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If you haven’t already heard, Texas’s state senate was engaged in a political thriller last night. I was able to catch the last 40 or so minutes of its livestream, riding that delightful roller-coaster of modern politics that trundles from dim optimism that something good will happen to the crushing realization that the deck has been stacked against it so thoroughly that you can only hope to minimize your losses.

Well, thankfully, there was a substantial group of state senators who managed to lack such pessimism and who stood up to do right by their constituents. Literally, in the case of Sen. Wendy Davis, who began a filibuster of an anti-abortion bill 13 hours before the special session was set to end at midnight. By rule, she had to keep talking throughout, stopping only to take questions. She was not allowed to sit, lean against a desk, leave the floor, or eat. None of this “silent” filibuster garbage of the federal senate: no, this is “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”, wreck-your-body-because-you-believe-in-what’s-right dedication.

What I hope becomes an iconic picture of this event.

Sen. Tommy Williams couldn’t have looked more like a political caricature while arguing for a second strike against Davis’s filibuster because another member helped her adjust her back brace. [Photo: Patrick Michels, Texas Observer]

Davis made it ten hours before getting three strikes on her filibuster. Other senators took over, stalling until 11:45, when the Republican majority managed to trigger a vote to trigger a vote on the contemptible SB 5. With this first vote passed and the bill’s passage imminent, Sen. Leticia Van de Putte challenged the first vote on the basis of her having an outstanding inquiry at the time of the vote, a challenge the Senate president overruled by noting that he had not recognized her inquiry.

With calm fury reminiscent of Joe Welch, she asked, “At what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be recognized over the male colleagues in the room?” The gallery erupted in cheers that continued for the last fifteen minutes of the day, a cacophony that prevented the final roll-call vote from happening until after the midnight deadline. It was powerful stuff, and my eyes welled more than once throughout it.

But this is a grammar blog, and I wouldn’t bring this up unless there was a grammatical discussion to be had. Let’s go back to the second of the three strikes against Davis’s filibuster, the objection I’ve included Patrick Michels’s excellent picture of above. Claire Cardona wrote at the Dallas Morning News’s filibuster liveblog:

“Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, raised a point of order on the filibuster because Davis had help from Sen. Ellis to readjust her back brace. […] but Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, brings up a part in the rules that would permit Davis to sit. […] Zaffirini notes that the rules said ‘may not lean on his desk, his chair, and that note doesnt apply to Sen. Davis.'”

The rule in question, which I think is Senate Rule 4.01 [PDF, p. 8-9], reads:

“When a member has been recognized and is speaking on a motion to re-refer a bill, he must stand upright at his desk and may not lean thereon (61 S.J. Reg. 1760, 1762 (1969)).
When a member has the floor and is speaking on a bill or resolution, he must stand upright at his desk and may not lean or sit on his desk or chair (61 S.J. Reg. 1059 (1969)).”

Of course, we all know what is meant there, that the intended interpretation is gender-neutral he. We see such usages regularly, probably think little of it, and move on. To claim that the use of he in this rule means it doesn’t apply to a woman is crazy, surely.

Or is it? During a filibuster, pedantry is everywhere. I learned but one thing from the time I volunteered at a Model Congress convention: intent and common usage mean little as the parliamentarian sifts through Robert’s Rules of Order to decide which of the fourteen simultaneous objections takes precedence over the rest. Grammatical pedantry, so often out of place, is only fair in this situation.

[Rt. Hon. W.L. Mackenzie King and guests unveiling a plaque commemorating the five Alberta women whose efforts resulted in the Persons Case]

The Canadian “Persons Case”, in which women were suing to be granted the right to be appointed to the Senate, depended in part on whether he included women. The legal gender-neutrality of he had in fact been specified in 1889’s Interpretation Act.

I’m no legal expert, and I’m certainly not an expert at what terminological choices are taken as given in the Texas Senate rulebook, so take this discussion with a grain of salt. But Zaffirini’s argument isn’t without merit. I found no declaration at any point in the Senate Rules that he is to be assumed as gender-neutral. In fact, there are eight instances of “his or her” in the rules — one occurring in the first sentence of Rule 4.01, the very rule being debated. If he is understood to be gender-neutral in the third and fourth sentences of Rule 4.01, why is he insufficient in the first?*

I wrote last year about how such uncertainty of the interpretation of gender-neutrality on the male pronoun in governmental settings was not a new concern: even the first U.S. Congress, in 1790, used “he or she” in some of their bills. It’s all hair-splitting, of course, but it’s a hair that may need to be split. When the issue at hand is so entwined with gender, maybe it’s a good time to examine our assumptions, starting with a little pronoun.


*: Possibly because the third and fourth sentences are based on 1969 formulations and the first sentence isn’t. But are Senate rules to be interpreted diachronically or synchronically?

A woman drove past me recently in a car with a license plate holder reading “ALUMNI — BOSTON COLLEGE”. It’s a perfectly standard thing to have on one’s car — although BC was a bit of a surprise given that I’m in San Diego –, but it also presented a minor choice point in my day. I could either think of it as totally unremarkable and move on, or I could fret over its grammaticality.*

It looked like this, except mounted on a car instead of floating in a featureless void.

