Grammatical Investigations: she, he, ze, and they

Last week I wrote about Jamie Kirchick’s latest excursion into truthiness for The New Republic’s blogs; the comments seem to have lit out on an interesting tangent about language, grammar, and gender-neutral third-person pronouns. It’s all Anon73’s fault:

Continuing the pronoun pondering, I don’t really agree with the method of alternating he and she to make language gender-neutral; it provokes too much confusion when one actually does want to specify a person’s gender. I think the best method is to switch to new pronouns like ze and use he/she when gender matters to a discussion. But then I favor talking about kibibytes and mebibytes, so what do I know….

— Anon73 @ 24 March 2008 at 11:37 am

I replied:

I don’t actually alternate pronouns very often; with a very few exceptions, I just always use she in preference to he as a gender-indefinite pronoun. But in any case I don’t see either practice as posing much of a stylistic problem when you do want to specify gender: you just do that in the antecedent, rather than in the pronoun. In a language that had no gendered pronouns, that’s what you’d have to do anyway.

Anyone who likes words like ze, hir, ey, xe, thon, etc. should feel free to use them as widely as they can; I’m certainly not going to begrudge them the minimal effort it takes on my part to pick up on new monosyllables. But I generally don’t like them, stylistically speaking, because they usually don’t sound much like English—they don’t fit very well into the phonetic structure of either formal English or dialect. (For example, how is hir even supposed to be pronounced by an English speaker?)

The one big exception to that is the singular they, which comes out of living speech and which flourishes in most dialects because in most of the constructions you might use it in, it sounds pretty natural. But it often gets frowned on and doesn’t have much uptake by self-conscious language reformers, because the kind of people who would actually use a word like ze in writing or speech also tend to be the kind of people who would feel awkward about using an incorrect singular they.

If yo gets some uptake, that would sound fairly natural, too, and would sidestep whatever uneasiness people may feel about the singular they.

— Rad Geek @ 24 March 2008 at 1:21 pm

Laura J., who knows more about language than I could ever hope to, and perhaps more than an entirely sane human being should, adds:

Yo? How curious. I don’t think I could easily get used to it - it simultaneously sounds too much like English you and Romance first-person pronouns for my tastes. But then, I don’t have a grammatical gap to fill there since I routinely use they as a singular pronoun when there isn’t one specific gendered person being referred to.

— Laura J. @ 24 March 2008 2:53pm

Here’s Roderick:

Shakespeare occasionally uses they as a singular pronoun, as I recall.

— Roderick Long @ 27 March 2008 9:30am

Me again, stirring up some controversy:

As do Jane Austen and the King James Version of the Bible. (Cf. 1 for still more examples.) But of course discomfort with the singular they has more or less nothing to do with the norms underlying actually-existing good English, either written or spoken, and everything to do with a fetishized ideal of how a logical language should work, or, more concretely, with participating in a particular culture of correction and officious priggishness, which institutional schooling browbeats most educated professionals into accepting.

— Rad Geek @ 30 March 2008 10:09pm

Anon72 (not to be confused with Anon73, unless they’re actually the same person—I don’t know one way or the other) joins in to reply

Well I think clarity and consistency are always good things to strive for in a language; I just don’t see the singular they as satisfying either.

— Anon72 @ 31 March 2008 11:32am

This is pretty much always the first line of defense when challenging an incorrect bit of dialectical grammar. But I don’t buy it; clarity and consistency are certainly things to be desired, but this seems like special pleading. I reply:

I agree with the principle, but not with the application of it.

Can you think of any actual cases in your life where somebody used the singular they and you couldn’t understand what they were saying because of it?

If so, what was the case? If not, then it seems like your worry about clarity is misplaced.

As for consistency, is it a violation of consistency for English to have a single word, you, for the second-person singular and the second-person plural? If not, how is that different from having a singular they? If so, does it rub you the wrong way when someone uses you in the plural (or singular) just as much as when they use they in the singular? If it does, do you fix the problem by introducing dialectical constructions like y’all or youse or yuns in formal contexts? If it doesn’t, what do you suppose accounts for the difference in your reaction?

— Rad Geek @ 31 March 2008 12:16pm

Anon72 answers one of my questions:

As for consistency, is it a violation of consistency for English to have a single word, you, for the second-person singular and the second-person plural?

