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Call Me ‘They’

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  • Call Me ‘They’

    I am your stereotypical, cisgender, middle-aged suburban dad. I dabble in woodworking, I take out the garbage, and I covet my neighbor’s Porsche. Though I do think men should wear makeup (it looks nice!), my tepid masculinity apparently rings loudly enough online and in person that most people guess that I go by “he” and “him.” And that’s fine; I will not be offended if you refer to me by those traditional, uselessly gendered pronouns.

    But “he” is not what you should call me. If we lived in a just, rational, inclusive universe — one in which we were not all so irredeemably obsessed by the particulars of the parts dangling between our fellow humans’ legs, nor the ridiculous expectations signified by those parts about how we should act and speak and dress and feel — there would be no requirement for you to have to assume my gender just to refer to me in the common tongue.

    There are, after all, few obvious linguistic advantages to the requirement. When I refer to myself, I don’t have to announce my gender and all the baggage it carries. Instead I use the gender-nonspecific “I.” Nor do I have to bother with gender when I’m speaking directly to someone or when I’m talking about a group of people. I just say “you” or “they.”

    So why does standard English impose a gender requirement on the third-person singular? And why do elite cultural institutions — universities, publishers and media outlets like The Times — still encourage all this gendering? To get to my particular beef: When I refer to an individual whose gender I don’t know here in The Times, why do I usually have to choose either “he” or “she” or, in the clunkiest phrase ever cooked up by small-minded grammarians, “he or she”?

    The truth is, I shouldn’t have to. It’s time for the singular “they.” Indeed, it’s well past time — and I’d like to do my part in pushing “they” along.

    So: If you write about me, interview me, tweet about me, or if you are a Fox News producer working on a rant about my extreme politics, I would prefer if you left my gender out of it. Call me “they” or “them,” as in: “Did you read Farhad’s latest column — they’ve really gone off the deep end this time!” And — unless you feel strongly about your specific pronouns, which I respect — I would hope to call you “they” too, because the world will be slightly better off if we abandoned unnecessary gender signifiers as a matter of routine communication. Be a “him” or “her” or anything else in the sheets, but consider also being a “they” and “them” in the streets.

    I suspect my call will be dismissed as useless virtue-signaling, but there are several clear advantages, both linguistic and cultural, to the singular “they.” One of the main ones is that it’s ubiquitous. According to linguists who study gender and pronouns, “they” and “them” are increasingly and widely seen as legitimate ways to refer to an individual, both generically and specifically, whether you know their gender or not — as I just did right in this sentence.

    “In our latest study, 90 percent of the time when people refer to a hypothetical person, they use ‘they,’” said Evan Bradley, who studies language and gender at Penn State.

    But “they” is also used so commonly to refer to specific individuals that it doesn’t trip people up. The same thing isn’t true when you add a new, neutral pronoun to the language — something like “ze,” which in Bradley’s research was not recognized by many people, and when it was used, it was often taken to refer specifically to gender-nonconforming people.



    By contrast, “they” is universal and purely neutral, Bradley told me. When people encounter it, they infer nothing about gender. This makes singular “they” a perfect pronoun — it’s flexible, inclusive, unobtrusive and obviates the risk of inadvertent misgendering. And in most circumstances, it creates perfectly coherent sentences that people don’t have to strain to understand.

    That’s probably why the singular, gender-neutral “they” is common not just in transgender and nonbinary communities, for whom it is necessary, but also in mainstream usage, where it is rapidly becoming a standard way we refer to all people. If you watch closely, you’ll see the usage in marketing copy, on social media, in app interfaces and just about everywhere else you look. For instance, when Uber or Lyft wants to tell you that your driver has arrived, they send you a notification that says something like: “Juan is almost here. Meet them outside.”

    Other than plainly intolerant people, there’s only one group that harbors doubts about the singular “they”: grammarians. If you’re one of those people David Foster Wallace called a “snoot,” Lyft’s use of “them” to refer to one specific Juan rings grammatically icky to you. The singular, gender nonspecific “they” has been common in English as long as people have spoken English, but since the 18th century, grammar stylists have discouraged it on the grounds that “they” has to be plural. That’s why institutions that cater to snoots generally discourage it. The Times, whose stylebook allows the singular “they” when the person being referred to prefers it, warns against its widespread usage: “Take particular care to avoid confusion if using they for an individual” the stylebook counsels.

    I think that’s too cautious; we should use “they” more freely, because language should not default to the gender binary. One truth I’ve come to understand too late in life is how thoroughly and insidiously our lives are shaped by gender norms. These expectations are felt most acutely and tragically by those who don’t conform to the standard gender binary — people who are transgender or nonbinary, most obviously.

