Language Notes From Knoxville


Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of Ordinary Times. Relapsed Lawyer, admitted to practice law (under his real name) in California and Oregon. On Twitter, to his frequent regret, at @burtlikko. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.

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25 Responses

  1. Avatar zic says:

    If we are unsure of the pronoun, than perhaps a plural solves the problem, though it might require reformulating a sentence. If he or she can write a sentence, they can each write a sentence.

    Sometimes, though, that can sound too formal, and then I choose to mingle ‘they’ with the singular to indicate that the gender does not matter, the individual does.Report

  2. Avatar veronica d says:

    The thing is, I’ve never met anyone who is not basically okay with “they” as a pronoun. I’ve met some people who think the weird-pronouns are cool and helpful, but they understand that changes to are slow, and deliberate changes to language are damn improbable. So yeah, they is usually fine.

    Personally I find using “they” (rather than “he” or “she”) damn awkward and I get it wrong a lot. Which, no big. I just say, “Oops. I mean ‘they’,” and then I get on with what I was saying.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      I came of age on the Internet during the Grammar Nazi Era. There was a lot more text than pictures (though ASCII art was a thing… we had ASCII fireworks displays from time to time… sigh) and grammar correction was one of the great diversions.

      Essays about the semi-colon were written. Debates about the Oxford Comma were held. The passive voice was used.

      In this environment, it was very easy to find people who were not basically okay with “they” as a (singular) pronoun.

      The advent of AOL destroyed this era, followed by the Geocities period, the Livejournal epoch, the Facebook age, and its last adherents are trying to survive this Twitter event.

      Soon no one at all will remember them.

      They did exist, though.Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        hey everybody look an old is talking

        Retweets Favorites
        12,943 18,506Report

      • Avatar veronica d says:

        @jaybird —

        The passive voice was used.

        Heh. I’m just glad that was actually passive, unlike this sentence, which includes no clauses in passive voice.

        However, this sentence, encumbered as it is by my awkward grammar, does.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq says:

      I’ve heard that Jane Austen used they as a gender-neutral pronoun and it was acceptable as a gender-neutral pronoun in the early 19th century. Having not read any Jane Austen, I do not know this for certain.Report

  3. Avatar Richard Hershberger says:

    Attempts to get us to use new pronouns are slightly less likely to succeed that attempts to get us all to speak Elvish. (I’m a Sindarin man myself. Quenya is for snobs.)

    The actual solution being applied, as others have already pointed out, is to use they/their/them as a singular personal pronoun of indeterminate gender.

    This solution has the benefit of being in keeping with the history of English pronouns. Perhaps I will write a post on this someday. The short version is that they have shifted around a lot. Part of this is the thee’s and thou’s, but there are more obscure examples. Before 1600 or so the possessive form of “it” was “his.” Seriously. This eventually seemed to weird that people started using “its” by analogy. But generally the trend is against innovative forms in favor of innovative applications of existing forms.

    People have been using they/their/them in constructions that grammars claim call for a singular form since at least the King James Bible. What is new is the range of constructions where people will do this. We are nearly, or perhaps entirely, to the point where it can be used in any construction.Report

  4. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    The biggest problem with the new gender neutral pronouns in English, and I suspect this why you find them so aesthetically unpleasing Brother Burt, is that the appear to have been created by committee rather than evolving organically. It’s the same reason why womyn looked silly and we still use women.Report

  5. Avatar Will Truman says:

    I used a gender-neutral pronoun in the Marvin K Mooney post, and it was an issue in the first pregnancy as well, since we didn’t find out the gender until birth.

    I’m not sure we should request that everybody use the gender-neutral, but it’s nonetheless a gap in the language. “He or she” is clunky and “they” already has an assigned meaning. It also notes a lack of familiarity (when I think of “they” I think of “over there” or something hypothetical, even if I accept it in singular form).

    So while I would never require the usage, or even strongly encourage it, gender-neutral singular language should be a part of the language arsenal.Report

    • Avatar zic says:

      I noticed that; it was gut wrenching.Report

    • Avatar Richard Hershberger says:

      “They” already has an assigned meaning, but then again so did “you.” And the whole point of using “you” rather than “thou” was to avoid familiarity. Comprenez vous? (I don’t feel we know each other well enough to ask ‘Comprends tu?’.)Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        You can add or change meanings. That’s not against the rules. However, doing so here – instead of using a new word – adds a level of ambiguity into its usage. With the assigned meaning, “they” meant a group of people. With the colloquial meaning, I have to pick from context. Which I can do, but with gender-neutral pronounage I don’t have to!Report

        • Avatar veronica d says:

          Indeed. Logically, ze is a much better choice than singular-they, but (versions of) singular-they have been around for a while, in impersonal contexts, so getting people to use it in personal contexts seems easier than getting people to use ze.

          Language is seldom logical.Report

        • Avatar Richard Hershberger says:

          Singular ‘they’ has the singular advantage that, unlike the other 5,283 proposals floating out there, it is actually going to happen. If we are having a dorm “If I were God” bull session, I am totally down with that. But first I need some liquid fortification, and second I am going to go a whole lot larger than fiddling with pronouns.

          As for ambiguity, this is a favorite argument of those who want to grumble about real-world English. English a minefield of theoretical potential ambiguity. The vast majority of time the meaning is perfectly clear from context, with no conscious thought required to sort it out. How often do you find yourself having to work out whether “you” is singular or plural, and cursing English speakers for their abandonment of “thou”? It is possible to construct scenarios where this might happen, but in practice it virtually never does.Report

          • Avatar Guy says:

            You know, just the other day I actually found myself uncertain as to whether a use of “they” was singular or plural. A friend of mine, speaking in passing about the SO of another mutual friend, said something along the lines of “They use gender neutral pronouns.” It took me a second to parse that as “[the SO] use[s] gender neutral pronouns[, specifically ‘they’],” not “[our mutual friend and his SO] use gender neutral pronouns [with respect to said SO].” I still got the point, but it felt worthy of note.Report

  6. Avatar Stillwater says:

    but I can sense a shadow of a principled objection maybe resting within that notion somewhere. I’ve not put in the thought to flesh it out just yet.

    I wrote a while ago that using a genderless pronoun to refer to individuals who identify as gendered could not only be insulting to them, it could hurt their feelings!! And that’s about the closest principled objection I’ve been able to arrive at myself. But I’m further to the right on this stuff than you Burt (eg., the only reason I refrain from using the “r” word in public anymore is because I happen to live in a hopped up PC-driven neck of the woods and people literally lose their heads about this stuff) and am less amenable to incorporating into my own use than you apparently are. On PC issues I tend to be more conservative than liberal, it appears.Report

    • Avatar veronica d says:

      I dislike when people try to use genderless pronouns to refer to me. They’re appropriate when 1) you’re speaking about a generic person, who could be either gender, 2) you’re speaking about some individual and you are really not sure what their gender is, and 3) when you’re speaking about someone who specifically requests non-gendered pronouns. Using genderless pronouns on me is disrespectful. I’m a woman.Report

  7. Avatar notme says:

    Sorry I don’t see why we should change the structure of the English language to accommodate a few folks.Report

  8. Avatar Damon says:


    Bingo. If you present as x, I’m calling you x, unless you correct me. Then I refer to you in any form you want me to. But the generic “dude” also works. I simply will refuse to use those other terms and if someone does use them in my presence, I’ll be all “what language is that, cause it ain’t English. Did you invent that word?”Report