since 2009, 1,891 UVM students have specified a preferred pronoun
February 3, 2015 2:27 PM   Subscribe

 
I'm curious how the pronouns work as a practical matter. It seems like most situations where you would use pronouns are not those where you have the student's record up in front of you.
posted by smackfu at 2:40 PM on February 3, 2015


When I was a TA, my department gave everyone sheets of "mug shots" at the start of the semester for all the sections they were teaching to help TAs learn students' names. Would have been pretty easy to slip a pronoun preference in there too.
posted by dorque at 2:47 PM on February 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


The pronouns come up in correspondence from the university, mainly where a mass email is tailored to each recipient. And professors are able to see it beforehand and usually are amenable to using them. I had classes at UVM with students who have gender identities other than male and female, and heard professors and staff use preferred pronouns and/or only names when requested.

As a cis man, I'm the last person to have any say about this, but I can definitely tell that UVM and much of its community tries to be as accepting and open as possible with various gender identities, both as it welcomes community members with those gender identities and tries to educate other members of the community about them.
posted by papayaninja at 2:50 PM on February 3, 2015


From this article posted on the blue last week;

English doesn’t offer a ready-made way to talk about people who identify as neither male nor female. Sasha prefers “they,” “it” or the invented gender-neutral pronoun “xe”.
posted by adept256 at 2:59 PM on February 3, 2015


Interesting semi-side note: so, the NYTimes style guidelines don't allow the use of "they" or "ze" because prescriptivism, I guess (see article that adepty256 linked), so that means that Julie Scelfo needed to write the whole article without pronoun references to Rocko (except in quotations). On the other hand, apparently she was allowed to side step the traditional NYTimes second-and-subsequent-reference Ms./Mr./Mrs./Miss. Lastname and just call them "Gieselman" for the rest of the article.
posted by damayanti at 3:09 PM on February 3, 2015 [10 favorites]


That's really excellent, both that the policy exists and that it's getting some press.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 3:17 PM on February 3, 2015


I understand the traditionalists (only he and she!), and the prescriptivists (no singular they!), and the agendered (use "it" universally). I can also understand why someone would prefer to retain a distinction between singular and plural pronouns. I don't understand why anyone would fight over whether to use "sie", "ve" or "zie", though.
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:06 PM on February 3, 2015


I don't understand why anyone would fight over whether to use "sie", "ve" or "zie", though.

I can't tell whether you mean you don't understand why someone would want an invented pronoun at all, or whether you mean you don't see a distinction between those, but my take on it either way: a lot of us who don't fit a "he" or "she" box spend/have spent a lot of time turning our gender identities and presentations over and over in our heads trying to find something that makes sense, and if you can find a pronoun that lets you get a scrap of satisfaction out of saying "Yes, that. That's me, that works", you tend to get attached to that particular one, even if everyone else is dumping them all in the same "I dunno, invented pronoun" bucket.

(Also, believe it or not, some people give you a lot less shit over invented pronouns than over singular they. I don't get it, but I've watched it happen.)
posted by dorque at 5:17 PM on February 3, 2015 [4 favorites]


One thing I really didn't like about the reportage:

While colleges across the country have been grappling with concerns related to students transitioning from one gender to another, Vermont is at the forefront in recognizing the next step in identity politics: the validation of a third gender.

They make it sound almost like this development is a cynically calculated act, an instance of unspecified forces in some larger struggle making a strategic move that's tarnished by the implication of that cynically calculated intent. It's poor phrasing at best and tendentious editorializing at worst. I mean, I understand that lots of Americans think that brutally-enforced regimes of social control pertaining to gender and sex are an existential necessity, but this doesn't imply that resisting that fascistic conflation of the personal and the political is "the next step in identity politics." Not to mention that one person's "identity politics" are another's, y'know, human rights.
posted by clockzero at 5:28 PM on February 3, 2015 [2 favorites]


Joe in Australia: I can also understand why someone would prefer to retain a distinction between singular and plural pronouns.

Thou wilt find this distinction lost many centuries hence, fallen to the untutoréd hordes, as they prattell their “singular you”.
posted by traveler_ at 6:06 PM on February 3, 2015 [11 favorites]


I can't tell whether you mean you don't understand why someone would want an invented pronoun at all, or whether you mean you don't see a distinction between those [...]

Mostly the latter. I mean, I understand that the True Pope and Emperor of All that is Transgendered hasn't issued a ruling about which invented pronoun to use, but I'm surprised that anyone thought it was necessary to make a flash card listing several sets of pronouns that are grammatically identical and only differ in form. I suppose the emotional argument makes sense, though, while we await a Transcurial pronouncement.

The ones that differ grammatically, now those are interesting. Do you distinguish the absolute form of the third person possessive (i.e., "her hair" and "that's hers" vs "his hair" and "that's his")? That's an ideological choice, and whichever way you go, it's meaningful. Or look at the pushback against the guy who wants to be referred to as "it". I totally understand the pushback! It's dehumanising! Also, "it" is dehumanising! But ... why am I having such a visceral response to it, when there's no logical distinction between the nouns that get personal pronouns and the ones which don't? So it makes me think - that is, "it" makes me think about the role of pronouns.
posted by Joe in Australia at 6:32 PM on February 3, 2015


Finnish language doesn't have different 3rd person singular pronouns for male/ female. This means that translating foreign literature to Finnish can take some skills. I read lot less in Finnish nowadays and noticed that I was getting confused with a book little while ago as book was about couple living in remote setting by themselves. In my mind I associated the pronoun hän with the male way too often and I had to remind myself that I was reading in Finnish.
posted by zeikka at 6:34 PM on February 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


(Also, believe it or not, some people give you a lot less shit over invented pronouns than over singular they. I don't get it, but I've watched it happen.)

