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Armed neutrality in the gender-neutral pronoun wars

There has been much huffing and puffing recently about gender neutral pronouns. In principle, I rather like the idea. The fact that I dislike some of the other people who like the idea ought not to affect that. Not, I hasten to add, that I feel any animus against anyone purely on the grounds that they prefer to be referred to by one sound rather than another, or that their gender is difficult to specify externally, or that they feel that neither “he” nor “she” describes them, or that they advocate for lexical change. While it is true that the set of people currently talking loudest about gender-neutral pronouns would, if displayed on a Venn diagram, have considerable overlap with the set of people who wish to get others arrested for using the wrong word, that is a symptom of the addiction of our society to the use of force rather than persuasion, not a logical necessity.

The cause of the gender-neutral pronoun is ill-served by many of its current advocates. But in itself, it would be handy. That’s “it” as in “having a third person singular pronoun available to use to describe human beings without specifying gender”, not “it” as in “it”. It (as in the situation, not a person) tends to get an itty-bit hairy when one person refers to another (by which I mean another person, not another situation) as “it”. Thus, if I may reiterate, using “it” (as in “‘it'”) as a gender-neutral pronoun to refer to a person would put the user in a bad situation, even if they (here used in the singular) were not a singularly bad person. Wouldn’t it?

OK, I got drunk on words there. Sobering up, I am not seeking perfect “representation” for every one of Facebook’s 71 gender options. They can represent themselves. I just think it would be nice to have one more option, and to settle on one. That way those prone to being easily offended, and the subset of them that resort to bullying, could be kept from unhappiness and the occasion of sin.

I do think that the traditional use of “he” and “man” to include the female is a little, y’know, presumptuous. I am not one to go through old documents cutting out every offending “he-including-she” with a razor, but I would just as soon have some more inclusive style in new documents. It is tedious have to write “he or she” every time.

Singular “they” sounds all right when the subject is indefinite (e.g. “If anyone wants more details, give them a brochure”) but sounds wrong if the gender is known. At this point someone usually pipes up to say that Shakespeare used it in their plays. Only they don’t say their plays, they say his plays, unless they (gender unspecified here: no problem) are making some sort of claim that Shakespeare was a collective, a Borg or a woman.

The distinction between singular and plural third person is useful. We feel its lack in the second person. The singular/plural distinction keeps trying to creep back in with “youse” and “y’all”. In some dialects spoken in Northern England, “thou” never went away, merely faded a little into “tha”. If making no difference between singular and plural is sometimes confusing when talking to people, it is a swamp when talking about people. Imagine an action scene in a novel where all the characters including the protagonist were referred to as “they”.

This link takes you to a piece called “The Need for a Gender-neutral Pronoun” which lists some of the leading contenders for a new pronoun. By clicking on the suggested pronoun itself (or the title of the set in the case of the Spivak pronouns named after their creator), you can read an extract from Alice in Wonderland using that set of pronouns. The author also rates the proposed words by ease of pronunciation, distinctiveness, and how truly neutral they are. The author prefers the set of pronouns based on “ne” in the nominative case. If you agree that a gender neutral pronoun would be desirable, which option would you like to take hold in the language? If you object to the whole idea, what would you like to see become dominant – strict use of “he” (or “she”), or “they”, or “s/he” and variants?

The thing is, I will not be the first in my circle of acquaintance to start writing “xe” or “ne” in any other context but science fiction for the same reason that I will not be first in my circle to start taking a daily stroll in the nude.

I would if you would, but I know and you know, neither of us will.

81 comments to Armed neutrality in the gender-neutral pronoun wars

  • Mr Ed

    Anyone who wants English to be required to have gender-neutral pronouns should be obliged to speak only Finnish for the rest of their natural life.

  • CaptDMO

    On MAYBE there is no need to invent gender neutral pronouns, and change the language, for the egos of the vast minority.
    “That’s offensive to me!!!!!”
    My gosh, I can’t possibly express how little I care.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    CaptDMO, there’s certainly no need to invent neologisms to please a minority – and there still would be no obligation to do it even if it pleased a majority.

    But it might be convenient. It might be nice to the minority. Right now the people who get on the news about this are disproportionately “social justice warriors” and other crybullies. But an argument is not disproved by the failings of its adherents. If more of the people arguing for this were as diffident and polite as the nineteenth century reformers who suggested “thon” as a gender neutral pronoun, would you object to the idea?

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Mr Ed, certainly anyone who requires English to have gender neutral pronouns should be required to speak Finnish for the rest of their life. Or possibly Chinese, which, I am told, only introduced gendered third person pronouns into the written language in the nineteenth century so that they could translate Western novels. In speech the (Mandarin) word for both “he” and “she” is “ta”, and they get by.

  • PeterT

    I have always found the ‘Dear Sir/Madam’ pretty inelegant, and agree with the post pretty much.

  • I tend to get rather rude in return when people presume to tell me to adjust my use of language to be more to their liking.

  • Roué le Jour

    ‘Khun’ in Thai is not gender specific and translates roughly as ‘person’.

    Speaking of which, the novel Woman on the Edge of Time uses ‘per’ an abbreviation of person, in the same way.

  • I once had to write a manual for SCA officers. The traditional names for them were “Master of Sciences” or “Mistress of Arts”. This already was a potential snakepit. And I got tired of writing “he/she” or its equivalents.

    So I convinced the Kingdom councils to change the title to “Minister”, which was sufficiently non-gendered but still did the job. I mostly wrote using nouns rather than pronouns, and cast sentences in plurals when needed. The result was concise and offended nobody.

    In an earlier life I gave museum demonstrations to fifth-graders, who are young and sometimes androgynous. Using the wrong pronoun gets you a potent glare.

    This is all beside the point. The kids would have still been offended if I’d used some humanized version of “it”. And in any case, the people who are the loudest are looking for something to take offense. Using the wrong alternative pronoun (“ze” instead of “sie”) will get you even more trouble. Writing invisibly non-sexist documents will garner you no points. Remember, the crybullies want to take offense.

  • Kevin B

    I always thought that in English, (and all the other languages descended in some way or another from latin), the masculine pronoun refers to the whole of huMANity but the feminine pronoun is reserved for the special flowers.

    So I vote for a unique pronoun for us blokes that the wimMEN don’t try and nick.

  • John Galt III


    Go and sell out – no one cares.

    Use as many pronouns as you want: 15, 67 or 3 million. Memorize all of them and make sure you use the right one
    instantaneously or you will be shunned and criticized. Then remember the secret handshakes of another bunch of idiots. Get 26 tats, 56 facial piercings and have your hair in (6) colors – you will fit right in. who cares.

  • NickM

    I agree with Natalie entirely. I have never liked he/she or (s)heor Dear Sir/Madame. I also agree that those agitating for it tend towards the sort of “monstrous regiment” ne describes 🙂

  • John Galt III
    February 26, 2017 at 12:27 am

    Get 26 tats, 56 facial piercings and have your hair in (6) colors – you will fit right in. who cares.

