ee: He, She, and It (Reader Comments and Addenda)

(Note that the former GFP FAQ has moved to a new URL and has become the Gender-Neutral Pronoun FAQ, and John Chao is now named John Williams.)

My idea of including reader-comments pages for my columns came originally from Douglas Hofstadter's Metamagical Themas, collecting his columns from Scientific American, in which he includes a "Post Scriptum" with elaborations and comments on each column. It's therefore particularly odd that in writing this week's column I completely forgot about Hofstadter's interesting column on the subject of nonsexist writing, written in November of 1982. (It's interesting to see how much, and how little, things have changed in fifteen years.) Even more of a lapse was my failure to mention Hofstadter's superb September 1983 article "A Person Paper on Purity in Language." Fortunately Danny Fahs was quick to remind me of this article, and to provide a pointer to a version of it on the Web. (Unfortunately, the Web version has certain gaps in it, and is probably not authorized by Hofstadter. I recommend finding a copy of Metamagical Themas and reading both the column and the article together.)

My Uncle Dobe mentions a novel by Greg Egan (an excellent Australian science fiction writer) called Distress, in which Egan uses the terms "ve" and "vis" to refer to certain beings who aren't gendered the same way we are. I don't know details, as I haven't read the book, but it sounds interesting.

Darren Rigby writes:

I found it really jarring to see `John Chao' referred to a sentence later as `ta'. I admit that I don't read a lot of formal writing, but this usage only distracts me. The name is enough in most cases to tell the reader whether a man or a woman is being referred to, then to use the pronoun this way seems almost like a retraction. And in the case of first names such as `Robin' or `Leslie', the person being referred to might prefer that the distinction be made!

An interesting point. But what if the author of the GFP FAQ had not listed ta's first name, or had been named Robin or Leslie? I would not have had any way of knowing ta's biological gender, so I could not have passed that knowledge on to my readers. (And really, knowing that ta is named John doesn't tell me gender either; there are people who consider themselves to be of a gender other than the one traditionally implied by their sexual paraphernalia. Though to be fair, such a person (in my limited experience) usually prefers to be called by the gendered pronoun corresponding to ta's chosen name.)

So perhaps the idea here is really that once we think we know a person's gender, having it snatched out from under us is disturbing. I can see that. However, my use of "ta" in this instance is not intended to mask anyone's gender, but rather to make clear that (a) I don't know it for sure, and (b) it's irrelevant to the discussion. (Certainly if someone requests to be explicitly described as male or female I would do so.)

The most interesting counter-argument I've heard to "don't mention the gender if it's irrelevant" is that gender is never irrelevant: we are, after all, a gendered race, and being male or female in our society does often have something to do with how we behave (though which direction the causality runs is open to debate). Samuel R. Delany has suggested that the "unmarked state" of a "generic person" in our society is male and white; that is, in most cases if you carefully de-gender your writing or speech, most listeners will think of the generic people you refer to as white males. (I would add heterosexual to that list, though Delany disagrees.) When you read the word "person," do you think of a truly generic person, with no race or sex assigned? Maybe, maybe not. If so, perhaps it behooves us (those of us who care about such things) to explicitly use marked terms wherever possible. [Side note: It's also possible that the unmarked state in any given instance depends on the identity of both the speaker/author and the listener/reader.]

I'm inclined to say, though, that I'd prefer to try to move toward a truly gender-ambiguous unmarked state than to reinforce the existing unmarked state by marking every state. I know many people who don't conform to mainstream society's ideas of what "male" and "female" connote; whether you think of such a person as male or as female, if you apply the corresponding stereotype you'll end up making false assumptions.

Darren Rigby continues:

I think a from-scratch pronoun is a good idea, but in the case of `ta' a separate possessive should be created. It deserves its own, rather than just getting an apostrophe-s. (Considering where that comes from, it defeats the purpose: doesn't it derive from constructions like `the Count his ships'?) `Tas', maybe?

I disagree that the word needs an unusual possessive; apostrophe-s is good enough for most other words in English. As for the derivation of apostrophe-s, I'm a little hazy on the matter, but my understanding (bolstered somewhat by Pyles and Algeo's The Origins and Development of the English Language) is that the genitive (possessive) inflection in Old English was generally -s or -es; the "his-genitive" ("the Count his ships") gained its popularity in early modern English due to mistakenly thinking that the -s ending had something to do with the existing word "his." Apparently the apostrophe-s derives, directly or indirectly, from the Old English -es inflection. Perhaps another of my readers can tell me exactly why and when the apostrophe appeared? At any rate, I don't consider this a reason to avoid apostrophe-s; when someone says "Mary's book," they are rarely if ever thinking "Mary his book."

And a final comment from Darren Rigby (note that I never know whether to refer to readers I don't know personally by first name or by last name, much less what pronoun to use):

And slightly off topic, one other place where I've seen a need for a new pronoun is in the first person plural: a `we' for when you include the peson you're speaking to, and a `we' for when you don't. I think this would be a useful innovation in writing, if not so much in speech, where it's easy to indicate which you mean by gesture or intonation. In writing, though, I haven't found a satisfactory way to clear it up. Like `he or she', `you and I' is too cumbersome to use all the time, and doesn't help for groups larger than two.

A good point. Anyone have any suggestions? In informal writing I use the Southern "y'all" for a second-person plural, but I invariably resort to long-winded explanations when forced to distinguish between "us, I mean you and me" and "us, I mean me and her, or ta and I, or something, but not including you at any rate, not that I mean to be exclusive or anything but..."

On that last bit, Pierre Abbat comments:

In tok Pisin, spoken in Papua New Guinea, there is a distinction between we (including you) and we (not including you). Here is the pronoun set of tok Pisin:

person singular dual plural
1st (incl.) yumitupela yumi
1st (excl.) mi mitupela mipela
2nd yu yutupela yupela
3rd em tupela ol

"Tupela" is also used as a conjunction ("Pol tupela Sailas") and "ol" is the plural definite article. There's an oddity about tok Pisin: It has a definite article, but no indefinite article, and there is a plural definite article, but no singular. That is, "ol diwai" means "the trees", but "em diwai" doesn't mean "the tree".

I'm intrigued by tok Pisin, partly because I suspect the spellings for words like "mipela" and "tupela" are newer versions of older spellings like "me-fella" and "two-fella"—spellings which may show more of where the words came from, but which give the false impression that tok Pisin (formerly, I suspect, known as Pidgin English) is some variety of broken English rather than a language in its own right. (See a later column for more information on pidgins and creoles, including tok Pisin.)

Dominus provides a pointer to a page on the use of singular "they," particularly in the works of Jane Austen. I encountered this page while working on this column, but for some reason didn't get around to mentioning it...

(Last updated: 20 April 1999)

Back to column ee

Join the Conversation