Yeah, I'm one of those people. You say you're a zie, or a xe, or even an it? That's cool; I'll respect that. But a they? I don't get it. If Sam wants people to use the singular they to refer to them, do I say "They are in the kitchen" or "They is in the kitchen"? If it's the latter, then that's weird, but I can adjust. If it's the former, then why does Sam get a whole different conjugation that other people, regardless of gender identification, don't?

I've ground this axe on MeFi before, and I apologize, but I still haven't gotten an answer.

(And I'm miffed about the singular you, too.)
posted by Faint of Butt at 6:43 PM on February 3, 2015


Faint of Butt: I've ground this axe on MeFi before, and I apologize, but I still haven't gotten an answer. (And I'm miffed about the singular you, too.)

In that case I think that sets the precedent for an answer, if I remember correctly: as singular "you" became more common in English the verb conjugation came with the pronoun class. So "thou wilt" became "you will", and not "you wilt". With that in mind I'd argue for "I see Sam. They are in the kitchen." Sam doesn't get a whole different conjugation, they get the pronoun, and the pronoun keeps its conjugation.
posted by traveler_ at 7:02 PM on February 3, 2015 [7 favorites]


But a they? I don't get it. If Sam wants people to use the singular they to refer to them, do I say "They are in the kitchen" or "They is in the kitchen"?

You say "they are", which is a usage of singular they that is perfectly normal and has been perfectly normal since Chaucer, and I am so freaking tired of this particular complaint being trotted out by everyone and their dog in trans-related discussions because most people find this usage perfectly unobjectionable in contexts not having to do with trans or gender-non-conforming people, shockingly enough.

Sorry for being short with you, but seriously, there's your answer, if you want to grind that axe it might be better not to do it at actual people who use "they", for whom that complaint has already been weaponized.
posted by dorque at 7:03 PM on February 3, 2015 [37 favorites]


Sorry, Faint of Butt, on failure to preview I think that came across even snippier than I realized. I'm going to step away for a bit and look at pictures of kittens or something.
posted by dorque at 7:05 PM on February 3, 2015


I don't think we would lose much by eliminating the gendered distinction between third-person pronouns. It only conveys added information when the subject might be an individual or a group: "After the President's address to the convention I applauded him/them." Most of the time it wouldn't make a difference, and it would allow us to eliminate clumsy constructions like "the operator should record his/her/their details".
posted by Joe in Australia at 8:00 PM on February 3, 2015


In addition to what dorque and traveler_ said, one thing that's helpful to understand is that signification is arbitrary. The 'rules' surrounding it are attempts to document and analyze the phenomena we observe, not dictates from some platonic realm that determine the narrow, unchanging confines in which meaning is allowed to happen.

Singular they predates modern English. As dorque mentioned, it's in Chaucer, and it was a common enough singular pronoun until 1745 when Ann Fisher's A New Grammar summarily replaced it with he. Anyone who wants to be mad about people redefining things by fiat should be shaking their fists at Fisher for overturning centuries of grammar on a whim.

Another thing is that language changes happen all the time, and lots of these shifts are as big or bigger than a change in number for a pronoun. Most people aren't mad that þ and ð are gone from the alphabet. They don't lose their cool over Webster's politically-motivated orthographic deviations that set American English apart from British English. They'll happily denote past participles with -ed rather than bi-, i-, or y-. They don't huff and insist that everyone needs to say their vowels like we used to, which is basically like the vowels in church Latin. And so on.

But for some reason, singular they is a bridge too far, and that bridge goes to a hill, and that hill is where they'll be buried.
posted by amery at 8:13 PM on February 3, 2015 [11 favorites]


Yeah, I'm one of those people. You say you're a zie, or a xe, or even an it? That's cool; I'll respect that. But a they? I don't get it.

But...this is exactly backwards. For centuries, "they" has been a pronoun that can refer to a single person, and pronouns are a closed class in English, so you can't just decree that a new one exists. "They" works perfectly in this case, and invented pronouns don't.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 8:51 PM on February 3, 2015 [4 favorites]


just stop being prescriptive about pronouns people

what the hell did a pronoun ever do to you, good or bad

demanding a ban on the singular "they" or on invented pronouns is to appreciating language what "Lemon. Wet. Good." was to culinary appreciation. what, do you read Melville and you're all "oh wow I can't believe he used a shortcut to refer to people he'd already discussed, that's so artful. can you imagine, he wrote this using letters"
posted by The Bridge on the River Kai Ryssdal at 9:29 PM on February 3, 2015 [3 favorites]


Joe in Australia: Or look at the pushback against the guy who wants to be referred to as "it".

If someone wants to be referred to as "it" they are almost certainly not a guy.
posted by Dysk at 12:43 AM on February 4, 2015 [4 favorites]


pro tip, don't ever call an amab trans person who present feminine "dude" or "man" or "guy" unless they've specifically indicated they're ok with that.
posted by thug unicorn at 1:16 AM on February 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


I was turned off this as soon as I saw that they had eliminated "they/them" on spurious grammatical grounds despite its popularity. (“Students proposed ‘they/them’ pronouns, but the faculty vetoed the idea because they said it is grammatically incorrect,”) If you're going to accept invented gendered-sounding terms that have no history in English then you don't also get to manufacture a crisis by eliminating the one widely used non-gendered option that has existed for 700 years and is in fact perfectly good English usage. That begins to feel like an agenda.