    Don’t forget the cutie mark.

  • bobby b

    There’s some sense in this. Gendered pronouns were devised in a time when there was a huge social difference between men and women, and so it was useful to know immediately if one were speaking of a man or a woman.

    Now, the goal seems to be to minimize any gender difference. Maybe we shouldn’t be able to tell if someone speaks of a man or a woman – maybe we should be looking to other factors to categorize people quickly.

    Plus, gender seems to have lost its immutability. Used to be, Mr. Jones remained Mr. Jones throughout his existence. Now we have trans-males (used to be female, now male) and cis-males (still thinking about it) so the gendered pronouns have lost some predictive ability. (See Ms. Bruce Jenner.)

    The point of differing pronouns is to quickly convey some important nugget of information about the subject. If “male/female” is no longer that important, what can we replace it with? The entire Indian caste system might be a bit much, but the conveyance needn’t simply be binary, either.

    I’d propose that we simply pick a different immutable characteristic for discriminating pronouns. The obvious choice would be religion. Second choice would be a character marker – have one pronoun for people generally known to be nice, and another for jerks. As an added benefit from this one, you might see some stress for jerks to become nice people, since their character would be recognized and proclaimed in every conversation.

    More information is always better than less. If we can pack descriptive info into a pronoun, we should use that for our betterment.

  • Chester Draws

    The fact that SJWs are leading the charge for gender neutral pronouns, and the undoubted fact they will never be satisfied does not automatically make it a bad idea.

    Women got the vote despite the nature of a lot of the early Suffragettes, for example.

    Languages need to change to keep up. There’s still curmudgeons who complain about the new meanings of “gay” and “impact”, but their refusal to adapt is generally seen as merely sad.

  • The thing I’ve always liked about English as opposed to something like French is that the language has evolved naturally in a way akin to natural selection with new terms and usages being adopted as they become useful and old terms discarded.

    The fact that the structuralists, grammarians and other Illuminati of the English language could stutter and sneer, but had no recourse to enforce their Grammar Nazism* has always seemed very British to my mind.

    So if gender neutral pronouns were to come into common usage through a natural evolution of the language (as with neologisms such as the term “app” for mobile applications), then I would have no problem.

    I don’t actually have a problem with those advocating and leading the change for gender neutral pronouns. I think they sound like idiots obviously and think it’s unlikely I would use the terms myself, but you never know.

    However, your personal advocacy is undermined by the multicoloured hair brigade (which always reminds me of avoidance colouration of poisonous frogs for some reason), who would force gender neutral pronouns at the point of a gun, or at least a P45/Pink slip**

    So for all your valid argument, I simply must stand in opposition to you, not because you are wrong, but because I am in absolute opposition to the feminazis who are also on the side of gender neutral pronouns.

    After all, it is not a great distance from enforced politically correct language and gender neutral pronouns to Newspeak. Is it?

    I rest my case.

    * – Unlike the stern approbations of L’Académie française, whose pronouncements have a reverence that an Anglican bishop would kill for

    ** – Colour for preference.

  • Laird

    I’m an old fart, and growing ever more crotchety by the year. I see no need for an English “gender neutral” pronoun; “he” serves that function admirably. And if that offends some snowflakes, it’s because they choose to take offense (and generally at a multitude of other wholly innocent things as well). In my opinion such persons* deserve to be offended, and frequently. Happy to oblige.

    “They” is never singular, regardless of how many apologetic or explanatory parentheticals you append to it. And I have no problem at all with the second person, either singular or plural.

    * Note the careful avoidance of the word “people”, which would have been improper in this context. Words have meaning.

  • Lee Moore

    I agree with Natalie that for those that would like one, a gender neutral pronoun would be just dandy. But I don’t approve of any of the offerings.

    Ne doesn’t work for me because of the complex array of inflexions that have to be learnt. He, she, it and they do not all have equally complex inflexions,s o I would vote for choosing a set of inflexions that ape the simplest from the current list. Which is the “it” set, not the he. she or they set. So I’d go for something close to “it”. “It” itself only fails because its usage is limited to nonhumans. So we want a human version of “it.”

    How about “Ib” ? You only need to remember “ib” “ibs” and “ibself” – I suppose if that sounds too close to “it” you could wiggle it to “hib” or “eb” with the same inflexion.

    “They” of course already works fine for the plural of humans of either sex, or non humans, so no new word is required there.

  • JohnW

    Well, you could try understanding the difference between a word [ i.e. a percept] and a concept.

  • Julie near Chicago

    I am solidly with Laird on this. “HE” is ALREADY the pronoun of unspecified gender; the same sound and the same marks on paper happen to be “he” also, which is a HOMONYM referring to a male specifically. Homonyms look and sound the same, but are DIFFERENT words nonetheless, because they refer to different concepts.

    Unfortunately there is the very silly contingent of people who show how sensitive they are to Women’s Issues (or who are simply cowering before the mandate of PC) by larding their books and papers with “she” used to replace the dreaded”he” as a pronoun of unspecified gender. It is not; it refers specifically to the female of the species.

    And as Laird notes,

    ‘“They” is never singular.’

    As for business letters, “Dear Sir or Madam” is not so very hard to write; and in any case, would you write the greeting in a business letter using a pronoun? If so, take your pick, starting perhaps with

    “Dear One,”

    and continuing:

    Dear You,
    Dear He,
    Dear They,
    Dear She,


    How nuts is that — Dear ME!!

    . . .

    Laird’s comment also reminds me to point out that we have NOUNS that are used to refer both to males and to all persons, i.e. to every human being, i.e. to Everyman; which word is itself an all-inclusive noun. “One,” “person,” in fact the very word “man” — all these are used to refer to human beings in general. Although some consider “one” to be a pronoun, and I do see an argument for that. (But speaking of homonyms, it surely is an example of one, as there is another, entirely different different word “one” which refers to the smallest in the list of positive integers.)

    The difficulty isn’t with the language. It is with people.

  • How about “Ib” ? You only need to remember “ib” “ibs” and “ibself” – I suppose if that sounds too close to “it” you could wiggle it to “hib” or “eb” with the same inflexion.

    Poe’s law would seem to apply here…

  • A lot of other languages achieve the same thing but in reverse: they apply “he” and “she” to inanimate objects, thus demolishing the idea that pronouns are a patriarchal imposition on people instead of merely handy grammatical tools.

  • Patrick Crozier (Twickenham)

    Being of proud politically-correct stock I used to use “they”. But one day my feminist, communist and female politics lecturer told me not to. So nowadays I use “he”.

  • Mr Ed

    All I can think to do is to telescope ‘s/he’ and ‘it’ into ‘sheit’, perhaps that will evolve.

  • A lot of other languages achieve the same thing but in reverse: they apply “he” and “she” to inanimate objects, thus demolishing the idea that pronouns are a patriarchal imposition on people instead of merely handy grammatical tools.


