory, but I think this is a case of Askers vs. Guessers.

Also, it's not really an appropriate question for the person whose gender is indeterminate, since you're going to be addressing them in second-person form anyway (you vs. he/him). If you're talking to someone directly, why do you need to know gender anyway?

In uncerstain situations where I am discussing someone in the third-person (not talking to that person directly), I would use the person's proper name (e.g. Alex, Pat) instead of any pronoun until I had determined definitively which gender the person preferred.

I still get it. But I don't feel comfortable asking someone I just met a question about their gender. I don't think it's any less intrusive than asking whether or not I have a penis.

(public, why not just read "gender" as "gender identity"? I really don't understand why that differentiation is a problem. It seems like nit picking.)

I get what the OP was going for, and I don't want to rain on anyone's triumphant celebration of a new age of understanding and enlightenment-- but this is a single edge case.

In the Internet age, there is no "single edge case" - that which is individual and personal has now become part and parcel of the global culture. There is no going back. Our minds do not work in reverse.
posted by mrgrimm at 9:23 AM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


It's easier if it turns out they are sending flowers to another woman.

My girlfriend is often perceived as a male. I hope she sends me flowers.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 9:26 AM on December 15, 2010 [4 favorites]


my go-to is still a tiny bit from Hedwig and the Angry Inch where the m.c. opens up Hedwig's performance by saying "Ladies and gentleman and everyone in between!"

My personal favorite has to be from Midnight, a Dr. Who episode:

"Ladies, gentlemen, and variations thereupon. . ."
posted by Ndwright at 9:26 AM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


From my experience, kids are sharp and have a driving need to understand their world. So, they latch onto labels and unabashadly ask questions like, "Are you a boy or a girl?", "Why is that man missing a leg?", "Why does that lady talk funny?" That's how kids operate.

But they also have the amazing ability to adapt, re-categorize, and expand their conception of how they even should categorize things.

When I transitioned, my sister's talk to her kids was pretty simply, "Wossname is a boy now". The kids were 100% on board, didn't bat an eye. In fact, the oldest, my 9-year-old nephew, was very sensitive to his mother's occasional unconscious slip of "she" or "her" and took it upon himself to enforce the new pronoun usage.

"Moooooom," he'd say in a dramatic stage whisper, "you messed up again!"

I don't think kids are being "raised" to ask questions about gender. They're been doing that for a long time, trust me. But maybe more are being raised to understand that it's not a stark binary thing - I'm not just talking about the trans spectrum, but traditional gender roles and what constitutes as "girl things" and what constitutes as "boy things" . See the bullying of the Star Wars drink bottle girl, for example.

What's interesting is that my sister's kids' gender identities are pretty stereotypical. My nephew plays just about every sport out there and my niece is as girly-girl as it gets. You may think as a trans person, this bothers me. Absolutely not. Because they are still learning to not fall prey to arguments like "this is just for girls" or "you can't do this because you're a boy"*. And there are millions of little ways in which such an attitude makes so much difference.

One day, my niece tearfully went up to my sister, complaining that her brother had hit her and "boys don't hit girls". "Did you hit him, first?" my sister asked. "...yes." "Well, there you go." (Of course, the ultimate lesson for both was that there should be no hitting at all.)
posted by Wossname at 9:27 AM on December 15, 2010 [11 favorites]


Not snarky at all, but could you point me to a month's worth of that?

12/03 doesn't look much different than 12/10 to me. And earlier years are sparser than today. I think we're doing pretty good.

posted by mrgrimm at 9:28 AM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


I know the "they" sticks in a lot of people's craw (sometimes mine own as well), but I suspect it is going to become more common until it is accepted usage, that is how language works. Given the choice between a wholly new word and retooling an existing word for a new use I would wager the existing word wins out most of the time.... I am guessing "They" will end up in the same boat, with some insisting it is not proper use until they die, but in real usage it will come to mean what it has to mean, and gradually will be the norm.

or so I think


I would come to the exact opposite conclusion: the fact that Chaucer occasionally employed it as the singular in the 14th century and the fact that it is still manifestly a point of contention means that it is not making any headway. If the descriptivists who point to Chaucer or Eliot or Austen or anyone else can dig up a writer of similar stature who regularly eschewed "he" or "she" in favour of "they," then they will have a case.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:33 AM on December 15, 2010


No, because 'penis' is not a pronoun.

I think maybe penis shouldn't speak so soon.
posted by adamdschneider at 9:36 AM on December 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


my go-to is still a tiny bit from Hedwig and the Angry Inch where the m.c. opens up Hedwig's performance by saying "Ladies and gentleman and everyone in between!"

"How about Quang Yee on guitar, ladies and gentlemen! Give it up, Quang Yee! ... give it up, Quang."


If the descriptivists who point to Chaucer or Eliot or Austen or anyone else can dig up a writer of similar stature who regularly eschewed "he" or "she" in favour of "they," then they will have a case.

Who decides on "stature"? Or "regularly"? The use of plural pronouns as indefinite singular pronouns is long established in the (generally) accepted "canon."

"You do not have to understand someone in order to love them." - Lawrence Durrell

/iknowiknowdontfeedthederail
posted by mrgrimm at 9:47 AM on December 15, 2010


grumblebee, you're smart enough to know that when people say 'That's not what it means' they are using a shorthand for an appeal to societally-agreed-upon usage.

I guess I'm dumb enough to disagree with you.

I've heard plenty of people say things like, "Stop acting like 'begging the question' means 'implying the question.' That's NOT what it means!"

In fact, in common usage, "begging the question" DOES mean "implying the question" (or something like that). When someone says, "That's not what it means," he's means "That's not it's TECHNICAL meaning" or "That's not it's original meaning" or "That's not it's most useful meaning."

I think "that's not what it means" is an ambiguous phrase. It SOMETIMES refers to popular usage. At other times, it refers to technical usage, dictionary definition, best way to maximize utility, etc.

And EACH of these is contestable: "which dictionary?", "popular with which group of people?", "I disagree that's a useful way to employ the word!"

If we're talking about "gender" in popular usage, the poll in my head tells me that it can mean EITHER one's mental orientation OR a synonym for sex. Furthermore, the poll in my head says that more people use it as a synonym for sex than as an orientation, though I'm guessing that liberal people who live in communities that are friendly to LGBT folks skew the opposite. So if that's your community, it might seem to you like pretty much everyone means orientation when they say gender.

If you want to argue with my mental pollster, I suggest you take an ACTUAL poll. Or we can get into an "is so" "is not" schoolyard loop.
posted by grumblebee at 9:50 AM on December 15, 2010


When someone is saying 'That's not what it means' in response to Gender is simply not just some random label you decide to adopt. It *is* your sex, I don't think you can claim to be confused about what they mean.
posted by shakespeherian at 9:54 AM on December 15, 2010


I can't believe I actually just saw someone refer to themselves as a prescriptivist.

That's "himself," sir. I have only one self.


This descriptivist suggests "themself." Yes.
posted by callmejay at 9:56 AM on December 15, 2010


(You can work to change popular usage, though that's a long and non-straightforward process, but even if that's what you're trying to do, saying, "THAT'S NOT WHAT IT MEANS" is an odd way of doing it. Try "That's not what I want it to mean" or "that meaning is offensive or not-very-useful, so please don't use it.")
grumblebee, you're smart enough to know that when people say 'That's not what it means' they are using a shorthand for an appeal to societally-agreed-upon usage
But the thing is, in my experience, people often don't mean that. Or, perhaps, they do literally mean that "society" has "agreed" upon their favorite definition, but they're flatly wrong about that.

For example, this particular case that we're talking about. When people say that "they" is plural and cannot refer to a single person, they're flatly wrong. "Society" has "agreed" upon the fact that one of the several definitions of "they" is "third person singular", for at least the greater part of a millennium, and possibly longer. It's just as valid a definition as "third person plural", for any meaningful interpretation of "valid definition". It frankly just seems to me, in a lot of cases, that self-described prescriptivists see that a word has some meaning, and somehow get it into their heads that that's the only meaning, and that any other meaning is somehow wrong, even in cases where the word has been used in multiple ways for pretty much as long as there has been such a thing as English.

I may be misinterpreting what you mean by "an appeal to societally-agreed-upon usage". Maybe you mean they're appealing that society should agree upon their pet definition, in which case the proper response to them would be "Uh, why?". But I'm guessing that you mean that they're appealing to the idea that society has agreed upon their pet definiton?
posted by Flunkie at 9:58 AM on December 15, 2010


I used to be [a grammatical prescriptivist who rejected the singular "they"]. I then [learned that] for centuries the universal pronoun was they. . .

