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Using the Singular ‘They’: Why It Is Important (textly.ai)
15 points by alexlash 63 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 48 comments



(Disclaimer: I acknowledge that I was raised in a pretty liberal state) I was surprised to hear that the singular “they” was controversial. I had been using “they” to refer to hypothetical individuals of unknown gender pretty much my whole life. Extending this to specific people of unknown gender doesn’t seem like a far leap.

It seems more like manufactured outrage, committed in varying degrees by both sides of the issue. Not everything in life needs to be a crisis of conscience.


"He is going to the store."

"She is going to the store."

"They is going to the store."

That last one sounds like I don't know how to speak properly. "They" has been plural, and sounds appropriate in 'many, gender neutral' context.

"It" is the singular gender neutral... But that pronoun sounds like you're demeaning someone. Like,

"It is going to the store."

That sentence is correct but seems pretty damn dehumanizing.

I dunno.. Language is hard.


"They are going to the store" should be fine. Or you can go fancy "them'st is going to the store".


Why should it be fine? It introduces ambiguity into an already complicated language.

If he or she isn't appropriate, invent a new pronoun instead of overloading an existing word. Just like you'd do in a programming language instead of overloading 'if' to mean different things in different contexts.


Does it? In the event of an unknown gender, "He is going to the store." implies (possibly falsely) that the target is male. At best, it leaves that ambiguous. On the other hand "They are going to the store" leaves the number of people going to the store ambiguous, but does not imply any false information.

It seems to me at worst "they" is equally non-specific. Sure a clear, singular non-gendered pronoun would be better, but in the absence of such a thing existing, "they" actually seems better than "he" in this context.

Edit: I'd also point out, singular "they" has existed since at least the 14th century, so it's not like anyone is attempting to modify the language by encouraging it's usage.


> "They are going to the store" should be fine.

Indeed, but the miscommunication here is implied plural. "They are ..." Who is going (expecting 2 or more)?

I don't care that we use a gender neutral pronoun. Just using an existing word makes understanding hard.


To be fair, “you” used to be plural, with “thou” used for second person singular. But the sort of “Royal We” honorifics of the past kinda muddied it’s usage and “you” eventually became singular and plural. So there precedent for this sort of thing


> Just using an existing word makes understanding hard.

We've somehow figured it out for several hundred years, I think we'll be fine.


in most cases the plurality/singularity of the subject will be obvious from the surrounding context.


"You are going to the store" - exactly the same ambiguity, resolved by context.


As an aside, many languages (like Hungarian) lack grammatical gender and gendered pronouns entirely. Having learned English afterward, it took conscious effort on my part to remember to include the correct gender when talking about people in English, so I chose to use the singular "they" pronoun to avoid that unnecessary thought.


Must be like when we as english speakers try to learn languages with gendered nouns and have to consciously try to remember if a chair or table is male or female.


Having learned French in school as well, I can confirm that it is the same feeling!


English at least applies gendered pronouns primarily to living things that have a sex. There are odd exceptions that don't matter much. Sailors will refer to their boats as female.

You look at something like german and dogs (Hund) are neuter, unless you use a female version (Hundin). Boys (Jünge) are male. Girls(Mädchen) are neuter. Fork(Gabel) is female.


Same with me (hungarian too), I always fail to use the proper pronoun, but using "they" sound weird to my ears.

In speech I mostly use "he" automatically, then I recognise my fault after a few sentence, then correct. Sometimes it feels so embarassing to recognise that I have just told a story about my wife refering her as he. (of course most of the time, I only mention her to people who know her already - so usually I don't have to explain myself)


I'm indifferent towards the use of neutral pronouns, however, the article does not answer the question stated in the title.


Funny, I read through the article and didn't even notice that it barely addresses "Why It Is Important". I wonder if the author took it for granted and overlooked the real justification part. I did find it a useful little article for people who are already on-board with the idea, though, especially the discussion of "themself", which I've been uneasy with.