Yes. I don’t like y’all, but it would be nice if the language had separate words for the singular and plural forms. If you want to know my philosophy on language, I think Heinlein was right when he said words should mirror the way we think about reality. Addressing a single person is very different from addressing a crowd, so it’s logical to have different words for each. I’d say similar considerations apply to neutral pronouns; sometimes people want to refer to someone of certain but unknown gender, and he/she/it doesn’t cut it. However, I don’t necessarily agree with Hofstadter that sexism is partly due to gendered pronouns.

Incidentally I was reading an old grammar guide (circa 1961) and when listing the different genders it said something to the effect of he, she, and it are for male living things, female living things, and non-living things (neuter) respectively. It’s interesting how the original english speakers decided a fourth category of living-but-necessarily-gendered was unimportant.

— Anon72 @ 1 April 2008 7:34pm

But I’m not especially convinced.

I agree that a proper language needs separate words for addressing a single person and addressing a group of people. But I think that privileged English already has two different words for those two different purposes, even without dialectical constructs like the ones I mentioned. Those two words are you and you.

Those are, to be sure, two words that can’t be distinguished by sound or spelling, but rather are distinguished by the context of their significant use (as expressed in word order, sentence structure, etc.). There are lots of pairs of words like that, sometimes with very different or even opposite meanings — sanction meaning punishment and sanction meaning approval or endorsement, for example — but in real, everyday language, context is often quite enough to distinguish those words from one another. To take another case, suppose that everyone suddenly stopped spelling their, there, and they’re differently in writing, and just used a single spelling for all three words, their. (Lots of people already do this unless a teacher raps them on the knuckles for it.) Would that impair your ability to distinguish the words from each other? Really? Does the fact that they all sound exactly alike impair your ability to distinguish them in speech?

Now, if someone’s depending on context rather than phonetic or graphical features to differentiate different words, then, to be sure, they have to consider how clearly context distinguishes and how often it leaves things ambiguous. In the case of you and you, it turns out there are enough cases with a significant risk of confusion that dialects have repeatedly, spontaneously with alternative second-person plural pronouns to solve the problem. But in the case of they, the situation is quite the reverse: the spontaneous and repeated trend, even among masterful and careful writers of good English — Shakespeare, Chaucer, Austen, the King James Version translators, et al. — has been to spontaneously use the singular they in order to get an epicene pronoun, where the privileged version of the language doesn’t provide it. I think that the dialectical situation is different here because, as a matter of actual fact, the rules for using singular they (which, grammatically, isn’t actually a perfect substitute for he or she; it only works in a subset of cases where he or she works) are such that there’s hardly ever any chance of confusion, given the context of the sentence.

Which brings me back to a couple of my earlier question, which I really would be interested to hear Anon72’s answers to:

Can you think of any actual cases in your life where somebody used the singular “they” and you couldn’t understand what they were saying because of it?

And also:

If so, does it rub you the wrong way when someone uses you in the plural (or singular) just as much as when they use they in the singular? … If it doesn’t, what do you suppose accounts for the difference in your reaction?

Incidentally, I should add that I think that y’all is lovely English and I would have no problem introducing it (or you all or whatever) into the context of formal writing, which would (among other things) have the benefit of avoiding certain kinds of ambiguity. There are lots of cases where I prefer an academic she to a singular they, too, but honestly I think any charges of either unclarity or inconsistency against they are surely trumped up, and probably a reflection of just that fetishized ideal of how logical languages are supposed to look (as if the logic were in the signs themselves rather than in their significant use) that I complained about earlier.

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  1. Robert Hutchinson

    I don’t have much to offer on this, except that I pretty much agree with you. Most of what I’ve read on the subject has been through Language Log —here are the Google results of a search for “singular they” on that site.

  2. Anon72

    Let me start off by thanking Radgeek for his reply to my modest remarks. I notice that you say the singular “you” and plural “you” are in fact different words, though distinguished by context and not by spelling or sound. I don’t have a problem with this per se. Obviously, a spoken language with tens of thousands of words but only a few sounds will have some homophones, and even some homonyms. Yet, I feel it is too easy to abuse homonyms, so their use should be minimized.

    If so, does it rub you the wrong way when someone uses you in the plural (or singular) just as much as when they use they in the singular?

    Perhaps you meant when “ze” uses the singular they? :) Let me say I don’t have strong feelings about either. However, I object more to the singular “they” than to the plural “you”, since I think the latter is less prone to confusion. (Incidentally I think “ya’ll” sounds fine on paper but horrendous when spoken aloud; it conjures images of redneck, beer-swilling hillbillies!) Also, it’s interesting that “you” was originally plural but replaced “thou” for the singular case a few hundred years ago.