Grammatical prescriptivism isn't just about tradition. It's about precision, clarity, efficient communication, aesthetics of language, and signaling thoughtfulness. The singular "they" is imprecise, unnecessarily confusing, inefficient, distractingly grating to the ear; as a result of these things, it can signal thoughtlessness.

I understand why people in various complex gender situations would prefer "they", and I'm happy to respect their preferences regarding the pronouns used to discuss them and their loved ones (-- and moreover, depending exactly what you're trying to do with language, the obfuscating "they" can occasionally be a feature rather than a bug). But without a specific good reason to use the singular "they" in any given instance, I will continue to abhor it and will sleep easy doing so.
posted by foursentences at 10:02 AM on December 15, 2010


I would come to the exact opposite conclusion: the fact that Chaucer occasionally employed it as the singular in the 14th century and the fact that it is still manifestly a point of contention means that it is not making any headway. If the descriptivists who point to Chaucer or Eliot or Austen or anyone else can dig up a writer of similar stature who regularly eschewed "he" or "she" in favour of "they," then they will have a case.

Speaking as a descriptivist:

o You are conflating descriptivists with the ideologically motivated.

o the fact that it is still manifestly a point of contention. . . It has not been a bone of contention since Chaucer. It is relatively recently that is has become a a point of contention. And while wearing my descriptivists hat, I don't care if it's "making headway" or not. (Appears to be, though).

o Chaucer occasionally employed it as the singular. . . no, Chaucer and the other writers cited habitually employed it as the singular, when they considered it appropriate.

2: dig up a writer of similar stature who regularly eschewed "he" or "she" in favour of "they,". . . The descriptivist point isn't that /they/ is better. We leave that to the ideologically motivated. The descriptivist point is that /they/ has well-established, non-ideologically-based usage as a singular generic pronoun.

Which it manifestly has.
posted by Herodios at 10:03 AM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


But the thing is, in my experience, people often don't mean that. Or, perhaps, they do literally mean that "society" has "agreed" upon their favorite definition, but they're flatly wrong about that.

I realize I was unclear before, but I am specifically talking about the discussion in this thread right here in which public asserted that the statement 'Sex and gender are not the same thing' is 'just wrong,' and then stated that gender '*is* your sex.' That is when people said 'No it's not,' which grumblebee used as a launching point for a discursive on the vagaries of subjectivity and semantic sense. I am not attempting to discuss semantic generalities.
posted by shakespeherian at 10:07 AM on December 15, 2010


The singular "they" is imprecise, unnecessarily confusing, inefficient, distractingly grating to the ear; as a result of these things, it can signal thoughtlessness.
That a word has more than one meaning does not imply that its usage is imprecise in any particular one of the contexts it is used in. There's nothing imprecise about the "they" in "If a person reads this, they're reading a Metafilter comment", and the fact that "they" can mean something else in some other context doesn't change that.

"Confusing" is a matter of opinion, but I frankly find it difficult to believe that you're actually confused by "If a person reads this, they're reading a Metafilter comment."

"Distractingly grating to the ear" is also opinion, and I do not find it so; I suspect that it's distracting to your ear simply because you have convinced yourself that it is somehow wrong.

"It can signal thoughtlessness" is patently absurd, borderline patronizing, and, if anything, ironic.
posted by Flunkie at 10:11 AM on December 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


Gotcha, shakespeherian. Sorry for misunderstanding.
posted by Flunkie at 10:14 AM on December 15, 2010


I might have missed this in the comments somewhere, but why would I need to ask a person's preferred third-person pronoun set when talking to themand don't front like you don't know what I mean heredirectly? Isn't their name or, you know, "you" going to carry me through the vast majority of one-on-one exchanges? Even in groups of three or more, you just use the person's name or look/gesture towards them and say "your." If I need or want to know a person's gender identification, I can ask one of their friends at some other time, greatly minimizing any potential awkwardness.

Because, "what are your preferred third-person pronouns?" is always going to be a tremendous conversation-stopper except, maybe, among a particular subset of the self-identified genderqueer community. The rest of the time—that is, practically all of the time—it's a plainly bizarre and arguably a quite rude thing to do.
posted by wreckingball at 10:18 AM on December 15, 2010


> Just because you really like playing dress up and identify as one sex doesn't change your genetics.

I'm a cisgendered man, so I don't really have a horse in this race but to reiterate: You are talking about sex, not gender. Also, your implicit characterization of transsexuality as "playing dress-up" is very offensive.
posted by pts at 10:20 AM on December 15, 2010 [17 favorites]


I might have missed this in the comments somewhere, but why would I need to ask a person's preferred third-person pronoun set when talking to them—and don't front like you don't know what I mean here—directly? Isn't their name or, you know, "you" going to carry me through the vast majority of one-on-one exchanges? Even in groups of three or more, you just use the person's name or look/gesture towards them and say "your."
The article gives an example:
And there are adults who get it, too. Adults who are OK with stopping mid-something and having conversations like this

“So Andy and I were talking and… Hey, I realize I don’t know, what are your preferred pronouns?”

“he, him, his”

“Thanks. And he said that he can house-sit on the 9th, so we can go do Tom and Carole’s wedding if you want.”
posted by Flunkie at 10:21 AM on December 15, 2010


'They' as an indeterminate singular pronoun is the norm in British English. Grammatically, it's justifiable as a reference to the plurality of possible gender identities a generic person could have. When we say 'a person and their unknown gender,' we're not trying to be gender-neutral or avoidant, we're saying gender is irrelevant in this context. We either don't know or don't care about it.

You'll get used to it, just as you got used to the idea that 'you' can be used in the singular or in the plural. Using 'they' is a lot more economical than writing 'he or she' all the time, and more elegant than 's/he,' for that matter. 'Ze' is an inchoate embarrassment, best forgotten about.
posted by anigbrowl at 10:22 AM on December 15, 2010


To those defending "they" - would you comfortably use it in the example provided?

"Andy and I were talking, and they said they can house-sit on the 9th..."?

I'm not against the use of "they" but I feel like it only works in certain situations...
posted by mdn at 10:37 AM on December 15, 2010


When someone is saying 'That's not what it means' in response to Gender is simply not just some random label you decide to adopt. It *is* your sex, I don't think you can claim to be confused about what they mean

I can and I do, but I don't know how to explain my confusion without repeating myself. Last attempt:

Does public mean "You think you're making a decision, but you're not?" (I hope he doesn't mean that, because that's absurd. If I FEEL like I'm making a decision to define myself as female, then, surely, I AM making that decision. Maybe that decision causes stuff to happen and maybe it doesn't, but I'm still making a decision.)

Does he mean, "You can make any decision you want, but it will have no effect on your genitals (and other aspects of your physiology)"? "If you have a penis and decide you're female, that decision won't make your penis go away." He's right about this (barring surgery, of course.)

Does he mean, "You can make any decision you want, but no one will care"? He's wrong. Some people will; some won't.

Does he mean, "Your decision should not affect your legal rights"? (e.g. if you formerly would be arrested for going into a women's bathroom, that shouldn't change just because you decide to be a woman)

Or does he mean one of the language-based things I talked about above, e.g. "no one will share your definition."?

Because regardless of what he means, it is true that (a) there are physiological differences between people that into two rough categories, and (b) there are mental categories that people choose for themselves (it may not always be a choice) and these categories tend to be really important to the people who hold them.

And if you're 100% sure of which of the above (or something else) he means, what makes you so sure?
posted by grumblebee at 10:37 AM on December 15, 2010


I just came back from getting a fancy donut. One of the folks who works at the fancy donut place (where I am a regular) is a transman, or a butch dyke, or a woman who is on the more masculine end of the spectrum. I have no idea how they identify or which pronouns they prefer, and since I'm always talking directly to them, and not about them, I've never needed to know. If we ever get to a point in our customer/barista relationship where I do need to know, I'll ask, and they'll tell me, and it will all be fine. But this is also San Francisco, where kaffir lime coconut donuts and the unclear gender of your barista are not unusual or surprising.
posted by rtha at 10:40 AM on December 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


"IAAL. IANALGBTL."

Awesome.
posted by andreaazure at 10:41 AM on December 15, 2010


(0) There's nothing imprecise about the "they" in "If a person reads this, they're reading a Metafilter comment", and the fact that "they" can mean something else in some other context doesn't change that.

Sure, you're giving one example in which the singular "they" doesn't happen to be confusing.