    I must admit that I’ve never understood how in French a table (“une table”) is feminine. I understand that male and female cats might be distinguished by name (e.g. “Un chat” for the male or tom cat and “une chatte” for the female or queen cat), but a table is neither male nor female, it is absolutely without gender in any way, shape or form.

    All I can think to do is to telescope ‘s/he’ and ‘it’ into ‘sheit’, perhaps that will evolve.

    Strangely enough, I already use the word “Sheit” on a regular basis, albeit with a somewhat different meaning and context. 🙂

  • James g

    The only thing I object to is the presumption that language can be changed by the edict of social justice warriors shaming people into compliance. That’s not how we do things. We are all grown up enough to work out what words to use. And if a new word or usage of an existing word helps to reflect societal changes, then it’ll emerge over time.

    I often find myself using ‘they’ when I don’t know someone’s gender but don’t want or need to make a thing of that in the moment. ‘Sams’, some Indian names, and unfamiliar foreign names. I also wrote an email to three women last week beginning ‘guys’. And I’ve been calling chaps ‘mate’ for most of my life which is weird if you think about it.

    I also find that foreigners mis-gender things all the time. My Indian vet was calling my female dog ‘he’ throughout an appointment, a linguistic laziness which must have caused medical mistakes at some point during his career. This alone is going to require SJW gender police to set a different standard for foreigners.

  • Mr Ecks

    No “gender neutral” crap at all.

    Apart from a tiny number of genetic misdeals your body is male or female and–regardless of your “feelings”– that is it.

    Declaring that you are a woman does not make you a woman.
    Declaring that you are the Emperor Napoleon does not make you the Emperor Napoleon.
    Bald men declaring that they have full heads of hair are no less bald.

    Normally delusion would be a personal issue. But in the matter of gender we have cultural Marxist scum trying to supplant objective fact and truth with Marxian subjectivist cockrot. As they would love to do with the legal system. Femmi-scum I believe have already proposed the end of objective truth–witnesses, evidence etc in rape trials. If she says you assaulted her then you did and to hell with your White patriarchal witnesses and evidence that you were a thousand miles away at the time.

    People cannot be stopped from twisting language but action must be taken to prevent such subjectivism taking hold.

    A end to cultural Marxism being propagated by Unis/the BBC etc on the taxpayers tit is a start. Legislation such that all communications using such pronouns etc– eg any contracts drawn up using such language —are automatically null and void.

  • …Marxian subjectivist cockrot…

    Classic stuff Ecksy!

  • I am delighted with the widespread adoption of Ms. rather than Mrs. & Miss because there is no reliable way to know which form of address to use just by looking at a woman, unless she is wearing a wedding ring. When it comes to gender, I will use whatever seems appropriate to what I see (and thus I really do not care if I end up calling some bloke ‘she’ if they are ‘convincing’), but I have zero intention of adopting a gender neutral pronoun.

  • Alisa

    That way those prone to being easily offended, and the subset of them that resort to bullying, could be kept from unhappiness and the occasion of sin.

    Wishful thinking, Natalie – one could never keep such people from their permanent unhappiness, because it is an integral part of their very personality. Plus, what Laird said, and to various extents what several others here said.

    Following on Tim’s comment, not only does Russian assign genders to all inanimate objects, it also has a neutral gender for certain objects (‘table’ is masculine, ‘door’ is feminine, ‘window’ is neutral – don’t ask me why), as well as to objects not sufficiently known to the speaker, including animate ones. Personally, I’d much rather be addressed with a masculine form than the neutral one – but OMMV.

  • I am delighted with the widespread adoption of Ms. rather than Mrs. & Miss because there is no reliable way to know which form of address to use just by looking at a woman, unless she is wearing a wedding ring.

    I actually like the term “Ms.”, it is a useful get-out when unsure about a human of the female gender’s marital status.

    When you start getting into conversations or announcements about “These are my preferred gender pronouns” though…that way madness lies.

    Not surprisingly insanity is quite close to the surface in New York…

    Not using transgender pronouns could get you fined

  • Edward

    I must admit, this “preferred pronouns” thing really puzzles me.

    The debate appears to always be about the third person singular; no one appears to object to the standard “you” for the second person, singular or plural.

    And of course, if the third person is being used, the person referenced is not a party to the conversation. So why that person thinks they have the right to have any influence at all on the conversation eludes me.

    Even if they do insist it’s an issue, English, being the most adaptable and logophoric language on the planet, has already come up with a solution; we just shift the third person plural to the third person singular.

    They, their, them.

    Job done.

  • The debate appears to always be about the third person singular; no one appears to object to the standard “you” for the second person, singular or plural

    Try using the term “you people” in front of an African-American then… 🙂

    Regardless, the preferred gender pronouns idiocy is just another attempt at enforced policement of language using a gradualist approach. If we give in to this then we’ll eventually end up with schoolkids being taught Newspeak and then where will we be?

    Doubleplus ridiculous verging crimethink comrade!

  • When you start getting into conversations or announcements about “These are my preferred gender pronouns” though…that way madness lies.

    The only reasonable reply is “And my preferred pronoun is ‘Your Lordship’, but ‘Your Grace’ is also acceptable.”

    And if they wish to proceed upon that basis, well ok perhaps I will play along. If I am actually friends with someone who is hung up in this manner, I will accommodate… but that is because they are a chum, not because I am generally willing to allow someone else to tell me how I must address them.

  • The only reasonable reply is “And my preferred pronoun is ‘Your Lordship’, but ‘Your Grace’ is also acceptable.”

    Excellent. So if I ever encounter this issue I will simply say that my preferred styles of address are “His Effulgence” or “Your Effulgence“.

    Bonus points if said with a straight face. 😐

    His eternal and beneficent Effulgence, Vicomte John de Galt…I quite like the sound of that…

  • Alisa

    His eternal and beneficent Effulgence, Vicomte John de Galt

    My eyes!

  • I sneeze in threes

    We all know that ze is only to be used with reference to Germans.


  • We all know that ze is only to be used with reference to Germans.

    What? As in “Don’t Mention ze vor”? 🙂


  • Paul Marks

    Within the velvet glove of “we just want you to be polite – our version of politeness”, is the Iron Fist of “lose your job”, “protest outside your home”, or even indeed “fine you – or send to prison”.

    There is not Political Correctness “gone mad” – this is what is was intended to be from the start.

    It is a weapon of the left against “capitalist society”.

  • Trofim

    Blimey, how would these whinging SJW’s react to the specialized mother-in-law vocabulary of Dyirbal and other Australian languages which one was obliged to use in the presence of certain close relatives.


  • mezzrow

    Yet another opportunity to point out how Jordan Peterson is doing the heavy lifting for us on this issue.


  • Vinegar Joe

    I despise the use of “actor” when referring to a woman.

  • Alisa

    Indeed, mezzrow – Peterson is a true hero, and is also a brilliant thinker and speaker.

  • Patrick Crozier (Twickenham), February 26, 2017 at 7:59 am: “Being of proud politically-correct stock I used to use “they”. But one day my feminist, communist and female politics lecturer told me not to. So nowadays I use “he”.”

