Non-gendered pronouns - Livre d'Or








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livredor
Non-gendered pronouns
Sunday, 02 April 2006 at 07:35 pm
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I'm not sure what inspired me to ask this question, but now it's come into my head I'm quite curious.


Poll #702835 Pronouns

Which pronouns do you prefer to be known by?

He (and his, him)
11(17.7%)
She (and her)
43(69.4%)
A made-up non-gendered pronoun (eg sie, zie, em, e)
0(0.0%)
It depends
6(9.7%)
Other
2(3.2%)

If you were talking about a generic person who could be any gender (eg: "A good doctor should always listen to ___ patients"), what pronoun would you use?

He
8(12.9%)
She
2(3.2%)
They
38(61.3%)
A made-up non-gendered pronoun
0(0.0%)
He or she
6(9.7%)
I would alternate between "he" and "she"
3(4.8%)
It
0(0.0%)
Other
5(8.1%)

If you were talking about a specific individual whose gender was not conventionally defined ("That person on TV last night who said ___ isn't either male or female"), what pronoun would you use?

He
4(6.5%)
She
0(0.0%)
They
28(45.2%)
A made-up non-gendered pronoun
11(17.7%)
He or she
4(6.5%)
I would alternate between "he" and "she"
2(3.2%)
It
2(3.2%)
Other
11(17.7%)

If you ever use made-up non-gendered pronouns, which do you prefer?



As usual, if you want to talk about the subject, comments are good. And yes, I was mean and used radios instead of ticky boxes. That's mainly because I get more comments that way, from people complaining that they don't like being forced to choose only one option!


Whereaboooots: Shelford, Cambridge, UK
Moooood: curiouscurious
Tuuuuune: Indigo girls: Secure yourself
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From:tattycat
Date:April 2nd, 2006 06:46 pm (UTC)
4 minutes after journal entry
(Link)
I tend not to use created non-gendered pronouns very often because honestly, I just don't much like the way they sound. Written out, "zie" is fine, but spoken I find people often mistake it for an oddly-accented "she." That seems to defeat the point.

I like the idea of non-gendered pronouns. I admit I like to study languages that have a three-gender system a little more than those that have a two-gender system.
(Reply to this comment) (Thread)
livredor: likeness
From:livredor
Date:April 3rd, 2006 09:42 am (UTC)
15 hours after journal entry, 09:42 am (livredor's time)
(Link)
I see what you're saying. I like the idea in theory of coming up with a new set of pronouns, but in practice, either they're misheard for the pronouns people are expecting, or they're so surprising that you end up with a discussion about political correctness, which isn't necessarily what I want to be talking about.

There's probably a lot to learn from languages that naturally have a three-gender system, as opposed to some theorists trying to impose one. (Of course, the neuter / inanimate option we have in English is a grammatical gender, but it isn't a sociological one, so that doesn't count.)
(Reply to this comment) (Up thread) (Parent) (Thread)
wychwood: gen - gender issues
From:wychwood
Date:April 2nd, 2006 06:50 pm (UTC)
9 minutes after journal entry
(Link)
I've not used non-gendered pronouns much, but generally I think they're A Good Thing. For ordinary speech, though, I tend to go with "they" instead. Possibly because non-gendered alternatives tend to sound very odd and distract from the flow.
(Reply to this comment) (Thread)
livredor: letters
From:livredor
Date:April 3rd, 2006 09:43 am (UTC)
15 hours after journal entry, 09:43 am (livredor's time)
(Link)
I find singular they awkward too, but I agree that artificial pronouns are even more distracting. I love your icon, though!
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pseudomonas: default
From:pseudomonas
Date:April 2nd, 2006 07:05 pm (UTC)
24 minutes after journal entry, 07:05 pm (pseudomonas's time)
(Link)
"A good doctor should always listen to ___ patients"