(1) It's trivial to come up with examples in which the singular "they" is confusing: "They said that Bill and Pat will do whatever they want", off the top of my head.

(2) Even when the immediate conversational context, as in (0), can afford a singular "they" without becoming unclear -- still, you can never be sure whether the same conversation will flow into a context like (1), wherein the same individual whom you had discussed as "they" must now for the sake of clarity be referred to with another pronoun. Thus it's good practice to avoid the singular "they" in the first place, thereby avoiding the need to bog down your conversation in a clarification.

As for "signaling thoughtlessness": I wouldn't send my child to a teacher who fails to distinguish between lines and line segments (even if sometimes the distinction isn't absolutely necessary to the point immediately at hand), and I wouldn't send my child to a teacher who fails to distinguish between "they-plural" and "they-singular" (even if sometimes the distinction isn't absolutely necessary to the point immediately at hand).

Not so much because I'd worry that the child would be confused by those *specific* failures-to-distinguish, but because they signal *habitual* imprecision of thought or speech, and it's harder to pry an education from someone who habitually speaks without precision.

Similarly, I wouldn't hire a lawyer who uses the word "ain't" when speaking with me -- not because it means that the lawyer is stupid, but because it signals that the lawyer does not have a clear sense of when mainstream self-presentation is expected of him.

You seem to resent the prospect that the world might watch your habits for deviations from established norms, but the world is rational to watch for them.
posted by foursentences at 10:45 AM on December 15, 2010


To those defending "they" - would you comfortably use it in the example provided?

"Andy and I were talking, and they said they can house-sit on the 9th..."?


On lack of preview: I guess I don't have a problem doing that, since I just did it. It looks a little odd, I guess, but no stranger (to me) than him/her or he/she. Pronouns like ze or hir feel more awkward to me, although I have used them in the past, and probably will in the future. As an editor, the flexibility of language and its rules (and the arbitrariness thereof) sometimes drives me insane, but as a writer/talker/communicator, I also appreciate the hell out of it.
posted by rtha at 10:45 AM on December 15, 2010


It's trivial to come up with examples in which the singular "they" is confusing
The same can be said about a whole lot of words, including a whole lot of words that I strongly suspect that you have absolutely no problem with. A very obviously related case: "You".
You seem to resent the prospect that the world might watch your habits for deviations from established norms, but the world is rational to watch for them.
Singular "they" has been an established norm for the greater part of a millennium, and quite possibly longer.
posted by Flunkie at 10:49 AM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


All of which said, I want to reiterate that there are SOME exceptional situations in which imprecision is valuable -- such as when specifying a gender would cause someone interpersonal discomfort or identity-disjunction -- and I am more than happy to accommodate such preferences within any given conversational context.
posted by foursentences at 10:50 AM on December 15, 2010


rtha: But this is also San Francisco, where kaffir lime coconut donuts and the unclear gender of your barista are not unusual or surprising.

Of course, this being San Francisco, the donut shop's use of "kaffir lime" is something of a surprise.

(Kind of HAMBURGER, but not entirely. SLIDER, maybe?)
posted by bakerina at 10:51 AM on December 15, 2010


"You seem to resent the prospect that the world might watch your habits for deviations from established norms, but the world is rational to watch for them."

Singular "they" has been an established norm for the greater part of a millennium, and quite possibly longer.


I believe "norm" refers to whatever is deemed normative, rather than whatever is descriptively common. But "useful norms", if you prefer; my response is intact.
posted by foursentences at 10:53 AM on December 15, 2010


"It's trivial to come up with examples in which the singular 'they' is confusing"

The same can be said about a whole lot of words, including a whole lot of words that I strongly suspect that you have absolutely no problem with. A very obviously related case: "You".


The analogy is perfect, but your suspicion is wrong: I find the generic "one" ("one does what one must") somewhat preferable to the generic "you" ("you do what you must") -- for precisely the same reason that I find the singular "he or she" preferable to the singular "they".

(That said, the generic "you" is less often confusing than the singular "they", and so is less objectionable. And the generic "one" has its own problems, particularly that it evokes the British gentry and consequently can distract from the tone one is trying to establish.)
posted by foursentences at 10:59 AM on December 15, 2010


On lack of preview: I guess I don't have a problem doing that, since I just did it

well, you didn't do it with the person in question standing there, which I think is a notable component of this. Would that be equally comfortable?

But also I have to admit I was confused by your sentence construction since it seemed like you meant you didn't know what pronouns butch women in general prefer, not this particular individual... I figured out what you meant, but it did cause some reprocessing for me.
posted by mdn at 11:04 AM on December 15, 2010


Also, your implicit characterization of transsexuality as "playing dress-up" is very offensive.

It's okay, though: some of his best friends are genderqueer.
posted by Zozo at 11:19 AM on December 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


If fancy-donut-barista were standing in front of me, I would use "you", as I do when I go to get my weekly coffee and donut.

it seemed like you meant you didn't know what pronouns butch women in general prefer,

Good point, although my point was more that since I don't know if he/she/they identifies as trans or butch or what, I don't know what pronoun to use. If she identifies as a butch dyke, then "she" is probably okay to use. Although I've known butch dykes who identify as genderqueer dykes, and prefer non-gender specific pronouns. It's usually better to ask than to agonize.
posted by rtha at 11:29 AM on December 15, 2010


Posted too fast: as a data point, I'm a butch dyke who is a cisgender woman who identifies as female but gets called sir a lot and is fine with that, mostly.
posted by rtha at 11:31 AM on December 15, 2010


Very confusing for advertising copy. "My wife, I think I'll keep them."
posted by found missing at 11:43 AM on December 15, 2010


Thanks for posting this ThePinkSuperhero. We are such a long way from understanding how human gender and sexuality is lived in reality, rather than how some of us would like it understood.

I hope that it is conversations like this that in the longer term contribute to the deconstruction of binary, simplistic, reductive, constraining thinking, and make life a little easier for me and all the sex and gender binary breakers to come.

I'm sorry that some people feel discomfort because this seriously disrupts the general understanding of sex and gender and that it may in fact disrupt some societal norms and structures. But by asking questions, not avoiding the subject, not making assumptions, you can choose to make a difference.

The alternative? Young FTM people being told they will be raped to prove that they are a woman (by their peers), Young MTF with serious bladder problems because they cannot use public toilets when required, homelessness, bashings, suicide, metal health...you name it. Whether this continues is actually up to you.

** My qualifications: 15yrs working with LGBT young people, their families and communities (not in big cities), 34 years of trying to find a suitable pronoun for me (i dont care for one anymore)
posted by MT at 11:46 AM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


This is all good, but it also should be OK to be wrong occasionally. I mean, when I was a man with long pretty hair, I got "Miss" and stuff all the time (Usually when I wasn't facing them). I know that's not the same as someone who has gone through serious identity struggles, but it seems to me it would be a politer society if people were OK with a one time correction.

Meaning, if I use the wrong pronoun once, correct me and I'll apologize and fix it from then on. No harm done, or at least it seems to me there should be no harm. If I were to persist in using the incorrect pronoun because I didn't believe you or insisted on "traditional" pronoun usage, that would be rude.

I think most trans/queer/etc people realize this (at least most of the ones I meet, and I live in SF so that's quite a few). Some do get very offended at a single misusage, and I understand that part of it is having to fight to get people to acknowledge the validity of their identity, but ideally the assumption on first misuse would be innocent mistake, and only cross over into hostility when it is repeated.

Of course I think that will be easier to achieve the more people acknowledge the validity of gender and sexual identity. And actually the ones who will probably be most offended are cis-gendered people who get called the wrong gender, since many of us don't think about these things.
posted by wildcrdj at 12:25 PM on December 15, 2010 [5 favorites]


Jimmy's been watching you. You're just Jimmy's type.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 12:25 PM on December 15, 2010


You've just been to wikipedia, haven't you
posted by jfuller at 12:41 PM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


I once heard a professor of linguistics say "we set up a word at the place at which ignorance begins". That is, the word encompasses all that can be agreed upon about the object it describes - a chair, for example, has a set of characteristics that we all understand, and so the word 'chair' is rarely confusing. I'll have a shot at a diagram:
[Knowledge]-------------------------------------chair------[Ignorance]

For a term that is more contentious, about which we know very little for certain (or about which there is much debate), the word itself can only define a fraction of what it could possiby encompass.

