Reader Request Week 2016 #5: Pronouns

Bebe asks:

My younger child, a sophomore in college, has asked me to use “they” “them” as their preferred pronouns. I live in a very liberal and gender-choice aware New England college town, and I still find this difficult to consistently comply with. Sometimes my English major brain rebels at using plurals for a single person, sometimes I just don’t want to have that conversation with a stranger, especially one who has already stated views that suggest they have no sympathy for the preferences and realities of others. Sometimes I’m just tired and it’s hard to keep it all straight. So, what do you think of gender neutral pronouns? Can you suggest something…better than they, them? Am I being disrespectful of my child by failing to consistently respect and comply with their request? And how would you, or an older, female, Southern version of you respond to the boor who immediately brings up Caitlyn Jenner and insists on calling “him” “Bruce”? And, since you love writing questions, have I used too many “””‘s in this question?

Small things first: The number of quotation marks seems fine to me, and as far as “they” “them” and “their” are concerned, not only is there a long history of their being used as singular pronouns, it’s something that’s rapidly becoming standard usage. When you feel weird about using them for singular usage, just remember a lot of commonly-accepted grammar rules were invented fairly recently as a way for the status-anxious to feel better about how they used the English language. And, you know, that’s just stupid. Good grammar is that which makes the language clear, not that which makes it clear someone else isn’t following arbitrary rules.

As for how I feel about gender-neutral pronouns: I’m for ’em, and specifically I like “they,” “them” and “their.” One, I already know the words, which means that they’re easier for me to incorporate into my daily usage than other gender-neutral pronouns which have been more recently invented or drafted into service; two, I’ve already used “they” “them” and “their” as gender-neutral singular (and plural!) pronouns for years; they’re already part of my personal style guide.

I prefer them, in fact, to “he or she,” both because it’s a less awkward construction and because I know more people now who neither identify as “he” nor “she.” Inasmuch as “he or she” is meant to be an inclusive construction, when you know people who identify as neither (or both, or either on a sliding scale contingent on factors, or whatever), then you realize it’s not actually as inclusive as it’s meant to be. In which case: Hey! “They” offers a really easy solution.

When someone asks you to refer to them by a particular set of pronouns and you’re reluctant to comply, are you being disrespectful? Yup! Self-identity is important, and refusing to accept someone else’s identity for your own reasons will be taken to mean that you dislike or disagree with their choices about who they are. And this is your right, but it means you’re saying that your choices in this regard are more important than the choices of the person who has to live with their own identity every single moment of their lives.

Which is a hell of a thing to say. Are you sure you want to say that? And how would you feel if someone made that choice about you? I identify as male (and cis-gender), and my pronouns are of the “he” set. If someone consistently and purposefully used a set I didn’t identify with, I’d want to know why. And here’s the thing: generally speaking, when someone does misgender me, they’re doing it specifically to be disrespectful. I have assholes out there who use the “she” set of pronouns when referring to me because in their minds, it’s a terrible insult to call a man a woman, and this is a sign of their contempt.

Now, as it happens, I’m not insulted by the “she” set of pronouns being used for me, because I don’t believe being a woman is an inferior state of being. It’s not correct, but it’s not an insult. But my point of view on the matter doesn’t change the fact that the misgendering is intended to be disrespectful and an insult. Likewise, the boor calling Caitlyn Jenner “Bruce” and “him” is almost certainly being disrespectful. Bless their heart.

So, yes: Not using someone’s preferred set of pronouns is disrespectful.

With that said, let me share a personal story here. In the reasonably recent past, a friend of mine who went by one set of pronouns let it be known that from that point forward, they would like to be known by another set. When I read that, I wrote to them that I would be happy to comply, and also, because I had been using a different set of pronouns for them literally all the time I had known them before, it’s possible that from time to time, and despite my intent, I might fuck up and use the previous set. If I did, first, sorry about that and I would try better, and second, please call it out if they saw me do it, because I didn’t want them to think it was intentional, and I wanted them to know it was all right to correct me and to expect an apology. Thus I let them know I respected who they are, that I was also fallible, and that when I failed them, I wanted to do better going forward.

People aren’t perfect. We’ll all screw up from time to time and fail the people we know, the people we like, and the people we love. It’s okay to acknowledge that will happen even as we work to accommodate the people we know, like and love. I do find in my experience that if you acknowledge that you might mess up but will consciously work to improve when you do, you end up messing up less over time, and when you do, people are generally more willing to be understanding.

So: Use people’s preferred pronouns. If you unintentionally screw up, correct yourself, apologize if you feel you should, and try to do better from there on out.

Let me also note that the pronoun thing is one of the best current examples of both the culture and individuals being on a journey, and that even people who mean well, or who want to do what’s best, can still be behind the curve. I’m not where I am with pronouns — and all the aspects of gender and identity that the pronoun issue is semaphore for — because one day I woke up and decided I was going to be cheerfully progressive on the issue. In fact, it wasn’t all that long ago that I would have argued about what the “real” identity of someone was, and whether it was bounded by their genetics, and whether just because you wanted to use one set of pronouns, that other people should then be obliged to accept your request, and so on.

What’s changed over time with me? Well, some of it is simply knowledge — knowing more people who are trans and genderfluid, and learning more about science and culture, which over time convinced me that a binary understanding of gender is woefully incomplete, and that maybe my own stances should reflect that.

But as much as that — and even more than that — was the question of who I was, and who I wanted to be in respect to others. Simply put, a strong person, a person who is good and kind and righteous, does not need to demand that other people have to shoehorn their self-identity to someone else’s expectation. A strong person, a person who is good and kind and righteous, says to the other person “tell me who you are” and accepts the fact of what they’re told.

Which is not to say I am a strong or good or kind or righteous person. As noted above, I’m as fallible as the next person, imperfect and otherwise still trundling on the karmic wheel of suffering. But I know who I want to be, and who I want to be is not someone who freaks out other people’s gender identity (or their sexuality, or their cultural identity and so on). So I work on not doing those things.

Am I perfect about this? Nope: See above story about me acknowledging that I would probably screw up a friend’s gender identity. And likewise, people who want to do better can just be starting on this particular path, and will screw up, and fumble and otherwise be imperfect. That’s okay, just as it’s okay for people to get exasperated and frustrated and angry when their identity is imperfectly understood or accepted, even by the people who hope to be good people. I would get exasperated and frustrated and angry too, if I were in their shoes. I wouldn’t feel at all shy about saying so, either.

In any event: Yes, when someone tells you what their pronouns are, use them, won’t you? It doesn’t seem too much to ask. It requires nothing from you but practice. In return you acknowledge who they are as human beings. And with that simple recognition of their identity, you, too, acknowledge who you are as a human being. That matters, too.

(There’s still time to ask questions for 2016’s Reader Request Week — get your requests in here.)

119 thoughts on “Reader Request Week 2016 #5: Pronouns

  1. Also, for the record, my stance on pronouns, as they regard me:

    He/him/his: My preferred set. Please use them in all things involving me.

    They/them/their: Not my preferred set, but I don’t mind them being used for me.

    It/it/its: This is a non-gender construction but generally isn’t used for individual humans (excepting, from time to time, infants), and is mostly used for animals and objects. Please don’t use them for me; if you do I’ll wonder why you are, and also wonder if you see me as an object, which would make me wonder if you’re a sociopath of some sort.

    She/her/her: Not my gender! Be aware that in my experience when someone uses these for me, they’re usually trying to insult me in one way or another. So unless you want my default impression of you to be that you’re a sexist twit, please don’t use this set for me.

    Other constructions: Really, no. “He” or “They” is fine. Thanks.

  2. Good thoughts on the topic. I do note that I don’t feel remotely the same way about so-called “neopronouns”, which is mostly a tumblrism, where people invent a new set of words and insist that these words are “their pronouns”. Those aren’t really pronouns; they’re nicknames which inflect.

    But anything reasonably pronoun-like, yes, please be respectful of those. And please be tolerant when people have a hard time getting them right, because pronoun selection for native speakers is often almost entirely unconscious, and you can be completely convinced that someone is A Guy, and then see boobs and suddenly your brain keeps saying “she”. It’s annoying.

  3. Invent a new 3rd person singular – lots of languages have them

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  4. John I would note, not to be pedantic but specifically to point out how hard it is to “walk the walk” and not just “talk the talk” that you wrote “Bless his heart.” when referring to the boor in question, but that that person’s gender was never specified in the original question, so “Bless their heart” would have been more appropriate.

  5. Evan H:

    Ooooh, SNAP.

    And good catch. Changing now. Thanks.

    Jeff Kish Home:

    Ooooor, just use the one that is in common usage in the language, which require much less effort for widespread adoption.

  6. Jeff Kish Home : some people have. And it’s reasonable to respect them too. But “they” is already there, and many people prefer it. So we should respect them.

    Evan: If John knows exactly who he’s talking about, but does not care to name names, and that person has “he” pronouns, then John is fine in using them.

    If it’s a hypothetical person, “he” could be OK, but “they” is less implicitly gendered.

  7. Reading the initial question, I had the impression that the woman (per her hint) who wrote it was asking, at least in part, about whether it’d be disrespectful of her child to use a singular pronoun when talking ABOUT that child to other people, especially people who would be taken aback or confused by “they/them.” Do you have any thoughts on that question?

  8. Graydon Saunders has a few brilliant fantasy novels that are fascinating explorations of class and gender. The pronoun games in them are very thoughtful. In The March North it is largely unclear what the genders of the characters are for almost the entire book, and it’s largely irrelevant.

  9. I don’t feel old enough to be so very old-fashioned but I have a problem with “they” as a singular. I agree with your comment, John, that “Good grammar is that which makes the language clear…” but fail to see how using a plural pronoun to refer to a singular person is more clear.

  10. @kaberett You does work well as a singular or plural pronoun, but on the other hand, “y’all” and “all y’all” work so much nicer from a clarity standpoint, in my opinion. Y’all is (you, plural, inclusive) and all y’all is (you, larger plural, inclusive). I am only remotely Southern in background (Miami isn’t really….South, and I moved to the Midwest as a kid) but I like having a distinct you(s/p) in my vocabulary.

    Also, for reference, yeah, if someone tells you their pronouns, use them. I’ve had some flubs both on the ‘remembering friend X has different pronouns now’ side and ‘reminding friend Y I use different pronouns’ side, but as the OP said, a sincere effort is what matters. It shows you actually care about that person.