    Unlike Patrick, I continue to use ‘they’ and ‘them’ whenever a singular is serving as a non-sex-specific exemplar of some group; I’m not going to let feminists or communists tell me how to speak! (But I’ll happily listen to females – especially friends like Natalie. 🙂 )

    Natalie, I disagree that

    “Singular “they” sounds all right when the subject is indefinite (e.g. “If anyone wants more details, give them a brochure”) but sounds wrong if the gender is known. “

    Using an inaccurate term is wrong but using a more generic term is not wrong, merely less precise, even if the gender is known. To all but the PC, it will sound less grammatically wrong than some invented term. More important to me, it will be less morally wrong than giving aid and comfort to the PC police.

    That said, what’s the problem? If the gender of a singular subject is ‘known’, why not use it? It you don’t, for whatever reason, feel that you know it, or wish to accommodate someone’s feelings without doing violence to your own opinion and/or showing cowardice towards the PC, then ‘they’ is a valid general term with good historical roots, and has a better chance of passing without notice, or without an air of explicit challenge, than anything else I can think of.

    At this time, robust, courageous resistance to any pressure to use PC-invented pronouns is part of defending free speech (IMHO). Its importance outweighs any minor convenience a new term might give, as against the evil another victory for political correctness would cause. When the war is won – when free speech is restored in law and valued in culture – some will use that right to play with such ideas without dreaming of compulsion. Some variants might one day catch on – or (I would make a small bet) will not. Till then, I’ll use an existing term – and enjoy the comedy of how PC’s own logic suggests that ‘she-he-it’ or ‘she-it-he’ should become common in our mouths, easily uttered at speed. 🙂

    On a side-point: whereas ‘they’ is something I casually use, it has never seemed to me that ‘Dear Sir or Madam’ is even trivially inconvenient to write. That said, you usually know something about who you are writing to or why you are writing to them, so can write ‘Dear Civil Servant’ or ‘Dear Club Officer’ or whatever without needing any new term. And if you want to write ‘Dear Person’ you can – unless of course it should be ‘Dear Person or Robot or AI system’, etc. If the new terms the PC are inventing were enforced on us, they and we would stilll one day be denounced as disgustingly “peoplist’ by their like-minded (or rather like-psyched) descendants.

  • I’m fine with singular “they” for persons of unspecified sex. And I’m perfectly willing to call people “he” or “she” as they prefer, “they” if they can’t accept either of the standard animate genders (the trouble with “it” is that it’s inanimate, that is, implies a lack of agency). But telling me that I must use a word someone made up and demands that everyone use for them is fucking presumptuous. My idiolect has three possible gender pronouns, he, she, and they, and I don’t think other people have the right to compel me to change it, unless I’m submitting a manuscript to them for publication, or have been hired to edit one.

  • Vinegar Joe, February 26, 2017 at 8:42 pm: “I despise the use of “actor” when referring to a woman.”

    In the abstract, Niall-pedant-Kilmartin would have to dissent: insofar as it is OK to use ‘he’ as a generic for he and she, or to use ‘man’ as a generic for men and women, the same logic would appear to justify using ‘actor’ to mean both actor and actress.

    In a social sense, a case could be made for Joe’s point. In plays and films, the maleness or femaleness of a given role is usually intimately related to the story and style, to say nothing of appearance playing a huge part in much casting. (This remains true if a film is a about two men who are gay or two women who are lesbian – indeed their being of those genders is usually even more central to the story!) So there can be a kind of willed social absurdity in using a generic term when the specific is so central.

    However the logic of my first paragraph above makes the point of my second paragraph rather subtle and mild. As I do not fuss about others’ use of the first, so I do not fuss about others’ use of the second.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Hold on there, Niall. “Actor,” like “man” or “person,” may be used (and is properly used) both as a noun referring to a male, OR as an inclusive noun. But where the person to whom the word supposedly refers is specifically a woman, well: the word referring to a female person who is or does acting is “actress.”

    “Host” and “hostess” are another example. “Steward” and “stewardess.” “Waiter” and “waitress.” (Also “editor” and “editrix,” and “aviator” and “aviatrix”; but I’m the only person I know who has the sheer cojones to use the female versions, which are now, unfortunately, considered archaic. Thus, something has been lost from our language.)

    But wait. What is so demeaning about having a slightly different word that specifically refers to a female subject (“subject” in the grammatical sense, of course)? It is actually a mark of honor. The woman is different from the man in some important ways, and it is a mark of respect for her as a woman to honor the difference by using the version of a given word that is specific to her.

    To wish to be a man and to be treated in all things as if you were a man is to disrespect your femaleness. Equality in some areas, such as “equal pay for equal work of equal quality who are expected to continue to perform equally well” is fine (though the employer has the right to disagree with that, if he is so foolish).

    “Equality before the law,” where it is possible (the difference in sex sometimes makes it impossible) is fine. But the case of grammatical usages that we’re discussing here has nothing to do with that sort of “equality.”


    Also, bobby at 1:27 a.m. on 2/26 ends his comment with this:

    “More information is always better than less. If we can pack descriptive info into a pronoun, we should use that for our betterment.”

    I couldn’t agree more, bobby, and in fact the present system with third-person pronouns and also some nouns already gives us more information than we get if we insist on using only words that include both genders. If I say “Our host will provide the eats,” you don’t know from that sentence alone whether the fodder-provider is a male or female. If I say “Our hostess will provide the food,” you know immediately that the event is being held by some lady. (That might matter to you. Maybe you prefer feminine pulchritude to the scruffy unshaven look unfortunately popular with the masculine contingent these days. SNARL — “Get a shave!”) Or, “This is a one-person play, see. A dramatic monologue.” “Who’s the actor? Anyone I ever heard of?” “Well, actually, you’ll recognized the actress at once. I promise!” Aha! Now you can daydream pleasantly on the way to the theatre. Elizabeth Taylor? Ava Gardner? Rosalind Russell? Marilyn? It won’t be Lee J. Cobb! Hmmmmm….

    In fact our system has the advantage of flexibility. When I write, “Any person can learn this quickly and easily,” I’m using “person” to refer to all normal humans, regardless of gender. And lately, a gossip-lover wanted me to name the person about whom I’d been mildly kvetching. I refused: “The person was only doing his or her job.” Handy sort of usage, that.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Oh, EFFFF!!! Where’s my comment that I spent all that time writing? Blast! 👿

    Well, I’ll just focus on Niall’s remark about “actor” just above. The fact is that “actor” is another of those words that can be either inclusive, with the sentence containing it referring to any human, regardless of sex; or it can be gender-specific, referring only to the male.

    These sorts of words are both useful in that they pack information into a single word, as bobby calls for above; and they also add flexibility to the language, so that one can specify from the word itself whether one is referring to a female by using the female form, “actress,” or to a male, using “actor,” or to any human who acts (in the sense of performing, whether formally or merely as pure improv at a party).

