Thursday, July 31, 2008


I like grammar. I study linguistics and hope to be a syntactician. (That and a psycholinguist.) So I thought I’d blog about the grammar of asexuality.

When I was new to asexuality, one thing that I quickly picked up on was the variation that existed in terms for asexuals. Many people used the word interchangeably between nominal and adjectival forms. But I couldn’t help but notice that one prominent asexual seemed to never use the word as a noun. He says “asexual people” and “sexual people” (and their respective singulars) quite a lot, but the much shorter nominal form seemed nowhere to be found. I noted it as interesting, suspected it was intentional, and thought it generally unimportant. I enjoyed the content, and if one person prefers adjectives when I like nouns, who cares?

As a totally random point, preference for the term “asexuals” versus “asexual people” can give one an idea of authorship of sections of the AVEN General FAQ

I’ve read two asexual blog in which the authors said that they prefer to think of asexual as an adjective than as a noun and another that thinks of it as an adjective. Nouns are about classes of things, classifications of people. You’re either in or you’re out. Adjectives describe properties. They can be fuzzy around the edges. If ‘asexual’ is a noun, it is a classification of people. If it is an adjective, it is merely a property.

This way of thinking about of parts of speech is widespread. I recently read in the Diagnostic and Statistical and Manual of Mental Disorders a similar idea on p. xxxi. They claim that mental disorders are not schemes of classifying people (apparently, this is a common "misconception" [i.e. criticism]). Rather it is a means of classifying disorders. So they try to avoid talking about ‘a schizophrenic’ and instead talk about ‘a person with schizophrenia.’

This doesn’t really make any sense. “A schizophrenic” means “a person with schizophrenia.” The only difference is that one is a noun and the other is a noun phrase. By identifying some attribute/set of attributes that some people have and others don’t (even if there are blurry cases around the edges), it is unavoidable that a category is created consisting of people who have it. The category could be “schizophrenics” or “people with schizophrenia,” which both mean the same thing. In the case of the DSM, this is clearly a political move to try to avoid dealing with the criticism that they are creating a scheme of classifying people according to “disorders” that the APA creates. As for the criticism that they create disorders, my suspicion is that this is probably more applicable of some diagnoses than others (though this is little more than an impression as I'm certainly no expert on the matter.) As for the criticism that they creating a system of classifying people, rather than dealing with it (arguing why they don't think such their classificatory schemes are bad), they simply deny that they're classifying people. (Classifying disorder doesn't make any sense. What reality could any disorder possibly possess apart from people who have it? )

In the asexual case, I am more sympathetic. I understand the point that people are trying to make and generally agree with it. “Asexual” is a property/characteristic a person may have, but it does not define that person. There are many other parts of their personality that are much more important than their sexual orientation. People don’t fit neatly into an asexual/sexual binary, and we do not want to say that if someone is asexual today, so it must be evermore. My disagreement is with the idea that adjectives can convey this but nouns cannot.

In school, we learned that nouns are words that refer to a person, place, thing or idea. Verbs are actions. Adjectives describe nouns. The problem with this, is that they are only general rules, but in many cases, they don’t work. Consider the standard syntax examples: “The army destroyed the city.” This is a sentence, and ‘destroy’ is a verb. Consider another example: “The army’s destruction of the city.” This is a noun phrase referring to the same event, but now “destruction” (which still refers to an action) is a noun. The point is that the part of speech of a word has more to do with its grammatical function in a sentence than its meaning. Another example: “The fliggidy blicks kerborbled three bomps.” Neither you nor I have any idea what these words mean, but we know that “fliggidy” is an adjective, “blicks” and “bomps” are nouns, and “kerborbled” is a verb. We didn’t sit down and say, “Well, if you just think about the meaning of ‘bomps’ it’s obvious that bomps must be a noun.” We looked at the location of the words in the sentences and at the suffixes at the end of words. While I do have a feeling that “fliggidy” somehow describes “blicks” and that “blicks” are probably things so that there is some relationship between meaning and part of speech, it’s entirely possible that “fliggidy” means something that is a fliddid. (“A Korean businessman” is a businessman who is a Korean.)

Now that we see that the difference between adjectives and nouns has more to do with their grammatical functions than their meanings, I want to argue that nouns can be just as fuzzy around the edges as adjectives. Take as an example the color green. As a word, it’s useful. The grass outside is green. The olives in the fridge are green. The shirt that I wore yesterday is green. Green helps us understand things; it helps us make useful predictions. If I find that bread in my cabinet is green, it’s probably been there too long and eating it might not be such a good idea. Because there are clear examples of things that are green and things that are not, ‘green’ is useful for communication and classification. Still, the edges are fuzzy. The stripes on the couch in my living room are greenish. The kitchen gloves on the table are sort of green (kind of a blue-green, maybe?)