If they were actually trying to come up with a universal non-gendered pronoun that could be used to address a random person without making any gender assumptions at all about that person then I'd be more sympathetic, but this doesn't feel like that. It feels more like they are trying to turn the binary into a trinary rather than a unary.
posted by Autumn Leaf at 1:45 AM on February 4, 2015 [6 favorites]


and pronouns are a closed class in English, so you can't just decree that a new one exists

Wait what? Like there's no public constructor for pronouns or something?
posted by Dr Dracator at 2:45 AM on February 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


pronouns are a closed class in English, so you can't just decree that a new one exists

That's preposterous. English introduces new words all the time, whenever the need arises. The word "telephone" didn't exist before the invention of the telephone, so we made up a word to apply to it. It's become clear that English is lacking in pronouns beyond the male/female gender binary, and we need them, so we add them.

And I know the Chaucer argument. I've got no objections to the singular they when the referent is ambiguous or syntactically plural: "Everybody needs to take off their shoes." Even though "everybody" is singular, it still applies to multiple people, so "their" is fine, as it implies "the [plural] people who have shoes." What I don't understand is how the same speaker can say "Sam is in the kitchen" and "They are in the kitchen" when the referent is known and unchanged.
posted by Faint of Butt at 4:11 AM on February 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


'They' is fine too, but there's no particular reason why we can't treat pronouns as an open class if we decide that we want to start doing that -- I'm all in favor of it. Besides, closed classes are not immutable; it's certainly possible to add new words to them.
posted by Drexen at 4:13 AM on February 4, 2015


What I don't understand is how the same speaker can say "Sam is in the kitchen" and "They are in the kitchen" when the referent is known and unchanged.

But you do understand the usage, don't you? That is, it doesn't leave you baffled as to the actual meaning? So why quibble over this arbitrary rule? Why should it particularly be the case that the pronoun is always conjugated the same as the the noun it substitutes? It is not required for a coherent grammar, as shown by the fact of this well-established usage (not that it would be any more "wrong" if it was entirely new).
posted by Drexen at 4:23 AM on February 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


What I don't understand is how the same speaker can say "Sam is in the kitchen" and "They are in the kitchen" when the referent is known and unchanged.

Why is it a problem when the referent is known but not when it's unknown? Like, if I can say "someone is in the kitchen and they are making a lot of noise" then what is the issue with "Sam is in the kitchen and they are making a lot of noise"?

In my experience, it feels weird and clunky for all of maybe the first five uses, and then it becomes totally natural.
posted by Dysk at 4:41 AM on February 4, 2015 [8 favorites]


That's preposterous. English introduces new words all the time, whenever the need arises.

Verbs and nouns are not closed classes in English; you can invent new ones, like "MeFite" or "mansplain" or "birther."

Pronouns and other closed classes do not permit such innovations. Inventing a new pronoun is about as easy as inventing a new preposition, and neither of those is going to happen if you snap your fingers and declare them to exist.

You are far more likely to make "fetch" happen.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 4:57 AM on February 4, 2015


Like, if I can say "someone is in the kitchen and they are making a lot of noise" then what is the issue with "Sam is in the kitchen and they are making a lot of noise"?

Good point. It should be "Someone is in the kitchen and they is making a lot of noise." This language is a mess.
posted by Faint of Butt at 5:03 AM on February 4, 2015


'They' is fine too, but there's no particular reason why we can't treat pronouns as an open class if we decide that we want to start doing that -- I'm all in favor of it.

Except that by insisting that pronouns are an open class, when the body of speakers of 21st-century English does not agree with you, means that you are no longer speaking 21st-century English. I've said this before, but if you're attempting to correct people on a language of which they are a native speaker, you need to step back and figure out where you messed up.

Besides, closed classes are not immutable; it's certainly possible to add new words to them.

Over a single person's lifetime, they pretty much are immutable.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 5:04 AM on February 4, 2015


> Good point. It should be "Someone is in the kitchen and they is making a lot of noise." This language is a mess.

Really? That's what hangs you up?

In this example, "someone" is unknown, so "they are" is perfectly correct, as you don't know how many people are making noise. In the known example - "Sam" - the construction "they are" is not at all ambiguous (you know it is Sam in the kitchen) and is still perfectly correct. Why? Because it has a long tradition in our language, which has many, many irregularities and oddities, as you acknowledge. Because this language is a mess, as you acknowledge.

Because - I say this as an editor - it is more important to show respect for what a person wishes to be called than to stick your nose in the air and declare it ungrammatical, and that instead you will impose a made-up term that they did not choose, because to you, obeying arbitrary grammatical rules is more important than being kind.
posted by rtha at 5:18 AM on February 4, 2015 [9 favorites]


I was turned off this as soon as I saw that they had eliminated "they/them" on spurious grammatical grounds despite its popularity.

"They" is allowed now, since September.
posted by smackfu at 5:36 AM on February 4, 2015


Pronouns and other closed classes do not permit such innovations. Inventing a new pronoun is about as easy as inventing a new preposition, and neither of those is going to happen if you snap your fingers and declare them to exist.

Prepositions don't reinforce a false, damaging gender binary. The "closed class" of pronouns is inadequate and needs to be enlarged to accommodate people--real people--who don't fall into the constructed boundaries. And if someone invents or discovers a new way that objects can be related in space or time, I'll happily accept new prepositions as well. Surely quantum particles don't always neatly correspond to "above," "below" or "behind," right?

Because - I say this as an editor - it is more important to show respect for what a person wishes to be called than to stick your nose in the air and declare it ungrammatical, and that instead you will impose a made-up term that they did not choose, because to you, obeying arbitrary grammatical rules is more important than being kind.