I went with "They", which I'd use in a formal context and sometimes informally, but a certain chunk of the time I'd probably use a choice of "He" or "She" (as opposed to saying "He or she") based on nothing terribly concrete, stereotypes probably.
(Reply to this comment) (Thread)
livredor: letters
From:livredor
Date:April 3rd, 2006 09:45 am (UTC)
15 hours after journal entry, 09:45 am (livredor's time)
(Link)
It seems to me that singular they is becoming more standard, and this poll seems to support that. I mean, most of the people on my flist are well-educated and the sort of people who pride themselves on using correct English, and they is coming out way ahead of the other options. I still can't quite get my head round using it for a specific person though.
(Reply to this comment) (Up thread) (Parent) (Thread)
(no subject) - pne (4/3/06 04:17 pm)
(no subject) - jennifer (4/2/06 07:42 pm)
livredor: likeness
From:livredor
Date:April 3rd, 2006 09:49 am (UTC)
15 hours after journal entry, 09:49 am (livredor's time)
(Link)
Point taken. I was trying to phrase my example in such a way that you didn't have a way of just asking the person for a preference, because I wanted to know what the defaults were if you just didn't know. But I totally agree, it's obvious good manners to use the pronouns that the individual concerned prefers. (That's partly the reason for my first question, because there are some people on my flist where I'm not sure which pronouns they like. It seems better to ask in general rather than making a point of addressing someone directly and saying, hi, I know you have gender issues, so which pronouns should I use for you?)
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greengolux: default
From:greengolux
Date:April 2nd, 2006 07:47 pm (UTC)
1 hours after journal entry
(Link)
'They' is a perfectly good gender-neutral pronoun, it fits in naturally with speech, it's grammatical, and it's what I tend to use.

I have heard some very good arguments for using the feminine pronoun as the generic, as a way of redressing the imbalance caused by the masculine having been used as the generic for so long, but in practice I actually still tend towards using 'they' as the generic.

If I knew anyone who wanted to be known by a specific set of made-up gender neutral pronouns I would use the pronouns they preferred, but if they don't express a preference I'll probably default to 'they'.

(Also, declined to answer the first question as my personal preferences in this matter are pretty much irrelevant.)
(Reply to this comment) (Thread)
livredor: letters
From:livredor
Date:April 3rd, 2006 09:58 am (UTC)
15 hours after journal entry, 09:58 am (livredor's time)
(Link)
I don't mind they for a general hypothetical person, but I find it awkward for a specific individual. It took me a while to get used to they at all because I'm a grammar pedant, but various people have presented me with good evidence why it is in fact both grammatically and socially desirable. And I try not to be too prescriptivist in my approach to language anyway. If it's sufficiently standard it's grammatically correct by definition, and I am coming round to the idea of wanting to encourage this use of they in the hopes that it does become more standard.

Just, using they as an actual singular, as if it were fully analogous to he, still feels very jarring for me, in fact it sounds even worse than made-up pronouns.

You are of course always welcome to decline any of my poll questions! I was thinking that most people would find it easy to answer "which pronouns do you prefer?" even if quite a few people would be (reasonably, I think) offended by "are you male or female?" I'm sorry I annoyed you, though.

I guess following the method of asking people for their preferences isn't going to work so well if people find even that question intrusive. That's partly why I need a default for when I don't know, and you're right, they is probably the best option.
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(no subject) - greengolux (4/3/06 06:23 pm)
(no subject) - livredor (4/7/06 05:13 pm)
smhwpf: Giles party weasel
From:smhwpf
Date:April 2nd, 2006 07:54 pm (UTC)
1 hours after journal entry, 08:54 pm (smhwpf's time)
(Link)
Generally a 'they' person, but I'm increasingly switching towards he-she alternation, depending on context. In my lectures I now go for alternation (with a slight 'she' bias to compensate for historical he-bias.) In ordinary conversation I'd probably use they. I dislike it to some extent because I've been brought up to consider it ungrammatical, though by convention it seems to be becoming grammatical.
(Reply to this comment) (Thread)
pseudomonas: default
From:pseudomonas
Date:April 2nd, 2006 07:57 pm (UTC)
1 hours after journal entry, 07:57 pm (pseudomonas's time)
(Link)
With the alternation, do you maintain one set of pronouns for each hypothetical individual, or switch at each mention?
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(no subject) - smhwpf (4/2/06 08:04 pm)
(no subject) - pseudomonas (4/2/06 08:07 pm)
(no subject) - livredor (4/3/06 09:59 am)
(no subject) - livredor (4/3/06 10:08 am)
(no subject) - greengolux (4/2/06 08:15 pm)
From:dsgood
Date:April 2nd, 2006 08:22 pm (UTC)
1 hours after journal entry, 02:22 pm (dsgood's time)
(Link)
Note that there's at least one other alternative in North American English: "that person." I've mostly heard it used by people involved in 12-step programs, but also by an Ontario police officer. It's used only in certain contexts, and is then used regardless of the subject's gender (usually known).