    Can you think of any actual cases in your life where somebody used the singular “they” and you couldn’t understand what they were saying because of it?

    Well, it’s not whether it’s possible to use the singular “they” I dispute, but rather how easy it is to use. However, I think I can answer your question and also refine my argument at once. We must distinguish using “they” for a definite individual from using “they” as a logical quantifier. (For a brief discussion of Steven Pinker’s development of this as well as links to Jane Austen quotes, see here.) Most of the examples from Austen or TKJB that sound plausible with singular “they” are using it for logical quantification with everyone or no one, as in these:

    “Every body was punctual, every body in their best looks: not a tear, and hardly a long face to be seen.”

    “…but it is not every body who will bestow praise where they may.” - Jane Austen, Emma

    Contrast this with the use of the singular “they” with non-quantifier cases:

    “Someone dropped by but they didn’t say what they wanted.”

    “He’s one of those guys who’s always patting themself on the back.”

    “Who is in love with her? Who makes you their confidant?”

    I am much more against these latter cases since they would go much better with “he”, or at least a gender-neutral version of “he”. Probably the best resolution would be to add a gender-neutral singular pronoun and perhaps use “they” or a new term for logical quantification. Interestingly, the wiki article on singular “they” links to a study showing that these latter forms where he/she is mixed with the singular “they” can cause some confusion in the form of longer reading times. I definitely oppose the use of alternating “he” and “she”, or the horrifying “he or she” construct.

    And to top this all off, Steven Pinker used to be an anarchist until he witnessed a rise in the crime rate following a police strike in Montreal. Make of that what thou will…

  3. JAR

    While we’re on the topic of distinctions that we could be making for the sake of clarity, I’m surprised no one has pointed out the fact that English fails to make a very basic pronoun distinction that occurs in a bunch of the languages of the world (like the Polynesian languages): inclusive v. exclusive first person plural.

    That is, “we” that includes the person being addressed v. “we” that does not include the person being addressed.

    Honestly, of all the pronoun non-distinctions mentioned in this post and comments, the failure of English to have separate words for those concepts has probably caused the most actual confusion in my own life. Having people assume they are included in some “we” group and then having to disabuse them of the notion is always terribly awkward.

    Also, a sociolinguist told me a couple years ago that something approaching half of the population of the United States now used “y’all”, largely due to demographic growth in the southern parts of the country, but also with a bit of northward migration of the pronoun. It may become part of General American in the next century or so, even if it remains heavily stigmatized in the rest of the Anglophone world.

  4. emeraldimp.blogspot.com/

    Anon72:

    And to top this all off, Steven Pinker used to be an anarchist until he witnessed a rise in the crime rate following a police strike in Montreal. Make of that what thou will…

    1. That Montreal experienced a backlash that could probably be expected from a sudden lapse in authority by a populace that is used to an authoritarian mindset.

    2. That Montreal criminalized things that are not immoral/unethical.

    Anyway, I digress…

    In college, I played around a lot with language (comes from being a linguistics major), and personal pronouns were a favorite topic, especially given my (fringe) involvement with the genderqueer community on campus. I tried ‘ze’, and I think I once used ‘ey’ and ‘em’ (derived from ‘they’ and ‘them’, of course) in a paper. (Oh, and I’m given to understand that ‘hir’ is pronounced like ‘here’, but I’ve never liked that one myself).

    Something I find interesting is that there are more ways to divvy people up than English and other western european languages allow. For example, some languages distinguish between ‘we’ (including the listener) and ‘we’ (excluding the listener).

    Thinking along these lines, I came up with another set of (third-person) personal pronouns which were based on one’s self-identity. I don’t remember all of my set, but the base was ‘gek’ (from ‘geek’), meaning ‘one who is geeky/a geek’.

    Also:

    “He’s one of those guys who’s always patting themself on the back.”

    Is the only one of the three sentences I find ungrammatical. I think the problem is that you change person twice, ie, both

    He’s one of those guys who’s always patting themselves on the back.

    and

    He’s one of those guys who’s always patting himself on the back.

    work fine for me.

