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Dennis Baron's go-to site for language and technology in the news

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  • Gender conceal: Did you know that pronouns can also hide someone's gender?

    Gender reveals have been exploding in the news recently, but there are also a growing number of gender conceals—using a pronoun to hide someone’s gender. Historically, two English pronouns have been used to mask a person’s gender: it and they. But so far the definitions of it and they don’t include the gender conceal.

    First let’s look at they. The Oxford English Dictionary lists three senses for singular they: 

    • referring collectively to members of a group (everyone, everybody)
    • referring to an individual generically or indefinitely (someone, a person, the student)
    • referring to someone who is nonbinary or gender-nonconforming (Sam Smith’s pronouns are they and them).

    I think it’s time to add a fourth sense:

    • referring to someone whose gender needs to be concealed (the whistleblower…they).
  • Teachers' pronouns

    I’m a teacher; my pronoun is _______.

    If you answered, My pronoun is they, you’ve done nothing wrong. Yes, teachers are expected to model good grammar as well as teach it—sometimes the job depends on it—but no matter what you’ve been told before, singular they is grammatically correct, and the American Psychological Society’s influential Publication Manual (7e) is the latest authority to agree. The APA manual stresses correct grammar in writing, and it approves the use of they, them, their, themselves, and even themself, when an individual’s pronouns are unknown or irrelevant.

    Teachers have a reputation for stressing grammatical correctness, but the last time the National Education Association had a style manual, back in 1974, it didn’t even consider singular they as an option. At the time, Mildred Fenner, editor of Today’s Education, reported that for many years the NEA journal used generic she for teachers because most teachers were women. But in the 1960s men began to complain that expressions like the teacher . . . she were responsible for teachers’ poor public image and their low salaries. One man objected at an NEA meeting that generic she was both bad English and a bad look for the profession. . . .

  • Pronouns and the law

    A Virginia teacher was fired for refusing to use a transgender student’s pronouns. Now the teacher, Peter Vlaming, is suing his former school for violating his First Amendment rights. Does he have a case?

  • The Song of Singular they

    When the singer Sam Smith announced on Instagram that their pronouns were they, them—which got more than half a million likes in less than a day—the Oscar and Grammy winner acknowledged “there will be many mistakes and mis gendering but all I ask is you please please try.”

    Smith was correct that there would be some misgendering. In reporting the story, CNN, the BBC, and the Guardian all referred to Smith as “they,” but over the course of a 5-sentence story the Associated Press called Smith “he” and “his” seven times.


  • Can a Swedish pronoun cure sexism?

    Can a coined gender-neutral pronoun reduce sexism? A recent study by Margit Tavits and Efrén O. Pérez published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is optimistic that it can. According to Tavits and Pérez, now that the new, ungendered Swedish pronoun hen is official, Swedes will be more open to women in public life and more likely to support the rights of LGBT people. Only hen is not really official in any meaningful sense, and Sweden was already socially progressive decades before hen gained prominence.

  • Commas don't kill people

    According to one legend, the Irish nationalist Sir Roger Casement, convicted of treason for supporting the Irish rebellion, was “hanged on a comma.” But that's wrong, the comma didn't kill him.

  • What do you call a retired professor?

    Emeritus? Emerita? Emeriti? Emeritae? Emeritx? Emerit? Maybe we need a gender-neutral word for retired academics?

  • Countering the backlash against nonbinary pronouns

    Today, Oct. 17, is International Pronouns Day. You can follow my earlier pronoun posts on singular they here, on Winnie the Pooh and gender-neutral heesh, here, on the violence of pronouns, here, on some of the first invented pronouns here, and on the politics of generic he, here.

    In this post I want to look at the backlash against gender-neutral and nonbinary pronouns.

    Singular they and invented pronouns like ze, hir, E, and per highlight the need for respect and inclusion, so it’s not surprising that they generate backlash from the enemies of respect and inclusion. The objections to the pronouns are unconvincing, occasionally bizarre, and totally wrong.

  • Nonbinary pronouns are older than you think

    October 17 is International #PronounsDay. We have grammar day, mother language day, dictionary day, punctuation day! apostrophe day’, talk like Shakespeare day, even talk-like-a-pirate day. But this is the first time ever that a part of speech gets its own day. And not just a part of speech, but a part of a part of speech. Oct. 17 is not a day to celebrate all pronouns. We don’t celebrate the interrogatives, demonstratives, and relatives, worthy as they may be. We don’t even celebrate all the personal pronouns. Instead, October 17 is set aside for just the third-person singular gender-neutral and nonbinary personal pronouns.