"Pure" American Sign Language uses non-gendered pronouns. I don't know about British Sign Language, Irish Sign Language, etc.
(Reply to this comment) (Thread)
livredor: letters
From:livredor
Date:April 3rd, 2006 10:02 am (UTC)
15 hours after journal entry, 10:02 am (livredor's time)
(Link)
That's an interesting point. It would work in my dialect too, but only in certain circumstances. That person can't completely replace a pronoun; I can think of sentences where it would feel very wrong. But it can go some way towards avoiding the issue. And cool fact about ASL, thank you.
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redbird: default
From:redbird
Date:April 2nd, 2006 08:24 pm (UTC)
1 hours after journal entry, 03:24 pm (redbird's time)
(Link)
I am more likely to use "zie" for a non-specific person in writing, and "they" in conversation, because "zie" sounds like "she" to someone who isn't expecting the non-gendered term.

I almost always use "zie" and "zir" for someone who doesn't fit into the binary gender system, and for people who don't want to be identified by gender in a specific context. The one exception I can think of is someone who encourages zir friends and acquaintances to randomize the pronoun--this led to amusing results and a brief digression when I randomly picked "she" for Raphael and pnh used "he."
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livredor: letters
From:livredor
Date:April 3rd, 2006 10:11 am (UTC)
15 hours after journal entry, 10:11 am (livredor's time)
(Link)
I think from seeing you use zie regularly, I'm getting more familiar with it. The unconscious bits of my mind are processing it as part of language rather than a weird aberration. And good point about the mishearing issue.

Randomizing is tricky. If I were putting the effort in to do that I would probably end up recasting my sentences to avoid pronouns altogether. I don't find I'm very good at randomizing in general, but randomizing between two alternatives when both have huge clouds of association I would find near-impossible.
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(no subject) - rysmiel (4/6/06 06:15 pm)
hairyears: default
From:hairyears
Date:April 2nd, 2006 08:52 pm (UTC)
2 hours after journal entry, 08:52 pm (hairyears's time)
(Link)


Take care with borrowing neuter pronouns from other languages: they are often jarring and even insulting when applied to people - "Everything out!" being a case in point.

If you're determined to adjust the language, it's probably best to rearrange your sentences to say 'Their' or 'That person' in preference to a politically-correct 'He or She'.

(Reply to this comment) (Thread)
livredor: likeness
From:livredor
Date:April 3rd, 2006 10:21 am (UTC)
15 hours after journal entry, 10:21 am (livredor's time)
(Link)
I don't think people are proposing borrowing pronouns from other real languages, more appropriating pronouns from conlangs. Which might be because I hang out with a lot of SF fans! Can you tell me what you're referring to with the Everything out! comment? It looks like an allusion I should recognize, but I'm afraid I don't.

I wouldn't say that I'm determined to adjust the language as such. For the case of a generic person, I'm really quite happy with he. I'm moving towards saying they myself because I believe that really is becoming standard, and I don't violate standard language behaviour unless I have a good reason to do so. I don't feel strongly that they is an evil politically correct abomination (whereas I do insist on saying chairman despite the increasing popularity of chairperson and the like).