  5. nathan

    I have also long been for the singular “they”. I was convinced by a logic textbook which argued for it near the end of the book, presenting as evidence the fact that they (plural) had used the singular “they” throughout the book. The authors were rightly confident to predict that I hadn’t noticed it until they pointed it out.

    Also, a minor point for Anon72, who said:

    And to top this all off, Steven Pinker used to be an anarchist until he witnessed a rise in the crime rate following a police strike in Montreal. Make of that what thou will…

    I’ve read Steven Pinker’s description of the police strike. Pinker watched a police agency go on strike in a place where they had a forcible monopoly on police services. Of course that would lead to chaos, since no competing agencies could step in and fill the gap in the market.

  6. Marja Erwin

    Sometime early in their history, the Germanic languages dropped the third person dual pronouns, leaving three third person singular, and three third person plural pronouns. Sometime later, “they” appeared as a third person all-purpose pronoun. It is not one of the old third-person plural pronouns.

    I can’t see any problem with singular “they.” OTOH, “Ya’ll” drives me nuts because “You” is already plural (although used in the singular and dual).

  7. Anon72

    I notice a few people have addressed the use of “we”:

    That is, “we” that includes the person being addressed v. “we” that does not include the person being addressed.

    I’m not sure what examples you have in mind. Perhaps articles in Newsweek that say “We have a responsibility to clean up New York” or similar things? I usually consider such things logical errors, a sort of “collective fallacy” if you will, since the ambiguous use of “we” could be taken to mean people of New York, everyone in the US, or perhaps the writer and his staff. At any rate, I confess I don’t see the point of using “we” to refer to groups not including the speaker; wouldn’t “you all” or “you” suffice?

  8. JAR

    It’s more simple than that.

    Say I’m talking to an acquaintance of mine: “I think we’re going to the movies on Friday at like 7.”

    If this acquaintance thinks he’s a closer friend of mine than he is, he may misinterpret what I am saying and show up at the movies on Friday. If, however, I can say “I think we-not-you are going to the movies on Friday at like 7,” he is unlikely to turn up.

    The exclusion isn’t the speaker; it’s the person or persons being addressed. A very different kettle of fish.

  9. Rad Geek

    Anon72:

    Let me say I don’t have strong feelings about either. However, I object more to the singular they than to the plural you, since I think the latter is less prone to confusion.

    You think so? Really?

    I can think of plenty of everyday cases in which using you can lead to confusion. For example, You’re invited to the party tonight, said to Mary in the presence of her wife Joan; does that mean that Mary (thou) is invited but not necessarily Joan? Or does it mean that both Mary and Joan (y’all) are invited? Such tricky social situations abound….

    But I can think of just about no everyday cases in which using a singular they is likely to lead to confusion. That’s why I asked if you could think of any cases from your own life. (I can think of cases where a singular they sounds somehow wrong, but of course that’s a different issue.)

    It seems to me that, really, confusion between plural and singular you is much more likely to arise in common speech than confusion between plural and singular they. Do you disagree? If so, which cases make you disagree?

    Incidentally I think “ya’ll” sounds fine on paper but horrendous when spoken aloud; it conjures images of redneck, beer-swilling hillbillies!

    Well, that’s part of the reason I like it. I come from West Alabama rednecks and North Carolina hillbillies, though, and I don’t mind being associated with things that are widely considered parochial or low-class. Your own tastes may be different, of course.

    Also, it’s interesting that “you” was originally plural but replaced thou for the singular case a few hundred years ago.

    Yeah; my understanding is that it happened by way of the plural second-person being adopted as a formal form (as also happened, for example, in Castilian), and then the formal form coming to displace the informal form in the privileged dialect. (Incidentally, this only happened hundreds of years ago if you happened to live in London or certain other parts; in northern England, for example, the older folks were still saying Thou well after World War II.)

    This also helps explain some of the things that are odd about you, such as the fact that it takes plural conjugations of verbs (I was, She/he/it was, but You were). This is one of the places where blackboard grammar has actually ended up tripping itself up; there would be less need for second-person plural constructions like Y’all or Yuns if You is and You was were accepted as good grammar for the singular you; and (at least according to John McWhorter) a lot of well-educated people were actually starting to use You is and You was around the late 18th and early 19th century. But this move towards clarity was stomped out soon thereafter by a generation of prescriptive grammarians, thus helping to make the need for y’all much more urgent.