  11. I have no interest in making life harder for anyone, unintentionally. Meaning, if someone wants me to use they/their to refer to them, fine by me. I’ll undoubtedly screw it up, but call me on it, and I will apologize for my screw up.
    The neopronouns grate to my eye and ear, and I’d prefer we all agreed to use they/their/them, cause those are words already in play.

  12. Karenawyle:

    Yes, because intentionally using the incorrect pronoun is disrespectful regardless of context. The good news is that if one wishes to avoid explaining the pronoun thing to the annoying/easily confused, one has the option of constructing sentences that avoid the use of “they” as a pronoun.

    ljb173:

    And yet “you” pulls double duty with nary a complaint.

  13. karenawyle: (1) “they” is a singular pronoun, and (2) yes, it absolutely is disrespectful to use an incorrectly gendered pronoun when talking about a child.

    It means a very great deal to my that my mother, the Roman Catholic linguist of rural upbringing, has put enormous time and effort into unlearning prescriptivism and bigotry when it comes to LGBT+ stuff. In the course of her learning process she has said some truly horrendous things to me; we have a close and loving relationship now, ten years on from the worst of the screaming matches, because she introduces me to people as her “eldest”, talks about my as my brother’s “sibling”, and uses the right name and pronouns. And she BCCs me in on e-mails she sends to local bishops and her work IT folk asking them to make sure they’re making space for people like me, partly because — yeah — she wants me to know, but partly so that if she’s getting things wrong *I can tell her about it*.

    I can trace individual points she makes back to specific (at the time difficult and heartwrenching) conversations we’ve had, over the years, and it means a lot to me, in the sense that I’m getting a bit teary talking about it now.

    S Bear Bergman, in his book Blood, Marriage, Wine, & Glitter, says that he’s been punched — hard — in the stomach, and he’s had his parents insist on using the wrong name and pronouns for him, and there’s not much to choose between them. Please do think, hard, about whether that’s something you want to do to your kids.

    (In my amusement over the cave-painting joke I failed to adequately indicate light-heartedness in my first comment. But, yeah, it’s A Bit More Serious Than That: linguistic prescriptivism is intellectually bankrupt, and it’s also actively harmful — not just in this context, but in basically any other you care to apply it. There ought to be a pithy way to end this, I think, but I’m honestly just at “… please?”)

  14. I’m another one in the ‘Please gently correct me if I use the wrong pronoun’ camp. I will try to respect your preferences, but I may slip until the correction becomes native in my brain.

  15. A sidebar in defense of language scolds: They are easy to mock, but their cumulative influence over time has been beneficial. A language is a living and evolving entity, certainly; but if it is in too much flux for too long, then what good is it? But thanks to generations of grammarians, the English language has remained relatively stable from the Elizabethans until now. Chaucer was as incomprehensible to them as he is to us, but we can still comprehend Shakespeare with a little effort, and the literature since then with correspondingly less effort. I credit this to the acceptance of language authorities over the generations, trying to establish a fixity to English. The ubiquity of mass communications in our own day may have supplanted that function, as we all take cues from each other rather than style manuals, but I for one am very glad to be able to read and comprehend centuries-old writings in English.

  16. Have you written any gender-neutral characters? If so did you run into editorial issues?

    I’ve been debating a gender-neutral character in a WIP and sometimes seeing the words written on the screen just makes my grammatical brain shriek. Or it seems briefly confusing who is being referred to in the text. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that had a gender-neutral character, or at least not one that comes immediately to mind.

  17. Very well said, sir, and thank you especially for including the personal story about how you handled a switch to a new set of pronouns for your friend. My spouse and I both struggled with getting that right when a friend of ours made a similar request, and it helps a great deal to see how you responded to it. I have committed the gist of your response to memory for future use, as I am certain that I’ll need to refer to it again at some point.

    I would just add that getting the “his/their” wrong in “Bless _____ heart” was a great example of how easy it is to slip into old patterns and how to gracefully acknowledge and correct it when you are called on it, so thanks for that as well. Whether it was intentional or not, it punctuates this post very nicely indeed.

  18. Some of us, in the “old country”, specifically Yorkshire and its environs, still use “thee” and “thou” (although they have become “thi'” and “tha'” with short vowels at the end)

  19. ljb173: Singular “they” has been around for a long time, and has many well-acclaimed users, including the King James Version of the Bible. As John points out, the notion that “they” has to be a plural is a recent invention

    John, I think you’ve been pondering related issues for a while. I recall that you had two characters in The Android’s Dream whose gender could not be inferred either from their names, their behavior, or their pronouns.

  20. Midnyghtchilde – the gender of Chris Shane of Lock In is never specified, and while that’s not the same as being explicitly gender neutral it shows that you can write a whole book without having to pick he or she for someone.

  21. I accept it can be difficult to keep track, but I see it as a matter of courtesy; it is, however, specific to individuals, not vast swathes of the population who make their own choices about how they wish to be addressed.

    It might be helpful in thinking in terms of names; I’m Stevie, and most people would concur that addressing me as Steven really isn’t on. If we agree about that then using they, their and them when a person wishes to be referred to in that way seems pretty obvious…

  22. Someone close to me is MTF trans. I’m the only one she’s out to, besides medical professionals. Privately, I refer to her by her chosen name, and female pronouns. Publicly, esp when we’re around other ppl, I still use his given name, and male pronouns (it’d be odd to say “she,” and use a female name, when nobody else is aware of the transition). Someone once tried to call me out on that, for “being disrespectful” of my close friend’s transition. I countered by telling that person that I’d already had lengthy conversations with my friend, explaining my reasons for publicly continuing to use their birth name/pronouns, and my close friend understood completely and was fine with it. I don’t need a stranger lecturing me on “disrespect” when the person the supposed “disrespect” actually affects isn’t bothered by it at all.

    Having said that, I’m not thrilled with the idea that there are some LGBT folx who think they’re “not obligated to educate other ppl,” and they get very butthurt when they ask someone to address them with a given set of pronouns, and the person they’ve asked doesn’t instantly commit that information to memory. If you’ve spent 20 years referring to someone as John, then they ask you to refer to them as Jane, are you being “disrespectful” when you slip and call them John? It’s a transition process for both sides–obviously, for the person undergoing the medical/surgical transition, but also for the friends and family of said person. If it’s clear that someone is being *deliberately* hostile/antagonistic (referring to a trans person as “it,” for example), and is deliberately choosing not to respect somoeone’s pronoun choices, that’s one thing. But there should be some sort of “learning curve,” so that those on the outside can make honest mistakes without fear of anger and hostility from the person who’s transitioning.

  23. Wow. Thanks for your thoughtful response. To be clear, I try to honor their request, although I do screw up, sometimes when the new pronouns are awkward, sometimes when I don’t feel completely safe in the conversation. They are an amazing, bright, articulate, charming young person, and I adore them. It is when speaking with others, usually strangers, that I avoid the issue.

    Oh, and the boor? They would prefer “he”.

  24. great question and post, I am grateful I stumbled upon it. A genderfluid character popped up out of the blue into a story I am working on and I have been trying to figure out what the proper pronouns to use when referring to this character. So this post was very informative. Thank you.

  25. @Nightshade1972 I think so long as people act without malice, generally everyone is willing to give the benefit of the doubt. That said, people’s brains stick- if someone was “Jane”, and now goes by “John”? That’s gonna get screwed up, just because of the similar sounds, no matter how good the intentions are.

  26. I think your reasons are the right ones, John. I am also in favor of it for more selfish and pragmatic ones. I’m sick of writing she or he (he or she?) on things. Glad to have they becoming recognized. Long overdue.

  27. @flailsquared I haven’t read that yet, I will have to.

    Interesting that all the reviews seem to assume Chris Shane is male automatically. I wonder if it was spelt Kris if they’d have assumed female? As a Christina, I frequently go by Chris, which in my experience everyone seems to assume is male and is probably the reason as a kid I wanted to change my name to Kristina.

  28. I’m a big fan of ‘they’ and ‘them’ as singular pronouns both for their use with non-binary people and the ability to refer to an individual whose gender is not known or a generic individual since ‘his or her’ is both clunky and non-inclusive. I actually escalated a fight with my english prof to the departmental level over his docking me marks on essays for using it.

    On the other hand I’ve got no shits to give for that neopronouns like ‘xe’. If they ever get widely accepted I’ll happily pick them up but I don’t have the time to remember which of the dozen or so competing sets each individual wants used. Maybe I’d change my mind if someone I had a preexisting relation with wanted a set used but for anyone I’m getting to know who is going to raise a fuss about the use of the nongendered ‘they’, then they aren’t worth the effort because they will create drama about everything else.

    @Stevie
    It may be a matter of courtesy but it is a matter that is widely ignored. For those of us with names that aren’t already shortened, it seems like a significant portion of the population feels that it is their right to ignore your stated name and shorten it into a ‘cute’ version. I’ve mostly accepted it as a fight not worth having and generally go by Dan since anglophones are apparently incapable of listening and pronouncing my name properly which grates like nails on a chalkboard and makes me want to start singing That’s not my name.

  29. Thanks for writing this, John.

    I do have a quibble with the use of “preferred pronouns.” The correct term is “correct pronouns.”

    I suppose the easiest way to explain why is because no-one would ever think a cis person’s pronouns are preferred. The assumption is they are correct/correctly applied. The same goes for trans people. I’m a trans man. My pronouns are in the “he” group because I am a man. It’s not that I prefer them, it the reality of being a man. Those are correct just like your pronouns are correct. Referring to me any other way is being incorrect on top of being disrespectful.

    I’m only bringing this up because it is a very important part of the conversation surrounding pronouns.

  30. By ‘neopronouns’ are people talking about constructions like zie and zir? Those were around a long time before Tumblr. Or the Web, for that matter.

    but fail to see how using a plural pronoun to refer to a singular person is more clear.

    You’re talking about a language that currently uses the same word for second person plural and singular. If you’re going to raise the banner of clarity in pronouns, I think you’re planting it on the wrong hill.

    And speaking of someone who has to take deep breaths on seeing a sentence ended with a pronoun: what’s unclear about the use of ‘they’ as a singular? It’s not any clearer than using ‘he’ as a fake generic.

  31. I am all in favor of they/their/them as singular pronouns. The more exotic pronouns though are something else. I think there is also an issue of how intimately connected you are to someone. If it is a family member or close friend than sure respect their wishes, but if it is someone who you count yourself lucky to remember their name than expecting to remember pronouns as well seems a bit much especially beyond he/she/they. You can’t practice something when you only interact with them every couple of months.

