Saturday, April 11, 2009

Pronouns and Gender-part I

Of all the searches people have used to find my blog, I think my all-time favorite may be themself pretzelboy Someone remembered me for my use of the reflexive of singular-they :D

I have a special place in my heart for singular-they because, sadly, too many self-appointed grammar gurus tell us we shouldn't use they to co-refer with a singular antecedent. For readers unfamiliar with singular-they, a brief explanation may be helpful: The English language has three-ish genders: masculine, feminine and neuter, but, in modern English, this system is only retained in the pronouns (masculine=he/him/his/himself/his, feminine=she/her/her/herself/hers, neuter=it/it/its/itself/its) and neuter is generally unacceptable for referring to people, except for babies. (Oh, what's it's name?) And because, supposedly, English only has masculine and feminine pronouns for people older than about two, and these are based on the sex/gender of the referent, people get all bent out of shape about what to do when there is a singular noun of unspecified gender and you need a pronoun to refer to it. (I use the term sex/gender because some make a sharp distinction between these and some don't, and usage varies when the two don't coincide.)

(1) If someone is reading this blog, ____ may be wondering what this has to do with asexuality.

One option is to use the word they in the blank, even though it refers to someone, which is singular. If the object of a verb co-refers with the subject of that verb, we generally need a special kind of pronoun called a reflexive.

(2) If someone is reading this blog, they may be asking themself where this post is headed.

Some self-appointed grammar-gurus even tell us that themself isn't a word. In fact, MS Word has an auto correct feature that turns themself into themselves despite the fact that this often results in ungrammatical sentences, as seen in (4), where the subject and object do not agree in (semantic) number. (The star means ungrammatical.)

(3) If someone wants a good grade on the test, they should force themself to study harder.
(4) *If someone wants a good grade on the test, they should force themselves to study harder.

I had to go and undo this rule so that I can write in correct English. Like many of the prescriptive grammatical rules (Zombie Rules) having no basis in the grammar of English, this rule insists on replacing a perfectly natural sounding expression with a number of alternatives, all of which, stylistically, are worse. Always using he is sexist. Always using sheis also sexist, but in reverse. The phrase he or she is long and awkward. And then there's (s)he (also spelled s/he), which no one has any idea how to pronounce. (Personally, I favor /s'he/ using an ejective for the initial consonant.) And s/he only helps in subject position, requiring some other work around in accusative (object of verbs and prepositions) and genitive (possessive) positions.

I discuss grammar norms because they provide an interesting point of comparison to gender norms and sexual norms. In our culture, there are a large number of forces--especially academic ones--encouraging us to question these norms, encouraging us to understand the power structures involved. Our cultures' beliefs and practices surrounding femininity and masculinity, our beliefs and practices surrounding sex and sexuality, these are not simply "natural," as though this is how things have have to be, as though they could not otherwise be. Other cultures may have vastly different beliefs about these, and the rapidity with which gender roles and sexual values have been changing over the past century attests to the fact that they are not fixed or immutable or natural. An important part of how power systems surrounding gender and sexuality are manifested, a key component of how they wield power over the minds of individuals, is that they are not recognized as power systems. They are accepted as facts, as the way things are, as the natural order of things. Coming to see them as they are weakens that power.

Grammar norms function the same way. Teachers tell them to us, and we simply accept them as right. Person-modifying relative clauses starting with that rather than who(m) is wrong! Using who rather than who for accusative is wrong! Rules about grammar are often reduced principally to prohibitions: Don't use singular they! Don't end a sentence with a preposition! Don't split an infinitive! But how often do teachers actually tell us the reason for these rules? Is this how English is actually spoken? Is this how the best writers of English actually write? Are these necessary, or even helpful, to improve your style, increase your readability, and enhance your clarity? The answer to all of these is a resounding NO! Yet, we are rarely, if ever, told why these forms are wrong. Occassionally we hear justifications for the taboo against passive voice being justified by assertions that it's "weak" or some such nonsense. (See How long have we been avoiding the passive and why?.,) Because these rules are presented as though they are simply true, we accept them without questioning. And generally, people will only question them if encouraged to do so by someone else. Linguists frequently do this, and occasionally English teachers will--the kind of teachers whose idea of good writing stems from careful consideration of how good writers actually write rather than what style-manuals repeat as though it were holy-writ, even if writers of style manuals regularly flout their own rules.

Let's return to singular-they. If our understanding of English grammar stems from how native speakers of English actually speak, then, of course, singular-they is perfectly fine. We use it in speech all the time, and many use it in writing as well, though people often self-edit it out, and copy-editors copy-edit it out. Now, do we ever get an explanation for why singular they is supposedly wrong? Not really. Maybe something like they is plural, so it can't refer to a singular noun? But the (totally wrong) assumption there is that a single word can only have one meaning or function. The real reason for this taboo is a social one: lots of educated adults know enough to "know" that singular-they is wrong, but they don't know enough to know this taboo has no basis in English grammar. As such, if you use singular-they, you run the risk of being thought ignorant or uneducated.

This taboo against singular they has interesting effects on discussions of gender. Historically, the solution was to always use he as in the following sentence.