    However, I think I can answer your question and also refine my argument at once. We must distinguish using they for a definite individual from using they as a logical quantifier

    Yes, this is roughly the distinction I was referring to when I mentioned the fact that singular they can’t grammatically substitute for every case of he or she. To be finicky about it, what’s going on is that almost all the legitimate cases of singular they are variables bound by an antecedent (tacit or explicit) quantifier.

    That said, I don’t think all the wrong examples you give are actually wrong. For example, Someone dropped by but they didn’t say what they wanted seems perfectly correct to me. But then, it also seems like another case where a quantifier is in play: the two occurrences of they are bound to the (existential) quantifier Someone. That said, I agree that there are cases where a singular they is just wrong as a replacement for he or she, and these are indeed generally cases where the pronoun is unbound rather than bound by a quantifier. Those are cases where I’d usually use an academic she unless I have some strong reason to choose something else.

    JAR:

    Also, a sociolinguist told me a couple years ago that something approaching half of the population of the United States now used y’all, largely due to demographic growth in the southern parts of the country, but also with a bit of northward migration of the pronoun.

    Yeah, I’ve heard that, too, and noticed it in conversation. I suspect there are a couple reasons for the expanding boundaries. One is that it fills a gap in the privileged dialect, and is probably the best-known way of filling the gap that doesn’t raise other concerns. (You guys is almost certainly a more popular construction, but raises gender problems.) The other is that y’all is partly spreading through the linguistic medium of hip-hop, which of course draws heavily from black Southern dialect.

  10. JAR

    Rad Geek:

    I’m not entirely sure that “you guys” is actually gendered for speakers of American English under 30. My intuition is certainly that I can use it to address male, female, or mixed gender groups, and my significant other informs me that her intuition is similar. Interestingly, “guy” is still definitely gendered (*’This guy put on her panty hose’ being infelicitous for the younger speakers I have consulted, provided that ‘this guy’ and ‘her’ have the same referent), but ‘you guys’ appears not to be. Address a group of young women under 30 as ‘you guys’ and I don’t think they’ll bat an eye.

    A similar development has taken place for Ger. Leute, which used to refer to a band of armed male retainers, but now just means ‘people’ generally.

  11. Anon72

    Well, that’s part of the reason I like it. I come from West Alabama rednecks and North Carolina hillbillies, though, and I don’t mind being associated with things that are widely considered parochial or low-class.

    Well I certainly don’t want to put down hillbillies as a group, yet not having been raised in remote mountainous areas of the US I find the beer-swilling and barn-dances and such a bit hard to fully appreciate. :)

  12. Erick Vasconcelos

    Matters would be significantly simplified if the English language simply had determinate genders for all words, like the Latin languages (I think all of them, but I’m not really sure). :)

  13. Rad Geek

    JAR,

    I think that you guys is gendered as long as guys is gendered, for the same reason that the supposedly gender-neutral senses of he or Man are gendered. Of course, if challenged, lots of folks will say that when they said guys they meant to include both guys and women, but even where that’s true, the choice of terms has implications and connotations that outrun the speaker’s intent. I think it’s worth calling attention to and challenging those implications and connotations, and, where possible, finding phrases that don’t carry that kind of baggage.

    Erick,

    I don’t understand how that would make anything simpler. Does it simplify your life to have to remember that a fork is dudely whereas a spoon is girly? How?

    What I should think would be much simpler is a language in which there is no structural encoding of sex or gender at all, even in personal pronouns, and where sex or gender are only mentioned in situations where they contribute some relevant information about a state of affairs.

  14. Anon72

    they contribute some relevant information about a state of affairs.

    Actually that reminds me of a fairly amusing post David D. Friedman had a few months back called “Rational Bigotry”, where he argued that because homosexuals, hermaphrodites, androgynous people, etc all greatly complicate keeping track of your relationships and dealing with other people, hence the widespread disfavor in which people tend to hold these groups.

  15. Erick Vasconcelos

    Rad Geek,

    I was just making a random commentary based on the difficulties you and others found trying to apply a pronoun to a gender-neutral reference. My own impression is that the existence of gender-neutral words has both good and bad sides. My native tongue is Portuguese, so for me it’s just natural that, depending on the reference, pronouns of gender vary accordingly. The difficulty you posted about would be no problem for me, neither stilistically nor grammatically.