    Is it disrespectful to conspicuously not refer to someone by pronoun at all and always use their name? It will probably sound stilted. Does the stiltedness reflect on the writer/speaker or the person being talked about?

  32. “You does work well as a singular or plural pronoun, but on the other hand, “y’all” and “all y’all” work so much nicer from a clarity standpoint, in my opinion.”

    Yes, words that do singular/plural double duty often develop inflections like this when speakers want to specifically mark the plural. I would not be at all surprised if establishing “they” more firmly as a singular specific pronoun is accompanied by the rise of “they-all” or a similar construct.

  33. On the other hand, I have often thought that English needs two different words to distinguish between “we (you and I)” vs. “we (I and some other individual not including you)” (plus the associated object/possessive forms, so it’s really more than one new word). Because I need more complexity in my grammatical life.Then we (either version) can work on new words for “I, and maybe you, but I’d be happy with any number of other individuals that would require me to use this plural form.” (muffled laughter)

  34. @Midnyghtchilde The neat thing about Locked In, if you do audiobooks, is that there are two versions – one read by Wil Wheaton and one by…blanking, but female. So Chris was “clearly” one gender or the other, for those. A lot of the reviews I saw referenced that.
    @Jules Sherred – I can’t quite agree, _only_ because things are in transition. For someone who identifies as male, or female, there are “correct” pronouns; as of now, there are “preferred” pronouns for people who don’t follow the binary. And even for people who fit in a binary category, physical appearance and identification may not agree – so while there’s a correct pronoun for that person, it’s not the one that looks “obvious” to a stranger.
    @Daniel Audy – I don’t agree with you about they/them being a sufficient answer – for the same reason that “Dan” is inappropriate to call you (done, but inappropriate). If someone has truly decided that they want to be zhe/zhir, that’s what zhe should be called. And yes, it’s hard to keep track for random people you’ve spoken to once…but a) “Please remind me what pronouns you prefer” on a second meeting is a reasonable question, and b) if you want that person to be more than a casual acquaintance, giving them the right pronouns is a good way to encourage it. Your method pretty much ensures that only people who prefer they/them will be interested in knowing you better. Do you have any good friends who refer to you as Dan? (You may – my sister calls me Jenny or Jen; I prefer Jennifer and find Jenn acceptable) (and yes, the latter names are indistinguishable in speech – but clear in texts/emails/etc).

  35. Wow. As someone who has lived in small towns (thus under a rock) for over ten years now, gender non-specific pronouns have not been an issue. Thanks you, Mr. John Scalzi for laying out the use and reasoning behind this evolving issue. Hmmm….I have always preferred the Ms. over Miss or Mrs. but is there a non-gender specific form of that?

    Karen aka Kacy Jey author of Jolene, You’re Not a Monster

  36. BTW, on the subject of English’s impoverished pronouns – I’m currently reading Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, a great book about how English developed in its grammar (rather than its words, like most “how English came to be” books). He’s got large sections dealing with pronouns and inflections, and how English mostly doesn’t have them…

  37. @jjmcgaffey I’d argue the “they/them/their” is still correct, not preferred, because that is the correct way to refer to someone once they’ve told you so. That is how they identify. To state that it’s a preference rather than being correct, especially in NB cases, is like implying being NB is a choice. It’s no more a choice than being bisexual is a choice. Gender identity isn’t about choices. Using “preferred” implies that is is. It would be even better if simply “pronouns” was used instead of qualifying them as “preferred” or “correct.”

    I’m misgendered all the time. All of my ID says M, but I will never be read as cis. And when someone applies their cisnormative gaze on me, they are being incorrect. I know we have a very long way to go before people stop automatically applying gender to someone based on outward presentation. In the meantime, one of the few things I have that identify me as male is my ID and my actual pronouns. I won’t let anyone take those away from me, even if they are doing so without malice.

  38. “A strong person, a person who is good and kind and righteous, says to the other person “tell me who you are” and accepts the fact of what they’re told.”
    I agree completely with this on the topic of gender, because that affects only the person concerned – but I’m uncomfortable with it as a blanket statement because I prefer to judge people by their actions rather than who they claim to be. So, tell me you’re a kind and caring person (but then act entirely out of self-interest) or that you belong to xx religion (but then don’t even try to live up to its stated principles) or a good person (because your misdeeds are mistakes while others’ are due to character flaws) and I simply won’t believe you. But telling me you’re a boy or a girl or genderfluid? Fine, that’s your own business entirely and I’ll do my best to get your preferred pronouns right.

  39. I do have a quibble with the use of “preferred pronouns.” The correct term is “correct pronouns.”
    Except that you are completely wrong.
    Preferred is exactly correct. Not everyone is a clear MTF or FTM who has transitioned completely into a newly defined pronoun.

    My friend is a genetic F, is never going to trans from FTM, but prefers to be addressed by M pronouns. It is their preferences which pronouns get used. Not the “correct” ones.

    /And yes John is 100% correct, we are imperfect and will make mistakes when someone changes which pronouns that they wish that we use.

  40. @Geekhyena: I always thought that “y’all” was sort of indeterminate/inclusive (could be singular or plural or collective) and “all y’all” was what you used when you wanted an explicit plural.

    But then, I’m a damnyankee, so what do I know?

  41. I have a friend who switched from female pronouns to male pronouns, and adopted a new name. It took me a little while to adjust, but I like to think I’ve done so without much fuss.

    About a year and change ago, a different friend switched from their first set of pronouns to they/their/theirs, and I’m having a tougher time with it. it certainly doesn’t say anything about them, and I think all that it says about me is that I need to be more mindful. Trickier than I thought, though.

  42. Also, as a linguist, I can tell you that adding a pronoun to a language is damned hard. But it can be done. English did add they and she from Norse, to replace heo and hie (easily confused with he). But I’m afraid if people want a new pronoun they’re going to have to pick one. People aren’t going to readily adapt to ten new ones – they’ll unconsciously treat them like nouns and then the old pronouns will come slipping back in.

  43. @Nightshade1972: I agree that you’re not being disrespectful in this case. You never want to out someone who isn’t publicly out, for one. Just because they’re out to you doesn’t mean they’re out to everyone.

  44. My attitude has always been to address people using the name (and pronouns where applicable) by which they tell me they want to be addressed. That’s always seemed like it ought to be non-controversial. It’s simply being courteous and respectful to another human being.

    Even in a context completely unrelated to gender identity, I know I find it mildly irritating when I tell someone I go by ‘Scott’ or I sign a written communication that way and the person I’ve told continues to address or refer to me by my first name instead. If it’s irritating even when it *is* my name, just not the one I prefer, and the correct gender, it has to be deeply hurtful to be misgendered or deadnamed. For most of my life, I can’t say I gave it a great deal of thought. That was just my default position.

    Over the past several years, I’ve thought more deeply about the issue and especially the impact of family reactions. And that’s mostly been due to circumstance. Through my youngest daughter’s friends, I’ve observed the impact both when a family supports a trans (or non-binary) child and when they don’t. While there’s not much I can do personally beyond providing a space free from condemnation and using the right names/pronouns (or apologizing when I slip up), the destructive impact of non-supportive families appalls me.

  45. “They are an amazing, bright, articulate, charming young person”

    If “they” is being used as a singular pronoun, should it not take a singular verb? “They IS an amazing, bright…” Admittedly, that grates on my ear at first hearing, but I’ll get over it.

  46. When I say “neopronouns”, I mean the people doing stuff like “pronouns are void/voids/voidself” or “bunself” or whatever. Those are, I think, not even pronouns at all.

    I am not comfortable with the dogmatism of “correct” vs. “preferred” pronouns. It is, in many cases, a preference, and in some cases there is room for ambiguity about which pronouns are most accurate. Not everyone has an opinion. I am fine with any of he/she/they. I don’t have a preference. I also don’t have a particularly definite opinion as to which of them might be “correct”. So people can use whatever they like.

    And I’m fine with singular-they still taking plural verbs, for much the same reason that “you” tends to sound more like a plural than like a singular. “You are”, not “you is”, for instance.

  47. I like zie and zir, since they are words constructed especially for the purpose of a singular person who does not identify as he or she. It’s easy to remember if a person wants out of the traditional binary nomenclature and there’s no confusion about how many people are being referred to and it pretty much can cover the spectrum as it is not connected to gender but simply denotes a human being.

    But. If a person’s correct reference is to be referred to as they and their, I will try my best to do that and to remember. If they want to be referred to as any of the creative and supportive words people have tried to more accurately describe themselves, I’m all for it and will do my best. Eventually, words standardize in the language and it’s going to be easier for the older folks to follow, while it will be old hat for the younger folks. It’s very cool because it’s part of people becoming equal people, and not being denied their right to control and describe their own identity.

    The word I actually have problems with is queer. Because that was a slur when I grew up. I never used it because of that, would never think of using it. But they bravely co-opted it and started using it to refer to all the spectrum and some people specifically prefer that word to be used in reference to their orientation. Only it makes me feel weird to say it, since it used to be a weapon (and some people still try to use it that way unfortunately.) I’m okay with the term queer spectrum, as that’s pretty clear. But the rest takes getting used to. But language is fluid, and people do in fact get to insist what they are called.

    Some people think that if they refuse to go along with what others want to be called that they are winning something. That they are imposing their view of the world on the world and this is somehow going to change the world and how their targets think of themselves to what these people feel it should be. Or at least show what a supposed rebel they are for belittling and harming another person over a word. So for the guy who refuses to call Caitlyn Jenner by her name and gender, you can just say, “Caitlyn used to use Bruce as her stage name, but she doesn’t anymore.” That gives him an out he can take if he wants. But if it wasn’t a slip of the tongue on the guy’s part once or twice, it won’t help much as it’s a petty power trip. And watch your back with those people. Someone who cannot feel large without making somebody else feel small isn’t somebody to trust behind you.

  48. I wonder if this is easier or harder in languages that also add gender specific endings to other parts of speech. Would it be easier to convince your brain of the change in pronouns if you had to remember it for nouns, adjectives, and verbs too, since it would require a more complete mental model of that person as their new gender? Or, would it just be that many more things to remember and possibly get wrong?

  49. Well said, John. Not that this is surprising.

    Yes, abhorrence of “the singular they” is one of those grammar nazi things that has no basis in etymology nor in usage. It’s a perfectly good singular pronoun, and context (plus the verb conjugation) makes the meaning clear.