I'm an editor, too. I don't want to impose a made-up term. I want to be kind. If someone wants to be "they," that's fine. I'll respect that pronoun. But there's still only one of them, so their verbs need to fall in line with the verbs attached to all the other preexisting third-person singular pronouns. Let's call the agendered singular they a polysemous homonym of the plural they. "He is in the kitchen. She is in the kitchen. It is in the kitchen. Xe is in the kitchen. They is in the kitchen." I'm happy with this arrangement. Are you?
posted by Faint of Butt at 5:37 AM on February 4, 2015


I don't want to impose a made-up term. I want to be kind.

Let's call the agendered singular they a polysemous homonym of the plural they. "He is in the kitchen. She is in the kitchen. It is in the kitchen. Xe is in the kitchen. They is in the kitchen." I'm happy with this arrangement. Are you?

You don't want to impose a made-up term, but you're not happy with the explanation that traveler_ gave you above and you'd rather impose a new conjugation on "they"? That's... really not actually kinder. It says "oh, I will use your pronoun, but only on my terms."
posted by dorque at 5:51 AM on February 4, 2015 [5 favorites]


FoB: But there's still only one of them, so their verbs need to fall in line with the verbs attached to all the other preexisting third-person singular pronouns.

But that's counterfactual because there is, or at least has been, a perfectly cromulent and accepted singular 'they' that takes 'are'! The requirement you are suggesting is demonstrably not required for a coherent grammar, and they way you suggest implementing it ("they is") seems like an arbitrary and redundant novelty that would not have a reason to spread.

Dead town: Except that by insisting that pronouns are an open class, when the body of speakers of 21st-century English does not agree with you, means that you are no longer speaking 21st-century English. I've said this before, but if you're attempting to correct people on a language of which they are a native speaker, you need to step back and figure out where you messed up. [...] Over a single person's lifetime, [closed classes] pretty much are immutable.

Without getting too deep into the prescriptive/descriptive rabbithole and how it applies here, your argument seems to imply that no language could ever change. If a change happens, whether its the reintroduction of the singular 'they(+are)' or the opening of the pronoun class, it's got to happen or at least to start during someone's lifetime! And if that change is a usage that reflects a new understanding, there's no particular reason why it would/should be tested against whether it is represented in the language as it stands.

To put it another way, if changes of this sort don't happen during a lifetime, then there must be a period during which both usages are present until the old one fades away -- otherwise no new usage would ever arise. I'd argue that this change could happen more quickly than you're suggesting, but either way, the fact that it is new does not make it wrong or that we/the people in question must be simply making a mistake.

Wait a second I am totally getting too deep into the prescriptive/descriptive rabbit hole here DANG IT
posted by Drexen at 6:24 AM on February 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


your argument seems to imply that no language could ever change

Not really. What I'm saying is that you are very unlikely to be able to decree a change like that yourself and have it stick, and that attempting to "correct" native speakers is a wrong-headed and probably fruitless endeavor.

The fact that the faculty vetoed "they" as ungrammatical puts them squarely in prescriptivist land. There is no person whom "they" is incapable of describing.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 7:06 AM on February 4, 2015


Why does a singular "they" need to take the same verb form as the other third person singular pronouns? Seriously, I don't understand the argument. The other singular pronouns don't use that form ("I am, you are") and I can think of an example from Spanish where two pronouns share number and gender but not verb form ("tu eres, usted es" [2nd person singular neutral]) which seems to work just fine. Also, the only other personal pronoun in English that can be either singlular or plural ("you") also takes "are" in either case, so there's consistency in treating "they" similarly if consistency is what you're aiming for. (A laudable goal, but with English I would say that that ship has long sailed, hit a sandbank, been towed to Myanmar, got cut up for scrap, and been recycled into six million Altoids® tins which have been distributed to the four winds and lost in the dusty back corners of desk drawers all over the world.)

Plus, there is indisputably an existing convention in English that "they" always takes "are" regardless of number. You can argue about whether the singular "they" is grammatical or not (though its ubiquitous and multi-century-historical usage seems a pretty persuasive argument that it is grammatical) but if you're going to accept its use in the first place then surely you should use it in the way that billions of native speakers have been using it for centuries. Taking it upon yourself to impose a different usage simply because it seems more logical to you when looked at in a certain light seems rather perverse to me. It seems like a really weird and tenuous position to be digging one's heels in over.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 7:22 AM on February 4, 2015 [8 favorites]


Not really. What I'm saying is that you are very unlikely to be able to decree a change like that yourself and have it stick, and that attempting to "correct" native speakers is a wrong-headed and probably fruitless endeavor.

Hmmmm. I guess I'd say to that that using a new pronoun (or an existing pronoun in a new way, or revitalising a partially-deprecated usage..) to reflect previously suppressed expressions of gender, is more akin to introducing new vocabulary to reflect a new fact or understanding, which happens all the time and is a part of language evolution, than it is to trying to unnaturally manipulate a language's grammatical structure.

That's not to say it doesn't require effort and activisim and perhaps even more radical means like opprobrium (i.e: "don't misgender someone, or face some manner of consequence"), to achieve. But that is because attitudes, and habits, are hard to change, not because the change is inherently ungrammatical and is resisted by the systems (biological and societal) that maintain the coherence of grammar.
posted by Drexen at 8:19 AM on February 4, 2015


That's not to say it doesn't require effort and activisim and perhaps even more radical means like opprobrium

Subjecting someone to opprobrium for not "correcting" their native language to your satisfaction makes you the oppressor. It is not a good idea.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 9:04 AM on February 4, 2015


I find in practice that I always say "they are," not "they is." It's never even occurred to me to say "they is." When referring to a known single person who prefers "they" pronouns, that is.