    However, I can see other problems with this. One that comes to mind is the fact that we have to apply a gender to a group irrespective of their formations. For example, I could formulate a sentence like “Todos os espectadores gostaram do espetáculo”, which means “All spectators liked the show”. Since “espectadores” is a male plural word that designates both a crowd composed exclusively of men and a crowd composed of men and women - even if the crowd were composed of a thousand women and one man - the plural would have to be male. Only if all spectators were women, I could use the female word “espectadoras”. I find this surely counter-intuitive, and the existence of a gender-neutral pronoun would certainly facilitate things. (Some people, worried about sexism in language, go as far as to put an @ in cases like the one I mentioned - “Tod@s @s espectador@s” - so as to make the words gender neutral. It’s an stilistical atrocity, IMHO.)

    I certainly agree that a language that didn’t specify genders and sexes except in relevant situations would be much simpler, and would avoid both problems.

  16. smally

    Whether you like singular they or not, resistance is futile. Anyone who doesn’t like it, well, they can’t beat ‘em, so they may as well join ‘em.

    The second-person plural youse is a part of the common usage of Aboriginal and “lower”-class Australians, but is considered abominable by “educated” speakers. I don’t see anything wrong with it, and find the complaint that it sounds bad absurd — it sounds exactly the same as the perfectly acceptable use.

    But no Aussie could get away with ya’ll. :)

  17. Laura J.

    “What I should think would be much simpler is a language in which there is no structural encoding of sex or gender at all, even in personal pronouns, and where sex or gender are only mentioned in situations where they contribute some relevant information about a state of affairs.”

    Well, modern spoken Mandarin fits the bill, if you’re interested. Unfortunately, actual Mandarin-speaking communities tend to be fairly patriarchal regardless.

  18. Laura J.

    On the descriptive side of things -

    I think I personally use “you guys” and “y’all” or “you all” with more or less equal frequency, except when I need a genitive second person plural pronoun, in which case I would go with either “your” or “y’all’s”, since it’s awkward to try to make “you guys” explicitly possessive. When I’m using the phrase “you guys” as a pronoun, I use it as a set phrase without any gender considerations at all; I wouldn’t feel any twinges of awkwardness at using it to address several of my friends at once even if everyone in the group happens to be female.

    I don’t think I could use “you guys” in formal speech however; it wouldn’t sound right if I were, say, addressing a group of professors, regardless of gender. I think I would normally get around this by restructuring questions to have phrases such as “any of you” or “all of you” as their subjects, for example.

    So, for me at least, even though “guy” by itself in the singular or plural is clearly masculine, “you guys” is definitely encoded as an informal gender-neutral second person plural pronoun, regardless of its rather obvious etymology.

  19. Rad Geek

    Anon72,

    There’s a bit more to it than that.

    I also love me some watermelons, and fried okra, and biscuits and cornbread. Fried chicken, too, but I don’t eat much meat anymore.

    Erick,

    Yeah, I’m familiar with the -@ construction from written (Internet) Spanish. I know that the standard rules from Romance languages would unambiguously solve the problem, but there are rules in some versions of English that do the same thing; in the privileged dialect, what you’re really supposed to do is just use he (him, his) as a pronoun for a singular third person of indefinite gender. (E.g. If anyone knows of any reason why this union should not take place, let him speak now or forever hold his peace. Purportedly the he and his don’t exclude a woman from speaking up or holding her peace.) That’s roughly equivalent to the defaulting-to-masculine rule in Romance pronouns. But the whole tussle here is over different ways that people have adopted to serve the same linguistic purpose while avoiding the sexist implications of treating maleness as the neutral default and femaleness as a marked deviation from it. Some (including me) like to use she as the default instead of he (on the idea that it countervails against the tendency of treating masculinity as the default, while also calling attention to it). Others (also including me) like to use they as a singular, which has long been a way that many people spontaneously speak anyway. (If anyone knows of any reason why this union should not take place, let them speak now, or forever hold their peace. Sentences like that didn’t come to be widely condemned as incorrect, by privileged-dialect grammar police, until about the 19th century.) Lots of people, especially in legal language or other contexts where exacting precision is considered much more important than style, use awkward constructions like he or she, or ghastly formations like he/she, s/he, etc.

    Some other people, especially those involved in trans activism or certain branches of academic feminism, like to make up new words that have little or no connection with any kind of English that people have spoken or written at any time prior to the 1970s, such as ze, hir, xe, ey, etc. In all the cases, the issue is not really that the privileged dialect of English doesn’t have any rules for handling gender neutrality in the third person; it’s that people don’t like the implications of how it is handled, and are trying to come up with new ways, or promote other established ways, of doing it.