[Knowledge]----------gender-------------------------------[Ignorance]

This means that what you understand 'gender' to mean could quite possibly lie in the space beyond the word, where it is not so universally agreed upon. There is no 'right' definition (apart from the limited one on the 'knowledge' side of the word - something like 'Gender relates to sex and identity'), so arguing that yours is better is rarely useful.

Anyway, I find it helpful in discussions like these when people try to load a word with a meaning that is far from agreed upon.
posted by twirlypen at 12:44 PM on December 15, 2010


To those defending "they" - would you comfortably use it in the example provided? "Andy and I were talking, and they said they can house-sit on the 9th..."?

Hell no. If I am trusting Andy to house-sit for me, then I will have already researched whether I should leave the seat up or down. If I'm just not sure about a person's gender identity, but know them well enough that I ought to be familiar with it, I'll just ask them. But when I go from talking about a generic anonymous person to a particular person named Andy, I (probably) already know whether he presents as a man or she presents as a woman.

Now, if you say 'you've got a meeting with an 'Andy' tomorrow...he, er, she, er, well I really couldn't tell' then I'd reply 'oh, they're pretty androgynous then?' and wait to find out. But the fact of not knowing that about someone means you probably don't know them very well at all (yet), and thus don't have to refer to them so frequently in conversations that the plural pronoun becomes confusing. Of course usually one would just guess; sometimes this means being wrong, but that's not a big deal.

Incidentally, 'they' isn't used over there solely to indicate gender ambiguity/ neutrality/ irrelevance. For example, 'I called that number and a woman answered the phone. I asked about my problem, but they said they couldn't help and didn't give their name.' That's obviously incorrect grammatically, but the fact that it's used that way at all is an indicator of how generic the interaction was, and that the speaker can't think of anything more specific about who they spoke to - just as I can't think of anything very specific about my hypothetical speaker, other than their casual disregard for grammatical niceties.

I realize that this takes some getting used to for US residents. But then I have the same difficulties with the US practice of specifying gender at all times. Constant references to 'he or she' in a text are unwieldy, and create a vague air of confusion (much like the American habit of saying 'at this time' instead of 'now'). Speakers or writers who don't want to stumble over every pronoun may pick one or the other, but if they always refer to the generic person as a male or female, it does indeed look somewhat sexist. Some writers alternate freely between them; the reader may like her book to surprise her anew on each page, or the writer may wish to keep his readers guessing. Unfortunately, when pronouns are randomized this way, it's sometimes unclear whether a writer is still referring to a generic person, or whether she is now referring to someone specific. I often find myself scanning backwards several sentences to check, whereas grammatical ambiguities arising from use of the plural pronoun can generally be resolved within the same sentence.

Naturally, one should aim to avoid ambiguity in the first place; so while we could say 'a writer needs to be considerate of their audience' it would be far better to say 'writers need to be considerate of their audience,' even though it's highly unlikely that multiple writers will all have the same audience in common. In practice, introducing the plural pronoun in the clause immediately following the invocation of the anonymous subject works best: if a person is the subject of a sentence, they may often be referred to in the abstract. Then we can keep talking about them with relative ease, unless they should wonder off and become lost in a crowd - in this case we should have to ask other people where to find them, and they might not help us to identify our erstwhile companion - who has, suddenly and mysteriously, taken on quite singular grammatical characteristics despite joining a group. If we ever find them again, we shall be sure to keep a closer eye on their individual identity so as to avoid confusing them with the crowd they have chosen to be part of, an entity so amorphous that we feel comfortable denying it any sort of personal pronoun whatsoever. If people join a crowd and insist on staying part of it, then they can do without their pronouns until such time as they leave it again, at which point we shall pronounce anew their individuality.

I just remembered that Wikipedia has a good article on the singular they, as well as a delightful one on anaphora. Sadly, no article on plural you; there is on on 'y'all,' but I miss 'ye.' Everyone used that when I was growing up in Ireland, though only in speech, and not in writing. I'm not sure when it fell out of regular use, but when you ye see it in print it looks archaic, suggesting either a gaelic or biblical context. It's a pity, because 'y'all' sounds absurd unless the speaker is from or visiting a southern state, while 'you people' has echoes of bigotry and condescension. On internet forums such as this one, I often wish there were an elegant way to switch between addressing an individual and the general readership.
posted by anigbrowl at 12:52 PM on December 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


rtha, the full example was:

“So Andy and I were talking and… Hey, I realize I don’t know, what are your preferred pronouns?”

“he, him, his”

“Thanks. And he said that he can house-sit on the 9th, so we can go do Tom and Carole’s wedding if you want.”


so, to use "they" would be to say it in front of him, and to use "you" would be to switch the conversation away from who you were talking to... I guess something like:

“So Andy and I were talking and… (turn to Andy) you said that you can house-sit on the 9th, right? (turn back to partner) so we can go do Tom and Carole’s wedding if you want.”

seems like asking, or perhaps making a well-grounded assumption, would make the most sense.
posted by mdn at 1:06 PM on December 15, 2010


The analogy is perfect, but your suspicion is wrong: I find the generic "one" ("one does what one must") somewhat preferable to the generic "you"

I think the analogy is that "you" can be singular or plural - in fact used to only be plural and eventually became the singular second person pronoun as well (replacing "thou").

But the difference, I think, is that we generally use second person when actually speaking to someone, in which case the referent of the pronoun is more clear. Plus plenty of people wish there were a distinctive singular and plural "you" (you and y'all are sometimes suggested...). Getting rid of singular pronouns altogether seems like it can result in further confusion rather than more clarity...
posted by mdn at 1:07 PM on December 15, 2010


Six years ago when I signed up for facebook I declined to tell it (them?) my gender; It still refers to me with the "they, their" pronouns...

But after all, it's my (perhaps not so well-informed) opinion that it's not such a big deal with which pronoun we refer to each other.

Mr. Praline : 'Ello, Miss?
Owner : (turning around, very angry) What do you mean, "miss"?
Mr. Praline : I'm sorry, I have a cold.
(The owner nods, understanding.)

posted by headless at 1:17 PM on December 15, 2010


I fucking LOVE it when people just ask. Just ask! Not sure? ASK! I stay here in the overpriced, dangerous, dirty Bay Area in part because people, gay people, trans people, straight cis-gendered people ask, and when they ask, I love them! I've been in a community college class, at a party, meeting a stranger for a blind date, meeting a newly hired coworker and had the person I'm meeting just say without anxiety (or sometimes with a little anxiety, but enough courage to balance it out): "What pronoun do you prefer?" or "What's your gender?" or "Do you prefer to be called he or she?" and every time it happens I am so grateful and happy and feel so damned lucky to live around folks who are willing to just, fucking, ask.
posted by serazin at 1:20 PM on December 15, 2010 [7 favorites]


I find the word 'blue' confusing. It is imprecise. Sky blue? Robin's egg blue? I find it more natural to refer to the precise wavelength of color to eliminate confusion.

And don't get me started on brown.
posted by zippy at 1:20 PM on December 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


It's a pity, because 'y'all' sounds absurd unless the speaker is from or visiting a southern state, while 'you people' has echoes of bigotry and condescension.

"You all" is a perfectly fine construction that doesn't taint you with a Southern 'tude.

I use it all the time, e.g. "Fuck all of you all."
posted by mrgrimm at 1:33 PM on December 15, 2010


I just came back from getting a fancy donut. One of the folks who works at the fancy donut place (where I am a regular) is a transman, or a butch dyke, or a woman who is on the more masculine end of the spectrum.

So what's yer fancy donut place? Dynamo? I do like donuts a lot.
posted by mrgrimm at 1:34 PM on December 15, 2010


More detail on askers and guessers. As an asker I'm firmly of the (internal) opinion that any awkwardness in conversation, whatever the topic, is all the guessers' faults and they Need To Get Over It, but so long as we are forced to converse with the coy little pests in order to conduct our daily lives, we need to work out some method of doing so with minimal offense. (To the guesser, it should be needless to say.) Offense is an annoying distraction from the real purpose of conversation, which is sharing knowledge, for the mutual improvement of our mental models of real and imagined worlds. Offense, one-sided or mutual, gives rise to all sorts of tedious and frustrating interactions.

Wouldn't it be nice if offense didn't exist? If we could just ask about everything?

"I find you very attractive. Would you go to bed with me?"
"No. I find you intellectually interesting and emotionally tolerable, but not sexually attractive, and in any case am in an exclusive relationship."
"Okay. Let's be platonic friends then."
"Okay."