My take: There's no good reason for English to require you to specify gender in certain grammatical forms, and there are plenty of real-world situations where it is either awkward or nonsensical. Sometimes it's a hypothetical person who obviously doesn't have a gender, sometimes it's one of a group of people of mixed gender, sometimes you can't visually tell the gender of the person (and obviously you can never visually tell what pronoun they prefer), sometimes all you have is the person's name, which often isn't enough to know gender. For most people and in most situations, it's usually not a big deal (though it's a little extra unnecessary overhead and chance for awkwardness), but for some people, it's repeatedly disheartening when others misgender them. A singular pronoun for "that person" is a completely valid concept, and more than deserving of a word in English, and I think English would be a better language if that was the default way to refer to people.


ignoring the political aspects, I'd suggest an answer of "because it's the closest thing to accurate that we have". Using "them" when you don't know the gender of the subject has precedent, and makes more sense than using "him" if for no other reason than it's clearer that the person's gender is unknown. It does swap in the ambiguity of whether you're talking about one or many people, but that's usually clear from the context of the surrounding sentence.


If we are already talking about redefining the language, one term that always bothered me was homophobic. As in

> two thirds of the LGBTQ community have frequently or often heard homophobic comments

It sounds weird to use the suffix phobic for something other than a fear. I doubt that the comments that 2/3 of them hear was something along the lines of "don't get close to that gay person or else you'll get AIDS". I'm guessing what they were referring to was comments like "I'm going to continue to call you he even though you insist that you are she". A better word would be antihomo or homo-hating.

I assume homophobic is used to make fun or degrade those people. Similarly to how terrorists are called cowards (even though I don't know of many people with enough guts to die for what they believe in) or calling kids suffering from cancer as brave (what else should they do? Die?).


> I assume homophobic is used to make fun or degrade those people.

I think it stems from how people would react to the thought or sight of homosexual acts. The response some homophobes have to two men kissing can be compared to a child's reaction to seeing broccoli on their plate.

Of course there are still people like that, but when talking about the meaning of words, I think it's important to point out the difference. We often conflate revulsion to a sexual act with prejudice to people who identify with that sexuality. They almost always go hand in hand, but the point is that there's a case to be made for the word "homophobic."

If anything, I would say that "homophobic" is too soft a label for actual prejudiced people. We think of real phobias as something we should tolerate in people and something we should be sensitive towards. That's not the case here.


> but the point is that there's a case to be made for the word "homophobic."

Yeah, but that case is rare, while the usage isn't. Homomisiac would be more accurate, though I find that too strong for many occasions: hate is quite high on the dislike-scale, and shouldn't be the first one to go for.

> We think of real phobias as something we should tolerate in people and something we should be sensitive towards. That's not the case here.

Unrelated: that sounds like you believe that people make a conscious choice regarding what they like and don't like, and to what degree they do so. I'm pretty sure you're going to have a rough awakening at some point.


> that sounds like you believe that people make a conscious choice regarding what they like and don't like, and to what degree they do so. I'm pretty sure you're going to have a rough awakening at some point.

That's not how I meant it. I was alluding to the many examples in society where discrimination against homosexuality is not tolerated: in the workplace and legally in other cases, but also in the community at large. That is an observation of the society we live in and how a member of it should adhere to the norms of that society and its laws. It does not contain information about my own individual, personal viewpoints.

To clarify the point I was making: let's say a company needs to transport an employee to another state. The employee is afraid of flying. That company, being sensitive toward the employee's phobia, permits him to drive instead. Contrast this with an employee who refused to make a sales call to someone who is gay, because that client is gay. Would you say that that employee should receive the same amount of tolerance and sensitivity as the one who was afraid of flying?


> Contrast this with an employee who refused to make a sales call to someone who is gay, because that client is gay. Would you say that that employee should receive the same amount of tolerance and sensitivity as the one who was afraid of flying?

To make it even more complex, what about the employee who refuses to make a solo sales call to someone who is the opposite gender, for religious reasons? At a dinner meeting for example.

What level of accommodation, if any, should society demand for this salesperson?

What if the salesperson is LGBT and refused to make a sales call to an anti-LGBT organization?

Should society demand both these salespeople to be given the same level of accommodation?


> Would you say that that employee should receive the same amount of tolerance and sensitivity as the one who was afraid of flying?

It depends on how much I think about it and who is asking. If anybody who isn't academically interested is asking: Of course not, how dare you even present this idea! Otherwise, starting from the lack of free will, why are we judging them differently, and aren't we claiming that one made a conscious choice to not talk to gay people while the other didn't make a conscious choice to not fly? I'm with you that norms and traditions provide a clear answer, one that I'd most likely give as well intuitively. (And I'd be very surprised if you couldn't treat both with similar methods; neither is treated by firing her.)