    But even for people who do mainly fit within the binary, the very idea that there is a binary is invisibly stifling. Every boy and girl feels this in small and large ways growing up; you unwittingly brush up against preferences that don’t fit within your gender expectations, and then you must learn to fight those expectations or strain to live within them.

    But it was only when I had a son and a daughter of my own that I recognized how powerfully gendered constructs shape our development. From their very earliest days, my kids, fed by marketing and entertainment and (surely) their parents’ modeling, seemed to hem themselves into silly gender norms. They gravitated to boy toys and girl toys, boy colors and girl colors, boy TV shows and girl TV shows. This was all so sad to me: I see them limiting their thoughts and their ambitions, their preferences and their identity, their very liberty, only to satisfy some collective abstraction. And there’s little prospect for escape: Gender is a ubiquitous prison for the mind, reinforced everywhere, by everyone, and only rarely questioned.

    We’re a long way from eradicating these expectations in society. But we don’t have to be wary about eradicating them in language.

    “Part of introducing the concept of gender-neutral pronouns to people is to get them to ask, ‘Why does this part of society need to be gendered in the first place?’” said Jay Wu, director of communications at the National Center for Transgender Equality. They continued: “Part of how we fix that is more and more people noticing that things are so gendered and being like, why does it have to be that way? What benefit does it bring us?”

    None, I say, other than confusion, anxiety and grief. Call me “they,” and I’ll call you “them.” I won’t mind, and I hope you won’t, either.
    https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/10/o...M6fiZyozjLoA0Q
    "I guess I just hate the fact there is public property at all." - Mr. Raceboy.

  • #2
    Approaching this from an engineering perspective, you don't design systems for the exception. You design them for the norm, and then carve out exceptions for the rare item. The approach the writer is requesting is akin to demanding that all housing be built with 12-foot ceilings because some people are tall. 8-foot high ceilings suffice for some 99.8% of the humans on this earth. We're not going to rebuild all our buildings for the exception. I get how big a problem 8-foot ceilings are to your 7-foot tall person, but I'm not designing to that exception. I may be inclined to help you build your house with 12-foot ceilings, but that's about as far as I'll go.

    Pete (thinks there is far too much of this kind of demanding going on these days)
    Last edited by Plezercruz; 07-11-2019, 08:40 AM.

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    • #3
      Originally posted by Plezercruz View Post
      The approach the writer is requesting is akin to demanding that all housing be built with 12-foot ceilings because they is tall.
      Aren't you in fact building 12 foot ceilings with your clever pronoun usage?

      skooly (won't)
      "I guess I just hate the fact there is public property at all." - Mr. Raceboy.

      Comment


      • #4
        I found this article provocative, compelling in parts, and yet utterly outrageous. As a grammar "snoot," I refuse to use they or any of the made-up nonsense words like ze when invoking the third person singular. It's fingers on the chalkboard to me, no matter how much I support the trans community. When did he or she suddenly become so horrible that we must overturn hundreds of years of linguistic precedent? Don't all Romance languages like English have gendered words? Has he ever seen Spanish where virtually all nouns are gendered? What's wrong with gender? Should we all look and speak like androgynous mannequins? Should we stop calling him Mr. Manjoo too? Do I need to wear a dress to show support for my friends in the trans community? Where will they stop? What's wrong with traditional grammar rules? Do we all get to just make up our own rules whenever it suits us? Is it wrong to be an arch conservative with my grammar? Does he need his safe space? Should he move to another country if he doesn't like our rules? Aren't there a lot more important things for him to write about? Does this amount to a tempest in a teapot or is this part of the steady drip drip drip that will eventually lead to real and permanent change?

        skooly (has a lot of questions)
        "I guess I just hate the fact there is public property at all." - Mr. Raceboy.

        Comment


        • #5
          I'll admit that I already use "they" or "he/she" interchangeably when I don't know the person's gender -- I do somewhat lament the impreciseness of not conveying whether they is singular or plural, but I don't really have a problem given that I think the author is right that language is evolving in that direct as more and more communication becomes anonymous (how many of you can state my gender for certain, even with the knowledge that I am cis-gendered? I'm betting only about half, and that half because we used to hang out in person -- anyone who knows me only through the web, doesn't really know, do they?). That said, pointing out the ongoing evolution is unlikely to accelerate its progress and may even drive a backlash which could alter or delay its progression.

