Tag Archives: pronouns

Calling them what they want

This article was originally published on The Editors’ Weekly, the official blog of Editors Canada.

We’re all professionally attentive to detail, so I’m sure we all appreciate that, having earned a PhD, I am technically Dr. Harbeck, and it could be rude to call me Mr. Harbeck. My wife, having a master’s, is Ms. Arro — not Miss Arro, because she’s married, and not Mrs. Arro, let alone Mrs. Harbeck. Letters addressed to us as “Mr. and Mrs. Harbeck” will be received as uninformed or rude, depending on who they come from.

Now, if I were a judge, you would call me “Your Honour”; if I were a lord, I would be “sir” or “my lord”; if I were a king, I might be “Your Majesty.” When we refer to politicians, nobility and high-ranking ecclesiastics, we have to make sure we include, as appropriate, “the Right Honourable” or “His Eminence” or whatever. We’re in the business of calling people the right thing: the title to which they are entitled.

Or calling them what they want to be called. Even non-editors know it’s rude to call someone something they don’t want to be called. We don’t call Sir Edward “Eddy baby” unless he asks us to. We also don’t call people who have changed their names by their old names, especially if their identity has changed. We don’t call Chelsea Manning “Bradley Manning” or Caitlyn Jenner “Bruce Jenner” (although we may use that name historically, for instance in stories on the Olympic Games).

We don’t always call people by names and titles, though. Sometimes we just use pronouns. There are languages (such as Turkish and Finnish) in which the sex of a person makes no difference in the pronoun, but English is not yet one such. Since the binary distinction is an unnecessarily restrictive imposition, the singular they is gaining currency (since number sometimes is relevant, however, expect to see they-all becoming popular in its wake). But some people do want to use pronouns for gender presentation. There are a few different pronouns in use, not just heshe and they, but also others such as zey. But not nearly as many as there are honorifics, let alone names.

And yet, some people — even ones apparently capable of attaining and requiring “Doctor” before their names — find it beyond endurance to have to keep track of these pronouns. They deride it as silly faddism or political correctness — terms of abuse for people who refuse to stay in the boxes you have made for them. They can manage to remember who is Mr., who Dr., who Your Excellency; they can get a grip on who is Alex, who Sandy and who Alexandra; but keeping track of pronouns is just too much for them.

Of course it’s not really. They just don’t want the dominance of their paradigm challenged.

As editors, we like to ensure adherence to chosen sets of arbitrary standards. But we also like to check our facts and get the myriad nice details right — such as what pronoun a person has asked to be called by. It’s not all that difficult, and it’s good manners, too.

In the original article, I didn’t include some further remarks on “freedom of thought,” which was a line taken by a professor who is a prominent opponent of following people’s choice of pronoun. But I would like to add them briefly here:

In the case of the professor in question, it’s obvious to onlookers that he’s incensed at having to defer rather than always be deferred to; it threatens his freedom of thought only inasmuch as it makes it difficult for him to maintain his hyperinflated self-estimation. (He has been heard to lecture women on the purity of his feminist bona fides. Not really the cuttiest butter knife in the drawer, this guy.)

But just to address the broader question: If you are of the opinion that strict nativist two-valued gender normativity is the only truth, I assure you that using requested pronouns will not force you to think otherwise. You are still able to think such things. If you are concerned about your reputation, lest you be mistaken for someone who respects others’ choices of gender identities, you are still free to make it clear that you are actually quite rigid in that regard, and are conforming to university policy out of respect for civility. You are even free to think that civility is stupid; your freedom to be a jerk in your mind is not impaired by a requirement to act nice. Most of us are jerks in our minds more often than we are in our words and deeds.

For a parallel: We can’t force people not to think racist thoughts (though we can do what we can to encourage them to revise their views), but we sure as hell can require them not to say racist things. Especially within the ambit of an educational institution, for instance. Part of existing in a civil society is agreeing that, however little you may like or agree with some people, you must at least recognize that they have certain rights, which must necessarily be extended to all for the functioning of society. One of which is to be treated like a human being, and not as something less due to some intrinsic part of their person.

