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Toward ungendered language

August 7th, 2012
ling, gender, they, degendering

Gender is not important enough for us to be constantly emphasizing it in language. If you disagree, you may find Hofstadter's Person Paper on Purity in Language convincing. How can we get gender out of our language?

Over the last generation we have made some progress in this direction. The title 'Ms.' is now widely accepted, though it has not supplanted 'Mrs./Miss'. 'Firefighter' has almost caught up to 'fireman'. People my age will commonly use singular 'they' in situations that people my parents age find a little peculiar and 'themself' is on the rise (though 'singular they' is not new). Is there anything I can easily do to move us further?

Pronouns are what seem the weirdest to me about gendered language. Why specify he/she with every reference? While there have been many attempts to create new gender neutral pronouns, they haven't really spread. I think the strongest horse in this race is singular they, and I see several gradations in its usage, which I've organized from most to least acceptable to my ear:

unspecific ungendered:

specific unknown-gender ungendered:

unspecific implied-gendered:

specific unknown-gender ungendered:

specific known-gender ungendered:

unspecific gendered:

specific gendered:

I suspect most readers will be pretty much fine with the first one and completely reject the last one. For me I'm mostly fine up until the "unspecific gendered" referent, though the previous category can be a little iffy. But that there is a gradation suggests a strategy for increasing the range of acceptable usage for singular they: try to move a little further along the gradation than you feel totally comfortable, and perhaps it will start sounding more reasonable to you and the people around you. Eventually we end up with an ungendered pronoun we can use in all circumstances.

(I do worry about spending my budget for weirdness on the wrong things, like using unusual pronouns or spending a lot of time barefoot. I also worry about the mental overhead of language changes. So I'm going to try not to overdo this.)

Update 2012-08-07: added the "specific unknown-gender ungendered" category.

Update 2014-08-06: I just talked to an intern at work who doesn't hear anything wrong with "Mike needs to check their code in" where "their" refers back to "Mike". This coworker's model of "they" is "it's sometimes singular and sometimes plural, depending on context." This is good.

Update 2014-11-17: #3 and #4 of "unspecific gendered" now sound completely fine with me.

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