    As an example, consider this little parable. Joe and Mike are on their way to The Theatre to see a play; in this case, a dramatic monologue.

    Joe: “So who’s the actor in this thing? Anybody I ever heard of? Is he any good?” (Typical Male Chauvinist, don’tcha see. *g*)

    Mike: “I promise you, you’ll recognize the actress the second you clap your eyes on her!”

    Aha! Mike now has some interesting material about which to daydream for the rest of the drive. Elizabeth Taylor? Ava Gardner? Rosalind Russell? Marilyn??? Hmmmmmm. At least, not Lee J. Cobb.

    Nor is one foreclosed from using a word that may refer to any human being, regardless of gender, although one must distinguish this by context from the male-specific meaning of the word. This rarely takes any effort to speak of.

    . . .

    It’s a bloody shame that a bunch of wankers (whazzat? I’m sure it’s an unladylike term, so naturally I don’t know it) have managed to convince so many people that it’s indelicate, demeaning, patronizing, or sexually harassing to use terms that refer to women as women. It makes for great discomfort for everyone, except those who get fun and profit out of screeching about the Patriarchy.

  • Phil B

    When political correctness and “guess what term I want to use for my gender” meets technology, then the results can be quite traumatic for those of a nervous disposition when they try to order a T SHIRT on line.

  • Sorry, Julie, but I don’t agree about “he” being generic. Yes, the grammar textbooks all used to say that. But generation after generation of young children who had no thought of feminist ideological commitments have been perplexed by statements such as “If anyone comes to the door, tell him to come in,” which sounds odd if the person might be Grandma or the Girl Scout troop leader, and have invented singular “they” because it sounds more natural, only to be harassed out of it by children. The Oxford Unabridged has examples of singular “they” from creditable writers going back centuries, back in fact to before the rule about using “he” was introduced into English in the 1600s. And all this is because English is a language that, for the most part, has “natural gender,” where the gender of the word is determined by the sex of the object, and the “he” convention goes against that.

    There are certainly contexts where the inclusion of the female in the masculine gender is a convenient rule; for example, in legislation, referring to the Party of the Second Part as “he or she” would get terribly cumbersome, and singular “they” could hamper precision. But for ordinary serious prose, my preference, as a prescriptive linguist for hire, is to declare that singular “they” is correct English. This is a place where the traditional grammarians are actively fighting against the Genius of the English Language.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Well, William, we’ll have to agree to disagree then. As far as I’m concerned, “they” is simply not a singular anything, even if it were true that “they” sounds more natural to little kids. And it probably does, unless the little kids are mostly in the company of adults who speak Standard English, read books whose authors actually speak the language, and are exposed to good English in TV and movies. We ought not to set bad examples for little kids by our behavior, and we should also be at pains to use grammatical English around them; because it’s true that we learn English largely by ear. As a rule, if you grow up in the ghetto (any so-called “ghetto”), you learn ghetto English.

    Also, it’s too bad if some parts of our language confuse some little kids, but then again, lots of things in life confuse little kids. I really don’t recognize little kids’ confusions as the legitimate deciding factor on what is Standard English. We don’t change the rules of arithmetic on the grounds that they’re not always “natural” to children.


    I also don’t recognize the present on-line OED as authoritative where it disagrees with the 1933 Edition, with addenda and I think errata going up through 1971 at least in the 1974 printing of the 1933 edition that I have. Have you looked at the drivel they are printing in their weblogs? Yesterday I ran across the statement that “Me too” is perfectly good English because “everybody knows what it means.” But “everybody knows” is no argument for correctness either. As a matter of fact, in languages and certainly in English, there are these constructs called “idioms.” *g* “Me too” is one such. When there are weird phrases that break the rules but that many people, at least in a given locale, understand, we allow them into the house under the classification of “idiomatic usage.” I know you know this; I’m just reminding everyone that Idioms Exist and they’re idioms precisely insofar as they don’t follow the rules, whether of syntax or of word-meaning.


    And there’s one other thing that people overlook: Namely, that it’s not only in our day that people have mangled the language. They were mangling it in Shakespeare’s time too, as I believe he mourned, and I’m sure they were mangling it clear back when there was no England, and proto-Indo-European languages were all the rage.

    People can, and do, speak what it pleases them to think is the English language any way they like. But it’s only to the extent that words are used pretty much the same way by most people, and that they have approximately the same meanings for most people, that interpersonal communication via language is possible at all.

    And since when is English a language where each word has a gender associated with it? English is not French, although there are many similarities. The French speak of “la table,” and “table” is a feminine noun. But in English, “table” has no gender.

    Let me point out also that the ongoing angst in the U.S. over Constitutional interpretation would be greatly lessened if people since 1789 and right up to today had disciplined themselves to try to keep the meaning of our words constant. That’s an ideal that will never be reached, of course, but coming as close to it as we can would make such issues a lot easier. (That communication thing again.)


    Moving on. A linquist for hire? I thought you were a mathematician. ??

  • Laird

    I agree with Julie. “They” is never singular; that’s merely sloppy usage. And it should be corrected in children. In time they will come to appreciate it.

    (An example of the latter point: When my son was quite young, 1st grade or so, he once asked his teacher “can I go to the bathroom?” The teacher quite properly replied, “I don’t know, can you?”, and proceeded to tell him that the correct word was “may”. When he got home he was furious with us for never having corrected his usage. He was correct, of course, and it was not a mistake we made again.)

    Rules of grammar exist, not to please pedants, but to help ensure clarity of expression. We abandon it at our peril.

  • I sneeze in threes

    When speaking with Chuck Norris it is always can and not may, since without his permission it is not actually possible for you do do the thing in question.

  • Julie, I apologise for anticipating your comment, into which you had doubtless put time and effort. The same thing happens in reverse sometimes. 🙂

    As you are “from Chicago”, I don’t quite know whether you are simply joking about being too ladylike to admit knowing what ‘wanker’ means or whether you have seen it (perhaps in comments written by Britons on this very site – though never, I assure you, one of mine 🙂 ) and had to guess at its meaning. On the off-chance of the latter, I’ll try and explain it in terms that do not lower the tone of the discourse. 🙂

    it is one of those British terms which, unlike most of its sort, is not Anglo-Saxon in origin but post-dates our separation in the 18th century. As a friend of mine once wrote in his guide to SF cons, “Jack Vance did not know enough British idiom to avoid calling one of his books, ‘Servants of the Wankh’ – if you too are from across the pond and don’t get this, why not break the ice by inquiring loudly of any British fan.” And Mr Solent, given the book title in a game of SF charades long ago, simply looked very embarrassed, whereupon the (British) team instantly got it.

    So (having delayed as long as possible answering your implied question) – well, strictly, it concerns certain men who, disdaining the effort of locating a woman to spend their life with (or the night with), or even another man, or even a sheep, instead – ah – take the matter into their own hands. If the war I referred to in my first comment on this post is not won, then, one day, they too will have an aggressive PC support group and it will be an arrest-able hate speech offence to imply any inequality of respect for their lifestyle even by an indirect and hesitant description of it, but for now the UK law pursues other targets. 🙂

    (Like bastard, f***er and many another term, it is also used as a casual insult of no very specific meaning. You can safely assume it’s this latter ‘revoltingly vulgar self-regard’ meaning if you ever see it on this site.)