See? You can think whatever you want. But you act in a way that shows the required acknowledgement of others’ humanity. This may threaten your freedom of thought if if interferes with your holding the view that you are already being more than accommodating enough for these people, or forces you to confront the possibility that, in spite of what you tell yourself, you do not view everyone equally. But I do not think freedom from having your thinking challenged is a freedom worth fighting for.

It is not I, it’s me

There’s an old joke: St. Peter hears a knock at the Pearly Gates. He says, “Who goes there?” A voice replies, “It is I.” St. Peter says, “Go away! We don’t need any more English teachers.”

For who other than a hard-core grammatical prescriptivist would say “It is I?” And would even the driest English teacher (not that that many are that dry anymore), arriving with others (I was about to type “friends,” but it’s hard to think that such a person could have any left), say “It is we”? Or, on the other side, answering the door, say “It is they”? I have seen “It is he,” it’s true, but…

But no one in normal English speaks that way. Not even the well-respected, highly educated people. So we’re all wrong, then? What’s with this, anyway?

This “rule” is obviously not organic to English, since it seems so awkward to pretty much every native English speaker (except the ones who have had “It is I” drummed into them and so accept it – a linguistic perversion that can be accomplished with any irregular usage if you can get people to think it’s more formal, polite, and correct, since English is capricious that way; see An historic(al) usage trend: a historical usage trend (part 1)). The idea behind it is that the is there is a copula: it equates two things. A=B. Identity means identity, so both must be the subjects: “I am he.” (If you recognize that as the first three words of “I Am the Walrus,” remember that the next four are “as you are me.” It’s not a grammar lesson from The Beatles.)

There are some problems with this reasoning. First of all, when you draw up the rules for a language, it helps if they actually describe what the language actually does, as opposed to enforcing practices that are quite different from what established usage is. If you get an idea about language and make a theory and it turns out not to be an accurate description, you shouldn’t bend the subject, you should change the theory. Otherwise you have linguistic phlogiston, a mumpsimus. And something unfortunately all too common.

Second, language is not math. Or, more precisely (since one may construct a mathematical language), English is not math. Why this isn’t incredibly obvious I don’t even know. Try performing a mathematical operation on a sentence. Give me the square root of “To be or not to be.” Language is waaaaay less tidy than math, but it’s a lot of fun. You don’t get to derive new equations and results, but linguists are discovering a lot of really fascinating weirdness. Grammatical prescriptivists, on the other hand, if they applied their thinking to the realm of math, would insist on only using certain equations in certain ways and would argue that some solutions are unacceptable because they involved, for instance, irrational numbers. They would be like the lawmakers who legislated the value of pi to be exactly 3.

And incidentally, even in math, if you establish that in this instance of an equation a=3 and b=3, you don’t necessarily change all b to a. But anyway, syntax is sequence and form; identity is semantics. Two different areas of grammar.

Third, English is not Latin. Many of prescriptivists’ ideas, such as this one, are derived from and/or supported by appeals to Latin grammar. You might as well use a barbecue to bake a cake, or dress patterns to make shoes. Each language has its own set of rules, its own parameters, its own ways of handling this and that. French is descended from Latin but you could never say “C’est je” in French, so why would we insist that English use “It is I” just because Latin, which English is not based on, does similarly?

The real ace in all of this is that “It is I” is supposedly equating “It” and “I”. OK, what’s the “It” here? If I say “I am he,” then there’s a “he” we were talking about who turns out to be me. But where’s this “it”? There’s no object I’m claiming is me. The it is actually empty. The only reason it’s there is because in English we require every finite verb to have something in the subject position. Not every language does. In Chinese you can say you shu, “have book”, to mean “There’s a book”; you can say shi wo, “is I/me”, to mean “It’s me” (or “It is I” if you’re one of those people). But we have to put in these empty its and theres in English for it to be a complete sentence. (We may say, casually, Got it, but even casually we don’t say Is me instead of It’s me.)