    Of course, language is far more complex than simple prescriptions and proscriptions can account for, and its easy to create reductio ad absurdum. I don’t imagine even fairly tolerant folk would accept “they is coming for a visit”, other than in fictional dialogue. This leads to the singular “they are coming”, which satisfies the need to comply with common usage even if the grammatical logic appears questionable. Everyone knows what you mean, and after all, isn’t that the important point? Steven Pinker has some wise things to say about logical versus pedantic grammar (http://stc-techedit.org/corrigo/book-review-the-sense-of-style/).

    In technical and formal communication, there are a great many workarounds that don’t require gendered pronouns. Three quick examples:
    – Use the imperative: “click here”, not “the user [he] should click here”
    – Plurals: “Readers should” not “He should”.
    – Recapture gender-neutral words (e.g., actor, waiter) that have been forced into male straightjackets for way too long. Use female forms (actress, waitress) when the female gender is as important or more important than the function of the noun.

    As for trouble remembering gendered pronouns… amen. The same problem exists for any long-remembered language token for a given thing. My sister, who has not changed gender but did change to a variant form of her name after 40+ years with the old form, has been very patient with all of us using the old name periodically. She knows we’re doing it because we’re doofuses (doofi?), not because of any malice.

    Many people have proposed gender-neutral pronouns over the years, oblivious to the fact that there is no authority on Earth that can enforce language prescriptions or that could realistically force millions of people to adopt new pronouns when the old ones work just fine. As a result, all these neologisms have been roundly ignored other than by the proposer’s immediate group of supportive friends and sycophants. I imagine that when we meet the first aliens who have unfamiliar genders, most of us will try to adopt the terms they prefer, even as a great many people cling tenaciously to calling them all “he” and “him”.

    Sanity inspector noted: “A sidebar in defense of language scolds: They are easy to mock, but their cumulative influence over time has been beneficial. A language is a living and evolving entity, certainly; but if it is in too much flux for too long, then what good is it?”

    Which leads to one of my favorite wise language quotes, by one Alexander Pope (An Essay on Criticism):
    “In words, as fashions, the same rule will hold;
    Alike fantastic, if too new, or old:
    Be not the first by whom the new are tried,
    Nor yet the last to lay the old aside.”

  50. I’m not sure I articulated myself properly in regards to “correct” versus “preferred,” so I’m going to try this again.

    I’m sure most people reading these comments are good people who are respectful of others. What John wrote is a “no duh” for many people responding to the comments. But there is an actual psychological effect that comes into play depending on which qualifier is used. “Correct” has the effect that calling someone other than their declared pronouns is wrong. “Preferred” causes ambiguity. To many people it means they don’t have to respect it because it’s only a preference. This dismissal becomes even more prominent when a trans person’s complete transition, which includes NB, is simply declaring their gender and pronouns or lack of a binary. Transition can be as simple as that. And a lot of people on the trans spectrum carry so much internalized transphobia that it is difficult for them to even accept that simply declaring a gender is transitioning.

    It’s really easy to talk about dogma and such when you’ve never had your identity questioned and dismissed. Even after legally changing my name which means where I live my orginal birth docs were destroyed and new ones created, there are still people who refuse to use it because they see it as a preference because I decided on it instead of my parents. Preferred allows others to assign whatever they want. Using correct means that using anything other is wrong. And what is correct today may be incorrect tomorrow because of the fluid nature transition takes.

    So, I use “correct ” because I never want it to be thought using anything other than declared pronouns is okay. That correctness is implied for cis people. Trans people deserve the same.

  51. I will add a personal anecdote to illustrate the extra thought the parenting side requires. I’ll avoid anything that might be personally identifiable and choose an example that’s on the “lighter” side of the topic.

    One of my daughter’s friends came out as trans (FTM) early in the last year of high school. He had been our daughter’s friend for years and had frequently been over at our house and gone to different activities with us. This was our youngest daughter and she had grown up with a household rule, established before she was born, against mixed gender “sleepovers” while in high school. It’s not a rule that had ever been controversial or much discussed. It had never been an issue.

    Now, of course, it was. And we had to think through it. On the one hand, if we simply enforced it and no longer allowed him to spend the night, that would, in effect, be punishing him for having the courage and trust to be honest with us. At that juncture, he hadn’t come out to many people, even in his own family. On the other hand, if we simply ignored our long-standing and well-established (and known) rule in his case, that would send a pretty clear message that we didn’t take him seriously. We discussed it and told our daughter he could still spend the night at times, the same as he had for years, but they would need to sleep in the den instead of her room.

    Yes, it’s a little thing in the grand scheme of things. As I said at the outset, I picked something relatively minor deliberately. Still, I think it might be a helpful illustration, at least for some people. Gender tends to be intertwined in all sorts of ways throughout our interconnected lives.

  52. I am, I think, getting better at remembering to refer to my kid as “they/them.” What I am not happy with is the lack of a gender-free word for son or daughter. To me, “kid” and “child” suggest that the person isn’t an adult. “Adult child” seems clunky. “Offspring” feels distant. (Though I know that’s a personal feeling; some people feel that “son” and “daughter” indicate distance.)

    Does anyone have any suggestions?

  53. For the Correct vs Preferred dialog, I think that there’s room for both ways, and it all really depends on context and the individual person’s preferences and identity.

    I know NB people who have “preferred” pronouns– agender folks who can go by he/she/they happily, but prefer one over the rest or just don’t give a crap, NB people who are particularly fond of a custom, personal neopronoun, but identify with “they, them, their”, trans folks who aren’t out, or are in the process of figuring out their identities, who ask to be referred by “her” in public, “him” in private, or just “they” until they have things sorted out to their satisfaction.

    I think the questions “What pronouns do you prefer?” and “What are your preferred pronouns?” are questions that can casually asked and phrased in a low-stakes, no pressure manner that doesn’t put people on the spot (the asker or the askee) or insinuate that there is a CORRECT way and a WRONG way to pronoun the person, if that isn’t necessarily the case. (That said, as a cis person, I’m definitely open to being corrected on that.)

    But even with that in mind, for plenty (most?) people, there are only only correct pronouns– I’d say the majority of cis people (including myself), fall into that category. Plenty of trans and NB people too, but cis people don’t get questioned on it. So “correct” pronoun is definitely…. the right word to use, for a whole lot of people.

  54. The one time this came up for me, when I asked a friend a couple years back what her preference was (she’s so non-binary, including her given name, it took me months at work before I actually knew what her sex was), she told me that I was the first straight person to *ever* ask her. And I remember telling/asking my wife, “How the hell *don’t* you ask?”

  55. >> If “they” is being used as a singular pronoun, should it not take a singular verb? >>

    “They” as a singular pronoun goes back centuries. Shakespeare used it. In all that time, it has consistently taken a plural verb. So people can try to change that if they want, but since it doesn’t have the same force behind it as the push to use gender-neutral pronouns (one of them is fueled by “don’t insult people” and the other is filed by “but shouldn’t the rules be consistent?”), I doubt it’ll go over.

    As far as I can tell, the big difference between how the singular they used to be used and how it’s being used now is that it used to be used when you didn’t know the gender of the (usually hypothetical) person you were speaking of — it was used in place of the generic he or of he-or-she. “Anyone looking for the front door won’t have a problem, they come down the path and they’ll see it, big as life.”

    Now it’s being used for individuals whose identity is known, but it’s used in the same structure. “Chris won’t have a problem finding the front door, they come down the path and they’ll see it, big as life.”

    It’s taken me a couple of years to get used to using the singular they for a family member who as requested it, since I’m of a generation steeped in instruction that it’s wrong, even though it was commonly used. Using singular verbs with the singular they at some times and plural verbs at other times would be at least as difficult, and since no one’s feelings are in the balance here I just don’t think I’ll make that change too.

    Besides, verbs are all over they place. “He rides” is singular and “They ride” is plural, but “You ride” is correct as both singular or plural. We don’t say “You rides” when the “you” is singular, so we can adopt the same approach to the singular they. Heck, we already do.

  56. And as for preferred versus correct, I know trans men who say “they” is the appropriate term, and trans men who say “he” is appropriate. I think those are the correct forms for them, but that’s because it’s their preference, not because there is a single correct form for trans men.

    The correct way is what the individual says it is. Whether they perceive it as correct or a preference isn’t going to be universal, but whatever they want, I’ll do my best to use.

  57. @Mythago:

    By ‘neopronouns’ are people talking about constructions like zie and zir? Those were around a long time before Tumblr. Or the Web, for that matter.

    No. Seebs is talking about the thing that is taking hold in some of the scarier areas of tumblr, where people say that they ID as a rabbit and therefore their “pronouns” are “bun/buns/bunself”. I’m not joking.

    Zie/hir etc. are a different matter, because as you say they have a long history and, y’know, are actually pronouns.

  58. Twenty five years ago I wrote an essay in my college english class arguing for the use of singular “they.” I thought we should have a third person pronoun that didn’t indicate gender, though what I had in mind was times when a person’s gender is not known or is known but doesn’t matter to the conversation (I didn’t know about agender people back then.)

    I am pleased to see the idea of gender neutral pronouns and using they in particular for that purpose getting more traction.

  59. “What I am not happy with is the lack of a gender-free word for son or daughter. To me, “kid” and “child” suggest that the person isn’t an adult… Does anyone have any suggestions?”

    I see good suggestions in the original post, and in some of the follow-on comments, which talk about “eldest” and “younger” offspring. I’ve long used terms those like myself for my kids on public social media, along with “they/them” pronouns, starting when my kids were small. It wasn’t because I was particularly aware of trans issues at the time, but because I wanted to protect their privacy online by not mentioning names or identifying characteristics not relevant to whatever incident I was relating. And the terms will continue to work both with any age, and also with nearly any gender choices they might make.

    If you have more 2 offspring, you might need to be a bit more creative than “eldest” and “youngest”. But I suspect one could come up with other workable terms along the same lines.

  60. 1. For what it’s worth, last year at the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference, one of the (non-binary) people presenting wanted to be referred to as “it.” I had a real struggle with it (the pronoun, not the person), since that just feels so, so disrespectful, on the order of using the n-word to refer to a black person, yet not using the pronoun that person wants also seems disrespectful.

    2. There was a trans man in our local support group who, for the longest time, I had trouble remembering to use male pronouns with. If I was thinking about it, I used “he” (etc.), but if I wasn’t, “she” popped out. I didn’t have that problem with the other trans men in the group. Then one day it switched, and I never used the wrong pronoun again (except when my dysphasia acted up.) It might have been because the T he started on was starting to have an effect on his appearance, but he didn’t really look any different. Weird.

