Of Gender, Language, and Clarity

September 2, 2014

FREE INQUIRY columnist Greta Christina wrote a great essay for her other column (over at THE HUMANIST) about issues associated with treating transgender people with respect. (No idea whether it's online, but the column "Trans People and Basic Human Respect" is on pages 38-39 of the new September-October issue.) If you're confused about terms like "transgender" and "cisgender," or feel uncomfortable speaking or writing to -- or about -- transgender people, this article is a superb primer. Nonetheless, there's one nit I feel compelled to pick. At one point Christina writes that some transgender people "choose to be identified with the gendered pronouns 'he' and 'she,' while others prefer new gender-neutral pronouns like 'zie' and 'hir' or use 'they' as a singular pronoun." I'm down with all of that except the last bit. Using "they" as a singular pronoun -- not just in regard to transgender persons, but as a tool for achieving gender-neutrality in language generally -- strikes me as going one step too far, because it unnecessarily degrades the clarity of our language in regards to number. (I say that with empathy -- I have friends who have adopted the plural pronoun -- but I think there are other ways to solve this problem that involve less linguistic confusion.)

I invite comment, and Luddite as it might seem, I dare to hope that the comments might take the form of respectful dialogue. Just sayin'.

Here is the problem as I see it. Whether an individual is cisgender, is transgender, or occupies any intermediate point on that spectrum, the person in question remains an individual -- that is, unitary. Whatever gender identification you, the reader, might embrace, there's only one of you. Indeed, I'd expect that most gender activists would take offense at an assumption that, say, persons who change their gender identification become somehow plural. If you were formerly cisgender and later identified as transgender, that doesn't mean the old you died and a new you took your place. It doesn't mean that the old cisgender you somehow lives on parallel to the new transgender you. From any progressive point of view, that's an absurd way to look at things.

The problem is that adopting a plural pronoun to denote a single individual invites just such misinterpretations. It references a single person using terminology that in any other context would clearly be understood as referring to a group. As languages go, English has long been proficient at distinguishing between the mention of individuals and the mention of groups. In fact, I think that's a capacity that would rank pretty high on most people's lists of elementary things a powerful language should do clearly and well. But consider a simple example.

How do we write about, say, a situation where, say, a homeowner turns away a group of missionaries at her door?

"She told them to go jump in the lake."

Okay, maybe not the most sophisticated way for a humanist to refuse a long lecture about Jesus, but the language is clear. The sentence uses only pronouns, yet any reader will know exactly who is doing what to whom.

But suppose the person at the door self-identifies using the plural pronoun. Now the sentence reads, "They told them to go jump in the lake."

The reader won't have any idea who is advising nonbaptismal submersion to whom. Maybe the missionaries are telling several people in the house to go dunk themselves! If I wish to write clearly about this encounter now, I am compelled to write something like "The homeowner told the missionaries to go jump in the lake" or "Leslie told them to go jump in the lake." I have to provide clear labels or name names where, previously, pronouns were good enough, because previously, those pronouns reliably conserved number, and now one of them does not. My options as a writer who wishes to describe this situation clearly have been reduced because the power of my basic linguistic tools has been blunted. Unless there is no other way to write gender-inclusively, this is a solution we ought to reject.

Nor is this problem confined to discussions about transgender people. As editor of FREE INQUIRY, I receive a growing number of submissions, often from credentialed professionals, in which efforts are made to gender-neutralize language by inserting a plural pronoun where it otherwise would not belong. For example, "If everyone would only read their newspaper, they wouldn't go to the polls knowing so little about the issues."

It's an increasingly popular work-around, but it's also an error.

Everyone is a singular word, and a single person doesn't read their newspaper or go to the polls as a they. FREE INQUIRY follows the Chicago Manual of Style, which identifies this as a usage error (sections 5.46 and 5.225 in the current edition). At our shop, if you're going to begin that sentence with a singular pronoun, it's got to be "his or her newspaper" and "he or she wouldn't go to the polls." If you find that clumsy, restructure the beginning of sentence; replace "everyone" with a plural word so you can properly use the plural throughout. [A related editorial problem: some writers try to achieve net gender neutrality by alternating gendered pronouns: "If the consumer would read his manual more closely ... she would not seek oil changes more often than manufacturers recommend." This is widely accepted in certain disciplines, including philosophy. Still, at FI we generally insist on achieving gender neutrality on every occasion, even if that means repeating "he and she" at the expense of rhythmic expression. Or, again, we'll recast the sentence to make the problem go away.]