So it’s is really an existential predicate. But it’s bootless to argue that since there’s only one real thing there (me), it must be the subject. The point is precisely that it’s not the subject because that’s not how English syntax works. A thing can’t be both subject and predicate. We can’t say I am to mean It’s me, because it means something else, so we have an existential verb and an empty subject, and make me the predicate.

Which leads us to another fact of English syntax: the case filter. Put simply, English nouns and pronouns are by default in the objective (accusative). For each finite (conjugated) verb, there has to be one subject, which means one noun phrase in the subject (nominative) case, and that noun phrase is the one that is specifying the verb – it’s in the “subject” position. We don’t do this with non-finite verbs: I want him to go, I want to see him going. Those hims are the subjects of an infinitive and a participle, but they’re still objective. But if the verb is finite, one noun phrase and one only is treated as its subject: I desire that he go. The one you want is him. (Note that there can be inversions: What fools are we! Sam I am!)

And that is a real rule of English. One that we all use all the time without having someone tell us, one that guides our comprehension and usage. Not phlogiston. There is no cake batter dripping from the grill. So if someone at your door says “It is I,” you’re fully enfranchised to say “Go to hell!” (You probably don’t want them at your party anyway.)

they

English has a fair few basic functional words that begin with a dental fricative, usually voiced: the, this, that, these, those, there; thou and thee are not commonly used, and when used at all are usually misused now; and, most controversial, they and them.

They is controversial? Sure – in fact, I’m tempted to suggest that it comes from +hey – it seems so likely to provoke an addition of “hey!” in some contexts. It doesn’t come from that, of course; in fact, it was originally spelled with a thorn (þ) where we now have th – fair enough for such a thorny word. But, beyond that, it’s not originally an English word.

Now, that little statement may surprise people who could hardly imagine importing a word so basic from another language. But have a look at the third-person plural pronouns from Old English (see http://faculty.virginia.edu/OldEnglish/courses/handouts/magic.pdf for as much information on Old English inflection as you could want):

nominative (subject): hie
accusative (direct object): hie
genitive (possessive): hira
dative (indirect object): him

Old English was, in its inflections, much more formally complex than modern English. The fact that the dative third person plural was the same as its masculine singular equivalent was not exceptionally problematic – German gets by with potential confusions between identical forms representing different persons and numbers, and we use you for singular and plural now in English. But during the Middle English period, all those inflections got simplified considerably, and so did some of the details of pronunciation. Meanwhile, in northern England, there was strong Old Norse influence (because of strong Scandinavian presence in the population!). The Old Norse third person plural pronoun þei, with its more distinctive sound, came into use, and by the end of the 1400s it had spread pretty much throughout England, displacing the older English form entirely – except for one survival: in unstressed, informal use, the him, reduced to ’em, is still often used in place of them, which requires more articulation. (Did you think this was just a simple deletion of the opening consonant? Ask yourself where else we drop that consonant at the beginning of a word. Answer: almost nowhere – it often gets lost in than after an /r/, as in “more’n” for more than, but that’s a specific conditioning environment.)

But that’s not the controversial part. The controversy actually comes from an issue with the singular pronouns. While in Old English all nouns had gender (masculine, feminine, or neuter), and so did the singular third person pronouns, by the end of the Middle English period only those pronouns retained gender, and gender had become linked directly to the physical human-male/human-female/non-human distinction (in German, which still has the genders, the linkage is not so absolute; for instance, a young unmarried woman is fräulein, which is neuter). But one runs into a problem when the sex of a person referred to is indeterminate. What does one do then? Well, you would think it wouldn’t be so difficult to swap in another related pronoun. And you’d be right: we do it readily enough with you in place of one, for instance, but also, for centuries, English speakers used they for gender-indeterminate third person singular, and no one complained.