Also, I'm on my way to a conference with a strong culture of PGP (preferred gender pronoun) introductions -- many people write them on their name tags -- and gender neutral bathrooms. It is all so normal while I'm there and reminds me all over again all the ways in which gender binary is reinforced back in the default world.
posted by gingerbeer at 9:05 AM on February 4, 2015


Subjecting someone to opprobrium for not "correcting" their native language to your satisfaction makes you the oppressor. It is not a good idea.

I disagree twice!
posted by Drexen at 9:07 AM on February 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


Subjecting someone to opprobrium for not "correcting" their native language to your satisfaction makes you the oppressor. It is not a good idea.

Yes, non-binary trans people wanting a modicum of respect are the oppressors. Sure. That's how it works.

You know a load of non-binary people are native English speakers? Maybe consider that you're telling those native English speakers that they are doing it wrong, exactly the same as you're constantly complaining about? Only you're part of a larger system of oppression of non-binary identities, and they're not.

You're the bad guy here, dude.
posted by Dysk at 9:27 AM on February 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


dorque beat me to the "They has always been allowable as a neuter pronoun" rant.

And even mentioned my favorite reason. Yay Chaucer!
posted by IAmBroom at 9:30 AM on February 4, 2015


It's all fun and games to argue prescriptive/descriptive among dictionary geeks but when it is about whether to call someone what they wish, isn't it so much easier to just respect their wishes?
posted by smackfu at 9:30 AM on February 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


It's also the opposite of fun and games for trans people to argue about that shit, doubly so for non-binary people just wanting to be spoken and thought of in a way they are comfortable with.

This is not a debate club. Have some respect.
posted by Dysk at 9:35 AM on February 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


If you are telling a native speaker that they don't know how to speak their own language, then yes, you are squarely in the wrong.

First of all, it's worth remembering that the subject of the article was the university recognising, that is, no longer trying to "correct", the usage of people's preferred pronouns.

Secondly, even in the case of people who insist on being referred to by their preferred pronoun, they are not "correcting a native-speaker's language use" in the sense that you seem to mean here, i.e., they are not saying it is a "grammatical mistake". They are saying it is a mistake of fact to misgender someone. Which is true. It's no different from insisting that someone use your preferred name -- it is a matter of courtesy, recognition and equal treatment, not a matter of a prescriptive approach to grammar.
posted by Drexen at 9:46 AM on February 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


I feel like the two issues have been conflated because of the detail about the university rejecting "they" based on silly prescriptivist grounds, which we seem to agree was a mistake.
posted by Drexen at 9:47 AM on February 4, 2015


They are saying it is a mistake of fact to misgender someone. Which is true. It's no different from insisting that someone use your preferred name -- it is a matter of courtesy, recognition and equal treatment, not a matter of a prescriptive approach to grammar.

Nouns (which is what names are) are an open class in English. Pronouns are a closed class in English. If a native speaker of a language does not recognize innovation in a closed class, they are not making a mistake. Attempting to "teach" people their own native language is weird and inappropriate.

You have been doing nothing else in this thread.

I've been doing nothing of the sort.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 10:00 AM on February 4, 2015


Pronouns are a closed class in English. If a native speaker of a language does not recognize innovation in a closed class, they are not making a mistake.

But this doesn't follow, because closed classes are still not immutable.
posted by Drexen at 10:04 AM on February 4, 2015


And in particular, like any other part of language they must (or more accurately, will) change to reflect new facts and understandings, such as new genders or gender expressions that are not currently accommodated by the pronoun class.
posted by Drexen at 10:06 AM on February 4, 2015


[Couple comments removed, please cool it.]
posted by cortex (staff) at 10:09 AM on February 4, 2015


Pronouns being a closed class seems to be describing the current state of things, without any underlying logic, and then using that to proscribe allowed behavior. Isn't it weird to mix those?
posted by smackfu at 10:11 AM on February 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


You're the bad guy here, dude.

What's up with the personal attacks? Please have some respect yourself.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 10:15 AM on February 4, 2015


From my perspective, misgendering people, including refusing to recognize their gender identity and pronouns, reads as a deeply personal attack. You may coming off as more hostile than you intend. What seems a theoretical grammar discussion to you is often a matter of core identity and personal respect to others.
posted by gingerbeer at 10:23 AM on February 4, 2015 [9 favorites]


I've got no objections to the singular they when the referent is ambiguous

Good, then you should have no problem using it to refer to people who consider their gender ambiguous. If it helps you to think of the referent as being of ambiguous gender, try it. (Please note - I am not at all saying that all people who want "they/their" consider their gender ambiguous. If you are close enough to them to ask, you should try it. Otherwise, maybe that trick will help you not misgender people. I prefer they/their, although I don't insist on it. I AM ambiguous, refer to me that way.)
posted by stoneweaver at 11:07 AM on February 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


[Not sure what part of please cool it was unclear. It's okay to just disagree and walk away and that's pretty much what needs to happen here.]
posted by cortex (staff) at 11:24 AM on February 4, 2015


I now default to the singular they whenever I don't know someone's gender pronoun preference, after realizing I had been doing so casually for literally all my life. I use "are/were" with it, not "is/was," just like everyone else. I mean, does this conversation read as particularly stilted?

"Hey, is that a person down there?"

"Ugh, I can't tell in this light. If it is, they aren't moving."