If we are already talking about redefining the language

This happens continuously, whether we talk about it or not.


There is a difference between artificial change of languages and natural change though, isn't there?


This is natural change.

People - including me - have been using the singular gender-neutral “they” for decades. I was never taught to use it. There’s no shadowy cabal trying to get people to use it. It’s just a natural change in the language that I and million of other speakers have picked up.

Language changes continuously. Just because someone doesn’t personally use a construct doesn’t mean that it’s an example of artificial change of language.


I always thought it was related to older terms that linked hate with fear, like "yellow peril". Older racist beliefs like this often played into fear, and I can't help but wonder if historical hatred of LGBT+ people was also based on fear.


What's up with the text contrast on this site? I have pretty good eyesight and I'm finding it difficult to read.


I wonder how many web sites have analytics that measure when I switch to "reading mode"...


> English is not a language that traditionally deals well with gender, in that the language’s pronouns can be a little clumsy.

I think it is really interesting to deconstruct this. Most European languages have gender as a more central concept in the language; as the author points out "In Spanish, if referring to a group of friends containing both genders, you would use amigos, clearly favoring the masculine form". It seems like these languages would be even more clumsy around these non gendered cases!

Perhaps not having gendered nouns causes other gendered grammatical constructs (in this case personal pronouns) to stand out more. Do speakers of other languages with gender as a key construct see changes happening in those languages to make the language more gender neutral or does the high prevalence of gendering make that too intractable?


> Do speakers of other languages with gender as a key construct see changes happening in those languages to make the language more gender neutral or does the high prevalence of gendering make that too intractable?

Not as far as I can tell in French.

Keep in mind that many adjectives are modified by gender (eg. la belle chaise, le beau fauteuil, where belle is used for the feminine and beau is used for the masculine form) and that there isn't a non gendered form, unlike German.

Sometimes, both forms can be used (for example, "les ouvriers et ouvrières" where both gendered nouns are used) but it gets cumbersome and clunky rather quickly, and is discouraged in certain style guides from what I recall.

When the plural masculine form is used, it's generally considered ambiguous as to whether it's a mixed gender group or a solely masculine group. In cases where the gender of the constituents of the group is actually relevant (it often isn't), typical usage will refer to both gendered nouns then will just refer to the group as "vous" (closest equivalent in English is the plural you, as in "Male and female workers of Foocorp, you have done a great job this year. Your dedication has...") to avoid having to carry both nouns throughout the text.


In French, we do have 'écriture inclusive' which tries to make things more neutral, by mentioning both feminine and masculine. For example, instead of saying 'lycéens' (high schoolers, which uses plural and masculine to designate both genders), écriture inclusive recommends to use lycéen·nes.

There was a wave a few years ago, but it was not very successful as far as I know, since it can get pretty complicated (du·de la boulanger·ère) and is not meant to be used verbally, only in written form.


There is this assumption, that doesn't gel with actual English usage, that people throwing around 'he' and 'she's are assigning gender with their language. If we think about usage only, the vast majority of English speakers use 'he' and 'she' to report sex, not assign gender, consciously or not. That's because the sex-gender distinction is almost never operative, and when the distinction collapses, it's going to collapse closer to sex, not gender.

When one side insists that gender is the only operative concept, then they are possibly forcing a meaning (confusing sex for gender) to the other side, no matter how well-intentioned or offended they are.

That being said, I'd be okay with getting rid of the pronouns completely. Chinese seems to do okay without them.


This article is long on words relative to any thoughtful contribution.

IMHO "he/him" remains the grammatically correct gender-unspecified singular pronoun, although the "they/them" enthusiasts seem to be gaining traction.


> although the "they/them" enthusiasts seem to be gaining traction

Why do you think it's new?


For some reason, in my Firefox, the page renders with a massive symbol obscuring the bottom half of the page.


It happens when you have addthis.com blocked - that's a facebook logo. You can hide it with the developer tools.


The contrast on that page is abysmal! What's up with that?


Non-sequitur. How does changing language solve homophobia? That requires major education well beyond some language change.


It doesn't - it's just considered more polite. Similar to how the plural form "you" became established over the original "thou/thee/thyself" or to the way that people use the polite/'royal' "We" instead of "I" in a formal paper to point out something that the author did, or argued for, etc. Indeed, there's probably some common mechanism underlying these polite forms in English, as their similarity clearly suggests. (Perhaps an effort at purposeful simplification in the grammar, as the English language has turned into more of a widely-used standard, in Britain at first and then internationally?)