In each situation, the problem is that number is important. Handling number clearly and accurately is an elementary task of language. Of course, treating persons respectfully across a spectrum of gender identities is important too. I would contend that if we have the linguistic tools to treat gender respectfully without diluting the clarity of our language regarding number, we should do so. Such tools exist: zie and hir are unfamiliar to many, but have a fair track record in feminist and other reformist literature. (Then again, using they and their in reference to one individual is unfamiliar to many also.) As a general rule, if we can be inclusive without courting inaccuracy, I think that's the way we should prefer.

If we who want to treat individuals of every gender identification fairly must take on the task of educating society to recognize and accept an unfamiliar pronoun usage, let's beat the drum for zie and hir, which does not compel us to degrade one of our language's basic capacities, namely the unambiguous handling of number.

Looking ahead, does that mean that some day -- probably sooner rather than later -- FREE INQUIRY will be nudging authors to write "him, her, zie, or hir"? Perhaps. To me at least, clunky as that four-footed concatenation may be, it would be preferable to referring to a single individual as "they."

Let it be noted that I have not discussed FREE INQUIRY's embrace (also drawn from Chicago) of the so-called Oxford comma. Sometime when I want to write a really contentious blog post, I may tackle that. 


#1 rubbs on Wednesday September 03, 2014 at 7:41am

I’m not an expert on etymology, but it’s not that hard to find resources on the uses of singular “they.” The author seems to rely heavily on a single style guide, but guides are (generally) prescriptive, but when talking about how language is used and how it evolves, style guides don’t seem to me to be the right tool.

Instead, one should read up on how this word came to be. Wikipedia has a good start: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Singular_they

As usual, the debate about singular they, almost always in the context of speaking on gender identity, revolves around this magical notion of how the number of people is important. Which completely ignores the fact that we have been using singular “they” with context in many pieces of writing. It’s called using context. If the number if people you are referring to is not clear, the problem is a lack of proper context, not a singular word choice.

#2 Lena (Guest) on Wednesday September 03, 2014 at 12:11pm

Using “Luddite” to mean “old-fashioned” bothers me a lot more than the singular they, I must say.
The example with the missionaries seems like a stretch. The same problem would present itself with plural homeowners or a single woman missionary, because using the same pronoun twice to mean different parties just creates ambiguity. The singular they is not singularly confusing.

#3 Tom Flynn (Guest) on Wednesday September 03, 2014 at 5:21pm

rubs, it’s true that the singular “they” has a long history. After a couple of hundred years of more-or-less free rein, grammarians recognized the number-disagreement problem that the usage posed and pretty much drove it from standard use. From then till now, though there’s been active debate, the plurality of expert opinion continues to discourage the singular “they” because of number disagreement.

Lena, I’ll admit I didn’t spend a lot of time choosing the missionary example. Still, I think it’s pretty clear; while referring to the homeowner required a singular pronoun such as “she” and we know there are two or more missionaries, the pronouns “she” and “they” unambiguously identify the players. If a singular “they” is permitted, pronouns no longer suffice and we must supply identifiers. To me that’s a solid reason to discourage the singular “they.”—Tom Flynn

#4 Code Monkey on Thursday September 04, 2014 at 5:19am

When gender is known, it is absolutely horrific to use “they” in my opinion. In a novel, it should be absolutely forbidden since an author knows the genders of “his or her” creations. Or does the author know the gender of their own creation? The context is clear. Sentences can get bogged down with “his or her”. Merriam Webster devoted a video to it which I really liked: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d7k-20y5WKU

#5 Adrian Bailey (Guest) on Thursday September 04, 2014 at 5:51am

Oh dear, Tom. How sad to see someone trot out this reactionary peeve as an objection to how people want to describe themselves. Sad to see a supposed critical thinker fall for the etymological fallacy and the “language is logical” fallacy. And sad too to think it’s worth upsetting people over what is obviously, considering the evidence, a linguistic hobby horse.

#6 Code Monkey on Thursday September 04, 2014 at 6:07am

No reason to degrade Tom over his opinion. Everyone’s allowed them. For the most part he’s just uplifting clarity when possible which is certainly admirable. About that Oxford Comma though… Definitely use the freaking comma for clarity’s sake!