(5) If a writer wanted to refer to a singular noun of unspecified gender, he traditionally chose he.

Feminism hasn't liked that option so much. So instead we have he or she. But even here, the placement of he first may be seen as a male bias. But, if you use she or he, given that people see he or she a lot and she or he much less, this expression becomes marked and will stand out, causing the reader to wonder why the marked expression has been used. Consider these examples:

(6) Larry stopped the car.
(7) Larry caused the car to stop.

Both mean the exact same thing. However, because (6) expresses it in an unmarked fashion, it merits interpretation to the stereotype: John stopped the car in a stereotypical fashion--namely, by putting his foot on the break. However, in (7), a marked expression is used, causing us to search for an explanation of why a marked expression is used. In this case, it is presumably that John stopped in car in some means other than the stereotypical one, such as putting on the parking break, crashing into a tree, telekenisis, etc. (For the curious, these are based on Stephen Levinson's I and M heuristics: Unmarked expression merit interpretation to the stereotype. Marked expressions merit interpretation outside of the stereotype.)

In a similar way, if you see he or she you probably won't think anything of it. If you see she or he, it will stand out as different, and you try to find a reason for this: most likely that the author has reversed to order to avoid being sexist. Yet, this solution draws undue attention to pronouns--the very words we want the readers not to pay too close attention to.

There's another major problem with he or she, she or he, s/he, and alternating between he and she: they all assume that these two genders are inclusive of all people. The strict gender binary inherent in these constructions is anathema queer politics, and yet these expressions continue to be used because of the power of the grammatical prescriptivists. If we reject that everyone is either a she or a he, we are left with only two options: First, you can avoid singular noun phrases of unspecified gender (i.e. a student) when you have to refer to them later. You can use, instead, plural noun phrases (i.e. students). Or you can use singular-they, which is basically what everyone has already been doing for a long time in speech anyway, and is what everyone does in writing unless they get it beat out of them by language teachers.

Another impact of the taboo against gender-neutral-singular-they has been an entirely pointless lament about the lack of gender-neutral pronouns in English. Some have even invented their own gender neutral pronouns (c.f. invented pronouns on Wikipedia.) I tend to view these as doomed to failure. Word types can generally be divided into open classes (nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc.) and closed classes (modals, pronouns, prepositions, etc.) For open classes, new words can be invented quite easily and new ones are regularly added to a language. Closed classes are much more resistant to change. (Of course, they do change over time, but it takes a lot more to create change there.) The fact that pronouns are a closed class is probably one reason that attempts to create new gender neutral pronouns have met with so little success. Another reason, I think, is that English has no need of new gender neutral pronouns for the very simple reason that it already has one and we use it all the time.


KC the MoUsY spell-checker said...

"(Personally, I favor /s'he/ using an ejective for the initial consonant.)"
Haha, I like that. xD

Appropriately on a post related to word usage, I don't know if there are any other pending comments before mine to pick on these, but...

"Don't split an infinite"? Does "infinite" mean the same as "infinitive"?

Also, "unless they get it beat out of them but language teachers."?

pretzelboy said...

About the infinitives...when teachers tell us not to rely too heavily on spell-check, that's advice it's probably good to follow...

I also find that when editing on a computer, for some reason, it's nearly impossible for me to catch all of my mistakes. Anyway, thanks for catching the those two. They're both fixed now.

Isaac said...

But splitting an infinite looks like Zeno of Elea.

pretzelboy said...

Very true. And "Don't split and infinite!" is, as I understand it, the message his paradoxes are supposed to teach, advice that was well followed until the Calculus came along with its infintesimals. Numbers that are greater than zero yet smaller than any positive number. It'll make your head explode if you think about it too hard, but, hey, even though the calculus was based on a mathematically and philosophically nonsensical foundation, it worked really great for a lot of things! With Cauchy and the epsilon-delta definition of the limit, this problem has been eliminated, but that took a couple of centuries.

Ily said...

An important part of how power systems surrounding gender and sexuality are manifested, a key component of how they wield power over the minds of individuals, is that they are not recognized as power systems. They are accepted as facts, as the way things are, as the natural order of things. Coming to see them as they are weakens that power. Amen to that! It's funny, I can't remember learning English grammar in school-- I think I learned what nouns and verbs were by doing Madlibs. I was one of those people who self-edited "they" because I didn't want people to think my grammar was bad. So, just to make sure I'm doing this right, you're saying that we can use "they" for single entities? I know I was talking about pronouns for God before, so could you say "God does whatever they want", for example?

pretzelboy said...

Yes. I'm saying that it's okay to use they for singular entities. The problem, however, is that if you do, people may think that you have bad grammar. I feel rather insulated from this because I'm studying linguistics--syntax more specifically. So if anyone challenges me on a point of grammar, I can defend myself just fine.

As for singular-they for God, one problem is that singular they is generally unacceptable for a specific person unless the speaker knows their gender and wants to conceal it from the listener. (More on this in Part II.) Also, in "God can do whatever they want." people may criticize this for sounding too much like polytheism. Typically, people who want to avoid using masculine pronouns for God don't use any pronouns at all for God. Thus, "God can do whatever God wants." (Google says this is is attested for.) For those people, they have even created a new reflexive for God: Godself (or Godsself or God's self.) Google found examples of all three in the phrase "God revealed God's self/Godsself/Godself."

pretzelboy said...