  61. Pronouny: I don’t have to worry about age order. I only have one child. It’s when I want to be more specific about age range, rather than less, that I have a problem. Taking my kid to school when they’re in grade school means something different than taking my kid to school when they’re in college. The gender issue is a different problem, and possibly differs from one culture to another. To me, saying “my son” or “my daughter” suggests a closer relationship than “my kid.” I’m not sure why. I might need to think about that for a while. In the meantime, though, I stick with “kid” or “child.” “They/them” is a given now.

  62. My child psychology textbook, by Helen Bee, kept using the word “she.” I kept blinking every time, but then I got used to it, but in the end I think I learned something and it did me good.

  63. >> What I am not happy with is the lack of a gender-free word for son or daughter. To me, “kid” and “child” suggest that the person isn’t an adult… Does anyone have any suggestions? >>

    I use “eldest” a lot, but I also use “offspring.” I think I’ll probably use “kid” or “kids” to refer to my children until the day I die, though.

  64. Pardon me if I express this clumsily, but I’d like some thoughts on how to handle pronouns with people you *don’t* know.

    For instance while I am not a full time professional rescuer I am a trained first responder. And one of the first things I was taught was that when you approach an adult in need of help you should say something to them along the lines of “Sir, may I help you?” — both to get their permission, and to address them with a salutation showing a level of respect.

    What is an appropriate non-gendered substitute for “Sir” or “Ms” and the like? Jules, if you don’t mind, you said “In the meantime, one of the few things I have that identify me as male is my ID and my actual pronouns. I won’t let anyone take those away from me, even if they are doing so without malice” — if, oh, you were bleeding and an emergency responder stopped to help you, how could they best approach you? If, perhaps, they call you “Ms” and you correct them, what’s an appropriate way for them to acknowledge the correction and move forward?

  65. @Susan That is an excellent question especially as in medical situations I am still misgendered despite my medical card and records clearly stating M.

    In an emergency situation you often don’t have the time to ask, What are your pronouns,” and often ID does not reflect gender because not everyone lives in an area that recognizes the right to self-identify.

    It’s way better just do drop “sir” and “ms” and go straight to the statement you have to make. Then, when the situation is stable, ask about how they wish to be addressed. Leave question of pronouns out of it because that could lead to odd looks from cis people. But when you instead ask, “how do you wish to be addressed/identified” it solves not only the huge issue of misgendering in the medical community but makes people feel better if they hate to be ma’am’d or sir’d.

    Does that make sense?

  66. I hadn’t thought about this in years, but when I was a child in the South Bronx (around 50 years ago) ‘they’ and ‘them’, etc were often used as third person singular pronouns. Might have been the place, or only the time. It certainly didn’t refer to non-binary gendered people. But those pronouns were commonly used when gender was unknown. In high school, in another state, we did have one student who had been born male, and occassionally dressed that way, but when she dressed as female, everything about her changed, and even our most straight-laced vice principal used ‘she’ and ‘her’ to talk about her. She was the first of us to die, and it really hurt to hear her obituary describe her only as male.

  67. Thank you for this great post and equally great discussion!
    @Keith: >>If “they” is being used as a singular pronoun, should it not take a singular verb? “They IS an amazing, bright…” Admittedly, that grates on my ear at first hearing, but I’ll get over it.

    Yes, it only grates because it is unfamiliar. You are already using “are” in the singular. Like I just did addressing you.

    I work for a tech company, and have started writing “the users” in correspondence, like Geoff Hart suggested as a workaround above. Whenever I see writing that speaks of “the user … he”, it sticks in my craw. It’s nice to notice that I am more aware than I used to be, and it also reminds me to be kind and patient with people who are not on the same spot of the path that I’m on.

  68. Thanks, Jules — it’s helpful to have your response. Trying out the approaches I think there does need to be something other than”Can I help you”, but I don’t see why it has to be the gender-pronoun specific approach that I was taught.

    However, in a medical situation that needs to be escalated to the next level of care, we are trained to report the patient’s age and gender right away (along with other information such as nature of illness or injury, level of responsiveness, etc) — and if we don’t provide gender information, dispatch is almost always going to ask us for it, so it would be best to get that information early in the encounter. What do you think is a good way to do this?

  69. @Susan In that case, I say screw weird looks from cis people and ask, “In order to provide safe and respectable medical care, I need to ask you your pronouns and your name, and if it may be different than your billing information (or whatever the case may be)? Also, please tell me the correct way to address you. I want to make this as stress-free and comfortable as as possible.” Then, so you don’t make a mistake in a crisis situation, write their declared pronouns in big letters on the top of the their medical information. You don’t have to use those exact words, but anything along those lines would work/can be tailored as the situation arises.

    Think of it as being no different than asking about what medications they may be on, if they have a pace maker, etc. It’s part of taking an accurate and complete medical history. Without getting too personal, I’m just going to say, from personal experience, that attitude will help save lives.

    And if they are not capable of providing any personal information, then you have no choice but to go by what you are told by someone who knows them or what is on their ID.In that situation, you aren’t doing anything wrong. Maybe you get lucky and they have all that relevant information on a card in their wallet, or the lock screen of their phone. You can only go by what information you have on hand. So ask if you can. And if you can’t, well you are making an honest effort and doing whatever you can to get accurate information.

  70. As someone who regularly gets referred to by the wrong pronoun in online conversation, not due to being trans, but due to having a name that frequently gets misread (and the seeming default assumption that anyone on the internet is male unless there is evidence to the contrary), I’m a big fan of using they and them in singular. I’d much rather someone use a generic pronoun if they’re not sure than be called explicitly by the wrong one. It’s strange how much it grates on me to be assumed to be male so often- I can only imagine how much more it’d bother someone who’s has to fight to have their gender acknowledged.

    Gender terminology is especially interesting in online gaming spaces, where there is frequently a difference between the gender a person plays in a game and the one they identify as in real life. Often people in games will play multiple characters of different genders and have friends who know all their characters- they may or may not know which gender they are outside of the game. I always followed the rule of using the gender that matched with the character I was referring to when referencing a character, or the person’s real life gender when discussing something that happened outside the game. If I didn’t know it, I’d stick to whichever gender their “main” character used. But I found that many people would refer to almost everyone male regardless of their character’s gender unless they actually knew the person’s real life gender. Generally when I inquired why, they’d say that most female characters were played by men anyhow so it was just easier. This grated on me particularly, as it seemed to me that if someone chose a gender for a character, that they should be respected in that choice.

  71. I would allow exemptions for those who grew up with a person and make the occasional mistake. While not the exact same thing, everyone in my extended family called me Billy for the first 12 years of my life. Once in Jr High/High School I wanted to be called Bill. It is a fact of life that I accept that I will always be Billy to some people.

  72. On “y’all,” I’m a Pittsburgher, so my default is “yinz.” But most people don’t know what the heck I’m saying, so I usually have to repeat myself with a “y’all.” Always feels oddly like a linguistic concession.

    More seriously, on using the proper pronouns, I can tell you, as someone who switched mine a few years ago, being referred to with the wrong ones, or more specifically the old ones, can sting a bit, depending on the day. So if someone reacts strongly to you if make a mistake, try to be a bit understanding.

  73. Correct gender-neutral term for a child: I suppose “spawn” is right out.

    Nicknames and alternate names: Growing up, I was “Andy” to pretty much everyone. In high school, one of my favorite teachers declared early on that “Andy” wasn’t dignified enough, so she always called me “Andrew,” and I discovered I kind of liked it. Once I got to college, I was “Andrew” to everyone for about a year and a half, when I realized that my gaming group had been calling me “Drew” for months and I hadn’t picked up on it.

    So, these days, the only people who call me Andy are family members (and not all of them) and VERY old friends. I don’t usually correct other people who call me Andy, but I also sort of mentally class them as “folks who take inappropriate liberties,” and it’s a bit of a mental shock every time it happens. When I’m feeling especially relaxed or whimsical, I’ll often think of myself as (and even call myself) Drew. But to most people, I’m Andrew, and that’s fine.

    There have been a couple of times that I’ve ended up with “Hack” as a nickname, often when we have a surplus of Andrews in a group. It isn’t usually my first choice. :-)

    (No one uses my middle name, Scott, which is a perfectly fine name that I have never gone by, at all, except my mother when I’ve really annoyed her and she hits my full name for emphasis.)

  74. Anyone having a different set of pronouns than you’d expect has had a journey to get there, and I respect that and their choices. On the other hand, I know alot of people who cosplay, including cross gender, and role-play, including non costumed cross gender. It’s really hard to tell when someone has made a life transition and when they are simply having a fun role-play game moment.

  75. I’m trans (male) but accept he, she, and they. I recognize that this is not usual, but I have reasons for it and it makes me sad when people jump on a person, usually well-meaning, for “getting the pronouns wrong” or misgendering me. I was not out until fairly recently because I was scared, and as a result I still have a bunch of author bios using she/her, so I think the confusion is understandable. I switched to he/him in the more recent author bios, but I don’t expect people to keep track of those!

    I’m Korean-American; my father speaks fluent English except with the quirk that he frequently confused he/him and she/her. I was *definitely* not out to my parents, but my sister and I grew up taking this for granted. You see, my father’s native language is Korean, which does not distinguish gender in the third person pronoun, and I think that my dad just never made the adjustment to having separate gendered pronouns in English when he learned the language. For that matter, Korean was *my* first language, although I don’t speak it well anymore, so the default pronoun being “not specified” is familiar.

    I live in a conservative area, and when I’m out and about, it’s almost always with my husband and daughter. I have not transitioned physically and while I can sometimes pass on casual inspection, when I’m with my family I’m usually read as female. I’m afraid to try harder to present as male around here because I really do not want to be hassled by people uncomfortable with not-straight relationships. I suspect the other factor is that when the three of us are seen together even in passing, it’s pretty obvious that I’m my daughter’s mother [1] rather than J. Random Friend because she’s biracial; my husband is white and there are not a lot of Asians in my area. So it’s only when I’m out of town (e.g. at some convention, or visiting my sister) that I make the effort to present as male.

    [1] I’m out to my daughter, but she still calls me Mom. It’s fine.

    My husband uses female pronouns for me, since I was not out to him for a long time and he’s used to them; also this way he is less likely to slip up in public, and we specifically agreed that this was fine. My sister uses male pronouns for me. They/them is also fine. I know that other people care more about their nomenclature, and I will do my best to respect their pronouns. But *for me*–it’s just not that important. It’s not the hill I want to die on. I don’t know if this makes me a bad trans person. Just, I have other problems to deal with in my life (chronic health issues) and this is one thing I have chosen not to worry about *for myself.*

  76. I don’t mind being PC and providing right wingers with a much needed source of humor. But I don’t want to, or pretend to be beyond “binary constructs.” I will not refer to a single person as “All.”