No, it doesn't. Because that's how we speak in English; we habitually use singular they/are to refer to someone of unknown identity. The new stretch is using it to refer to someone of known identity, but that's not a grammar problem.
posted by KathrynT at 11:45 AM on February 4, 2015 [8 favorites]


We routinely teach language to its native speakers. There are entire professions dedicated to this. It's a daily thing for young native speakers, and while it decreases in frequency with adult native speakers, language changes constantly so language learning is never finished.

Additionally, native speakers routinely enter new contexts where language use has distinct rules and local norms. Learning these is essential for communicating well in those contexts, and the value of teaching them is obvious and noncontentious.

When I use language in flawed ways, either because I don't know a local convention or because the rules have changed, my use can have costs ranging from me not being understood to me reinforcing oppressive power relations. Depending on the cost, this might merit responses ranging from no action to gentle correction to social censure.

For example, the preferred terms for some groups of people have changed multiple times in my life, and the old terms are often offensive because they're used to reinforce old, oppressive power relations.

If I use an old term for someone and they react with censure, they are not oppressing me. Me using the old, offensive term is oppressing them, and me claiming victimhood on the grounds of being a native speaker is special pleading that reminds me strongly of the reasoning behind 'straight cis men have it worst nowadays' and 'Christians are the most persecuted religious group' and 'what about White History Month?'
posted by amery at 12:20 PM on February 4, 2015 [5 favorites]


Many of the people who invent new pronouns are native speakers. Telling them that they can't do that is telling them that they're wrong.
posted by Dysk at 1:30 PM on February 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


I'm going to step outside the tedious 'they' discussion (call people what they want to be called--it means more to them than it is ever likely to matter to you) to note that the concept of non-binary gender on official university forms would be a huge help for a survey we're putting together right now.

For this survey, we're collecting demographic data among other things. So I sat down with a colleague who is LGBT and for gender we hashed out the awkward phrasing of 'under what gender are you registered with the university?' with 'M/F/Prefer not to state/Other(fill in)' as answers. It feels wrong, because we are in favor of using the genders people prefer to identify as, but we need to match the data with university-reported data and that's only reported on the binary.

We know that campus is slowly moving to trans* friendly language but we don't know where things stand currently and in any case it doesn't appear that the data that we need to match to for our analyses will change (because we're a public institution in one of the least LGBT friendly states in the nation). So this whole process of moving toward non-binary genders on official forms could not happen fast enough for me--I can only imagine that my trans* and genderqueer colleagues and students feel an even more urgent need.
posted by librarylis at 1:37 PM on February 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


Dost thou sayeth that pronouns are a closed class? If so, then I have a bone to pick with thee.
posted by Sticherbeast at 1:38 PM on February 4, 2015


Meaning, if the English language can kill thou/thee, then English can sustain a novel-ish use of "they". Language evolves, and the planet keeps spinning...
posted by Sticherbeast at 1:39 PM on February 4, 2015


It is terribly presumptuous (and nearly always incorrect) to tell an adult native speaker that their intuitions about their own idiolect are wrong. If a typical native speaker of an identifiable dialect would say that X is grammatical and Y is ungrammatical, nobody is in a position to correct them about this; that is how that dialect is spoken. There is no veto.

For example, the preferred terms for some groups of people have changed multiple times in my life, and the old terms are often offensive because they're used to reinforce old, oppressive power relations.

You're talking about open classes, in which you can readily create new members. That's not the case for closed classes.

Many of the people who invent new pronouns are native speakers. Telling them that they can't do that is telling them that they're wrong.

Telling them that they aren't likely to be understood by a typical native speaker if they do so, and that the barrier to creation of a new object in a closed class is very high, is accurate, however. You can try to invent any new thing you want (and for open classes, it can work and sometimes gets you added to the OED), but if you aren't understood, it's not everyone else's fault.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 9:05 PM on February 4, 2015


one more dead town's last parade: Telling them that they aren't likely to be understood by a typical native speaker if they do so, and that the barrier to creation of a new object in a closed class is very high, is accurate, however.

Not being understood is one thing. Being told that someone understands and simply refuses to adapt or change, because they prioritise linguistic rules over actual people's pain and gender oppression is entirely another.

And you're coming off a lot like the latter here, even if you intend the former. There are real people - in this thread! - who are telling you it hurts them and others like them to be misgendered and asking you to be open to adapting a small linguistic tic so as not to hurt them and reinforce that same oppression. You are not treating them very well, or very kindly. Please consider the idea that grammatical rules should/could be less important than pedantry.
posted by pseudonymph at 12:33 AM on February 5, 2015 [2 favorites]


Language is a mess indeed. For example, the Estonian language, which happens to be my native language, completely lacks the future tense. Like, can you imagine how confused we all are like all of the time.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 12:49 AM on February 5, 2015 [2 favorites]


If a typical native speaker of an identifiable dialect would say that X is grammatical and Y is ungrammatical, nobody is in a position to correct them about this; that is how that dialect is spoken.

Eh, now you are just sweeping the mess under the carpet. How do we decide who gets to be a "typical" native speaker, and who appoints "identifiable" dialects? What if native speakers disagree on something? We would end up with a ridiculously large number of dialects if we forked the language for every point of disagreement.
posted by Dr Dracator at 3:14 AM on February 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


Like, can you imagine how confused we all are like all of the time.

Yes, but I can't imagine how confused you will be in the future!

If a typical native speaker of an identifiable dialect would say that X is grammatical and Y is ungrammatical, nobody is in a position to correct them about this; that is how that dialect is spoken.