    Incidentally, one thing that I’m curious about with regard to the -@ construction, since I’ve only ever seen it written: do you know whether anyone who uses that in writing ever tries to pronounce it in speech (e.g., pronouncing Tod@s @s espectador@s as Todoas oas espectadoroas)? Or is it a purely written phenomenon?

    smally,

    In the United States, youse is really strongly associated with working-class speech in the Eastern Seaboard, especially in Philadelphia, New Jersey, and New York. Apparently it’s also common in some parts of Ontario. It’s really strongly looked down upon here, too, as uneducated. (Probably more so even than y’all.) Judging from the way youse is distributed around the world, I’d guess that it probably originally came from Irish or Scotch-Irish settlement in the Americas and Australia; apparently it’s also found in northern Ireland to this day.

    Of course you’re right that the notion that it sounds bad is absurd, if the judgment is just being based on what works well with, or clashes with, the sounds of normal English. The culture of correcting such bad English has nothing at all to do with what actually sounds good or sounds bad in English speech, and everything to do with distancing yourself from how the (supposedly) bad kind of people speak English.

    Laura J.,

    Well, yes. I just said that a language without structural encoding of gender would be simpler than one with structural encoding of gender (in that single respect). Not that it would overthrow global patriarchy. I’m all for exposing and combating presumptions that are encoded in language, because it’s not nothing and it’s easy to do, but I don’t mean to suggest that syntax alone will make the revolution.

  20. JAR

    Like Laura J., I’m not convinced that ‘you guys’ is actually gendered just because ‘guys’ is. Language is littered with examples of morphemes taking on totally different meanings based on the other morphemes they are combined with to form a word (and yes, I’m saying that ‘you guys’ is essentially one word).

    For example, a pickpocket is not a kind of pocket. A highball (or speedball, for that matter) is not a kind of ball. Just because a string of phonemes happens to occur in the same order in a compound word and on its own in a different word, it does not mean it will have any of the same meaning. Brothel has nothing to do with broth.

  21. JAR

    And, again following Laura J., I can suggest another language without gender-encoding in pronouns (or, indeed, any grammatical gender at all): Modern Georgian. Georgians are actually often so confused by the concept of grammatical gender that they tend to refer to Tamara, a very famous female medieval ruler of Georgia, as “King Tamara” when translating into English. This is simply because there is no separate word for queen and king, only a gender-neutral ‘ruler’(menape in roman characters, for those interested in such things).

    This has not prevented the traditional Georgian idea of a woman’s place in the world to be the worst sort of barefoot, in the kitchen, and pregnant as often as possible patriarchal claptrap. While your point is well-taken that obviously there’s more than just language in achieving gender equality, it’s examples like these that make me doubt whether grammatical gender actually has much of an effect at ALL.

    This is not to say that there isn’t a problem with people using ‘generic’ he in English; it clearly is still gendered. To return to the example I used before, it’s not just this guy that makes it semantically anomalous, but his as well. This is the evidence a linguist would use to suggest that he is still very much gendered in a way that you guys simply does not appear to be.

    I liked the post very much, just to make clear, but as a linguist, I felt the need to quibble.

  22. Sergio Méndez

    Incidentally, one thing that I’m curious about with regard to the -@ construction, since I’ve only ever seen it written: do you know whether anyone who uses that in writing ever tries to pronounce it in speech (e.g., pronouncing Tod@s @s espectador@s as Todoas oas espectadoroas)? Or is it a purely written phenomenon?

    Charles, I never ever heard a speach like that, and I doubt it ever happened. It is only a written phenomena, and only in certain formats

  23. Erick Vasconcelos

    Rad Geek,

    Like Sergio Méndez said, it’s a written phenomenon. In spoken language, people usually try to get around that using both male and female words to address a group.

  24. Robert Hutchinson

    From my experience, I would say that “(you) guys” is gendered, but not as strongly as indefinite “he”. I only arrive at this conclusion from the fact that I have caught myself referring to entirely female groups as “guys”. But the fact that I “caught it”, rather than just letting it pass, does speak to its being gendered. And I have no disagreement with Rad Geek’s general thoughts on the subject. (I’m just loaded with agreement in this discussion.)

    One other thing, to prove that I still deserve membership in the Prescriptivists’ Club: it’s “y’all”, folks, not “ya’ll”.

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