[flagged]


Here is a concrete thought experiment you can try at home: simply use the opposite pronoun that would be applicable. Watch people's reactions to your incorrect usage. Feel the power and wrath of individuals collectively trying to correct your usage.

Now take all that effort from all those other folks trying to correct you, and imagine it's all bundled up into one person. One person corrects each of those strangers. Because that person's pronoun may not be the one correctly used by the others. That power and wrath you were subjected to still applies to this one individual, of course. It's not reversed. That's a shit ton of effort and resistance against power and wrath for one person. Every day. For the rest of their life.

So maybe it is a little less about politics, and being a little more empathetic to people who have to struggle daily through this.


The hole in your argument is that applies to anyone outside of the mainstream: goths (ones who dress up in their daily lives), furries, or viewpoints well beyond.

Do we have empathy for all of them, no matter how extreme, or is there some limit at which we are allowed to say "This is where our empathy ends"? Can we say, for example, that a furry is less deserving of empathy than a LGBTQ individual? And if so, then why?


The hole in your argument is that it is trying to generalize my opinion as if it were some sort of Kantian categorical imperative, to then twist my words to mean an extreme form of what I am proposing: that everyone must have their extreme wishes honored because "empathy" and who am I to stop a cannibal from eating me?

I am talking about using pronoun words. That's it!

I'm not here to discuss my deeply personal world view philosophy. I am simply trying to show how gendered pronoun misuse sucks and is really easy to fix. No ulterior motives.

I am not open to the very common internet trope of "criticize by reducto ad absurdum with no alternative proposal". It's an online game of faux intellectualism I abhor and refuse to play. I prefer it staying on Reddit and not leaking here.


I think this sort of response is really unfortunate. I don't think their reply was at all out of order, they simply extended your argument, and I would have very much liked to read a genuine reply.


Mine is a genuine reply. The fact you think not is very hurtful. Not every single thing people vouch for is meant to be taken to a philosophical extreme and evaluated at boundary conditions to check for contradictions.

I don't view it as "an extension" of my argument because it's not my place to defend it. I didn't come up with it. It's not my argument. It's not theirs either. They aren't defending the goths and furries. Neither one of us have a stake in the matter. It's a waste of everyone's time.

I'm not a follower of Kant's second formulation of the categorical imperative. Please don't take the arguments I say and extend them to an extreme degree and evaluate at boundary conditions just to prove that yes, my philosophy must have contradictions at the fringes, thus my moral framework is flawed and not the right one.

I'm not a follower of utilitarianism. Please don't take the arguments I say and take an assumed utility function and declare that it also evaluates to "eat poor people to solve world hunger and overpopulation" just to illustrate that my philosophical view must be a cold and heartless one at the fringes, thus my moral framework is flawed and not the right one.

When it comes to moral philosophy, once can't be too rigid in following this practice, otherwise you wind up in a boring absolutist-nihilism or a boring absolutist-relativism world. The depressing fact is that we are all hypocritical creatures, the real "living" (in my view) in life is each of us coming to terms with that. The world is full of color, where people apply different moral frameworks for different kinds of problems. Using the extreme fringes of moral philosophy to evaluate more mundane problems of morality is not the only line of ethical reasoning.

Edited to add: So this is why I don't engage in these kinds of online discussions anymore where someone extends my argument without my input and now I am expected to defend it. I fundamentally view them as a different and unproductive kind of discussion that doesn't lead to insightful reasoning. I used to engaging on the internet in this way, but it's taken me about a decade to fully realize the relative unproductiveness of it all.


But that's not actually what it's about, is it? "They" isn't to be used instead of calling a female doctor "him" when you know she is female.

I've noticed that more and more authors have just started to randomly (or by some pattern that I don't know) use "she" instead of "he" in about half the examples (as in "a user visits our home page. She might be annoyed when she has to wait for multiple seconds"). It works flawlessly and I find it much easier to read than "they" personally. I've talked to multiple people about content that I know includes that and nobody mentioned it in a negative way (but two people liked it).


the question doesn't just have to be about politics. If you're talking about a person but you don't know if they're male or female, what do you call them?




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