Monday, May 22, 2017

The Linguistic Lie Behind Singular "They"

Recently I watched a confrontation between a student and University of Toronto Professor Jordan Peterson, who publicly took a stand against non-binary gender pronouns last year. The student kept stridently insisting Dr. Peterson was morally obligated to use the plural pronoun "they", claiming repeatedly and with absolute confidence that it was historically attested in English and went all the way back to Shakespeare.

Beyond the shocking rudeness with which this claim was asserted, it seemed a rather bizarre assertion to make, and I wondered where it came from. After a bit of digging, I was led, very unfortunately, to what seems to be the source of the claim: the American Dialect Society's Word of the Year for 2015.

Here's the problem. The ADS's statement is shot through with an improper and apparently politically motivated conflation of two historically and grammatically distinct usages of singular "they":

1) an old, often contested but stubbornly enduring usage that was always restricted to a particular context--that I will continue to call "singular they" proper
2) a very new misapplication of the pronoun as an alternative to individuals who refuse to identify with either of the two biological sexes, that I will call "non-binary they"

Note well: I am not asserting that the ADS is unaware of the distinction. Their statements show that they are quite aware of it. What I am asserting, rather, is that the ADS and some of its members are deliberately obfuscating that distinction to advance a political agenda.

The statement the ADS released in 2016 mentions the non-binary aspect of singular "they" multiple times, and indeed that new definition is the entire focus of their decision. Some illustrative statements can be seen in the passages below (emphases mine):

• "They was recognized by the society for its emerging use as a pronoun to refer to a known person, often as a conscious choice by a person rejecting the traditional gender binary of he and she."
• "While editors have increasingly moved to accepting singular they when used in a generic fashion, voters in the Word of the Year proceedings singled out its newer usage as an identifier for someone who may identify as “non-binary” in gender terms."
• “In the past year, new expressions of gender identity have generated a deal of discussion, and singular they has become a particularly significant element of that conversation,” Zimmer said.
In a purely descriptive sense, acknowledging the existence of this new usage is certainly well within the purview and mission of the ADS. The issue is not that non-binary "they" was discussed or even voted Word of the Year, but rather that the organization defended and promoted it with misleading statements. For example:

“While many novel gender-neutral pronouns have been proposed, they has the advantage of already being part of the language.”
Has "they" been part of the English language? Yes. Indisputably. But here's the catch: it has never been part of the language in the way that gender activists imply.

Historically, singular "they" occurred when an unspecified individual from a mixed sex group was being referred to, such as: "Each one of you needs to pick up their stuff". An editor who does not want to use a circumlocution has a couple of choices in such sentences: either use singular "their", or use the (binary!) construction "his or her". Although not every editor acknowledges the grammatical correctness of singular "they", practically speaking these are the two common options. In my own work, I have found that the clunkiness of "his or her" has tended to tip the scales in favor of "they", particularly when multiple pronouns are required.

How did a plural pronoun find itself continually intruding in this position, with a singular subject? I have not consulted any research on this, but I suspect that common speech has tended to support it because of the implicit plurality of the subject as one of a group and also because the plurality of genders of the referents. This is just a hypothesis; I may well be wrong. But whatever its origins and theoretical underpinnings, its usage over the centuries is crystal clear. Singular "they" has only ever appeared in a very limited set of cases, which have themselves been strongly contested by grammarians.

Outside these cases, it is dead wrong. There is absolutely no historical justification for grammatically barbaric sentences such as these, culled from an actual news story: "In Britain, 20-year-old Maria Munir made headlines when they came out as non-binary", and "In the US, an Oregon circuit court went much further, ruling in June that Portland resident Jamie Shupe could change their legal gender to non-binary."

Obviously, gender/sexual identification is the underlying driving issue here, so we need to look at the way English has handled this issue in the past. Cases of uncertain or intermediate sexual identity, of course, are nothing new, and have been known and discussed since antiquity.

The practice has generally been in those cases to simply assign a sexually ambiguous person to the closest of two of the three established genders: masculine or feminine. This assignment could draw from widely different observational parameters, from a mere glance to a medical examination. However, in all cases, the judgment was always made on the same assumed basis. A person's biological sex, as nearly as that could be ascertained, determined their grammatical gender.