          Interesting article, nonetheless.
          They speak in bulletpointese leftist nutjob drivel. It doesn't matter. Nothing is as great a motivator as the chance to truly be free.
          -Mr. Raceboy

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          • #6
            Pretty much everything that follows after “I covet my neighbor’s Porsche” is nonsense. How much do you think the world revolves around you that you expect others to follow rules you lay out based upon your sexuality rather than accepted societal norms? He can stick his wick or be stuck as he chooses but, that freedom between he and his partner should not be mistaken for some sudden grant of power bestowed upon him to change English grammar as we all know, follow and, practice.

            Dan (thinks he can go get bent)
            HFM

            As long as there exists people with religion and a belief in God, there will never be a Libertarian state.

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            • #7
              I just try to do whats appropriate. Can't please everyone all the time.
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              • #8
                Peak first world insanity.

                Steve (knows when you try to politicize pronouns the backlash isn't far behind)
                "Democracy is a form of worship. It is the worship of jackals by jackasses." H.L. Mencken

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                • #9
                  If you ask me to change the way grammar works when talking about you, (Example: 'They is eating lunch.') you'll find that I just avoid you entirely.

                  Jesse (he/him)
                  DEEZ NUTS FOR PRESIDENT!!

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    You can always use their name; “pat is eating lunch” “pats not here now” “I haven’t seen Toby” “have you seen Shane?” “Has Lynn been in yet” “does anyone know what gender pronoun Charlie prefers?”
                    They speak in bulletpointese leftist nutjob drivel. It doesn't matter. Nothing is as great a motivator as the chance to truly be free.
                    -Mr. Raceboy

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      Originally posted by skooly View Post
                      Don't all Romance languages like English have gendered words? Has he ever seen Spanish where virtually all nouns are gendered?

                      skooly (has a lot of questions)
                      Spanish has a female-plural pronoun, ellas, to refer to a group of exclusively females. Ellos, the male-plural, refers to male groups or groups with both genders, and I assume would refer to a group including ambiguous or gender nonconforming types. However, English is more of a germanic language than a romance language.

                      dusty (wonders if these pronoun/identity wars are occurring in other languages)
                      For every ailment under the sun - There is a remedy, or there is none;
                      If there be one, try to find it; If there be none, never mind it. -- Mother Goose

                      "We've always assumed that you can't bring back the dead. But it's a matter of when you pickle the cells." -- Peter Rhee

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                      • #12
                        jeez the conservatives and the grammar conservatives get all worked up over changing words. Do you have any idea how constant and blazingly quickly language changes? It's hard to read English from like 200 years ago. 500 years and it is almost impossible!

                        my first teaching was that anonymous unknown people should be referred to in the male pronoun, and I did that for years. then they started saying to use the female pronoun, or to alternate between the two, so I did that for awhile. I'm ok moving on to 'they' for anonymous contexts where it works, and like jester i think i actually have done so here and there, without really making a conscious decision at it. And for what somebody specifically wants me to call them, I'll call them whatever they want so long as I remember (which I won't).

                        dusty (certainly annoyed with writing "him or her", "s/he", etc.)
                        For every ailment under the sun - There is a remedy, or there is none;
                        If there be one, try to find it; If there be none, never mind it. -- Mother Goose

                        "We've always assumed that you can't bring back the dead. But it's a matter of when you pickle the cells." -- Peter Rhee

                        Comment


                        • #13
                          Originally posted by dusty View Post
                          jeez the conservatives and the grammar conservatives get all worked up over changing words. Do you have any idea how constant and blazingly quickly language changes? It's hard to read English from like 200 years ago. 500 years and it is almost impossible!

                          my first teaching was that anonymous unknown people should be referred to in the male pronoun, and I did that for years. then they started saying to use the female pronoun, or to alternate between the two, so I did that for awhile. I'm ok moving on to 'they' for anonymous contexts where it works, and like jester i think i actually have done so here and there, without really making a conscious decision at it. And for what somebody specifically wants me to call them, I'll call them whatever they want so long as I remember (which I won't).

                          dusty (certainly annoyed with writing "him or her", "s/he", etc.)
                          I have similar thoughts on this topic.

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                          • #14
                            I'll use whatever gender you most look like.

                            I've got a couple friends-of-friends who are post-op sex change to one degree or another, and I still have a hard time remembering to use the female pronoun. I'm sorry, but if you're 6' 2", muscular, and have a deep voice, the presence of large boobs just confuses the issue. That said, they're both great people, and fun to hang out with.
                            "Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect." –Mark Twain

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                            • #15
                              If there's a question on gender I just stay gender neutral. Again just to try to be respectful. Last thing you need when working with customers is accidentally creating a scene.
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