  • Alisa

    Rules of grammar exist, not to please pedants, but to help ensure clarity of expression. We abandon it at our peril.

    Indeed – but one should not conflate clarity of expression with technical precision: the former is useful for the very purpose we have speech in the first place – i.e. making ourselves understood by others; the latter, while can often be useful towards that purpose (and I’m as much a grammar-nazi as the next guy/gal/robot), it can also be disruptive or confusing beyond the necessary.

    I agree that using ‘they’ to indicate a single unknown person is technically incorrect, but it is much more useful in practice than repeating ‘he or she’ throughout a conversation or a document – although opening a letter with ‘Dear Sir or Madam’ is no great bother, provided some sort of a convenient shorthand is used from there on. Still, when there are ways of getting around such technical imprecision, they should be used when they don’t get in the way of convenience and clarity.

  • i’m with Alisa (February 27, 2017 at 10:04 am) in her argument above, bolstered by the feeling that, given mediaeval and Shakespearean usage, the incorrectness is debatable, and at most of a very technical kind.

    As regards the core point of this thread, where Natalie speculates about “Armed Neutrality”, I rather think of myself as offering ‘them’ fair treaty terms. Where these are rejected, I can then fight back with a perfectly clear conscience.

  • Andrew Duffin

    “There’s still curmudgeons who complain about the new meanings of “gay” and “impact”…”

    Can someone please explain to this curmudgeon, what the new meaning of “impact” is?

    Unless of course it’s something unsuitable for a blog designed for family reading round the fireside, as I am sure this one is.

  • Dominic

    Following on from Tim and Alisa’s comments about Russian grammatical gender: while there are a few (and really only a few exceptions – and even most of those follow determined rules and patterns), in general the gender of a noun is determined by the final letter of the word.

    Table (“stol”) is masculine, because it ends in a consonent; window (“okno”) neuter because it ends in “o”. Door (“dver'”) is actually something of an exception to the rule, as it ends in a “soft consonent” : most feminine nouns end in either “a” or “ya”.

    But in any case: the point is that gender of a word is determined solely on linguistic criteria, devoid of reference to meaning. (Of course – in German, there are such uses as “das Mädchen” – where the word for “girl” is of neuter gender.)

    I do agree that a lot of the fuss being made by solely English-speakers comes not just from narcissism but from an ignorance of languages. Maybe bringing back more widespread study of Latin at schools might go some way towards rectifying this sort of thing.

  • My mom tried to teach me proper pronoun usage but I think I disappointed it.

  • Watchman


    Just to point out the word in question comes from the German wanken, ‘to shake’ (or from the same word in one of the lowland dialects of German or Dutch perhaps). Not sure when that happened, but always quite appreciate it – my minature English-German dictionary from my school days had wanken as one of the end of page words, which for some reason always caught my attention when looking for words beginning with w (about half of them in German it appeared at the time) and caused suitable schoolboy mirth. Might also appreciate my love of comparative linguistics.

    And as to pronouns – it’s bloody English. If a gender neutral pronoun (re)appears then it will happen – but we can’t control it because English is a purely evolutionary language. So it will probably be a particularly silly pronoun in the end, in the UK and Australia, with a more serious one adopted in the US and Canada, no doubt with hilarious misunderstanding.

    Although if wankers are any guide, we could just adopt es from German.

  • No, Julie, actually I earn the majority of my income as a professional copy editor. “Prescriptive linguist for hire” is a joking description of that occupation.

    As for the OED, whatever your opinion of the current edition, I don’t believe that its authors/editors/compilers *made up* the quotations they present as illustrations of historical usage. Checking my unabridged, I find excerpts from, among others, Bunyan, Chesterfield, Bagehot, and Ruskin. You might dismiss Bunyan as lacking in formal education and writing a low style, but the other three seem to be generally regardless as exemplars of English prose. And in fact the OED is quite specific about when singular “they” is commonly used: When it refers to an indefinite or unspecified person, such as “anyone” or “whoever.”

    As for the usage of children, I was making a narrower point there than you seem to have taken from what I wrote: That singular “they” was not foisted on the language by academic feminists contrary to the way people actually speak. In fact, I started favoring singular “they” when I realized that on one hand, feminists who called for “nonsexist” pronouns habitually came up with unlovely neologisms that had no chance of being widely adopted (perhaps the least bad was Marge Piercy’s person/per/pers/perself, which almost sounds like English), and on the other hand, academic style guides that insisted on gender-neutral language called for one of (1) rewriting the entire passage in the plural, (2) rewriting the passage to eliminate the pronouns entirely, or (3, and least favored) changing to “he or she,” all of which are awkward to do multiple times in a paragraph. When, in fact, it occurred to me, we already have a word in common usage in such situations, and one that feminists and those influenced by them seem unable to bring themselves to adopt or recommend, whether because they share your beliefs about the unacceptability of singular “they” or because that usage is too easy, and too likely to be adopted, and thus reduces the number of people whose linguistic usage they can protest against.

    More generally, on singular/plural, let me explain a formal rule of English grammar that I learned when I was teaching grammar to fellow copy editors: There are words that are commonly used to refer to a collection of entities, such as group, lot, number, or set. Those words are treated as plurals (that is, verbs or pronouns that agree with them take the plural form) when the sentence actually is about the entities that make up the set: for example, A large number of people were at the protest, but The number of people at the protest was more than five hundred. The technical description for this is “singular, but plural in construction.” It makes just as much sense to say that in certain contexts “they” is “plural, but singular in construction.” And as this point illustrates, English plays games with singular and plural for a variety of purposes.

    The phrase “natural gender” is a technical term of descriptive linguistics for a language’s assigning words to a gender (whether revealed directly, by the form of the word, or indirectly, by other words that agree with or depend on it, such as French le/la or English he/she/it) in a way that is consistent with the actual sex, animacy, or other characteristics of the thing. French doesn’t have this; it’s necessary to learn by memory that it’s la gloire. But English mostly has it; glory in English is “it” rather than “she,” except in high-flown rhetoric where Glory is personified. (Of course, it helps that English has a neuter gender that French lacks, but then German has a neuter gender too, and—as I think it may have been Mark Twain who pointed out—the German for “the little girl sat on the log and cried bitter terms” makes the log masculine, the tears feminine, but the little girl neuter. This is simply a grammatical trait, like the ability of Spanish, but not English or French, to drop pronoun subjects and just use the verbs.)

    I apologize for the wordy explanation, but it seems necessary to correct the earlier fault of making cryptic references to arcane matters, and otherwise failing to make myself clear.