Some examples of God and (not using) pronouns: revealed God's self in a lowly bush and showed Moses that God shared his suffering and would remain beside him as much as he might doubt it. As God lowered God's self to dwell in a thorn bush, God lowered God's self to be with this Moses — the Moses of self–doubt, the wanderer and the loner. a message about Easter) See me, touch me, know me-believe in me, he said. See that death does not have the last word; know that God loves God's people and creation so much that God goes to any length to save it.

Ily said...

Okay, now I get it...yeah :-)

Isaac said...

"God does whatever they want" doesn't seem polytheistic, but "Gods does whatever they want." In Spanish we distinguish monotheistic and polytheistic usage of dios (god) not only by capitalization (it's only capitalized for monotheistic usage) but also by the usage of articles and demonstratives (mandatory for polytheistic, forbidden for monotheistic).

pretzelboy said...

The distinction in English is similar: for monotheism, God gets a capital G and, grammatically, functions like a name; for polytheism, god gets a lowercase g, and, grammatically, functions as a count noun (having important effects for demonstratives, etc.) However, most native speakers of English don't know about the count-noncount/countable-uncountable/count-mass noun distinction in English, even though they use it all the time. I guess that because it doesn't play an important in learning spelling rules, it doesn't play a part in our education.

Because of this, I don't think there actually would be any ambiguity in "God can do whatever they want." To me, it would make more sense to think of this in a monotheistic was, especially if I happened to know that the speaker was a monotheist. But I also imagine annoying, singular-they-hating language pedants insisting that "God can do whatever they wants." is polytheistic, despite it obviously not being.

As I think about it, the distinction between monotheistic-God as a name and polytheistic-god isn't always clear-cut in usage because sometimes monotheistic God is used as a count-noun. An example fitting with the Easter season, Thomas says to Jesus, "My Lord and my God!" Of course, it is technically possible to use "my" with a name, such as a grandparent saying a grandchild, "How is my Billy doing?" However, these are highly marked expressions, but I don't feel that "my God" or "our God" are. Perhaps this is because the Bible was written with surrounding polytheistic cultures and, at least in the English translations, both are used and this makes its way into normal (religious) usage?

Isaac said...

You're tricky, you used a can-form in order to avoid inflection. I've just realized that I made a mistake and I should have written "Gods do..." for the polytheistic forms, which is quite different from "God does..." both written and spoken.

New Testament was written in a language and a culture where monotheism was exotic. In Spanish, by the way, this excerpt is translated as "Señor mío y Dios mío" (a marked form) instead of "mi señor y mi dios," the unmarked form of possessive but polytheistic. As far as I know, the original text was in unmarked form of Greek possessive.

pretzelboy said...

In English, the post-nominal form of the Genitive would be really strange-sounding for Thomas to say.

???Lord of me, God of me

These forms of the genitive/possessive are possible for God so the strangeness may be a context issue. The following are all found: The God of Israel; the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. These have the definite article, suggesting the count-noun version. On the other hand, the phrases may have been used so much that not much can be inferred from this. Some terms use the definite article, probably because historically they were count-nouns, but in modern English, they pretty much function as names: The USA, the UK, the Bible. All of either can or must be capitalized.

There is an old hymn called "God of our fathers," but I feel that this form can only be used as a vocative. (i.e. as a term used when addressing someone.)

Isaac said...

Curiously, most of these names where article is mandatory are originally full nominal clauses and/or plural. W.r.t. the article for monotheistic God in Old Testament, I have no idea about Semitic languages, but if the translation was made form Septuagint, we are under Greek conventions, and Greek uses article for monotheistic God. Another hypothesis I remember is henotheism. Some passages of the very first books of the Bible sound very henotheistic, but I don't know if they were originally that way or appeared in translation.

Mad Gastronomer said...

While I don't mind singular-they for constructions relating to nonspecific people (like when it refers to a "someone"), but I do find that we need new pronouns to cover other situations. I have a friend who is just beginning transition. This friend has asked to be called by a new name, but has not yet asked to be referred to by new pronouns. I'm left fumbling. Another friend suggested "they," based on her extensive experience with the trans community. Unfortunately, this makes it very difficult to differentiate between when I am using the singular-they to refer to the first friend and when I am using the plural-they to refer to the friend and the friend's partners. These are the situations I want new pronouns for.

Of the new pronouns, I'm fondest of s/he (which I also pronounce /s'he/) or sie (/see/), with hir (like "here," but slightly shorter) for the objective case. A friend of mine has asked to be referred to using "ze" and "per," which I try to do out of respect, but I do find it one of the more confusing sets of pronouns out there.

Anyway, I stand by the assertion that while singular-they is fine for some contexts, there are others where it produces an unnecessary amount of confusion that cannot be easily cleared up with context, and that this is what necessitates alternatives, rather than the idea that singular-they is automatically grammatically incorrect.