    It’s the day for ze, hir, E, per, xi, ip, thon, heesh, co, um, le, and singular they. These may seem new, but they’re older than you think.

  • International Pronouns Day

    October 17 is International Pronouns Day, a whole day devoted to a part of speech that comes with its own website and a dedicated hashtag, #PronounsDay. Since it’s the first-ever pronouns day, many people are not sure how to celebrate, and so the organizers offer some suggested activities: tell people your pronouns; ask people their pronouns; have a pronoun party.

    A party? Pronouns, a part of speech that probably made your eyes glaze over in English class, are now highly-contested, high-profile symbols in the ongoing struggle for human rights. Maybe not worth a pronoun party. Certainly worth a #PronounsDay.

  • Hey, you guys, you is already plural

    Should we get rid of the plural you guys because it’s sexist? Joe Pinsker, writing in the Atlantic, reports a growing resistance to the common use of you guys—along with hey guys, and just plain guys—to address mixed groups of men and women, as well as single-sex groups of only women. Pinsker finds that trans and gender-nonconforming people feel excluded by you guys; that teachers and business people reject you guys as not inclusive; and that lots of people want to ditch you guys in favor of something gender neutral, like folks, or people, or comrades. Then Pinsker adds this peculiar observation by way of explaining why you guys is so popular: “English lacks a standard gender-neutral second-person plural pronoun.” He actually says this twice.But that is flat-out wrong. English has always had a gender-neutral second-person plural pronoun: you.

  • In which Pooh tries a nonbinary pronoun

    In 1929, a year after a new voting law extended suffrage to all women in England, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin delivered a radio address on education in which he referred to children—boys and girls—as he. This prompted the well-known suffragist, Lady Annette Matthews, to write a letter to the Times complaining that Baldwin’s gaffe demonstrated “the need for a bi-sex pronoun, which would remove from the newly enfranchised woman elector the absurd position of being left to the imagination, or appearing as an afterthought in parenthesis.” . . .

    Then, in 1930, A. A. Milne, the creator of Winnie the Pooh, addressed the pronoun issue in his introduction to The Christopher Robin Birthday Book. According to Milne, in a perfect world English speakers would say heesh.

  • A Brief History of Singular 'they'

    Singular they has become the pronoun of choice to replace he and she in cases where the gender of the antecedent—the word the pronoun refers to—is unknown, irrelevant, or nonbinary, or where gender needs to be concealed. It’s the word we use for sentences like Everyone loves their mother.

    But that’s nothing new. The Oxford English Dictionary traces singular they back to 1375 . . .

  • Thon was Word of the Year in 1884

    Gender-neutral pronouns have been in the news recently. Last fall, a trans teacher in a Florida school was removed from their classroom for asking students to refer to them with the gender-neutral title Mx and the singular they. Two years earlier, when the Diversity Office at the University of Tennessee suggested that teachers make sure all students felt included by asking them, “What’s your pronoun?”, the state legislature closed the Diversity Office and banned the use of tax dollars to pay for gender-neutral pronouns.

    It’s only fitting then to remember that the gender-neutral pronoun thon was Word of the Year in 1884. Or it would have been, had we been picking words of the year back then. 1884 was the year that Charles C. Converse announced that he had coined thon, a gender-neutral pronoun, by blending that and one. Thon could refer both to men and women, and it would come in handy in cases where gender is unknown, or irrelevant, or where it needs to be concealed (C. C. Converse, “A New Pronoun.” The Critic, Aug. 2, 1884, p. 55).

  • Tennessee’s new “plain meaning” law masks an anti-gay, anti-feminist agenda

    Tennessee's new plain meaning law masks an anti-gay, anti-feminist agenda. It’s plainly ambiguous and discriminatory.

    When laws don’t define the words that they contain, we’re supposed to give those words their plain or ordinary meaning. A Tennessee bill, passed on April 27 and awaiting the governor’s signature, would take this common practice of legal interpretation and turn it into a law, only with a twist: the Tennessee plain meaning law has a hidden meaning that threatens to roll back hard-won rights.