    But my real point was that, given that we have the usage “anyone . . . they,” I don’t personally see much difficulty in calling someone “they” who doesn’t want to be “he” or “she.” And I’ve already yielded the latter point; one of my best former players was f-to-m, and I have never referred to him other than as “he.” I don’t mind people picking the pronoun that they like best; I object to their trying to foist entirely new pronouns on me.

  • Oh, and Julie, one other point: It’s perfectly true that “it’s only to the extent that words are used pretty much the same way by most people, and that they have approximately the same meanings for most people, that interpersonal communication via language is possible at all.” But this can also be achieved, in this case, by adopting singular “they” as officially standard usage; and it wouldn’t actually be a difficult change to make, as everyone, including you, understands singular “they” when they hear or read it.

  • On another topic, it’s surely true that an action scene where all, or even both, the combatants were called “they” would be confusing and hard to follow. But it would be just as confusing if they were both called “he.” (Perhaps to avoid such confusion, economists and game theorists have a convention of calling one person “he” and the other “she” in a hypothetical game or bargaining situation, and academic journals mostly seem to accept this. But that often doesn’t work in fight scenes!)

    English has various contrivances for avoiding this problem, but none as simple as choosing the right pronoun. I’ve sometimes wished we had come up with the pronoun system that Algonquian and some other languages have, where there is a “fourth person pronoun”—the third person meaning “he” and fourth person meaning “the other one.” (The technical terms are “proximate” and “obviative.”) I suppose the legal phrases “the party of the first part” and “the party of the second part” sort of do this, but I can’t think of a casual English expression that works the same way. So keeping it clear who knocked who across the room remains a test of writing skill in English fiction. . . .

  • I sneeze in threes

    “………..gender of a word is determined solely on linguistic criteria, devoid of reference to meaning”, and now it seems the gender of a person is also devoid of reference to meaning.

  • bobby b

    I believe it was Vonnegut’s Tramfaladorians who informed us that it actually takes the interaction of seven different sexes to form an Earth baby. Five of those being visible only in the fourth dimension (which we cannot perceive), we remain blissfully unaware of them, and assume our two visible sexes are doing all the heavy lifting.

    Point is, imagine the fun of gendered Tramfaladorian pronouns.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Let’s see. Niall, yes, I was joking about not knowing “wanker.” 😉 I’ve been travelling the Internet in the company of you British blokes for over a decade, and if a girl (even a tender delicate fragile one such as I) is gonna run around with the boys, well, her fragile shell-like ears are likely to pick up a few expressions not common in Chicago. (But fear not, we have our own. In Chicago, we say “jerk-off.” *g*)

    By the way, in case you meant it seriously: You certainly have nothing to apologize for in “anticipating [my] comment.” The part of it that I bothered to rewrite and submit was, in fact, prompted by your remark about “actor.” (I happen to agree with Vinegar Joe on that one.) Having dealt with that, I went off in all directions, like an out-of-control firecracker. I believe the final sputter was caused by my hitting “delete” instead of “save” in the handy-dandy new Edit feature. :>(((

    . . .

    William, yes, we learned about group nouns in grade school. It’s rather damning of the state of normal grade-school education in English that you should have to teach your fellow copy-editors about them. But I believe it’s been quite awhile since English teachers knew much English. “She said, grumpily.”

    Also: “Prescriptive linguist for hire”: Felicitous phrase indeed! LOL

    And we can surely agree on your final, summary sentence. :>))

    We do have the tradition of referring to transportation machines (ships, planes, cars, etc.) and countries (and, formerly, storms) as if they were females: Milton! England hath need of thee — she is a fen of stagnant waters. Or: “The Spruce Goose was an airboat made entirely of wood, but in the end she only made one flight.” So forth. Unfortunately, we seem to have gotten away from such usages; it takes away a bit of the poetry inherent in our language, I think. Pity.


    Aha, youse is a copy-editor! So have you read Thurber’s marvellous memoir The Years with Ross? If not, correct the deficit at once — you’ll be so glad you did, as the sketches are wonderfully readable, rather wryly humourous throughout (except where laugh-out-loud funny), and contains among other things William Gibbs’s 23 notes on “editing New Yorker articles,” which to my mind are informative and educational, and sparkling here and there with witticisms. (“Try to preserve an author’s style, if he is an author and has a style.”

    (By the way, that last quotation is a good example of “he” used as the pronoun of unspecified gender; given that the New Yorker published a good many pieces by such ladies as, for instance, Dorothy Parker.)

    So if you or other Samidatistas haven’t had the good fortune to Mr. Thurber’s memoir of Ross, there’s a long excerpt in the London Times Review of Books, published under the title “There Shouldn’t be a License to Get Things Wrong,” at


    (As it happens, I disagree with Ross’s case in point in that particular example: “The leaves bronzen” strikes me as acceptable where used poetically. But as a general rule….

    (Which brings up another problem, completely unrelated to the main topic here, but a definite barrier to comprehensibility: Sometimes “a ‘general rule'” is a rule-of-thumb, a rule that usually applies but not necessarily in all specific cases. But we also say, “‘In general,’ 2+2=4 — everywhere and always, with no exceptions.”)

    Enough for now. A trip to the drugstore cannot be put off forever. :>(

  • Julie near Chicago

    William, you submitted a couple more while I was engaged with composing the foregoing comment. During that time, I see that you observed,

    “But this can also be achieved, in this case, by adopting singular “they” as officially standard usage….”

    But the difficulty with that is that many people, some of them right here on Samizdata, already object to “officially standard” usages, and call us “Grammar Nazis” if we call attention to non-standard usages. “Why,” they say, “shouldn’t we be allowed to use whatever word we want to mean whatever we want it to mean!” –I believer Mr. Dodgson had Humpty-Dumpty making this argument….

  • Julie, yes, I rather like the old tradition that ships, airplanes, hurricanes, and starships were of the feminine gender. That’s why I said that English has natural gender “for the most part.”

    I think the other copy editors mostly knew about group nouns, informally, as I did. But in getting ready to teach I systematically reviewed English grammar, and learned formal names for a number of things, such as “singular, but plural in construction” or “absolute phrase.” (Janis ian’s “Society’s Child” has a beautiful absolute phrase in the second verse: “Their smirking stares/Cutting deep down in our affairs.”) Part of the reason these were new to me was that California elementary schools in the 1950s and early 1960s taught little more of grammar than the names of parts of speech and formal definitions of these, so I picked up a lot of grammar on my own.

  • Julie near Chicago

    In fact, while we’re at it, why don’t we go ahead and do what the Indiana Congressman (I think he was a Congressman) recommended: Officially declare the value of π to be 3. If we can “adopt singular they,” — “they” being already NOT singular, and that by “officially standard usage” yet, surely by the same token we can “adopt” as “officially standard usage” the equivalence of π to the number 3.

    And, William: I don’t mean that in any snarky way. I just don’t find the argument at all persuasive, and I’m trying to explain why.

    Also, the fact that I understand what people mean when people say things like “When a person speaks in public, they usually ….” doesn’t prove much of anything except that I’m sophisticated enough as a hearer or reader of English to understand many, but far from all, misusages even when they’re as perverse as that one.