    Ok, this is a serious subject and here I am spoofing Zoolander 2 which itself was a spoof. Am I OLD and or Lame (Lamay) like Eric and Hansel of the movie? Yes and no. Am I devolving into The Donald who until recently had clementine colored cheeks and hair even while off camera? Trump’s old lawyer Roy Cohn of McCarthy infamy might secretly have identified. Him and J. Edgar.

    The spoofing theme of Ben Stiller’s movie was more than overdue. I particularly enjoyed the actor making fun of hipster motormouth Reptilian Illuminutty D-J’s.

  77. JHanson: I for one thought Stiller et al. missed a great opportunity by not having a villain say something like “No man, woman, or child can stop me!” and then All comes in and says, “I am none of the above” and shoots the villain.

  78. @dglnj I’m not exactly Southern either (Miami is not the South) but I have relatives from Appalachia and Mom grew up kinda everywhere(military kid) so I took cues from them. Y’all is usually indeterminate but plural, all y’all is a bigger group of ‘you’ than y’all.
    Example: Post internet connectivity issues, I say to the 3 other people in my D&D over Skype group. “That was nice of y’all to wait while I went to the library since power’s out at home.” vs saying goodbye to a larger (n=8ish) group of friends “talk to all y’all later”. I don’t use y’all in the singular much.

  79. Andrew Hackard says:

    Correct gender-neutral term for a child: I suppose “spawn” is right out.

    My mom didn’t think so! :)

    It’s worth noting that what’s acceptable can occasionally change surprisingly quickly. When I was a kid, “Ms.” wasn’t a thing. It wasn’t just not-accepted—it actually didn’t exist yet. When it appeared, it faced some initial resistance and scoffing, but became standard in a startlingly short amount of time. People not much younger than me probably have no idea it was ever controversial. (It was.)

    With singular “they”, what we’re seeing is a broadening of the usage. While it has indeed been around since at least the days of Shakespeare, it has traditionally been used to refer to generic or unspecified individuals. “Each passenger must have their own ticket” is a sentence I find utterly unremarkable, for example, despite being an old fogey.

    What is changing is that “kids” these days (the ones on my lawn) have no trouble with sentences like “Sally is having their first uterine exam.” Which I found a bit startling when I first noticed it, but with a bit of practice, it’s gotten fairly easy for me as well. It does, after all, follow without too much difficulty from the older Shakespearean uses.

    As for this notion of “preferred” vs. “correct”, though, that seems a little trickier. After all, I (now) consider “he” and “they” to be correct when applied to me, but, like John, I mildly prefer “he”. So I’ve got two correct pronouns, but one preferred one. In fact, I would argue that “they” is always a correct pronoun when applied to anyone.

  80. Being from Chicago, you was singular and you guys was plural, even when talking to female only groups. But out in Seattle, where I live now, that’s not PC and people use you all (or a version of it). I know some Hungarian, where there is a singular pronoun for he, she AND it. Hungarian would be similar to Korean, mentioned above, as well as Finnish and Estonian. Then again, I teach Swedish, where there are now five official singular pronouns han (he) hon (she) hen (gender neutral) den (grammatical gender, for chairs and books and the like) and det (grammatical neuter, for a child (!), a room or a house and the like).
    I’ve also been called both “sir” and “ma’am” by strangers, even though I don’t make any effort to dress one way or the other and am not trans. I’ve never found an explanation for that, but now often wear dresses. Still happens. It’s still strange to me. I’ve decided that people can sometimes be just weird and don’t worry about it, since using an honorific means they were trying to be polite, after all. But it will forever remain a mystery to me. If it had happened just once in a lifetime, but no….and I digress.
    English pronoun usage has always been fairly fluid. Thou thee thine pretty much extinct. Ye also out. Me and him in front of a verb is a subject and not an object (especially in my dialect). They, them, their borrowed from Old Norse (as mentioned above). I have English majors in my classes that freak out a bit when I explain the history of English pronoun usage and why there’s no reason to get hung up on “what’s correct”. Like many above, I’d have less trouble with they migrating to singular usage as well as plural usage, as we’ve already decided to do this with thou / thee versus you (ye already having passed to the great beyond of deceased pronouns in the sky). I’ve already seen a number of invented pronouns come and go with no sticking power whatsoever since the 70s (when people still made fun of “Ms”).
    When booking an airline ticket, I was asked if I preferred Miss or Mrs. (This was just last week!) I said, “Actually, I prefer Doctor, but if that’s not an option, please use Ms.” I didn’t give the ticket seller a hard time, and said it in a light tone, but it did get my point across. As far as Mr, Mrs, Miss, Ms or Mx goes, why not just go to M and leave it at that?

  81. Are the pronouns and honorifics under discussion here more or less established alternatives to the binary he/she, Mr/Ms/Miss/Mrs? I ask because I would strongly suspect someone was actively messing with me if they asked me to call them ‘void’, ‘bun’ or one of their derivatives.

  82. As an English major and someone who judges people for using “alright” or “alot” as single words, I nonetheless think that singular “they” was good enough for Shakespeare and Austen, so everyone else can take a deep breath and have a beer.

    Where gender is concerned, I think calling people what they want to be called is important, even if you don’t like or respect the person in question: I don’t want to give the impression that respecting gender identity is a matter of personal approval.

    For the most part, I try to do the same thing with names and nicknames. There are situations where I don’t: I am not pronouncing “Jennifer” “Zhan-a-fayr” just because you spent a semester in France; you are Bruce from accounting, not “Stormcloud Ravenshadow”; fuck off. But those are all situations where I don’t mind saying or implying the “fuck off” bit–if you don’t want to go there, call people what they want to be called.

    Usage habits are hellish, though. I’m trying to stop using “dude” or “man” with one of my MTF friends who’d prefer I not, and argh, it’s like a groove in my brain, that. Especially because it’s not that I think of her as a dude, or a man: it’s that I use those terms on everyone including my mom*, because you can take the girl out of California, but…

    * I’ve realized I often actually use those terms, structurally, the same way I use profanity.

    You: “…and then I waited for three hours for the tow truck and it started raining fish.”
    Me: “X, that’s awful! Were the fish at least fresh?”

    Where “X” can be any one of “Dude!” “Man!” “Jesus H. Christ,” “Holy shitsnacks!” and so forth.

  83. As for the term Ms, I too grew up when it was controversial. For over three decades I’ve lived in Canada’s “most redneck” province, Alberta, in Canada’s (now) fourth largest city.

    Last year I overheard two teenage girls at a store counter asking each other what Ms was, because they didn’t know. When I related this to my age-45ish university graduate friend she said she thought it meant a woman was divorced. So I’m not surprised that Laura W’s ticket agent, above, did not give Ms as an option—but I am saddened.

    About five years ago there was ongoing controversy about allowing the presence, on school grounds, of high school clubs to stop bullying called “Gay Straight Alliances.” That’s been settled.
    This year there is controversy over school boards having been ordered by the province to have a policy in place to be inclusive and protect teens with gender issues. Many boards have not yet complied.

    The public concern is for teen suicide. … So yes, pronouns are important.

  84. Andrew Hackard: “…spawn is right out.”

    I did smile when I saw that. Spawn works, in some contexts. Usually in a “I did this why again?” moment. Between parents, it’s fine and might be read as exasperated affection. In other contexts, it is used by non-parents as a derogatory term. That’s a discussion that is unrelated to the subject at hand, so that’s all I’ll say on that.

    Like kurtbusiek, I’ll probably just stick with kid. I think they’re okay with that. I still refer to my parents’ youngest child as my baby sister, despite her turning 47 next month. (There’s a good reason for that. I also have a little sister, 48. :-) )

  85. You might like to know that there is a new gender neutral pronoun that those within the gender spectrum are sometimes adopting: Zee, Zem, etc. (vs. He/She, Him/Her, etc.). But to John’s point, we need to use the gender pronoun that is comfortable for that person. I just wanted to point out that there is a new one in town, too. :-)

  86. Timely discussion since spreading on the news here in Michigan is the state Board of Education proposing guidance to school districts on handling LGBT students, especially Trans students. In addition to the usual panics over bathrooms, people are freaking out over pronouns and names. For one thing, their recommendation of letting a student choose their own pronoun and name is really hard for people. But also the recommendation to use birth name and biological sex when talking with parents unless told otherwise (in order to avoid outing a student to their family) has people furious. The number of people who see this as a betrayal and teaching students to hide information from their parents is really astonishing, but I have trouble wrapping my brain around someone thinking that way. It seems obvious to me that if a student feels safe and comfortable with one identity at school, but doesn’t feel safe or comfortable that way at home, then the problem is not the school! But I guess cultural progress is rarely easy.

  87. Odd – fifty years ago “they” seemed a standard, rarely-used, gender-neutral singular pronoun in British English. Apparently it went away, and I never noticed. Now it’s back; a revolution in grammar, no doubt, but that’s the thing about revolutions – they turn around and nothing changes.

    And frankly I don’t care what you call me, as long as you don’t call me late for breakfast.

    C W Rose

  88. @Keith, as another poster stated, we already use the ‘are’ construction for a singular pronoun–that is, ‘you’. And ‘they’ has been pretty commonly used as a singular pronoun for an individual whose gender isn’t known (as opposed to a specific individual who prefers gender neutral pronouns), again with the ‘they are’ construction. English is a weird language.

    @OP, I think for dealing with the “Bruce Jenner lol” boor, you should decline to discuss the subject. “I’m not talking about Caitlyn Jenner, I’m talking about [name].” “I’m not interested in discussing this with you.” If someone is already at that level of aggressive trolling, trying to expand their mind is likely to be a waste of your time. Use the correct pronouns for your child, insist that others do as well, and don’t get dragged into a debate about it.

  89. I’ve expressed some of my attitudes and behaviors in previous comments. After further reflection, I decided I wanted to add a comment on why I believe there is a degree of urgency involved. I’ve read a fair amount of the research literature on sexual and gender identiy and one fact really stands out. The rate of suicide and attempted suicide in the transgender community is simply staggering. A lot of the papers are published in journals that don’t have free access, but this report is publicly available and illustrates the point well, I think. (The rates are also high among transgender youth. Some relatively recent high-profile suicides have shone a tragic spotlight on that aspect as well.)