But for a specific person who self-defines as not conventionally male or female, or who prefers not to reveal gender information for whatever reason, it's a different question. I'm not going to insist on calling someone he if they find that insulting! And making up new words (or more commonly, using other people's neologisms) when there's a concept I want to talk about but no word formally exists is not adjusting the language, it's just how language works.

But yes, rearranging sentences to avoid pronouns may well be the optimal solution. I do tend towards a lot of rearranging sentences on the fly and picking the best wording anyway, though; for someone whose mind doesn't work like that it might be a bit of a tall order.
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(no subject) - hairyears (4/3/06 12:07 pm)
(no subject) - adrian_turtle (4/3/06 04:56 pm)
(no subject) - livredor (4/7/06 05:54 pm)
(no subject) - rysmiel (4/6/06 06:17 pm)
(no subject) - livredor (4/7/06 05:40 pm)
(no subject) - hairyears (4/7/06 08:27 pm)
rho: default
From:rho
Date:April 2nd, 2006 09:27 pm (UTC)
2 hours after journal entry, 09:27 pm (rho's time)
(Link)
For question 1, I'm equally happy with either she/her/hers or ey/em/eir (the spivak gender neutral pronouns) for refering to me. I will generally tend to use she/her/hers because it's less likely to confuse people. I will accept other made up pronouns like zie or hir, though slightly grudgingly, since I find them to be ugly words. He, it, or they all make me wince.

For question 3, I will generally do my utmost to rephrase things to avoid having to use pronouns at all, eg, "the person on TV last night who claimed to be neither male nor female". (OK, so that does actually use the pronoun "who", but since that's not gendered, it's safe.) If I absolutely cannot rephrase without using jarringly awkward constructions, I'll use the person's prefered pronouns if I know them, or the spivak set if I don't know their pronoun-of-choice.
(Reply to this comment) (Thread)
livredor: letters
From:livredor
Date:April 3rd, 2006 10:26 am (UTC)
15 hours after journal entry, 10:26 am (livredor's time)
(Link)
Can you tell me what spivak pronouns are? I don't think I've ever heard that term.

I agree with you about rephrasing where possible, though. I have made a positive decision to do that when talking about God, for various reasons which mainly boil down to, it's not possible to go and ask God for a preference on the matter!

I can't get my head round referring to a person as it. That's definitely the worst possible solution!
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(no subject) - cartesiandaemon (4/3/06 12:33 pm)
(no subject) - rho (4/3/06 02:48 pm)
karen2205: default
From:karen2205
Date:April 2nd, 2006 09:38 pm (UTC)
2 hours after journal entry, 09:38 pm (karen2205's time)
(Link)
I still believe (and I realise this is becoming a minority belief) that 'they' is a plural and thus grammatical incorrect to be used as a gender neutral pronoun. I tend to either use 'he' - I see (and again I realise not a lot of people agree with me on this) male pronouns as being capable of referring to humanity as a whole, or I use s/he written exactly like that. I think altering gender within a piece of writing generally looks silly.

Where people have non standard(?) genders I try to find out which pronouns they prefer.
(Reply to this comment) (Thread)
jai_dit: default
From:jai_dit
Date:April 3rd, 2006 07:17 am (UTC)
12 hours after journal entry, April 2nd, 2006 11:17 pm (jai_dit's time)
(Link)
I still believe (and I realise this is becoming a minority belief) that 'they' is a plural and thus grammatical incorrect to be used as a gender neutral pronoun. I tend to either use 'he' - I see (and again I realise not a lot of people agree with me on this) male pronouns as being capable of referring to humanity as a whole, or I use s/he written exactly like that. I think altering gender within a piece of writing generally looks silly.
That's what I do.

The only problem I have with s/he is that it is a bit inconvenient when I need objective or possessive forms (him/her and his/her lack the elegance of s/he, in my mind.)
(Reply to this comment) (Up thread) (Parent) (Thread)
(no subject) - livredor (4/3/06 10:46 am)
(no subject) - livredor (4/3/06 10:32 am)
(no subject) - rysmiel (4/6/06 06:20 pm)
elemy: default
From:elemy
Date:April 2nd, 2006 09:59 pm (UTC)
3 hours after journal entry
(Link)
That was ever so difficult!

