Of Gender, Language, and Clarity

September 2, 2014

FREE INQUIRY columnist Greta Christina wrote a great essay for her other column (over at THE HUMANIST) about issues associated with treating transgender people with respect. (No idea whether it’s online, but the column “Trans People and Basic Human Respect” is on pages 38-39 of the new September-October issue.) If you’re confused about terms like “transgender” and “cisgender,” or feel uncomfortable speaking or writing to — or about — transgender people, this article is a superb primer. Nonetheless, there’s one nit I feel compelled to pick. At one point Christina writes that some transgender people “choose to be identified with the gendered pronouns ‘he’ and ‘she,’ while others prefer new gender-neutral pronouns like ‘zie’ and ‘hir’ or use ‘they’ as a singular pronoun.” I’m down with all of that except the last bit. Using “they” as a singular pronoun — not just in regard to transgender persons, but as a tool for achieving gender-neutrality in language generally — strikes me as going one step too far, because it unnecessarily degrades the clarity of our language in regards to number. (I say that with empathy — I have friends who have adopted the plural pronoun — but I think there are other ways to solve this problem that involve less linguistic confusion.)

I invite comment, and Luddite as it might seem, I dare to hope that the comments might take the form of respectful dialogue. Just sayin’.

Here is the problem as I see it. Whether an individual is cisgender, is transgender, or occupies any intermediate point on that spectrum, the person in question remains an individual — that is, unitary. Whatever gender identification you, the reader, might embrace, there’s only one of you. Indeed, I’d expect that most gender activists would take offense at an assumption that, say, persons who change their gender identification become somehow plural. If you were formerly cisgender and later identified as transgender, that doesn’t mean the old you died and a new you took your place. It doesn’t mean that the old cisgender you somehow lives on parallel to the new transgender you. From any progressive point of view, that’s an absurd way to look at things.

The problem is that adopting a plural pronoun to denote a single individual invites just such misinterpretations. It references a single person using terminology that in any other context would clearly be understood as referring to a group. As languages go, English has long been proficient at distinguishing between the mention of individuals and the mention of groups. In fact, I think that’s a capacity that would rank pretty high on most people’s lists of elementary things a powerful language should do clearly and well. But consider a simple example.

How do we write about, say, a situation where, say, a homeowner turns away a group of missionaries at her door?

“She told them to go jump in the lake.”

Okay, maybe not the most sophisticated way for a humanist to refuse a long lecture about Jesus, but the language is clear. The sentence uses only pronouns, yet any reader will know exactly who is doing what to whom.

But suppose the person at the door self-identifies using the plural pronoun. Now the sentence reads, “They told them to go jump in the lake.”

The reader won’t have any idea who is advising nonbaptismal submersion to whom. Maybe the missionaries are telling several people in the house to go dunk themselves! If I wish to write clearly about this encounter now, I am compelled to write something like “The homeowner told the missionaries to go jump in the lake” or “Leslie told them to go jump in the lake.” I have to provide clear labels or name names where, previously, pronouns were good enough, because previously, those pronouns reliably conserved number, and now one of them does not. My options as a writer who wishes to describe this situation clearly have been reduced because the power of my basic linguistic tools has been blunted. Unless there is no other way to write gender-inclusively, this is a solution we ought to reject.

Nor is this problem confined to discussions about transgender people. As editor of FREE INQUIRY, I receive a growing number of submissions, often from credentialed professionals, in which efforts are made to gender-neutralize language by inserting a plural pronoun where it otherwise would not belong. For example, “If everyone would only read their newspaper, they wouldn’t go to the polls knowing so little about the issues.”

It’s an increasingly popular work-around, but it’s also an error.

Everyone is a singular word, and a single person doesn’t read their newspaper or go to the polls as a they. FREE INQUIRY follows the Chicago Manual of Style, which identifies this as a usage error (sections 5.46 and 5.225 in the current edition). At our shop, if you’re going to begin that sentence with a singular pronoun, it’s got to be “his or her newspaper” and “he or she wouldn’t go to the polls.” If you find that clumsy, restructure the beginning of sentence; replace “everyone” with a plural word so you can properly use the plural throughout. [A related editorial problem: some writers try to achieve net gender neutrality by alternating gendered pronouns: “If the consumer would read his manual more closely … she would not seek oil changes more often than manufacturers recommend.” This is widely accepted in certain disciplines, including philosophy. Still, at FI we generally insist on achieving gender neutrality on every occasion, even if that means repeating “he and she” at the expense of rhythmic expression. Or, again, we’ll recast the sentence to make the problem go away.]

In each situation, the problem is that number is important. Handling number clearly and accurately is an elementary task of language. Of course, treating persons respectfully across a spectrum of gender identities is important too. I would contend that if we have the linguistic tools to treat gender respectfully without diluting the clarity of our language regarding number, we should do so. Such tools exist: zie and hir are unfamiliar to many, but have a fair track record in feminist and other reformist literature. (Then again, using they and their in reference to one individual is unfamiliar to many also.) As a general rule, if we can be inclusive without courting inaccuracy, I think that’s the way we should prefer.

If we who want to treat individuals of every gender identification fairly must take on the task of educating society to recognize and accept an unfamiliar pronoun usage, let’s beat the drum for zie and hir, which does not compel us to degrade one of our language’s basic capacities, namely the unambiguous handling of number.

Looking ahead, does that mean that some day — probably sooner rather than later — FREE INQUIRY will be nudging authors to write “him, her, zie, or hir”? Perhaps. To me at least, clunky as that four-footed concatenation may be, it would be preferable to referring to a single individual as “they.”

Let it be noted that I have not discussed FREE INQUIRY’s embrace (also drawn from Chicago) of the so-called Oxford comma. Sometime when I want to write a really contentious blog post, I may tackle that.