Still banging this drum? It hasn't become any more applicable than before...
posted by Drexen at 4:40 AM on February 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


So when a bunch of us are saying "xe/sie/singular they is grammatical" it's really frustrating to be constantly told we're wrong, or that people don't understand in response to an explanation of the word.
posted by Dysk at 4:51 AM on February 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


It is terribly presumptuous (and nearly always incorrect) to tell an adult native speaker that their intuitions about their own idiolect are wrong. If a typical native speaker of an identifiable dialect would say that X is grammatical and Y is ungrammatical, nobody is in a position to correct them about this; that is how that dialect is spoken. There is no veto.

I refuse to believe that you do not see how this cuts both ways.

If your argument is just that pronouns change very rarely, then you'll get no argument from me. But, rare things do in fact still happen! If attitudes and practices about gender can maintain a certain trajectory, then at some point a tipping point will be reached: for a critical mass of people, it won't be a big deal to use gender-neutral pronouns, even for known people. Alternatively, if those attitudes and practices about gender do not maintain that certain trajectory, then it won't happen, either because a critical mass of people reject the admission of non-binary gender in this way, or because a critical mass of people find another "solution" to the issue.

UVM's official use of such pronouns is part of the former trajectory. It's a step in the march of time, in the evolution of language, either as an early example of something which becomes standard, or as a linguistic cul-de-sac.

...

Eh, now you are just sweeping the mess under the carpet. How do we decide who gets to be a "typical" native speaker, and who appoints "identifiable" dialects? What if native speakers disagree on something? We would end up with a ridiculously large number of dialects if we forked the language for every point of disagreement.

Well...to be fair, I wouldn't dismiss OMDTLP's point so readily. I just don't think it applies to gendered pronouns quite the way that OMDTLP thinks it does.

Language exists by consensus. Languages exist for no other reason aside from the fact that a critical mass of people agree that something is a language. English exists because people say that English exists. English and Dutch are separate languages because people say that they are separate languages. Many people used to say that Serbo-Croat was one language, but no longer.

Dialects exist for no other reason aside from the fact that a critical mass of people agree that something is a dialect. AAVE and Cockney are dialects because people say they are. Nobody thinks that people who had attended SUNY Albany speak a separate dialect of English. People in the West used to say that Mandarin and Cantonese were two dialects of the Chinese language, but this view is largely passé.

The borders between language and dialect are fuzzy and fluid. Not everybody is going to agree on which language is what or which dialect is what. Not all variations in speech come down to dialectal variation, either: there are slang terms and academic terms and technical terms and regional terms and business speak and so on and so forth. For example, you could insert 4chan-speak into any dialect of English.

Standard and nonstandard use is also part of this consensus reality. Things are only standard or nonstandard because that is what people agree on. People often disagree on what constitutes standard or nonstandard use. Usage which may be standard in one context may be nonstandard in another. People often disagree on the implications of the standard/nonstandard divide: many people might regard Scots English as a charming variation of English, while also regarding AAVE as "wrong" and "uneducated". We would regard this opinion as being toxic and racist. However, that judgment of ours is a separate issue from whether or not that opinion exists in the first place.

A "typical speaker" is a fictional projection of this consensus reality. Linguists are well aware of the fact that there are variations and disagreements among speakers of any language. Referencing the typical speaker is often a way to highlight where these variations and disagreements stand at the moment of description. For example, we would say that a typical speaker of English would recognize that "colour" is part of British English, and that "color" is part of American English, but that "kulurr" is not part of any known dialect of English. A typical English-speaker would go on to say that "kulurr" is, in fact, wrong, and that it would mark the person who uses such a spelling as being uneducated. (Contrast with how English-speakers had felt about spelling before standardized spelling.)

So, to bring it back around to (non-)gendered pronouns:

Somebody who actually uses the pronoun "xe", either for themselves or for others, is speaking nonstandard English. That is not a judgment of this person or their values: that is simply an accurate reflection of the consensus reality of the English language as it stands now. A critical mass of English-speakers would see "xe" and mark it as an error. That is what makes it nonstandard.

However, this does not conflict with how "xe" is standard within certain contexts, viz. a community which embraces the use of preferred pronouns, and not just "they". And the only way to make "xe" into a part of standard English would be to use the pronoun and to "sell" it to a critical mass of English-speakers. What was nonstandard yesterday may become standard tomorrow.

Where OMDTLP and others differ, I think: in this discussion, the lines appear to be blurring between a) the purely descriptivist concept of standard use and b) the fact that people who prefer neutral or non-binary pronouns have significant reasons to wish to do so.

OMDTLP refers to pronouns as a closed class and seems to leave it at that, apparently telling others to surrender this battle.

However, other people are expressing the fact that not only does language evolve, but also that this is an important fight for them. For them, using the wrong pronoun is "wrong" not necessarily on a cold-blooded linguistic level, but rather on an ethical level. Using the wrong pronoun is not wrong in the same way that "kulurr" is wrong, but rather in the way that slanderous accusations are wrong. The use of "xe" or "they" or whatever is not simply a repeated error, but rather it is part of a campaign to right a societal wrong.
posted by Sticherbeast at 4:55 AM on February 5, 2015 [4 favorites]


Look, if you want to dismiss academic consensus about something because it disagrees with your personal political beliefs, that's on you.

You can want language to change however you want, but you have to recognize that attempting to add new things to a language may be futile if they're in a closed class. The fact that you are unlikely to succeed does not mean that everyone has it in for you or is somehow wrong about how English is spoken.