To illustrate how forcefully this principle held, we can look at a couple of lectures (here and here) given by Dr. Hay Graham in 1835 at the Westminster School of Medicine on individuals of doubtful sex. Watch the pronouns Dr. Graham uses. Of Maria Pateca: "…she became a man. He afterwards married, but remained beardless." Of Germain Marie: "when she was fifteen years old...she suddenly found herself furnished with the parts of generation of a man...Cardinal Lenoncourt, after the necessary examination…ordered him to assume the habits of his sex." And "Jean Pierre was a woman from the waist upwards, and a man from the waist downwards; and in the centre was a woman on the right side and a man on the left; yet, in point of fact, he was neither one nor the other." Marie Derrier's sex was likewise unable to be agreed upon by medical experts: "Hufeland and Mursinna pronounced this individual a girl; Stark and Marteus, on the contrary, considered it a boy."

The two last cases mentioned—Jean Pierre and Marie Derrier—are precisely where we should expect to see the singular "they" of supposedly longstanding English precedent. But of course, we don't. And it's obvious why we don't. Graham could not have said "*Stark and Marteus, on the contrary, considered them a boy" because that construction would have been flagrantly ungrammatical in natural language. And still is.

If Graham gives us any justification for any non-binary pronoun, that would be "it"—and if that one seems jarringly cold and insulting, remember that we use it more commonly than you might realize at first. We are quite used to asking an expectant mother with absolutely no qualms whatsoever: "Do you know yet if it's a boy or a girl?" A co-worker may be complaining about being cut off in traffic, and you might mischievously inquire about the driver, "Was it a man or a woman?"

I have not reviewed the literature for pronoun use, but I have little reason to suspect that Graham's usage is anomalous. He sometimes presents us with a jarring switch between masculine and feminine pronouns following a medical event or diagnosis, and he sometimes gives us a constant pronoun throughout. But beyond the neuter "it", which for obvious reasons is employed for human beings only in quite limited circumstances, there is no gender outside of "he" and "she" to speak of, even in the most difficult cases of sexual identification. Not "they", not anything else.

As long as the sex of a person was known or was clarified from a previously indistinct or incorrect state, the language has always demanded that the corresponding binary gender—masculine or feminine—be applied. To be sure, in common social circles this application involves a practical, on-the-fly judgment that has worked in the favor of the gender activists: English speakers naturally find it insulting, demeaning, and rude to misgender people and call a man "she" or a woman "he". And since we do not, thank goodness, subject everyone we meet to a thorough anatomical and genetic panel, it has always been easiest to simply extend strangers the benefit of the doubt when visible markers tilted one way or the other. But it is foolish in the extreme to confuse that pragmatic application for a general underlying rule. No one's personal opinion, preference, or mindset has ever had anything to do with the assignment of gender in English. Biological sex dictates grammatical gender. Period. That is simply how English works.

So it's quite deceiving for the ADS to defend the current neologism with a statement so misleading as:

"The use of singular they builds on centuries of usage, appearing in the work of writers such as Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Jane Austen."

Note what that sentence does not say. It does not say that singular they was used for centuries in a non-binary sense. It admits that it merely "builds on" centuries of usage. Again, the ADS knows full well that non-binary "they" is a new coinage, explicitly acknowledged not only in the text of the statement but also by linguist and columnist Ben Zimmer, chair of the ADS's new words committee, in an interview with Business Insider:

"It moves beyond the traditional binary of 'he' and 'she'," Zimmer told Business Insider.

"It feels like an opening up of the language, allowing for a greater possibility of what these pronouns can refer to."

So here's my question. If non-binary "they" is indeed a newly invented term, then what exactly is the purpose of mentioning "centuries of usage" in the first place? Are we explaining its appearance, or trying to justify its appearance? Are we describing language as it exists, or are we actively trying to make it something else?

Of course, language is not permanently fixed, and semantic categories can expand. But linguists have typically been preoccupied with watching words naturally expand to new semantic categories. They have not been typically been encouraging them, artificially, into those categories. And that for a good reason. Attempts to coerce linguistic change do not have a very good track record of achieving what they aim at.

University of Illinois Professor of English and linguistics Dennis Baron has compiled an extremely useful list in his "The Words that Failed: a chronology of early nonbinary pronouns".

What is immediately striking about these pronouns is their lack of consistency. There are over a hundred cited: strange invented combinations from academic and lay proposals, and a few obscure dialect variants. They are a thorough mishmash in terms of derivation, construction, and overall form. Baron is absolutely right to call these "words that failed" and contrast them with the comparatively successful singular "they"—and his thought process, linked on the ADS-L listserv in December of 2015, likely influenced the ultimate ADS decision.