Sadly humans have evolved to play such games with our cards held firmly away from the view of others. To ask someone about the prospect of mutual sex is, for most of us most of the time, an act of vulnerability. So we get around it in various ways. We flirt, revealing tidbits of interest, and looking keenly for reciprocated little bits. We ask mutual friends. We stalk Facebook profiles. We put up facts and "facts" about ourselves on our Facebook profiles precisely so that people don't have to directly ask us. And so on.

The gender problem is an interesting subset of this. As gender roles have merged more and more, actual gender has become increasingly irrelevant to daily activity. Why do we care about the gender of our barista? Why do we even care about the gender of our platonic friends? There are many, many reasons, competitive and cooperative, and very few of these have anything to do with rational, intellectual interaction. Personally, I hold the aspirational view that I don't really care about the gender of persons I'm not interested in sex with (and actually don't care as such about the gender of those who I am, because the "Aeschenkarnos sex attraction algorithm" already includes a significant gender presentation component); but this quickly falls down in the light of the obvious social expectation that people have, to be treated differently according to their genders. If not by me, at least by others; if by no-one else, at least by prospective partners.

Some of it, for English speakers, is due to the somewhat unsatisfactory "they". It's traditional, and is widely believed to be polite, to refer to a person as "he" or "she" as appropriate, which of necessity implies discovering, by some means, the gender of the person referred to. Whether you're an asker or a guesser, whether they are an asker or a guesser, is only relevant if the question itself is relevant.

It remains to be seen if rising popularity of "they" reduces perceived necessity of gender certainty, whether by speaker and/or spoken-about. But at this time we really can't do without mental models of the gender of persons that we are emotionally close to and socially interact with outside of the us-them binary model. I would say that this, the MetaFilter forum, is about as emotionally and socially interactive as a gender-free space can get. If I meet you in real life, I'm going to guess at--and if I judge it necessary, and if I judge it won't offend, I'll ask--your genders, and change my mental model of how you expect to be treated, accordingly. In many cases that won't change very much. But if it should change, and I don't, I'm the asshole. So even if I ideologically would prefer that I didn't have to identify peoples' genders in order to interact with them socially, I at this time still must do so.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 2:12 PM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


>failures-to-distinguish [..] signal *habitual* imprecision of thought or speech

Where ambiguity exists, accuracy and economy are arguably better served with one word rather than three; precision in the absence of foundational facts is superfluous at best and misleading at worst. I think you might find it worthwhile to explore some of the work on linguistics by Quine and Pinker, among others.
posted by anigbrowl at 2:23 PM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


I never understood what the big deal was about using "he" as a gender neutral pronoun (in addition to its role as a masc. pronoun). Lots of words serve multiple purposes. And lots of languages do something similar. I guess the feminists would really hate German, where a girl is an "it". Likewise, "turning the tables" and using only she seems ridiculous to me as well. Nothing makes me stop reading faster than use of that. And therefore the writer has FAILED.
posted by readyfreddy at 2:30 PM on December 15, 2010


A girl (small maid, little woman) is neutral in German b/c any diminutive ending (i.e., "chen", "lein") is neutral, and the noun takes its gender from the ending.
posted by found missing at 2:33 PM on December 15, 2010


cf. das Männchen (little man)
posted by found missing at 2:38 PM on December 15, 2010


I guess the feminists would really hate German

I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that there are feminists in Germany. Also, I am becoming weary of the existence of the word 'feminist,' because it allows people to box them up and categorize them as a special-interest group with agendas etc. Whereas people who believe in equal rights and recognitions for racial minorities, while certainly still having their work cut out for them, are able to be linguistically normative. Not many people moan and complain about what those whiny civil rights activists want to do with writing.
posted by shakespeherian at 2:41 PM on December 15, 2010 [5 favorites]


So what's yer fancy donut place? Dynamo? I do like donuts a lot.

That's the one, mrgrimm.
posted by rtha at 2:50 PM on December 15, 2010


Yes, I know, "found missing". All diminutives are neuter (chen and lein). I can envision whatever-word-shakespeherian-wants-me-to-use-for-feminists being upset that girls are neutered in German too. However, how is this any different than using "he" in English as a gender-neutral pronoun? It's the same exact thing. Except that in German ALL pronouns can be gender-neutral: Der Hund (the dog = he), Die Katze (the cat = she), and Das Mädchen (the girl = it). It's three times the "problem" we have in English. But no one recognizes it as such. Nope, it's the evil man-culture propagating it.

And for the record, my training is in linguistics, so I definitely have an ear for descriptivist thought… it tends to be what I'd normally "side" with. I'm just throwing this out there to be the devil's advocate.
posted by readyfreddy at 2:52 PM on December 15, 2010


whatever-word-shakespeherian-wants-me-to-use-for-feminists

I'm going to go with 'normal people,' as opposed to 'misogynists.' Feminism is about equality and respect. It is not a she-woman man hater's club.
posted by shakespeherian at 2:54 PM on December 15, 2010 [5 favorites]


I understand shakespeherian, but show me "normal people" that are complaining about "he" being a generic pronoun. And "normal people" is not the opposite of "misogynist". My dictionary says that misogynist is "a man who hates women". See, I can play "gotcha" too.
posted by readyfreddy at 2:59 PM on December 15, 2010


show me "normal people" that are complaining about "he" being a generic pronoun.

Here's one. At least I look normal ...

I use he and she interchangeably when gender is unknown. In a more formal situation (work), I will use the slightly more awkward "he or she."
posted by mrgrimm at 3:02 PM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


but show me "normal people" that are complaining about "he" being a generic pronoun.

Uhm ...

*raises hand*

... yeah, I consider this to be a defect of the English language. Thus far I have yet to encounter a satisfying, unawkward fix, but I hope one arises some day.
posted by EatTheWeak at 3:02 PM on December 15, 2010


That's fine mrgrimm, but again you're assuming that "he" when used as a generic pronoun is really secretly being used as a male-slanted pronoun. That's not the case. It really is a generic pronoun. It just happens to LOOK like the masculine pronoun as well. German speakers understand this. English speakers do not. (in general)
posted by readyfreddy at 3:04 PM on December 15, 2010


I understand shakespeherian, but show me "normal people" that are complaining about "he" being a generic pronoun.

I'm pretty sure I'm "normal". I complain about this pretty frequently.

And what shakespeherian likely meant with the discussion about misogynist is that the only people opposed to the goals of feminism are misogynistic. Which seems about right.
posted by Lemurrhea at 3:08 PM on December 15, 2010


Maybe so EatTheWeak, but we *already* have a perfectly good generic pronoun: HE. Yes, it might be confusing that it looks the same as the masculine pronoun, but I can assure it is not the same thing. When a female is sitting in a classroom and a prescriptivist teacher says "Each student should take out his book", do females really think that the teacher means just the males? No. Context is part of language. And in this situation, context tells us exactly what the teacher means. Maybe you'd like an alternative that isn't context-sensitive. And that's fine. But context-sensitivity is a common trait in large numbers of language constructions throughout the world. So, I wouldn't necessarily call this a "defect". It may not work how you would prefer, but it's not defective.
posted by readyfreddy at 3:18 PM on December 15, 2010


Be careful, Lemurrhea. You're treading awfully close to the idea that only men can be "opposed to the goals of feminism".
posted by readyfreddy at 3:19 PM on December 15, 2010


...the only people opposed to the goals of feminism are misogynistic. Which seems about right.

People opposed to the goals of feminism (and I'd like to know what exactly the 'goals of feminism' are as you understand them) are anti-feminists, not (necessarily) misogynists. Similarly, people opposed to the goals of zionism are anti-zionists, not (necessarily) anti-semites.

This kind of sloganeering helps no-one.
posted by unSane at 3:35 PM on December 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


Yes, it might be confusing that it looks the same as the masculine pronoun, but I can assure it is not the same thing.

Confusing, looks just like another word, and subtly others half the population when generic humans are the subject of conversation. "He" as a generic pronoun is a distracting impairment to communication, no matter the context. "He" as a generic pronoun is a defect of English. Far from the language's sole defect, but it certainly is a glaring shortcoming. Far, far, far from "perfectly good."
posted by EatTheWeak at 3:47 PM on December 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


"He" as a generic pronoun is a defect of English.

Then I suppose that *every* German pronoun is "defective" by your proclamation as well. Defective is not the same thing as ambiguous. All languages have ambiguity. That's where we get jokes.
posted by readyfreddy at 3:51 PM on December 15, 2010


Data point: although I'm a diehard prescriptivist in many respects, I've heard "they" used as an ungendered singular pronoun all my life and consequently it sounds perfectly OK to me in casual speech. (Born in 1960, grew up in the SF Bay Area and suburban New York.)