  • Julie near Chicago

    William, re your last above: That’s interesting. I was in grade school and high school in rural Illinois in the fifties, and although we certainly weren’t given the advanced linguistic jargon and taxonomy used in the profession today, we did get a pretty good foundation in grammar and syntax. Do you remember what series you used in grade school? I keep searching on eBay for copies of ours, but I can’t remember the publisher, blast. We did call the subject “Language” in grade school. It only became “English” in high school.

    The reason for my search is that when I took Senior English in high school, we used Warriner’s, and I was very disappointed at the summary treatment there as opposed to what I remembered as much more thorough presentations in the grade-school courses.

  • Mr Ed

    The disgusting Nazi Kriegsmarine and its commerce raiders, iirc the despicable Pinguin had at least given the world an example of a ‘correct’ English sentence I heard recounted in a documentary by an English mariner from WW2 who on seeing a commerce raider approach in the Indian Ocean, assumed that it was a Merchantman from the Dutch East Indies, the mariner told his skipper ‘I think she’s a Dutchman, sir.‘ quite correctly using the female personal pronoun for the ship, despite it being a ‘Dutchman’. So Hitler had done his bit for gender identity long before the Cultural Marxists got on to it.

    Personally, I simply cannot refer to a ship etc. as ‘she’. A switch in my brain trips, and I regard the usage as either a ridiculous affectation or a particularly creepy perversion.

  • Julie near Chicago


    I have to backpedal from mine of February 27, 2017 at 8:13 pm. The analogy is very, very flimsy. Because however much “they” may be “officially” plural, it’s also a matter of convention; whereas the ration we denote by π is not, although various decimal expansions of it are made “by convention”: π “=” 3.14 in grade-school, and in high school and sometimes in college the convention is to take it out to 5 decimal places. But the ratio we call π is well-defined, within the normal rules of geometry.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Oh dear, Mr Ed. I’m sure I never meant to lead you down the path to perdition, and I doubt William did either. 🙁

  • Julie,

    I have no memory of the title or author of any of my elementary or junior high school textbooks. I started paying attention to such things in college, when we had to buy our own; I can tell you, for example, that my physics textbook was written by Halliday and Resnick, and my biochemistry textbook by Lehninger, and that my first calculus textbook was by Apostol. But I didn’t think about such things for our elementary school textbooks.

    For me, what is “correct” is inherently a matter of convention: I have two different dictionaries on the shelf just above me, and half a dozen style manuals, and they all recommend slightly different things. In any editing job I use the one the publisher specifies. But I’m not talking about “correct,” but about a pragmatic issue. If I adopt “they” to refer to a person of unspecified sex, nearly every native English speaker will understand me without difficulty. If I adopt Marge Piercy’s coinage “person,” I will sound weird, as if I weren’t quite a native speaker, but most people will understand me. But if I adopt “xe,” or some other feminist neologism, only a tiny fraction of the population will understand me, especially out in the part of the world away from academic fashions; I’m not even sure that all feminists will understand me, as it’s not clear that they have all settled on a single “gender-fluid” pronoun—and that makes the use of that pronoun a handicap to communication. And for that reason I don’t anticipate that any such word will catch on in common speech. So acquiring the habit of using one is *both* a waste of effort and counterproductive, for any purpose other than making a display of ideological conformity.

    I do rather suspect that that very fact is part of the appeal of newly coined pronouns, though; the very fact that the common people won’t use them creates an unlimited number of occasions for holding such people in contempt and being proud of one’s own superior enlightenment.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Well then, William, let us delight in being common together! :>)))

    I think that our difficulty really arises because language (any language) is based on convention. This makes it difficult to draw the boundaries beyond which the rules do not reach; in fact it makes it hard to see just what the rules are, or how much sense it makes to talk about what the rules “should be.” Really, the Rules are teased out from the usages already in the language, which brings us to Alisa’s point that if language changes it should at least do so “organically,” naturally, rather than by means of brute force and intimidation by self-selected Priests.

    Nevertheless, to me it’s important to understand that there are rules, and that there are good reasons for having rules and for trying, mostly, to follow them.

    . . .

    It seems to me that our discussion presents some interesting paths of investigation, but perhaps this isn’t the right place to do so.

    Anyway, thank you for an interesting exchange, and for sharing your viewpoint. I’d be interested to learn more at some point, if an excuse turns up. :>)

  • Julie,

    One last note for you: While I understand what you are saying about language being based on convention, I don’t think I find that the best description. One of the big influences on my intellectual point of view was Hayek’s “The Result of Human Action but Not of Human Design,” reprinted in his Studies in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics, which to me seems to be one of the profoundest works of twentieth century social theory (not merely of economics). Language seems to be a quintessential example of what Hayek describes as neither “natural” nor “conventional,” and in fact, if I recall correctly, Hayek explicitly names language as an example, along with the common law and market prices. I don’t know if you would agree with his arguments, but you might find them worth a look.

    Best wishes.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Thanks , William. But perhaps I misunderstood you. I took you to be saying pretty much exactly that — that language is a matter of convention. After all, at 10:20 above, you wrote,

    “For me, what is “correct” is inherently a matter of convention….”

    (This is beside my main point, which is that regardless of how a language came to be what it is, it’s possible to formulate rules about it that will help us to understand in an abstract way how it is and how it works; it’s a good idea to follow these rules, for various reasons, some given above.)

    But perhaps I somewhat misstated the case. I think languages came about because our very distant ancestors made sounds that the members of the Tribe took to mean “Danger,” “food,” etc. (Even many of the other animals do this, so they say.) Those sounds began to go with those meanings within the tribe; thus, the connection sound-meaning became a matter of convention. And so forth, by the same basic process. Thus languages came into being, and evolved…and also, devolved, of course, with a concomitant loss of the ability to think the concepts to which they referred. (This last is wildly oversimplified, but never mind.)

    And best wishes to you too, sir. ;>)

  • Surellin

    I’m reasonably certain that in a hundred years our descendants will wonder what in the HELL we were thinking about to be so obsessed with gender. As we muse over the Victorians (alleged) penchant for putting books by female authors on different shelves than those by male authors. Of course, suggesting that this is a passing fad rather than The Way Of The Future would deeply offend some self-important twits.

  • Thailover

    Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn. English is one of the least gender-laden languages in common use. When we feel obligated to tailor reality to accommodate the unreasonable, and dare I say the foolish, then we become the fools. There isn’t the slightest evidence that life is supposed to be accommodating.

  • Thailover

    I’d like to say at the outset that I am extremely trans-friendly and asking that others please refer to them as he or she isn’t unreasonable. However, THERE ARE TWO SEXES. Where someone falls on that dichotomous spectrum is a personal concern, not a societal one.

  • Mr Ed

    Finland tried lightly armed neutrality in 1939, it didn’t quite succeed in maintaining the peace, but by the skin of its teeth it kept most of its territory and most of its freedom, devices like this Lahti L-39 rifle helped.