But in another article "The politics of He. Literally", Baron strangely argues as follows:

Today, the literal politics of generic he is settled. As the second-wave feminist slogan puts it, “A woman’s place is in the House, and in the Senate.” And in the White House, as well. And the gender politics of the form is settled as well: all the major grammars, dictionaries, and style guides warn against generic he not because it’s bad grammar (which it is), but because it’s sexist (which it also is). The authorities don’t like the coordinate his or her, either: it’s wordy and awkward. The only options left are singular they or an invented pronoun. None of the 120 pronouns coined so far over the past couple of centuries has managed to catch on. And despite the fact that there are a few purists left who still object to it, it looks like singular they will win by default: it’s a centuries-old option for English speakers and writers, and it shows no sign of going away. Many of the style guides accept singular they; the others will just have to get over it if they want to maintain their credibility."

If you'll permit me to roll my eyes at the cheesy triumphalist progressivism that brackets this paragraph, I can address the essentials of his argument. Baron's logic behind preferring an existing pronoun to an invented one like thon is certainly understandable. It is a sound theoretical instinct, and if I were lobbying for a new pronoun I'd make the same case myself. But here we see the same sloppy conflation that underpins the ADS statement: singular "they" is indeed a centuries old option, but absolutely not for the use he is advocating.

And is it really any easier to force a pronoun into grammatically forbidden territory than to invent a whole new one? Baron characterizes the acceptance of "they" as so inevitable it will destroy the credibility of those who oppose it. Which "they" does he mean here? Singular, non-binary, both? We are left to guess—but while I may heartily agree that the prevailing winds are in favor the former and have set my editorial sails accordingly, I am utterly unable to imagine the latter doing anything but floating ignominiously in the doldrums of the Great Linguistic Garbage Patch. After all, Baron's own research shows that a desired expansion of the word "one"—advocated by quotes he collected from 1868, 1884, and 1888—failed just as badly as "thon" and the rest, despite a history of use much more solid than non-binary "they".

In a slide presentation, Baron gives two disadvantages to singular "they": first that it "drives the sticklers nuts", and second that "People aren’t so comfortable using singular they for specific, named, individuals, especially when the referent is in the same syntactic unit as the pronoun".

Aren't so comfortable??? For goodness' sake, that's admitting the entire point right there! People aren't comfortable with it because they know it isn't natural to the grammar they speak. The activists are blithely minimizing the objections of millions of Anglophones and are trying to impose an invented construction onto a public that does not want it or need it. The sticklers in this controversy are the gender activists, who have invented their own phony grammar for completely non-linguistic reasons and think they should be allowed to cram it down everyone else's throats without so much of a whimper of dissent. To object to their linguistic Jacobinism is not some prissy grammatical fetish—it is defending the good sense of the common folk against the insufferably imperious diktats of the Academy.

So here's the bottom line.

I cannot stand here in 2017, in the middle of the veritable graveyard of failed pronouns that Baron has so helpfully uncovered, and place the mantle of inevitability on a completely unnatural coinage invented by radical gender activists and obsequiously ratified by irresponsible academics and publishers. I am only one editor, but I will happily throw my lot in with Dr. Peterson on this. I will never ever acknowledge non-binary "they" as anything other than atrociously ungrammatical English. Period. But more importantly, the English-speaking world at large will never acknowledge it either. This linguistic hijacking is doomed to eventual failure because it is founded on fallacy, and there's not a stitch any activist can do to change that. Punto, e basta.

In the meantime, since it seems fashionably stylish to make demands on academics, I am calling on the American Dialect Society do three things.

First: retract its grossly misleading conflation of singular "they" and non-binary "they", and specify clearly that the latter has no grammatical precedent in the English language and is an entirely new coinage on par with many other failed prescriptivist proposals of the past.

Second: publicly correct the false claims made by gender activists on the historicity of non-binary "they".

Third: clarify more forcefully to parties outside and inside the society that the ADS only offers its Word of the Year in a descriptive sense, and that it is in no way a prescriptive ratification, approval, endorsement, or advocacy of the words in question.

Realistically, though, I am not expecting any of this to happen. Because we all know the climate of American academia is such that the "Social Justice Warriors" (there's a phrase for 2017) would then show up at the ADS's doors and dish out the same bullying treatment that they gave to Dr. Peterson. And given the plainly telegraphed views of some of those involved, I am not hopeful for any result besides continued capitulation to the hubris of the social engineers and their Babelian fantasies of piercing heaven with a tower of invented pronouns.