I think for generic persons I would usually use "they" if they're sufficiently abstract, but if they start having defining characteristics that make them more person-like I'd prefer to use "he" or "she", and usually "he". For your example, I'd have probably picked "his", but if the doctor hadn't been a good one, just a plain doctor, I might have been content with "their".

As for the person of unconventional gender, it must depend very much on the context. For a transvestite or transsexual, "he" "she" and "he or she" can be appropriate in various contexts. However, for an alien of a species with seven genders, or one of those thought-experiment children who are never told their gender I'd have thought "they" or "it" would be better.
(Reply to this comment) (Thread)
livredor: letters
From:livredor
Date:April 3rd, 2006 10:43 am (UTC)
16 hours after journal entry, 10:43 am (livredor's time)
(Link)
That's really interesting, that you don't like to use they for a person with any defining characteristics. I can see how they would have those associations of being very abstract and hypothetical.

Aliens and thought-experiment children can be it, I suppose, but I have similar objections to yours with they. If the alien or child is being discussed to any extent so that I start to relate, that empathy makes it feel increasingly awkward to continue using it, which very strongly implies non-person to me.

With people outside the gender binary I really need to ask, but would default to zie in the absence of other information. But with people whose gender doesn't stay constant over time, but who are still either male or female at a given moment, I'm a bit stuck. For a transsexual I would normally use the pronouns appropriate for their current gender, and in most contexts that would be pretty easy and obvious, just like I would always refer to you as she and not even stop to think about it. But if I'm talking about the person's past, the time when they might have been the other gender, I can get confused. But I don't think that gender-neutral pronouns are a good solution to that particular, rather specialist issue.
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cartesiandaemon: default
From:cartesiandaemon
Date:April 2nd, 2006 10:45 pm (UTC)
4 hours after journal entry
(Link)
I don't care especially more about pronouns applied to me than in general.

I have not found any solution that feels good to me. I have for a while accepted "they" for an arbitrary member of a group. I would like it if we managed to reform the languange to have some, any good solution, preferably one that sounds nice, but any. Currently I've been persuaded by the "them" camp that: the meaning is immediately clear to the most people, and I can bear to hear it, so I'm forced to accept this as a default for now.

I have previously suggested *other* demarcation. For instance by first mention, so with a sentence about two people, regarless of gender, one is 'he' and one is 'she' (with some other spelling, obviously). I'm assured this has been done in constructed languages.

I never have to write much text where single hypothetical people are at isse, so I have not any firm habits on what I acually end up doing.
(Reply to this comment) (Thread)
livredor: likeness
From:livredor
Date:April 3rd, 2006 11:00 am (UTC)
16 hours after journal entry, 11:00 am (livredor's time)
(Link)
I don't think I'm particularly emotionally invested in what pronouns people apply to me either. I don't identify strongly with my female gender, but I clearly am female, so someone referring to me as he would surprise me a bit. I might correct them, because I would likely conclude that they were under some misconceptions about who I am, but if they continued after that, so I knew it was a deliberate choice, I wouldn't be offended. I don't think anyone ever has referred to me as zie or they, that I'm aware of. But it wouldn't bother me if someone did.

Yeah, a way of marking two (or more) different unspecified individuals would be very helpful. But it's sort of an additional problem to needing a way to refer to people without defining them as male or female when this would be inappropriate.
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leora: ouroboros
From:leora
Date:April 2nd, 2006 10:58 pm (UTC)
4 hours after journal entry, 02:58 pm (leora's time)
(Link)
I expect people who know me to either use she/her or to use non-gendered pronouns. But for people who don't know me, I am equally content with she as he and her as his, unless I want to make the point that it was a female who was assisting them or whatever. I'm usually just fine not correcting people who get my gender "wrong". Since I don't self-identify with my gender. I in no way feel male, and male feels all wrong, but I don't feel female either. So, I don't much care. I'm glad I'm female, because I want to be able to have babies, and that's very tied up with female biology. But since I haven't done that yet and won't for a while, it doesn't much matter yet that I'm female. Except in that my lothario is straight.