#7 Cassian (Guest) on Thursday September 04, 2014 at 8:22am

Singular they has been in use since at least Chaucer’s time, and I’m pretty sure you have no problem using singular you, which uses the exact same grammar as plural you.

#8 Tom FLynn (Guest) on Thursday September 04, 2014 at 1:22pm

Cassian, as I mentioned above, the singular they has a long history. Most authorities began discouraging its use beginning in the 19th century because of the number-disagreement problem. I don’t have a problem with “you” being both singular and plural, because that’s just an irregularity of the language. Though sometimes it would be handy if separate singular and plural second-person pronouns would arise—folks down South keep on saying “you-all” because it gives them away to reduce ambiguity when addressing a group. FWIW.

#9 Cassian (Guest) on Thursday September 04, 2014 at 1:27pm

if singular you is an irregularity of the language, and has the same problems as singular they, why hate on one and not the other? We used to have separate words (thee etc.), do you advocate for bringing those back?

#10 rubbs on Thursday September 04, 2014 at 2:12pm

I agree with Cassian here. Your argument about singular/plural ‘you’ sounds like special pleading to me.

“After a couple of hundred years of more-or-less free rein, grammarians recognized the number-disagreement problem that the usage posed and pretty much drove it from standard use.”

Yes, but then the problem shifted, because instead of singular “they,” a generic “he” was used. Cultural implications of assumed maleness aside, now the number problem just transformed into a gender problem.

In fact, I think you actually proved my point. The very fact that we had singular “they” but moved to something else suggests that languages evolve to fit the norms of the time. Why is it OK to move away from singular “they” but not to it?

This idea that grammar is authoritarian and prescriptive is an idea I’ve always felt should die. Grammar is but one part of language, and as language and culture evolves, so too does it’s grammar.



#11 tehwilsonator on Friday September 05, 2014 at 12:42pm

To echo and expand on Rubb’s answer, it should be noted that what authorities “recommend” for or against in a language is rarely a real indication of usage. Just because a (mostly male, white, academic) authority pleads for specificity in number doesn’t mean that that is the usage in vernacular. Singular “they” is railed against precisely because it is commonly used in contexts where the grammatical authority holds less sway, and it should hold just as much weight as recommendations against splitting infinitives or ending sentences with prepositions (i.e., not at all).

#12 tehwilsonator on Friday September 05, 2014 at 12:49pm

It’s also worth remembering that we even have a great, specific example of a loss of specificity in number with a pronoun: “You”. English used to separate formal/informal/plural versions of its second-person pronoun (which certain Quakers still recognize with their usage of “thee/thou”, intended to convey that the informal pronoun is the only proper way to refer to a person who is equal to you). Now, apart from some dialects of English where specifying plural is common (“y’all”, “youse guys”), which are minority speakers in the American population, “you” is pretty much it.

#13 melvin on Sunday September 07, 2014 at 2:09am

I’m certain that Greta Christina did not write her article in order to spark a trivial pursuit game focused on the fine points of elementary school grammar circa 1955. In any event, while we are still hovering over the game board, a “new” gender-neutral third-person pronoun in the singular form is hiding in plain sight. It is IT as in HE, SHE, IT. If a transgender individual wants to be referred to in the third person singular as NOT-HE and NOT-SHE, then the default is IT stipulated, of course, to denote a gender-neutral human being. Got IT? Good.

In my view Greta wrote the article under the guise of discussing gender issues from an LGBT perspective in order to continue using “cisgender” as a slur against such “patriarchs” as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Michael Shermer,and, closer to home, Ronald Lindsay whom she has slammed from pillar to post.

But let’s lick our wounds and take her argument at face value. The idea is that we need to respect transgender people by calling them what they want to be called and one giant step would be to invent a new third-person [singular?] pronoun that they could call their very own.

Freeze that frame while we intercut to some current statistics. A February 2013 report by Gallup calculated that self-identified LGBTs constitute 3.5%
of the U.S. population. Transgenders make up only .3% (Three Tenths of One Percent). If we suppose, for sake of argument, that only 50% of transgender folks prefer to be called by the conventional “he” or “she,” then we are contorting ourselves into a pretzel to make a radical change to the English language for the sake of .15% of our national population. We’re looking at a cost-benefit analysis where the costs skyrocket into the stratosphere and the benefits dip south of zero.

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