Words & Stuff


(18 June 2000)

It's been almost eighteen months since I last discussed gender-neutral pronouns. My thoughts on that matter have changed a little since then, so I'm coming back to the topic.

I've become less satisfied with ta and other invented gender-neutral pronouns. I feel more awkward saying ta out loud than I used to, and I've heard from many people how jarring they find it to encounter such a word. It calls attention to itself. I still think it's often worth calling attention to these things; I think people should think about pronouns, and how they're used, and when it's appropriate or inappropriate to use gendered ones. But on the other hand, such jarring neologisms often distract from a discussion; they make it harder to communicate. So these days I tend to use the singular they more often than not—though I've been taken to task for doing that, too.

Various of my friends still use ta. And I know people who use the Net-semi-standard zie/zir in casual speech (I often stumble over that when someone says it). But outside of certain communities, these words are not widely recognized.

And yet, I suspect that if enough of society felt the need for such a word and could agree on one, it would become standard over time, and everyone would eventually get used to it.

My main point about gendered pronouns is that if someone's gender is unknown or irrelevant, it's a little strange to use a gendered pronoun for that person. Douglas Hofstadter's "Person Paper on Purity in Language" makes a similar point eloquently, by envisioning a world in which a person's race is denoted by the title applied to them—Nr. and Nrs. are used to denote black people. But it may be hard for some people to identify with that scenario; I think the real-world example of Ms. might make things a little clearer.

There was a time when the word Ms. was regarded as an appalling example of language deterioration, an attempt to corrupt language to serve political ends. Many people couldn't understand why a woman wouldn't want to be identified by her marital status; and many language lovers complained that Ms. was an ugly word, derived from nothing, abbreviating nothing. (I tend to agree with those latter criticisms on aesthetic grounds, but then I would also argue that Mrs. no longer abbreviates anything. It may once have abbreviated Mistress, and can be spelled out as Missus, but in general it's used as a word in its own right.)

And yet, many people (especially many women) felt that marital status was (or should be) irrelevant to identifying a person. The word Mr. says nothing about the man's marital status; why, then, should a woman's marital status be embedded in her title? (Certainly there are situations in which a woman's marital status is important—but there are also situations in which a man's marital status is important, and we find other ways to communicate that information.) And furthermore, if a woman's marital status was unknown, determining what title to use for her was fraught with difficulty.

The word Ms. had been used at least occasionally in print since around 1923; it took about fifty years to become widely used, and only entered into widespread use when the political climate changed—when enough women no longer wanted to be identified by marital status. By now the word is widely accepted and used, even by people who once railed against it, though Miss and Mrs. are still also in widespread use. I predict that one or more gender-neutral pronouns will come into widespread use only when (and if) enough people no longer care to be identified by gender.

It's possible that that will never happen. We are biologically a two-sexed species (despite the fact that a surprisingly large number of children are born with ambiguous genitalia), and the majority of the species remains largely heterosexual, with most people fitting reasonably well into some form of the gender roles assigned to them by society. For most people, at least in our society, it's uncomfortable not knowing someone else's gender. If we can't tell what sex a baby is (because the parents didn't choose to dress them in the colors that our culture assigns as distinguishing markers), most people are likely to ask first thing. If we can't tell what sex a random passerby is, many of us can't help wondering. If someone mentions a member of a profession in a gender-neutral way ("my teacher," "my doctor"), most of us assume one gender or the other, or else ask which it is. So maybe we'll never lose interest in knowing what someone else's gender is—the question is pretty deeply ingrained, whether it's biological or cultural.

On the other hand, it's possible that we're already reaching that point, and that singular they will become the term of choice. There are plenty of grammatical problems with singular they—for example, what does it do to number agreement in sentences? "Chris picks up their fork. They wave it around wildly." It's certainly not a perfect solution. But other approaches to solving the problem have their own problems; clearly there is no solution that everyone agrees upon.

One final bit of food for thought: there are people, as I mentioned in passing last time, who don't consider themselves to be of a specific fixed gender. Knowing what pronoun to apply to them is a tricky business. If you're interested in learning more about such people, you might start with Raphael Carter's excellent Androgyny RAQ, and perhaps move on to reading any of various books on gender by Kate Bornstein.

Side note: MW10 says that the plural of Mrs. is Mesdames. There's a word you don't see much... And it gives the plural of Mr. as Messrs.

Other side note: For more detailed discussion of grammatical problems with various gender-neutral pronouns, see the Gender-Neutral Pronoun FAQ.

The title of this column is the question frequently asked in online interactive forums on first meeting a new person: "M or F?" That is, "Are you male or female?"

Jed Hartman <logophilia@kith.org>