Because "they" is also a plural pronoun it can get a little confusing depending on the context, but I think it's the best shot we English-speakers have at a genderless pronoun for the foreseeable future. Neologisms like "ze" and "hir" tend to derail things - at least in my brain - because they sound like a precious claim to be So Special I Deserve My Very Own Pronoun. Being a bit on the androgynous side myself I'm all for nongendered language, but special snowflakitude is more annoying (to me) than traditional gendered pronouns. 99% of the time someone's gender isn't really relevant (e.g., barista, tech support, accountant), and it doesn't matter if your preferred pronoun doesn't match what's in your pants. Just pick something and stick with it. And if you're not sure about somebody else's preferred pronoun and you've painted yourself into a grammatical corner, just ask, then stick with what they tell you.

I don't think gendered language will disappear entirely because most humans really like to have sex and also have a preferred gender for bonking (or at least want to know what they're getting into), and gendered pronouns are handy for sorting people into bonk/no-bonk bins. But I think English also needs an all-purpose pronoun to use when people's gender, sex, and orientation are irrelevant. "They" works pretty well despite the ambiguity about singular vs plural, and gracefully downplays the importance of gender by being so commonplace. I think neologisms have the unintended effect of emphasizing gender by calling attention to My Scrupulous Avoidance Of Gendered Pronouns (You Insensitive Clod).
posted by Quietgal at 3:52 PM on December 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


I might also add that "he" is not the only singular generic pronoun. "She" also has this status in particular situations. Can we be mad about that for awhile now?
posted by readyfreddy at 3:54 PM on December 15, 2010


"They" works pretty well despite the ambiguity about singular vs plural, and gracefully downplays the importance of gender by being so commonplace.

Yes, "they" is pretty much a de facto generic pronoun now, but as you point out, it too is ambiguous. So, if people are *really* mad about "he" being ambiguous, then why is "they" ok? My guess: they aren't really mad about the ambiguity. They're mad at what they perceive as sexism.

This isn't directed at you Quietgal. I wholeheartedly agree with your entire post. You nailed it.
posted by readyfreddy at 3:58 PM on December 15, 2010


but show me "normal people" that are complaining about "he" being a generic pronoun.

*raises hand*

"I'm looking for a new doctor; do you like yours? What's his name?"

"I don't know who the CEO of [foo] company is, but I bet his name is on their website."

"The new museum is beautiful. The architect did an amazing job, didn't he?"

Gender neutral, right? You're equally likely to assume that the doctor, the CEO, and the architect are women, yes?

Also, it's a small sample, but having known a couple of actual German feminists, I can't say I ever heard them complain about "girl" being gender neutral.
posted by rtha at 4:00 PM on December 15, 2010 [6 favorites]


OK, last post for me: nouns generally have three characteristics: gender, number, and case. My argument is that if you are unhappy about a perception of ambiguity in gender, say, then you should be equally upset about ambiguity in number or case too. Otherwise, you must be picking and choosing what to be unhappy about from some other angle. That's really my main (only?) point. If you're going to get on a high horse, you better be ready to ride. :)
posted by readyfreddy at 4:06 PM on December 15, 2010


OK, I lied… one more.

Also, it's a small sample, but having known a couple of actual German feminists, I can't say I ever heard them complain about "girl" being gender neutral.

And why might that be? Because they understand the use of gender in a way that English speakers do not. What, you mean to tell me that Germans wouldn't think that…

"Das Mädchen ist klug. Es ist intelligent!"

…might mean an inanimate object "it" is intelligent? To me, that's what you're implying by your examples. And maybe you do think that "his name" is a male doctor. But German speakers would be less likely to have this problem, as you've just demonstrated.

English, being a Germanic language, very well might still be using "he" as the generic pronoun BECAUSE of German. It's potentially a "leftover". But English pruned down so many things that lots of ambiguities have arisen. We only half-ass mark case anymore. (and still we have problems with who/whom, but not he/him) We mark tense much more lightly than many other languages (I go, you go, they go, y'all go… we're almost as bad as Chinese in this regard) But we're all in a huff about half-ass marking of gender? That's fickle. If you're going to be a prescriptivist, at least be consistent.
posted by readyfreddy at 4:28 PM on December 15, 2010


The issue with using the masculine pronoun as the neutral is that it normalizes the masculine and others the feminine. It's the same issue with saying 'mankind' for 'humanity' or 'policeman' for a generic peace officer-- the effect is that, regardless of the fact that it doesn't confuse anyone, the assumptions built into the language seep into the culture and the assumptions of the people who inhabit the culture. If a teacher says 'Each student should take out his book,' female students will not be confused, but there is an implicit message that their culture does not value them in the same way that it values men, such that its language is constructed around the assumption that men are important and women are not.

And if you're still making a list, I'm a normal person, and I'm a man, and I do not use male pronouns for neutral. I am also a feminist, and by feminist I mean 'someone who believes in and advocates for the equality of all peoples, regardless of sex or gender.'
posted by shakespeherian at 4:32 PM on December 15, 2010 [5 favorites]


I think most "normal" people under age 50 have pretty much abandoned the use of the generic "he", at least in any of the journalism, academic writing, or popular non-fiction I've come across in the last many years. Most "normal" people, no matter their politics, can probably acknowledge that there is at minimum a history of unequal treatment of men and women and that language that aims to create even a perception of a bit more equality is probably worth trying.

One shining example: I was reading Richard Rorty last summer and relishing his default use of "she" for all examples of hypothetical people. Because, if you care about women's right, why the fuck not?
posted by serazin at 4:34 PM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


I know this argument well, shakespeherian. It's very a Whorfian viewpoint. I'll shut up now.
posted by readyfreddy at 4:34 PM on December 15, 2010


I was reading Richard Rorty last summer and relishing his default use of "she" for all examples of hypothetical people. Because, if you care about women's right, why the fuck not?

Because it's hypocritical?
posted by readyfreddy at 4:36 PM on December 15, 2010


readyfreddy, what exactly are you fighting against, here?
posted by shakespeherian at 4:41 PM on December 15, 2010 [5 favorites]


And why might that be? Because they understand the use of gender in a way that English speakers do not.

Dude - may I call you dude? - you said:

I guess the feminists would really hate German, where a girl is an "it".


Which implies that either Germans can't be feminists, or feminists can't speak German. I don't even know why you'd snark that.

And somehow, most mainstream press outlets I can think of have managed to eliminate the "gender-neutral" he/him/his without the world ending.
posted by rtha at 4:42 PM on December 15, 2010


readyfreddy, what exactly are you fighting against, here?

Windmills. I'm trying to point out to English speakers that just because someone says something is "bad", that it isn't necessarily bad. (or good, for that matter)
posted by readyfreddy at 4:45 PM on December 15, 2010


Which implies that either Germans can't be feminists, or feminists can't speak German. I don't even know why you'd snark that.

I'm saying that English speakers are ignorant about how much gender, number, and case are a remnant in their language. And what (non-political) roles they continue to play even if people don't recognize them.
posted by readyfreddy at 4:48 PM on December 15, 2010


Earlier, you said My argument is that if you are unhappy about a perception of ambiguity in gender, say, then you should be equally upset about ambiguity in number or case too. Otherwise, you must be picking and choosing what to be unhappy about from some other angle. That's really my main (only?) point. It has since been pointed out that the issue is less one of linguistic ambiguity and more one of sociopolitical concern. I understand that you are coming at this from the angle of linguistics, but you don't seem to be grasping that the objection is not to the linguistics; therefore appeals to the germanic roots of the English language aren't really responses so much as non sequiturs. And yet you seem to be fighting very hard. I don't understand why.
posted by shakespeherian at 4:49 PM on December 15, 2010


reaching way upthread, I know, but thanks to Alia's comment I'm now picturing this poster:


AVOID
PRONOUNS
AND
CARRY
ON

posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 4:54 PM on December 15, 2010 [6 favorites]


As serazin mentioned, most people who speak the English language have abandoned the generic" he" for many reasons. There are plenty of words we use in the English language now that were not used 10 or 20 years ago. The reason they sound "normal" to us is their common usage.

And from shakespeherian, It has since been pointed out that the issue is less one of linguistic ambiguity and more one of sociopolitical concern.

There are plenty of people interested in linguistics, readyfreddy, who can recognize when language has evolved by a group of people or a particular culture. Recognizing that there are changes that have been made in the English language doesn't mean ignorance. Next you'll be saying that regional dialects aren't "good" because of differences.
posted by Wuggie Norple at 4:56 PM on December 15, 2010


I'm saying that English speakers are ignorant about how much gender, number, and case are a remnant in their language.