Instead of the adjective ‘green,’ consider the noun phrase ‘green things’ or ‘things that are green.’ In addition to problems created by the fact that objects can be multi-colored, these noun phrases will have all the ambiguity of the adjective ‘green.’ If the kitchen gloves are sort of green, are they ‘green things?’ Sort of. In English, we have these terms ‘sort of’ and ‘kind of’ that can modify a noun or adjective (among other things.) “John is kind of a teacher.” This makes use of the fact that the category ‘teachers’ is fuzzy around the edges. He isn’t really a teacher, but he’s not exactly not a teacher either. Nouns can be just as fuzzy categories as adjectives. They don't have to be a permanent state (pedestrian, customer, infant), an essential property of a person (5th grader, group leader, blogger) or have clear boundaries between who's in and who's out (child, adolescent, environmentalist.) They only have to be useful for communication, and they go where nouns go.

To me, the meanings of ‘asexuals’ and ‘asexual people’ are indistinguishable. The noun ‘asexual’ means, ‘an asexual person’ or ‘a person who is asexual.’ The only difference is that the phrase ‘an asexual’ is shorter than ‘an asexual person.’ Given that it is possible to use that adjective to describe individuals, the group of people that fall under the term “asexuals” is just as blurry around the edges as the adjective itself.


Ily said...

Interesting...since I write about asexuals/asexual people, I use the terms interchangeably to provide interest. When I'm talking, I usually use "asexuals". I think this is true of most groups to which one belongs. I can talk about "Jews" because I'm Jewish; non-Jews usually refer to "Jewish people"; white folks usually refer to "black people", not "blacks" (Interestingly, I would make a funny face at non-Jews using "Jews" and I wouldn't mind sexuals using "asexuals". Maybe it's a historical context thing? If someone wanted to "lynch asexuals" [or what have you], perhaps I'd want sexuals to default to the "safer" term "asexual people" as well). They mean the same thing, but the connotations are different and one is more socially appropriate than the other. I read an article once about why this is, but I can't remember the reason...thoughts?

pretzelboy said...

For some reason, I hadn't really connected this with other groups. In the case of racial or sexual minorities that have a history of being persecuted and discriminated against, I definitely agree that we don't (and feel we can't) use the adjectives and nouns interchangably lest we be thought racist/antisemitic/homophobic etc. and it's because of the connotations and associations we've made with various terms. But with asexuals that isn't the case. With other groups, there is no real doubt that they exist. That much is assumed and the history involved is about how they have been treated. For asexuals, our problem is that people don't treat our asexuality as real, so there haven't developed any pejorative ways out-groups have come to refer to us, and so there haven't come to be negative connotations with any of our terms. It seems that referring to us as anything--whether asexuals, asexual people, aces, or whatever--acknowledges our existence and that it isn't "just" a cover for something else.

pretzelboy said...

With regard to asexuality, the only pejorative I can think of is 'frigid,' which, thankfully, I don't hear all that often (except as a discussion of the term rather than an endorsement of it.) The terms that I don't want to see develop are 'the asexual' [shudders at the thought] and, almost as bad, 'the asexual lifestyle.' The one makes me think of nature documentaries: "Observe the asexual female in her natural habitat." And the other's just absurd.

Carolyn said...

Another problem with the word "green" is that not all green things are the same. For example, the grass on your lawn is green, and the combat fatigues of a soldier are green, but they are probably not the same color. Even if you leave out things that are "greenish" or "sort of green" and only thing about "green" things, you're still referring to a diverse spectrum. (I like grammar too, can you tell?)

And another thing this reminded me of is the autism community. A lot of professionals refer to autistic people as "a person with autism", because this is more politically correct. The idea is that the order we see things in matters, so, if you present the word "person" before the word "autism", the person will be seen as more human. (I think this is the reason for usages such as "a person with schizophrenia" as well.) But some autistic people object to this usage, because it makes it seem like the autism has been somehow added on to the person - that, if not for the disorder being sort of a parasite on them, they would be a "normal" person. Many autistic people feel that this is an unfair and inaccurate way to categorize autism because their autism is an intrinsic part of who they are, and prefer to be referred to as "an autistic person", or even with nouns - "an autie" or "an aspie" (for Asperger Syndrome).

gregory fonfeluch said...

hi, let me invite You to aventube, a group of asexuals on youtube

it is here:,

you can find there videos about asexuality from different users, alltogether including
famous videos, those listed on other asexual sites, tv programmes about asexuality and
channels with asexual content.

will You join us:)?

take care and have a nice day:),
gregory fonfeluch,

Anonymous said...

I tend to use 'asexual people' because it makes us sound more human. Same with gay people... I won't talk about 'the gays' I'll talk about 'the gay people'.

I worry about our label taking over our humanity, because that way, madness lies..