For centuries? Oh yes – pretty much until about 1800, in fact. You can find it in the King James version of the Bible: “Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves” (Philippians 2:3). You can find it in Shakespeare: “There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me, As if I were their well-acquainted friend” (Comedy of Errors IV:iii). It was common and unexceptional.

And then came the age of prescriptivism. Starting in the 1700s and gradually gathering steam and influence, there was a scholastic movement to impose rules and reason on English – of course those making this move failed to notice that English already had rules that worked just fine, and that the logic of languages is not inevitable mathematical. I won’t go into depth here on all the deleterious effects of their confected rules; you can read “When an ‘error’ isn’t,” “An appreciation of English: a language in motion,” and “What’s up with English spelling” for some more details on all this. But one thing their logical processes led them to was the idea that a plural pronoun couldn’t be used to signify a singular. (By this time you was accepted as a singular, so they evaded that issue.) And what singular pronoun could be used? Well, they thought he or she was inelegant, so of course, since – as people, particularly male ones, had been averring for some time – the male was the superior, the master of the female, etc. etc., it stood to reason the masculine pronoun should be the default.

And guess what. People bought it (along with a lot of other prescriptivist tut-tutting rubbish these cretins frankly invented). Oh, they didn’t swallow it hook, line, and sinker, not exactly. Fowler, referring to use of they and them and their for indeterminate distributive singulars (e.g., everyone took their book), noted “Archbishop Whately used to say that women were more liable than men to fall into this error, as they objected to identifying ‘everybody’ with ‘him’.” Gosh, those sensitive females! Tsk! But among their number we ought also to count such apparent males as Walt Whitman (“everyone shall delight us, and we them”), Lawrence Durrell (“You do not have to understand someone in order to love them”), C.S. Lewis (“She kept her head and kicked her shoes off, as everybody ought to do who falls into deep water in their clothes”), and Oscar Wilde (“Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes”).

And of course people still do it. People still do plenty of things that those benighted prescriptivists said are wrong. But many or even most of those same people who do them nonetheless believe them to be errors (everybody drives over the speed limit, even as they know it’s illegal, so why not use “wrong” language if it’s comfortable, eh?). And so we are faced with this battle. When, in the 1970s, women started getting people to listen to them (and by “people” I don’t just mean “men”; many or even most women before then didn’t listen to women on many important matters), they pointed out that use of man to mean human and he to mean a third person of possibly either sex embodied sexist assumptions.

And of course the response was that they were being oversensitive and making things up, and this was the way we had always done it and no had ever had a problem with it before. (When I was a youth, I certainly thought so; I couldn’t see why it was an issue that he was the neutral as well as the masculine, and at one point I may even have believed that it was a particular noble sacrifice on the part of males to forgo distinctiveness in lending their pronoun to generality. But I wasn’t female, so of course I didn’t see why it would be a problem – the have-mores very often think the have-lesses are whiners.) All of this was of course utterly false. But if a lie can be well enough established for long enough, people in general will assume it’s not just truth but time-honoured truth. So even today it remains a struggle to use they in many written contexts for gender-indeterminate third person singular. This in spite of the fact that few people admire the Victorians and their ideas of propriety generally.

Of course, the issue moves farther now, as in this egalitarian society we often question the need for gender distinction in third person singulars in any context. Many other languages do without such distinction, and we do without it everywhere but this one instance. When people wonder what pronoun we could use in place of he and she, various inventions are suggested, but the one already in use is they. Now, you may ask whether we could really manage with no singular/plural distinction. But you know, most of the time it works pretty well with you. I’m interested to see where this goes…

For much of the information above, I am indebted to two articles worth reading in entirety: Joan Taber’s 2006 “Singular They: The Pronoun That Came in from the Cold” and Ann Bodine’s 1975 “Androcentrism in prescriptive grammar: singular ‘they’, sex-indefinite ‘he’, and ‘he or she” (Language in Society 4: 129–146), and to Gael Spivak, who brought them to my attention.