You've lost me. That German "girl" is "it" is relevant how, to English, as she is spoke here and now?

The use of "he" as a gender neutral word in English does not just have linguistic implications, and it's weird to me that you either don't seem to know this, or don't care. We're not talking about the linguistic implications. We're talking about the fact that using "he" as a gender neutral term makes people think that the roles/jobs/careers its attached to can or should only be performed by men. If it's really gender neutral, and not at all politicized, then it should have been normal to see references to hypothetical no-gender-specified nurses or teachers as "he." But that's not the case.
posted by rtha at 5:00 PM on December 15, 2010


It is reasonably arguable that "he" as generic gender-neutral pronoun didn't have gender-political implications in English formal writing, and could be used that way, prior to people noticing that it did. (It's also reasonably arguable that those implications existed whether noticed or not.) But now that we have noticed, it does. The argument's over.

Correct usage shifts over time. For academic writing, it is outright incorrect to use non-gender-neutral language when the gender of the subject is unknown or irrelevant. If your essay's being marked, you'll lose marks. If your essay's being edited for publication, it'll be edited. And so on.

It's not particularly difficult to write in gender-neutral language, ie it doesn't overly complicate the already complicated problem of writing clearly and succinctly. If you can do the latter, gender-neutral language is well within your abilities as a writer.

This thread here is relevant.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 5:23 PM on December 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


And yet you seem to be fighting very hard. I don't understand why. posted by shakespeherian

Because I wanted you to say why you considered he as a generic pronoun bad. It was either going to be because of some language reason (case and all of that). Or it was going to be a sociological/psychological one. And now you've outed yourself as a Whorfian. No more treatises on this stuff. Y'all can go read about it yourself.
posted by readyfreddy at 5:30 PM on December 15, 2010


You've lost me. That German "girl" is "it" is relevant how, to English, as she is spoke here and now?

The use of "he" as a gender neutral word in English does not just have linguistic implications, and it's weird to me that you either don't seem to know this, or don't care. We're not talking about the linguistic implications. We're talking about the fact that using "he" as a gender neutral term makes people think that the roles/jobs/careers its attached to can or should only be performed by men. If it's really gender neutral, and not at all politicized, then it should have been normal to see references to hypothetical no-gender-specified nurses or teachers as "he." But that's not the case.


Right. And this is a Whorfian view of things. But its existence in German without changing things disproves this Whorfian view. Words can change our culture? No. Whorf is hotly contested in lots of places, but the numbers tilt in favor of shunning Whorf.
posted by readyfreddy at 5:34 PM on December 15, 2010


But now that we have noticed, it does. The argument's over.

So say you.
posted by readyfreddy at 5:35 PM on December 15, 2010


This strategy runs into a problem when you encounter somebody who is transgendered and is pissed off both by being referred to as the wrong pronoun by unfamiliar people and being asked which pronoun they prefer by unfamiliar people, which is more common than you might think.
posted by tehloki at 5:36 PM on December 15, 2010


But its existence in German without changing things disproves this Whorfian view.

Changing things... from what? This sentence doesn't make sense.
posted by shakespeherian at 5:38 PM on December 15, 2010


Correct usage shifts over time. For academic writing, it is outright incorrect to use non-gender-neutral language when the gender of the subject is unknown or irrelevant. If your essay's being marked, you'll lose marks. If your essay's being edited for publication, it'll be edited. And so on.

Right, but what you are talking about is an issue of style. The Whorfians are talking about something else altogether.
posted by readyfreddy at 5:39 PM on December 15, 2010


Changing things... from what? This sentence doesn't make sense.

You're right, I wrote it in a hurry. Sorry. What I meant to say is that you think that using words like "he" causes us to change our opinions or thoughts about the way the world is. But as someone else has already pointed out, the Germans don't have this "problem" (they don't think a girl being called an "it" is an issue). Therefore, I think this argument is bogus. It's not a universal. And if Whorf were right, then you'd expect to see this everywhere.
posted by readyfreddy at 5:42 PM on December 15, 2010


Because I wanted you to say why you considered he as a generic pronoun bad. It was either going to be because of some language reason (case and all of that). Or it was going to be a sociological/psychological one. And now you've outed yourself as a Whorfian.

This is not an honest way to have a conversation. I'll see you around.
posted by shakespeherian at 5:43 PM on December 15, 2010


Therefore, I think this argument is bogus. It's not a universal.

So what? We're talking about the effects of "he" being treated as generic in English. I don't care if Germans don't have a problem with "girl" being "it." That's not part of my argument. My argument is that pretending that in English here in the US a generic "he" isn't problematic is silly. There are less culturally loaded ways to refer to a lawyer, doctor, politician, comedian etc. whose gender is unknown, and it doesn't make me an unrepentant Whorfian to advocate for that.
posted by rtha at 6:03 PM on December 15, 2010


we *already* have a perfectly good generic [singular] pronoun

Yes, indeed, we do: it. Problem solved.
posted by FelliniBlank at 6:22 PM on December 15, 2010


This is not an honest way to have a conversation. I'll see you around.

Oh jeez.
posted by readyfreddy at 6:23 PM on December 15, 2010


And I have to agree with shakespeherian and rtha that purposefully confusing linguistic gender (affecting the articles and declensions of nouns, pronouns, adjectives) with the performed/identity gender or sex of animals, which is what gendered personal pronouns indicate in modern English, is disingenuous.

We have completely lost our linguistically gendered articles and word endings. "He" isn't one of them anyhow, and if it were, why would we cling to just the one when all the rest are long gone?
posted by FelliniBlank at 6:27 PM on December 15, 2010


So what? We're talking about the effects of "he" being treated as generic in English. I don't care if Germans don't have a problem with "girl" being "it." That's not part of my argument. My argument is that pretending that in English here in the US a generic "he" isn't problematic is silly. There are less culturally loaded ways to refer to a lawyer, doctor, politician, comedian etc. whose gender is unknown, and it doesn't make me an unrepentant Whorfian to advocate for that.


I never said that you were a Whorfian. I said those that were Whorfians were Whorfians. Yes, it does matter what happens in German. That's where got what gender from (what we have left).

This is all so silly. Use whatever the heck you want. What do I care? I seldom use "he" this way (I'm in favor of "they"). I was just trying to point out various counterarguments for all the reasons that people have for why they HATE this use of "he" in English. I don't, however, have a counterargument for "cuz I wanna". I stated earlier that I was throwing this stuff out there partly as devil's advocate. And now people are getting their feelings hurt. Sheesh.
posted by readyfreddy at 6:31 PM on December 15, 2010


Sorry but I just don't understand why this is a Big Deal. My feeling about the use of gender-identifying pronouns is the same as my feeling about the use of race-identifying adjectives: if it's not significant or relevant to the matter at hand, I don't use them. And I often find it telling to hear/be a part of the conversation of people who do (in other words, sometimes racists and sexists don't realize how easily they reveal themselves even when they're not being blatant about it).

Yep. I'm not a huge fan of the theory, but I think this is a case of Askers vs. Guessers.

I am not a fan of the theory either because I think there's a third option: the Don't Carers. Some issues are simply not important enough (to me) either to ask or guess about. I also think there's plenty of opportunity to screw up by taking either the ask or guess approach. I think people (other than children who are still being socialized) should strive to develop the ability to discern when/whether either approach is appropriate, effective, or necessary for a given situation.

As an asker I'm firmly of the (internal) opinion that any awkwardness in conversation, whatever the topic, is all the guessers' faults and they Need To Get Over It

So it's okay to be rude as long as the asker gets their satisfaction by putting the question out there? No, some things are better left unsaid and unasked if they're only going to lead to situations that will cause any of the concerned parties hurt or harm with no real benefit other than satisfying someone's curiosity, desire to interfere, need to feel superior, attempt to levy an insult, et cetera. Askers can sometimes Need to Get Over It too and just let things be.
posted by fuse theorem at 6:32 PM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


We have completely lost our linguistically gendered articles and word endings.

Not so. Much, yes. But completely, no.
posted by readyfreddy at 6:33 PM on December 15, 2010


What current words in English include indications of purely grammatical gender?

I'm not talking about nouns that have different endings for actual sex-related gender (actor/actress, heifer/bull, etc.) or cutesy crap like referring to a ship as "she."
posted by FelliniBlank at 6:39 PM on December 15, 2010


What I meant to say is that you think that using words like "he" causes us to change our opinions or thoughts about the way the world is. I think you're muddling the whorf controversy.