    “Suicide Attempts among Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Adults”

    http://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/AFSP-Williams-Suicide-Report-Final.pdf

    The new law signed last night in North Carolina provides an excellent example of the discrimination, hatred, and bigotry transgender human beings face simply by their existence. Using the correct name and pronouns for someone may seem trivial, but everything piles up into a unending onslaught. I’ve heard one of my daughter’s friends express relief to hear people use his right name and pronouns. It’s an affirmation of their identity. And even if that’s the only thing you’re in a position to do for someone, it matters. And conversely, it hurts them when you don’t. Where is the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back? The truth is that none of us can ever know in advance. I do know that I never want that straw to be my careless or unfeeling word. And if I can help ease that burden, even by a very small amount, I know that’s what I want to do.

    The original question asked how to handle it in third party conversations. If the person has told me those are the pronouns and name to use and they are fully out in all contexts, then I would use them in any and every context and setting. Why?

    First, it means I’m less likely to make a mistake when in the company of the person. If that’s how I speak and think of them in every context, that helps it become natural to me over time.

    Second, there is always a chance, however small, that the person might overhear me or might hear about the conversation. And it’s an additional affirmation if they do happen to learn that I honor their identity whether or not they are present. Similarly, it’s a negative if they ever discover that I don’t.

    I do want to caveat the above carefully. I’m an old, straight, white, cis male so I have considerable privilege. For instance, I never actually feel threatened in a conversation with someone, even if I know they are actively transphobic. In theory, I suppose I could be assaulted by someone who felt strongly enough about it, but in practice that risk is so tiny, it never really crosses my mind. So at most, such a conversation might make me a little uncomfortable. And I can certainly endure some small degree of discomfort, especially when it is almost literally the life of the transgender person on the line. Those who do not share my degree of privilege might be at risk of more than just discomfort in such situations and should act accordingly. If I actually felt at risk in a situation, I would probably parse my words carefully to avoid the use of names or pronouns altogether.

    Even more importantly, I’m very careful not to “out” anyone. That is never my decision to make and could be unsafe for them. So I keep track and use the name and pronouns they tell me to use in different contexts or around certain people. (That’s especially true for a transgender youth who isn’t out to all or some of their family.) When I’m unsure, I parse my words to avoid names and pronouns.

    I’m hardly an expert, but people’s lives are quite literally on the line. I can at least put a little thought and effort into my words and actions.

  90. I agree wholeheartedly with our host with respect to respecting others in regards to pronouns, etc.

    My only quibble is that are losing another singular pronoun. Us west coast and midwest speakers have already lost the singular you. Southerners have you and y’all. My Irish buddy says you and ye. I’ve tried to go back to my New York heritage and use you and youse causing unintended comedy. Nearest thing to standard west coast english would be “you guys”. Ugh.

    Using it instead of he/she/they is out because it’s clearly offensive. I can see how we’re stuck with they but bemoan the loss of another singular.

  91. Late to the party, but this is a great essay. I’m a parent of a trans child, I’m in a parenting group for trans children, and this comes up a lot. Especially since we’re dealing with kids, who are still working this stuff out (my son had a period of several months where he would inform us on a daily basis of what name and pronouns to use). It’s excellent advice, especially the part about accepting that there is going to be a period where you slip up no matter how hard you try.

    (That gets better the more often you do it, though. Once you train yourself to think about pronouns, you really can get them right every single time.)

  92. Help me with this phrase. Are we 1) to avoid constructions like this? Or 2) hopeful that this one day sounds normal to everyone? Or 3) not worried? Or 4) other?

    “I like Mark’s dad. They really know what they’re talking about.”

  93. thank you John.. kindness and respect are what I try for.
    I moved very happily to singular ‘they’ last year, after struggling with the clumsinesses of ‘he or she’, ‘she or he’, ‘s/he’ for years. Of course those don’t help with fluid genders either. As an anachronist I really like thee and thou, though ;-)
    I’ve used ‘bless their tiny cold hearts’ before, but I think ‘Bless their heart’ is now preferred.

    @Daniel, “For those of us with names that aren’t already shortened, it seems like a significant portion of the population feels that it is their right to ignore your stated name and shorten it into a ‘cute’ version. I’ve mostly accepted it as a fight not worth having.”
    I’ll answer to Doug or Douglas, but not to ‘Dougie baby’..
    There are some strong-willed young people I know who have enforced their preferred name by simply not responding to anything else.. kids today, they are wonderful.

    @Scott Morizot, we had a similar issue with our son and a good friend of his who came out as MTF. Several other parents flatly refused to let their boys sleep over at their house after that. On the other hand, one of his newer friends who is a girl, had a sleepover because her mother thought that they were FTM rather than MTF. Life gets complicated.
    We discussed all this with our children as it hadn’t occurred to me to have that discussion before. The younger assured us he still identified as male, the elder was shocked and surprised by the whole concept. Never a dull moment, trying to raise children..

  94. Regarding children having sleepovers, I think it’s worth asking: why do you have a rule that only-same-gender children can sleep over in the first place?

    That’s rhetorical though, I know why: a boy and a girl sleeping together in the same bedroom (or even the same bed!) would, as adults, imply that they’re *sleeping together*. Since we’re talking about kids here, that’s unacceptable, so an exception is granted for children only as long as the possibility of any kind of sexual activity seems unthinkable.

    But hey guess what: maybe your daughter’s a lesbian and hasn’t told you yet. Maybe your son’s best friend turns out to be bi.

    The problem with adjusting who can stay over when you find out that that this or that person is trans is that, frankly, you’re assuming they’re all straight, sexual, and romantic. Consider: if your daughter’s FTM friend is actually gay (i.e. is exclusively interested in *men*), is it still okay for him to participate in the sleepover, or not? How does your answer change if he’s also ace? What if he’s aro? Which of those statements do you actually trust him to tell you the truth about?

    At the end of the day, having a same-gender-only rule is a shorthand; what you really mean is “no hanky-panky”, but by expressing it as a gender rule you get to avoid explicitly bringing up the topic of sex. Don’t get me wrong, that sounds like a reasonable goal on its own — because boy howdy, the best way to encourage kids to try making out for the first time is tell them not to — but by basing it on gender, you’re introducing a complication that isn’t actually necessary for your goal.

    My suggestion would be to keep it simple and just have one non-gendered rule for everyone. For example, “when friends sleep over, you all get to camp out in the living room for the night.” That way you aren’t put in a situation where you feel like you have to exclude someone or change the venue just because you learned new information about them, and children aren’t put in yet another situation where they feel like they might need to hide their gender or sexuality just to keep hanging out with their friends.

  95. isabelcooper, much like you, growing up in California, “Dude” and “Man” are punctuation, not indicative of gender. I never re-think the use of Dude when responding to friends on fb, but I do re-think the use of “Man” with my trans friends. It’s tough, I’m working on it, but I’m kinda stubborn about hanging onto “Dude” in my lexicon.

  96. Whoops, caveat: No one has asked me to not use “Man” or “Dude.” If I had a specific request, I would make an extra effort not to use those terms when speaking to that friend.

  97. Bill:

    I would allow exemptions for those who grew up with a person and make the occasional mistake. While not the exact same thing…

    I’m guessing you’re not trans.

    Because you’re exactly right in saying that it’s not the same thing, but also, you don’t get to decide what matters to other people, and you especially don’t get to decide when you don’t share the exact life experience which makes it a different thing for you than for them.

    My guess is that no one has used “Billy” to sincerely insist that, in fact, you are something which you know you are not, and on that basis to control your behavior, telling you where you must go to the bathroom, and discounting any safety issue you might be taking into account in making that decision for yourself.

    I’m reminded of a conversation which happened when I was going through the most difficult phase of my life (except transition). I had to spend the day making nice with a group of people some of whom had stabbed me in the back repeatedly specifically because I was trans, and almost all of whom had stood by and let it happen. A couple we know invited us over for dinner to relax, afterward. The topic of pronouns came up in conversation, and I mentioned a friend of mine who still got it wrong frequently. One member of the couple offered that it was hard. And while I agree that it’s hard in some sense, it’s a sneeze in a hurricane compared to having to end a career you loved because your coworkers made life miserable for you after you transitioned, and on that day of all days, I didn’t need to be told how hard people who only had to get a goddamn pronoun right had it. I replied that my friend was still getting it wrong 50% of the time, and this person said, “Oh, well, no. That’s too much.”

    Apparently it was his job to decide how much I got to take. Even on that day.

    If at all possible, I will never be near that person when I am emotionally raw again.

    With all due respect, Bill, this is not your decision to make, any more than you get to decide whether it’s a man or a woman standing before you. Each person, in any circumstance, gets to decide when something has become too shredding, and gets to make a safety call when they feel needed.

    And anyone who doesn’t think removing yourself from someone who gets pronouns wrong can be a safety call has never been as close to the edge as 99.9% of trans people.

    To all the people in this thread who have taken people at their word and worked hard not to add one more swipe of the sandpaper to the life of the person you know, thank you. And Bill, if that includes you, then thank you, too.

    Grace

  98. Jessica,

    I wondered when I wrote that anecdote if someone would raise a question about the origin of the “sleepover rule” aspect, but chose not to delve into it because it wasn’t germane to the point I was making in my comment. That particular rule came into existence when our older sons were in high school. At some juncture, one of them wanted to have a somewhat large, mixed gender group spend the night. My wife and I discussed it and while we knew the kids, some we didn’t know particularly well. And while we knew some of the parents of the kids, we also didn’t know them all or know them well. If we were going to host such a gathering of high school students, we felt that we would be assuming responsibility for their behavior under our roof and also felt that we would have an obligation to ensure all the parents understood and were comfortable with the arrangements. And that was more than we wanted to take on. We discussed it with our son, explained our reasons, and established a household “rule” against mixed gender sleepovers he could communicate to his friends and “blame” us for the decision. (It wasn’t acrimonious. We were often the house where kids liked to come eat or hang out and they generally seemed to like talking with us. We also were the host of the proverbial “garage band” for our sons and some of their friends.)

    At that time, our youngest daughter was still pretty young, so that simply became part of the list of basically unquestioned household sleepover rules as she was growing up. We had never had any reason to revisit it until the situation I noted.

    I still refer to my children as children or kids even though they are all adults now. Their age doesn’t stop them from being my “kids”. I think that’s fairly common with parents.

    As far as sexual identity goes, my youngest daughter (and other children for that matter) have confided in us and typically share more information than we necessarily want. But I did not and do not intend to discuss my children. I even tried to keep ‘friends’ vague and unidentifiable. I’m pretty careful what I do or don’t choose to share publicly. Don’t confuse that discretion with ignorance.