For a generic person it would depend on the context I was in. For formal writing, I would, whenever possible, change the sentence to make it plural. Doctors should always listen to their patients. When I can't do that, I do what seems likely to be best accepted by my audience.

For a specific individual, I'd use whatever the person prefered, if I knew it, or my best guess (possibly alternating through things) if I did not.
(Reply to this comment) (Thread)
livredor: body
From:livredor
Date:April 3rd, 2006 11:34 am (UTC)
16 hours after journal entry, 11:34 am (livredor's time)
(Link)
Interesting point about correcting people. I don't feel particularly female either, but I would definitely notice if someone referred to me as male or with male pronouns. I wouldn't be offended, but it would seem weird. I think I must project as more female than I really feel, because most of the people I've been involved with romantically have a strong if not exclusive preference for women.

Yay for a comment from someone with professional knowledge of formal writing issues. Rephrasing is definitely a good idea, and considering one's audience rather than the question in the abstract is also extremely sensible.
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(no subject) - leora (4/4/06 12:06 am)
blue_mai: default
From:blue_mai
Date:April 2nd, 2006 11:26 pm (UTC)
4 hours after journal entry, 11:26 pm (blue_mai's time)
(Link)
question 1 i said "It depends" i didnt mean that, sorry, i meant "i dont mind / not bothered".
i used to use "they" a lot more when talking about non-specific people, but i've come to dislike, especially in speech, saying "they're" "there" "their" over and over again... and i cant be doing with thinking about rearranging sentences in my head before i say them (livredor were you present for that spoken piece required for English GCSE? ugh. non-gendered overkill on my part)
question 2 i said "he" but really i should've said "they".. in that context i would've, but right now i'm writing a lot of essays that refer to the Contractor, the Employer, the Client etc. and i always use "he". partly because in the documentation to which those titles refer, it is stated that "a gender includes any other gender" and the pronoun used is always "he". i dont have a problem with a generic body, that includes individuals as well as groups and corporations, being referred to as "he". when referring to a generic person, like "a good doctor" i would tend to say "they" (but if it was "the Doctor" i would be much more likely to say "should always listen to his patients"). this may be a phase...
question 3 in that particular context i would say "they" because it seems to me that "they" follows on from "that person", and because in my head i translated "isn't either male or female" into "neither male nor female" which seems to preclude using either "he" or "she" to describe that person in the same sentence. i realise this is a bit of a misinterpretation. in general, if i was saying something else about "that person on TV last night" i would probably try and remember how they referred to themselves and use that, if i couldn't remember i'd say "they" if they referred to themselves with a made-up pronoun i'd have to use "they" as well...
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livredor: teapot
From:livredor
Date:April 3rd, 2006 11:43 am (UTC)
17 hours after journal entry, 11:43 am (livredor's time)
(Link)
i cant be doing with thinking about rearranging sentences in my head before i say them
That's interesting. I rearrange sentences automatically anyway, regardless of whether pronouns are involved. It's just the way I use language. (It sometimes means I come across as more formal than I really intend, because I've usually thought through my sentence before I say it, something that is often associated with the more formal registers.)

I don't remember your giving a speech for GCSE English; my dim memory says we were in different English groups as they just took the first 8 people in the alphabet to form a fourth class. But I might well not have noticed if you did something funny with non-gendered pronouns, as I was not at all attuned to that sort of thing at that age.

And good point about being influenced by your professional context. I think that's similar to karen2205, who actually is a lawyer, whereas you're working with a lot of legal writing at the moment.

The thing with how they referred to themselves is that people don't generally refer to themselves in the third person. So you have to ask directly, which might be a bit embarrassing (and obviously isn't always possible).
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(no subject) - blue_mai (4/3/06 12:23 pm)



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