I don't think using the word "he" as a neutral pronoun turns all people into men, or makes me perceive all people to be men, or makes you perceive all people to be men. But I do think your insistence on this anachronism in the face of a bunch of human beings who feel hurt by this word choice is an indication that you value abstract principles based on shaky historical precedence over real human relationships. Which I find troubling.
posted by serazin at 6:46 PM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


What I meant to say is that you think that using words like "he" causes us to change our opinions or thoughts about the way the world is. But as someone else has already pointed out, the Germans don't have this "problem" (they don't think a girl being called an "it" is an issue). Therefore, I think this argument is bogus. It's not a universal. And if Whorf were right, then you'd expect to see this everywhere.

This strikes me as an unsupported assumption laden crock of shit.

1)Germans are not upset by such usage given their language. So? Does that prove that their society is not nonetheless affected by such usage and women getting the short end of hte stick? Proof and citations please.

2)But even if it were so, that Germans are not affected, you elide a very important point - it is German, not English. There are other features of the German language which may affect how such pronouns effect people, perhaps mitigating such effects. For example, German is replete with everyday nouns having gender. Perhaps being used to this phenomenon immunizes the speakers from certain gender assumptions - a phenomenon which would not occur in English. We don't know - do you have a study proving that this is not the case? English is not German. Therefore you cannot cite what happens in German as proof conclusive that the same effect must obtain in a different language. That is an assumption - and not supported.

3)Even if we were dealing with exactly the same language, but a different culture or political reality (say Germans in East vs West Germany), it is possible that the surrounding culture/politics affects how language impacts the speakers and gives differential results.

In short, you have made a fair number of assumptions, which don't have any objective studies backing them up.

Given that, it makes little sense to accuse people of ignorance if they have made the political/social/cultural choice to use pronouns in certain ways in English and in America. Ignorance - certainly as you describe it - does not enter here, and using such terms, unsupported, reflects badly on you.
posted by VikingSword at 7:21 PM on December 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


That's fine mrgrimm, but again you're assuming that "he" when used as a generic pronoun is really secretly being used as a male-slanted pronoun. That's not the case. It really is a generic pronoun. It just happens to LOOK like the masculine pronoun as well.

It doesn't "just happen to look like" the masculine pronoun. It is the same as the masculine pronoun. The masculine version is used as the generic, the same way people say "man is the measure of all things" to mean "a person" not to mean "a male person". But to imagine or suggest that's an accident - that it somehow randomly just happened that way - is really weak.

It happened that way because for millenia, men were considered "human beings" and women were considered "women" - the object of a human's affection, the wife and mother who cared for human beings, beautiful, lovely, sexy sidekicks to human beings - but not really human beings themselves. The obvious generic would be "he" because only men really counted.

Nowadays we (the goal at least is to) see women as having their own stories, so using an outdated generic based on an outdated assumption about gender roles doesn't make sense. That's why you find most academics, whether male or female, make liberal use of "she" when giving generic examples (Rorty was going with the usual style).
posted by mdn at 7:44 PM on December 15, 2010 [5 favorites]


I stated earlier that I was throwing this stuff out there partly as devil's advocate. And now people are getting their feelings hurt.

People are "getting their feelings hurt" because you're treating this as an academic exercise, and a little fun to play devil's advocate, while others of us recognize the impact had on us (and our mothers and our grandmothers) that doctors, lawyers, scientists, engineers, presidents, and God were always (completely coincidentally and without any malice of course) the "gender neutral" male pronoun, while nurses, teachers, and secretaries were always (completely coincidentally again) the "gender neutral" female pronoun.

Using a single academic theory (that you view as discredited by your single counterexample in German) to suggest that the impact this has had on us and our society is a big lie is to dismiss our experience of our entire lives as not as valid as your (totally just to play devil's advocate) academic exercise.
posted by hydropsyche at 3:26 AM on December 16, 2010 [5 favorites]


shakespeherian: "In the romance languages, inanimate objects have gender."

Objects also have gender in Germanic, Slavic and Nordic* languages. I think English is one of the only Indo-European languages to make do with one.

*) Strangely enough, in Danish inanimate objects either have gender (e.g a car, en bil) or they don't (e.g. a tree, et træ) with no apparent pattern.
posted by brokkr at 5:42 AM on December 16, 2010


Kids can be pretty awesome, but being fluid about gender doesn't come naturally to them.

I've spent half my life working with toddlers & preschoolers and you will never find a more stringent Gender Police than a group of five year olds. I've had five year olds tell me that I must be a boy because I'm wearing brown shoes and brown is a boy color. Nevermind that I was wearing said shoes with a skirt.

So, yeah, this is a nice counterpoint to that - but intrinsically, small kids are figuring out their own identities and how they relate to the identities of those around them and gender is a huge part of that. They need to know who's a boy and who's a girl in order to define themselves as "boy" or "girl." It's nice to see kids who are able to be fluid about that, but this is certainly not something that comes naturally to children in general.

(Not only is this my experience, anecdotally, but it's also what I've picked up in college courses on both Gender Development and Early Childhood Education.)
posted by sonika at 7:49 AM on December 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


Words can change our culture? No.

And yet you keep trying...

I'm trying to point out to English speakers that just because someone says something is "bad", that it isn't necessarily bad.

You have demonstrated your point adequately.

Wouldn't it be nice if offense didn't exist? If we could just ask about everything?

I agree that it would be incredibly liberating, but it would also be incredibly uncomfortable for some people:

* When are you going to have kids?
* What's wrong with your face?
* How much of a raise did you get?

etc.

I care more about people's feelings than I do about gleaning trivial information.
posted by mrgrimm at 9:44 AM on December 16, 2010


Is it just me, or do others also keen for a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode where Whorf spends time on the holodeck pretending to be a linguist?
posted by zippy at 10:21 AM on December 16, 2010


I'm baffled by those who think that citing Shakespeare and Chaucer and Eliot is somehow going to convince a self-avowed prescriptivist. Now, I'm not such a prescriptivist—I'm OK with the use of "they" to refer to a generic single person, vaguely uncomfortable with the use of "they" to refer to a specific single person, even though I recognize the value of that usage on pragmatic grounds—but given that a prescriptivist is not swayed by the way Joe the Plumber uses a word, why should they care how Shakespeare used it? They wouldn't be much a of a prescriptivist if they were convinced by arguments like that, would they?
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:24 AM on December 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


"Wouldn't it be nice if offense didn't exist? If we could just ask about everything?"

What? God, no. That would not be nice at all. That would be absolutely horrible. I'd sooner jump out a window than live in that world. I mean familiarity amongst close friends and family is great, but I really don't want strangers to feel free to ask about the intimate details of my life. Ugh. No. No. No. No. No. No.
posted by oddman at 10:51 AM on December 16, 2010


"Wouldn't it be nice if offense didn't exist? If we could just ask about everything?"


What? God, no. That would not be nice at all. That would be absolutely horrible. ... I really don't want strangers to feel free to ask about the intimate details of my life. Ugh. No. No. No. No. No. No.

But if offence didn't exist, you wouldn't be offended when strangers asked you personal questions.
posted by grumblebee at 11:43 AM on December 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


I think most "normal" people under age 50 have pretty much abandoned the use of the generic "he", at least in any of the journalism, academic writing, or popular non-fiction I've come across in the last many years.

Well, with a sample size of one person reporting what he or she has noticed most "normal" people doing, I am convinced.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 12:32 PM on December 16, 2010


I really don't want strangers to feel free to ask about the intimate details of my life. Ugh. No. No. No. No. No. No.

But if offence didn't exist, you wouldn't be offended when strangers asked you personal questions.

Are you going to banish embarrassment and self-consciousness?

If someone loudly asked me at a company party whether I had been able to successfully remove a sexual assault arrest from college off my record, I would be mortified. Who cares if I take "offense"?

Or if a ex-girlfriend stopped my my table when I was on a new date and asked if my gonorrhea was any better. I wouldn't be offended by the question, but I would be upset nonetheless.

It seems like you're postulating a world in which no one feels self conscious about anything. Hard to imagine.
posted by mrgrimm at 1:16 PM on December 16, 2010


> It's the same issue with saying 'mankind' for 'humanity'

I always imagined that 'mankind' included he-men and she-men. But so many say it ain't so, one almost feels they want it to be not so. I am too being excluded! I am! I am!
posted by jfuller at 4:43 PM on December 16, 2010


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