    This post is about gender identity, not sexual or romantic identity, but my children’s friends are as diverse in those areas as they are in gender identity. Especially my youngest daughter’s friends.

    And our household sleepover rule had little to do with concerns about “hanky panky”. As a teen parent twice over, keeping lines of communication on that topic open was always important to me. And my wife not only shared my perspective, the kids have always been even more comfortable talking with her. We were never particularly concerned about our kids having sex without discussing it with us. And we certainly weren’t concerned about them trying to use a sleepover as a pretext for sex. Frankly, we didn’t want to broach the subject and have that discussion with other parents, some of whom we didn’t know or didn’t know well. And we weren’t willing to host it without taking that step. Especially since we didn’t know all the kids well, we had no way of knowing how much information they would share with their parents.

    Most rules in a functioning household develop to address specific circumstances. Once established, they tend to stand until there’s a reason to revisit them. In the instance of our daughter’s friend, we were really more concerned about the message we would be sending him by not reacting and taking this new information seriously than we were about anything else. Of course, we were also in the odd position where he was “out” to us, but not even to everyone in his own family.

    We also always had a deal with our kids growing up that any time they felt pressured to participate in anything they were uncomfortable with or even just didn’t want to do, we would always be happy to create a “rule” against it so they could blame us for not doing it. They actually took us up on that a few times.

  99. “Respect” sounds like a millennial concern. What I learned from a book on non-gendered writing back in the ’90s was that the reason to use a gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun was to avoid factual error and to avoid discrimination, particularly in reference to an unspecific member of a profession (e.g. doctor, lawyer, or in my mom’s case, professor). The book mzde clear that using “he” as a gender-neutral pronoun was legislated by Parliament in 1950 to replace the previously conventional usage “they”. “He or she” is awkward (and wordy, which is bad in journalism), and neologisms are less clear. You can use “they” in a sentence and everyone will understand what you mean.

    For some reason, this is still a point of controversy or confusion for some people. Kind of like people who still use two spaces after a period; it’s an artificial practice of a bygone age.

    From a linguistic perspective, having gender in a language injects a layer of cultural complexity that adds very little informational value (not like you don’t know the antecedent of a pronoun in most cases, and when you don’t, you usually don’t know gender anyway). Language is a tool that should be used to serve the needs of people using it.

  100. >> Are we 1) to avoid constructions like this? Or 2) hopeful that this one day sounds normal to everyone? Or 3) not worried? Or 4) other?
    >> “I like Mark’s dad. They really know what they’re talking about.”>>

    Seems like we’re moving toward 2. Which is fine with me, if that’s what Mark’s dad prefers.

  101. Call me an old fuddy-duddy, but having someone tell me what pronouns to use in their presence is insulting and disrespectful. I’m not going to have someone that I barely know tell me how to speak to them. I treat everyone with the same basic common courtesy that I expect everyone to treat me with.

    Granted, I’ve come a long way or the years, but it still bothers me that people continually gut and twist language to suit their own hypersensitive needs.

  102. G.B. Miller:

    “I treat everyone with the same basic common courtesy that I expect everyone to treat me with.”

    You expect everyone to be an asshole to you, then. What you’re saying here is “I plan to ignore your wishes about your identity if I feel like it,” which is not being a fuddy-duddy or being courteous, it’s being an asshole. It’s not hypersensitive to wish to be referred to accurately. I’m not “hypersensitive,” for example, if I think someone who refers to me as “she” is probably trying to insult me and is therefore likely to be a real shitheap of a human. No one else is hypersensitive for wanting their identity respected. You’re the problem in this scenario, G.B., not the other person.

  103. “From a linguistic perspective, having gender in a language injects a layer of cultural complexity that adds very little informational value (not like you don’t know the antecedent of a pronoun in most cases, and when you don’t, you usually don’t know gender anyway)”

    Yes! One of the things that always bugged the fuck out of me about bad fantasy writing/RPing was using words like “warrioress” or “bardess.” No. Shut up. This is not 1870.

    Perhaps insisting on gender-specific pronouns will seem the same way to our grandchildren.

    @Xana: Word on both counts.

    At the moment, I’m trying, but there’s still a lot of, “Oh, I know, dude–shiiit, sorry!” moments. ;P Stupid brain.

  104. I have a question about misgendering.

    First, I am not arguing that it is not disrespectful and I agree you should call people by their preferred pronoun.

    But isn’t it giving people a lot of power to affect your self-perception and identity on what word they use to describe you? Some jagoff calling you a “he” doesn’t mean you aren’t a “she.” It means he’s a jagoff, or confused, or both. I get why it is offensive, but it sometimes feels like people are giving too much power to those words. You are what you are. You know what you are. Some asshole either deliberately or accidentally getting it wrong doesn’t mean you aren’t what you are – it means that the other person is an asshole.

    That’s just my thought.

  105. >> Are we 1) to avoid constructions like this? Or 2) hopeful that this one day sounds normal to everyone? Or 3) not worried? Or 4) other?
    >> “I like Mark’s dad. They really know what they’re talking about.”>>

    Dad is gender-explicit. I would think it should either be I like Mark’s parent. They … or I like Mark’s dad. He …

  106. @whereibelongsf Because it hurts. Because it hurts like flinching and nausea.

    I use gender-neutral pronouns, and I still misgender *myself* sometimes, either out loud or in my head, especially in constructions with old, worn grooves, such as saying out loud, [“What is that thing,” [pronoun] asked with some concern.] And even when I do it in my head, and no one else hears me, I feel sick to my stomach because it doesn’t match *who I am* and it hurts.

    It’s awfully easy to decide “you shouldn’t let words hurt you” when you’re not the one being hurt by a word. I bet you money there are words in the world that hurt you too. You don’t get to decide what hurts.

  107. “Simply put, a strong person, a person who is good and kind and righteous, does not need to demand that other people have to shoehorn their self-identity to someone else’s expectation. A strong person, a person who is good and kind and righteous, says to the other person “tell me who you are” and accepts the fact of what they’re told.”

    Well said. Thank you.

  108. Grammar question: what verb tenses do we use with singular they? In other words, the most fluid sounding sentence is:
    > They walk down the street. They are eating a pretzel.
    But compare with traditional pronouns:
    > She walks down the street. She is eating a pretzel.
    So should I really be saying:
    > They walks down the street. They is eating a pretzel.

    In other words, third-person singular, which is _absolutely_ the correct verb tense here, sounds completely wrong to my ear. Is it my ears? Or do we use third-person plural verb tenses with singular they?

  109. Hello John Scalzi, commenters, and bebe. Or, as I call you, mom!

    My name is J, and this question was about me.

    I was a little worried when a few days ago I got a text from my mom saying that she needed to tell me something and I may not like it. I called her and she said that she had sent in a question to John Scalzi … and he had answered! Then she told me that the question was about me and my pronouns.

    I will tell you all what I told her less than thirty minutes ago. Regardless of any other feelings about this situation, any opportunity for people to learn about these issues is a good thing. Especially right now, with laws being passed that explicitly discriminate or allow discrimination against me and my trans family (I’m looking at you, North Carolina).

    I think that John Scalzi’s response to my mom’s question was wonderful, and while all of us (especially those who are not effected by a specific issue) are always learning more, I agree with his very simple statement (or question, really), ” when someone tells you what their pronouns are, use them, won’t you?” Honestly, every time I hear the wrong pronoun, noun, or my birth name directed towards me, I cringe inside. Regardless of intent or lack thereof, it always feels like a rejection of my identity, my very personhood and humanity.

    That said, I know that it’s hard. Only one person who is not explicitly trans has never misgendered me, and that’s my fiancee. But yes, please, all of you, try your best to use the pronouns you are asked, or told, to use. It is simple, and it is very very important.

    Finally, I would like to say that I have not read all of your comments, and almost certainly will not, because I am a very busy college student in the middle of the final month of the semester (and honestly expecting marginalized people to carry the tremendous burden of being the sole educators on the topics that effect us is absurd – thank you John Scalzi and those cisgender commenters for helping us out!). However, for the most part, those that I have read seem very polite and courteous and I respect and am grateful for that. If you would like to ask me any questions about these issues or to clarify anything that my wonderful mom said, please ask (I will try to respond, but again, busy college student!).

    (Also, John Scalzi, two things: please take out the name of my college from my mom’s question, and in your last paragraph you say “It doesn’t seem to much to ask.” instead of “It doesn’t seem too much to ask.”)

    Thank you all!

  110. As far as the “changing the pronoun you use for someone you’ve known a long time is hard” thing goes, the solution to that is the same as the solution to pretty much anything that’s hard: practice. And I don’t mean practicing on the person whose pronouns you tend to get wrong, but practicing, on your own, thinking of and talking about that person using the right words. (I got this idea from a particular Robot Hugs comic, but I can’t remember which one and don’t feel like digging through the archive right now.)

    I created an online form for students to submit when they need to miss class for some reason. A lot of them have gender-ambiguous names, or names from a culture with which I am insufficiently familiar to know which gender usually goes with that name. I also know that non-binary people exist, so the form initially had fields labeled “Name,” “Preferred pronoun (ex: he, she, they, zie, etc.),” “Lab section,” and so forth. But the more I listened to trans* people talking about their experiences, the more I realized that “preferred” is the wrong word to use. It’s not a preference. It’s an identity. Those fields are now “Your name,” “Your pronoun (ex: he, she, they, zie, etc.),” and “Your lab section.” It works pretty well.

  111. I think their are some limits to the “respect the identify I choose” notion.

    If someone asks me to use zie & zir, or something else for which there is a general movement to establish a gender neutral pronoun, I’ll try to get it right.

    If they request they & them, I’ll grimace, and try to get it right.

    If they request something not recognizable as a pronoun, like splunge, I’m not likely to comply.

  112. G.B Miller said:

    Call me an old fuddy-duddy, but having someone tell me what pronouns to use in their presence is insulting and disrespectful.

    Call me young and aggressive, but you’ve probably insulted a lot of people. I’ve dated multiple genetically-female, female-gendered people that have been called ‘sir’, ‘he’, etc., or told not to go into the women’s room due to their appearance.

    Do you not agree that it’s entirely within their rights to tell you what pronouns to use, and be pissed off about it? Do you not agree your refusal to correct yourself is a jerk thing to do?

    Do you not understand that transgendered or otherwise non-cis people could be just as rightously offended as those girlfriends?

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