The problem with the license plate holder is a minor one that you’d easily never know if you’re unfamiliar with Latin. I was unaware of it until college, and even then it was perhaps only because I went to a school so fond of Latin as a scholarly language that our degrees were not BAs but ABs (Artium Baccalaureus instead of Bachelor of Arts) and our diplomas were written entirely in Latin.**

Anyway, the problem is that alumni is, at least in Latin, plural. Furthermore, it’s masculine (or mixed-gender). For a single graduate, the Latinally accurate form would be alumnus for a male or alumna for a female. And for multiple female graduates, the Latinally accurate form would be alumnae.

I imagine many of you readers already knew that, but maybe you didn’t. If I’m being perfectly honest, I wish I didn’t. Why? Because I can’t help noticing it. I suspect that a majority of the English speaking population doesn’t think that alumni has even the hint of inherent plurality about it. I’m looking at the Corpus of Contemporary American English right now, and there are 70 hits for “an alumni”, 61 of them in writing.*** That’s more common than “an alumna” and “an alum”, and only 29 hits less than “an alumnus”. Quite simply, singular alumni is standard in all but the most formal of Englishes, and I’m not sure it’s non-standard even there.

Why is singular alumni standard? Because it fits better with English. We don’t really like gender on our nouns (at least not anymore — Old English was fond of it). And we don’t really care about adjusting the plurality of borrowed words, especially not from Latin — see agenda or stamina. Rather than having to remember a fairly idiosyncratic gender/number system, it’s easier to treat alumni as a base singular form with a zero-plural, just like strong ol’ Germanic words like sheep or fish. And it saves university bookstores from having to stock four different license plate holders.

[EX-CUSE: Syracuse Alumni]

It’s a tangent, but this pun is almost enough to make me wish I had gone to Syracuse.

To return to the point of the opening paragraph, I can’t, much as I’d like to, stop myself from correcting singular alumni. It’s not even like it’s a choice, or a conscious decision — I see singular alumni, and my brain says “alumnus” or “alumna”. That much is automatic.

Where the choice comes in is whether I say something about it or judge people for it. In almost every situation, I don’t. For seemingly everybody, singular alumni is acceptable. For many of the rest, they’re okay when it’s used in a reasonable situation (such as when you don’t know the gender of the person buying the item). It’s only in very formal or very edited English (or around close friends who I think will be interested) that I would raise the issue. In other situations, bringing it up would just seem like an attempt to show off my passing familiarity with Latin, which would be a especially pathetic boast.

This is not linguistic whateverism. I’m not saying that editing is stupid or that nothing should be corrected. Editing, I can’t stress enough, is critical. But my point is that for all of you who insist that, say, it’s for its kills you and you can’t stop yourself from correcting it: yes, you can. We’re not beasts; we have self-control. When it’s something trifling, or in an ephemeral setting, or clearly not indicative of a larger ignorance of the language, you can and should let it pass. You’ll be happier for it, and you might even see a drop in your overall peevishness levels.

*: This is a false dichotomy; there is clearly a third way — to base a blog post upon it, thereby spending far more effort than if I had been content to simply complain about its grammaticality. Given that I’m going to berate that choice as a foolish use of one’s time, I’m aware of the irony in mine.

**: In fact, we are so enamored of traditional uses of Latin that to this day the salutorian of the class delivers their graduation speech entirely in Latin. The graduating seniors are given a copy of the speech in both Latin and English, with the Latinate portion marked for where to laugh, cheer, applaud, etc. I don’t think the rest of the audience is given this cheat sheet, thereby creating the illusion that we all speak Latin fluently enough to understand it in oratorical form.

I know, it sounds stupid and pretentious and ridiculous, and it is. But it was also great silly fun to overlaugh at something incomprehensible, sort of like being a member of a studio audience clapping at “APPLAUSE” signs must be. I highly recommend you petition your alma mater to do the same.

***: Many of these are in noun-noun compounds like “an alumni club” or “an alumni trustee”, where the grammatical number of alumni is unclear. Though my original intuition is that it’s being thought of as plural in these cases, English does tend to disprefer plural first nouns in noun-noun compounds (cf. mousetrap, cowcatcher, leafblower). Also, if one were to replace alumni in these compounds with some standardly pluralized noun like student, it’d be “student club”, not “students club”. Thus, I’m inclined to think of these examples as further, though weaker, evidence of singular usage alumni.

Gender-neutral language really burns some people’s beans. One common argument against gender-neutral language is that it’s something new. See, everyone was fine with generic he up until [insert some turning point usually in the 1960s or 1970s], which means concerns about gender neutrality in language are just manufactured complaints by “arrogant ideologues” or people over-concerned with “sensitivity”, and therefore ought to be ignored.

I have two thoughts on this argument. The first: so what? Society progresses, and over time we tend to realize that certain things we used to think were just fine weren’t. The fact that we didn’t see anything wrong with it before doesn’t mean we were right then and wrong now. Furthermore, women have gained power and prominence in many traditionally male-dominated areas, so even if gender-neutral language had been unnecessary in the past (e.g., when all Congressmen were men), that wouldn’t mean it’s a bad idea now.