At this point, you've pretty much chased me out of this thread. Congratulations, I guess.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 5:15 AM on February 5, 2015


You can want language to change however you want, but you have to recognize that attempting to add new things to a language may be futile if they're in a closed class. The fact that you are unlikely to succeed does not mean that everyone has it in for you or is somehow wrong about how English is spoken.

I don't know if this is addressed to me, but if it is:

- Difficulty and futility are different concepts.
- We should not conflate different concepts of wrongness. Generally speaking, yes, in standard English, we use "he", "she", and sometimes "they", but not for people we know. However, some people are trying to change that, because they have concluded that it is wrong to deploy gender in this way: not merely wrong factually, but essentially wrong on an ethical level. A newspaper editor who says that non-binary pronouns are "wrong" is speaking of a different kind of "wrong" than a person who says that it is "wrong" to not use others' preferred pronouns. Discussion gets gummed up when we don't recognize this difference of kind.
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:24 AM on February 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


??? Pronouns have changed in English more so than in almost any other language I can think of. Accusative and dative cases collapsed into the object case, and the dative neuter "him" became "it". The accusative feminine "her" and the plural accusative "þem" ("them") displaced "heore" and "hire" and "hem" and "þam". "Its" didn't even exist until the late 16th century!
posted by kyrademon at 6:22 AM on February 5, 2015 [8 favorites]


You can want language to change however you want, but you have to recognize that attempting to add new things to a language may be futile if they're in a closed class. The fact that you are unlikely to succeed does not mean that everyone has it in for you or is somehow wrong about how English is spoken.

The only reason it won't catch on its people pig-headedly refusing to accept the usage when presented with it. That refusal can take many forms, from accusations of non-binary identities not being real or legitimate, to grammatical qualms (as demonstrated by UVM) or even objections based in the notion of pronouns being a closed class (as demonstrated in this thread).

Regardless of the basis for the refusal to acknowledge a person's chosen pronouns, the effect is the same - to deny them their identity.
posted by Dysk at 8:13 AM on February 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


[I]f you want to dismiss academic consensus about something because it disagrees with your personal political beliefs, that's on you [...] At this point, you've pretty much chased me out of this thread.

Your arguments do not represent the academic consensus. There's a lot going on in the claims you're making and only parts of them are well-grounded and convincing.

The convincing parts, to me, are that pronouns don't change very much compared to members of open classes, it's a good idea to be very careful if you find yourself correcting the dialects of native speakers, and changing the meaning of an existing pronoun is probably a more effective strategy than adding a new pronoun from a purely tactical point of view.

But your arguments also have some problems. In addition to treating issues of personal identity as a theoretical linguistics discussion, you sometimes apply the closed/open distinction where it is orthogonal to the points being made, your claim about idiolects is tautological goalpost-moving, and you do not account for observed pronoun changes.

This isn't a case of one reasonable scholarly voice being drowned out by a sea of unreasonable ideologues. You're making the same flawed arguments over and over without addressing the problems people have with them in a convincing way. Nobody is chasing you anywhere, but neither is anyone under any obligation to find the same flawed point more compelling the fifth time than it was the first.
posted by amery at 8:32 AM on February 5, 2015 [6 favorites]


If people have such trouble with introducing them as pronouns, why not introduce them as proper nouns? A Sie is a person who does not mind being referred in shorthand as "Sie." I also wouldn't mind repurposing old pronouns. Thee rhymes with he and she, right? "This is person Z. Thee studies science.

Is pronoun a contraction of proper noun?

Never let me teach a linguistics class.

Seriously just use what people prefer. I spoke to Grammar the other day and Grammary says it's okay. Grammarye is whimsical and changing. Am I being rude again?
posted by halifix at 11:20 PM on February 5, 2015


I don't mind using an individual's preferred pronoun, but it would kinda defeat the purpose of having pronouns if we had to track which one each person preferred. I'm all for the use of generic non-binary pronouns, and I think most native English speakers will start using them over the next few decades. My prediction is: a decade until it doesn't raise eyebrows; two decades until it's the default for young adults; five decades until someone using "he" or "she" sounds like a Quaker "thee-ing" and thy-ing".

Really, it's weird that our grammar distinguishes gender in the first place. We've always known that some people can't be described by "he" or "she" or "male" and "female"; we just ignored it, even though misgendering people is otherwise a huge faux pas. In fact, the only socially-acceptable neuter pronoun, "they", was a flag that its subject was invisible or unknown - "There's someone downstairs and they're making a lot of noise!"

Historically we relied on a whole lot of factors to identify someone's gender: their physical build, their posture and intonation - things that don't even work for all adults - but also things like dress, grooming, occupation, name, and social role. But those things are changing - women wear pants! There are male nurses! Cats and dogs - you get the idea. This mean that all of us, even the most socially conservative, are finding it harder to rely on gender cues, right at the time that non-binary-categorised people are becoming more visible.

So, formerly, the social convention was in opposition to reality: people who used binary-gender pronouns were hardly ever corrected; people who avoided binary-gender pronouns sounded funny. But now we have both forces working together! If you use binary-gender pronouns you're going to keep making embarrassing errors, which is a lot worse than sounding pedantic.

This means that gender-neutral speech, won't be a flag that the subject is of unknown or unknowable gender; it will just mean that the speaker has not chosen to identify the subject's gender. It will be cognitively easier to process: the speaker won't be forced to make a potentially-awkward decision, and the listener won't wonder why the speaker chose to flag the subject's gender. At that point "he" and "she" will start to sound archaic, out-of-touch, and potentially offensive. As I said above, I think this will only take a few decades.
posted by Joe in Australia at 12:10 AM on February 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


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