But my second thought is this: the very premise is wrong. Concerns about gender-neutral language date back far beyond our lifetimes. Here are a few examples:

Freshmen. In the mid-19th century, the first American women’s colleges appeared. One of the earliest of these, Elmira College, had to figure out what to call the first year students, i.e. freshmen. For its first ten years, Elmira referred to this class as the protomathians, before deciding to return to the established usage. Rutgers, similarly, proposed novian to replace “freshman” when they began accepting female students.

Mankind. You can go pretty far back in English and see examples of mankind being viewed as non-gender-neutral. This led some authors who wanted to avoid any confusion about whether they were including women to use the phrase “mankind and womankind”; here’s Anthony Trollope doing so in 1874, and other people’s attestations from 1858, 1843, 1783, and 1740. This suggests that mankind was viewed as sufficiently likely to be non-generic as to cause at least hesitation if not confusion. In some sense, this is sort of an early generic he or she. Speaking of which…

He or she. He or she really gets people’s goats, and to some extent I can see why; it’s not short and simple like pronouns standardly are, and it can throw off the rhythm of the sentence. (This is why I prefer singular they.) Given that it’s ungainly, you might suspect, as most people do, that this is a new usage that only appeared once it was too politically incorrect to ignore women. But while it only started getting popular in the 70s, it’s been used much longer than that. Here it appears 19 times in two paragraphs in an 1864 book of Mormon Doctrine. Turning from religion to law, here it is in an 1844 Maryland law, and here it is in various British laws from 1815. Here’re examples from Acts passed by the First American Congress in 1790, and so on and so on.

Person as a morpheme. Another common complaint is about supposedly ugly new words like salesperson or chairperson or firefighter.* But such gender-neutralized forms were already being created as needed before the 1970s. Here’s salesperson used 100 times in a book from 1916.** Here’s another example, in the title of an article discussing paying commission to salespeople back in 1919. The OED offers even older examples, with tradesperson in 1886 and work-person in 1807.

Singular they. I know I sound like a broken record on this point, but singular they — using they in place of generic he for singular referents of unknown gender — has been around a long, long time. Henry Churchyard’s site lists off examples spanning from 1400 to the present day, with a special focus on Jane Austen’s 75 singular uses of their.

In conclusion, I’m definitely not saying that gender-neutral language was as prominent in the past as it is today. I’m just saying that when someone says that everyone was fine with non-neutral English up until the 1970s, they’re wrong. Clearly people were concerned about this before then, and adjusted the language to be gender-neutral when it seemed appropriate. This is not something totally new; it is not unprecedented; it is not a dastardly attempt to undermine the English language. It is just an expansion of an existing concern about English usage.


*: I just want to jump in and note that I find firefighter more precise and cooler-sounding than fireman; then again, I may have some unresolved issues with the latter term stemming from the difficulties I had in beating Fire Man when playing Mega Man.

**: The first part of this book is even titled “The Salesperson and Efficient Salesmanship”, showing gradient gender-neutrality decision-making, where gender-neutral forms are used when the gender is prominent or easily removed, and non-neutral forms when the gender is subtler or difficult to remove.

I’m a huge fan of NBC’s show Community, and over the last few months I’ve managed to get my entire family and core friends into it as well. That means going back and watching old episodes over and over again, which I can’t say I mind, especially since the show is forever on the verge of cancellation and there are likely precious few new episodes that I’ll be able watch over and over again. #SixSeasonsAndAMovie

In one episode, the study group that comprises the seven main characters is trapped in their group study room while a puppy parade goes on outside. The problem is that someone has stolen Annie’s pen and she won’t let anyone leave until it is returned. As tempers flare and the desire to see adorable becostumed puppies grows, Jeff attempts to reason with the unknown thief.

But what pronoun can Jeff use? The group is evenly split between men and women, so how will he handle English’s unfortunate lack of a singular ungendered human pronoun? Watch the video below, starting at 0:18, to find out (or just scroll to the transcription I put below it).

JEFF: Someone in this room is hiding your pen. Wanna know why? They feel terrible. They made a mistake. They waited too long to come forward and now they feel bad.
BRITTA: They should.

After all I said above about how awesome this show is, you might think this a kind of boring scene, and surely not a good one to convince you to watch it. But it’s the grammatical point that I’m concerned with, and it’s the mundanity of the dialogue that’s crucial to that. There’s nothing odd about this dialogue, despite all the singular theys in it, and we even see that Britta goes along with Jeff’s singular they in her response. It’d sound terrible with he or she replacing every they, and it’d sound like Jeff knew none of the women did it with he replacing every they.

Yes, singular they has shortcomings. So does he or she or “genderless” he or the various invented ungendered personal pronouns people have created. But singular they is natural in a way that the other options aren’t, and it’s the only reasonable solution in this dialogue.

Of course, I’m probably preaching to the choir here, so I hope you’ll forgive me if I’ve wasted your time.

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.



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