Posts Tagged ‘pronouns’

Pronouns again: Neutral vs. Indefinite

April 23, 2011 3 comments

So, I’m seeing a lot of people around the blagosphere using “ze” as a neutral, indeterminate pronoun for when the gender of some distant or hypothetical person is unknown, unspecified, or unimportant. Can’t say I’m a huge fan. Let me explain what I mean:

“Ze” (declension ze-zem-zeir-zemself) is my preferred pronoun. For those I am actually out to, this is the pronoun I ask them to use with me. This is my “he” or “she” equivalent, one that refers to me as a person. The difference between this and the usage described above is exactly the title of this entry, a difference between gender-neutral and indefinite pronouns.

A gender-neutral pronoun is just what it says, any pronoun that does not specifically refer to the gender of the referent. More specifically, in my case, they can be pronouns that specify that the referent does not identify within the gender identities assumed for “he” and “she”. On the other hand, and indefinite pronoun is one that does not refer to anyone in particular. A good example in English is “one”, when we use “one” as a pronoun we mean anyone, but no one in particular. “You” is used in similar circumstances. Indefinite pronouns are also used when there is a specific person involved (although the person might be hypothetical), but whomever you’re talking to or the situation does not require any specific information about this person; “The doctor called” “what did they say?” In this handy example, the second speaker may not know the doctor in question and there really is no important information to be communicated about this person except that they are a doctor.

But where I see “ze” being used is with hypothetical people. Talking about an unspecified person from a certain group or performing a certain activity, an example from one of the articles I was reading this evening that sparked this post: “…you’ve got someone who won’t safeword when ze probably should.” The author here isn’t referring to a gender-neutral or non-binary identified person engaged in kink activities, this is just some hypothetical, unspecified individual being brought up for illustration purposes. This is where an indefinite pronoun would work great, a nice singular “they” or something, but instead a gender-neutral one is utilized.

I understand where this comes from, people are trying to avoid the generic “he” that assumes that any unspecified person is automatically male. But using “ze” actually produces the opposite effect for me that generic “he” does with men: when I see my preferred pronoun being used in a sense of “hypothetical, unspecified person”, the fact that it is so rare to see this pronoun used produces a sensation that “ze” is a nonperson pronoun like “one” because this is the only place I see it outside my own little self-created world of usage (I honestly only know of a small handful of people who use my pronoun actively, even among the people I informed about it). I view “ze” as being on par with “he” and “she”, and I dislike that it gets used in situations where people are actively avoiding using the gendered terms, I actually see “ze” as being just as gendered as the binary words.

I’ve mentioned singular “they” up above, and I know some people get squicky about using it and prefer to use singular ungendered terms, but singular “they” is an actual indefinite pronoun used for just the purpose that “ze” is being used for. It’s been in use for centuries, and it was made for this purpose, use it. It’s OK, I’m a linguist, I know what I’m doing here. If a grammarian gets on your case about “they” being plural, just tell them a linguist told you it was OK. It really is the proper word to be using here, instead of appropriating my identity into a generic. Please?


Don’t “sir” me.

December 18, 2010 1 comment

I hate it when people are polite. “Here you go sir, thank you sir, excuse me sir”. You’re just handing me the tea I ordered, that doesn’t mean you get to assume stuff about me based on my appearance. But it’s expected. We’re supposed to be polite to strangers, and there’s just no way, apparently, to be polite in a gender-neutral way.

Except that there is. I manage it. Other people’s gender makes little enough sense to me that I just don’t affix “sir” or “ma’am” to the ends of my polite sentences. It’s not that hard.

It bothers me because it reminds me of how much people project onto me that’s not mine. I can’t leave my house without assumptions being made. I am invisible, you can’t see me under all the assumptions you’re making. I’m not saying that every stranger I pass in the hallway and barista who hands me a tea is going to ask me questions about who I am, that would be it’s own kind of hell. But none of these people are in the least bit shy about the answers they think they already have. It’s built into their way of interacting socially. And it’s smothering me.

I want to be incensed over suicide rates, blatant harassment and prejudice, and the apathy of self-proclaimed “allies”. But what really gets me down, what wears at me and slowly makes life unbearable, is the little things. It can’t be stopped. The best I can hope for is generating confusion rather that certainty. I know some people delight in getting opposite responses from people, different individuals making different assumptions based on the same stimuli. There’s nothing wrong with that, I’ve done it. But it takes so much work. I shouldn’t have to try so hard. I shouldn’t have to try at all just to feel comfortable walking down the street. And then there’s the worry that if I’m too ambiguous, too confusing, people will react. I’ve attracted stares, those aren’t fun, and I have no wish to endure the intimate questions and harassment from a stranger that others have described and I have thankfully so far avoided. And I shouldn’t have to be afraid of that either. I should be able to just go to the store and not have to think about how the other store patrons might view me, and whether I’m OK to interact with a clerk who may be polite to me and how to handle that.

I’m going to be doing a lot of traveling over the next couple weeks. ‘Tis the season after all. Train stations, airports, strange cities and partially-estranged family. I’m not looking forward to it. Travel can be stressful at the best of times, and it is never the best of times for me when I travel. I fully expect to get “sir”ed by every single ticket agent, ticket taker, TSA agent, flight attended, whatever-you-name-it. And I will not enjoy it. And I will have to take it, because asking every single person I come across in this situation not to do so would be exhausting beyond my ability to take it: people whom I will likely never see again, who’s day and practices will not be affected in the slightest by my passing, and who may challenge my request no matter how polite I am.

I’m not sure how coherent this post is. I’m tired.

Hello, I’m here to talk to you about pronouns

May 10, 2010 3 comments

So, this is my breakout post. But I find introduction posts to be rather boring, I’m going to figure out the pages thing so I can make an “about” page here if you want to know basic information about me. Instead this will be an easy issue post. Let’s talk about pronouns.

As a person of trans experience and a language buff, this debate is very near and dear to my heart. Pronouns are a big deal within the trans community, particularly in the non-binary portion where the stress is not on getting people to call you by the correct pronoun but on finding one that doesn’t make you want to vomit. The bulk of this post will be putting my two bits in on the unfolding debate within the community (and occasionally involving those outside the community) and a summary of the debate as I’ve experienced it for those who are new to the concept.

First, however, we need an explanation of why. Aside from just being groovy, referring to people respectfully in the way they wish to be referred, and not telling other people who they are, of course (though those should be sufficient reasons, right?). In personal experience, being referred to by the wrong pronouns is confusing. It always takes me a moment to realize I’m being spoken to when someone calls me “he” (or less frequently “she”) or some other gendered word such as “sir”. You’ll get a lot better mileage out of conversations with and about me if you just call me what I ask you to. However, if I’m already having a bad day (stress, anxiety, and depression turn a lot of little annoyances into serious triggers for me), or you specifically and obviously chose a word you know I don’t identify with, it can become a serious problem that causes me great anxiety or exacerbates whatever is already wrong. The triggering effect of incorrect pronouns varies from person to person, and ranges from ambivalence to serious trigger every time.

The choices:

He or she: These are the standard English third person pronouns used to refer to people. If you are not familiar with them, well, you probably can’t read any of the rest of this so it doesn’t matter. The main issue with these is that, while covering cis people and much of the binary identifying trans people, they aren’t sufficient to cover all gender identities (such as my own). Some non-binary trans people feel comfortable with one or both of these pronouns, but many of us have other preferences.

It: OK, so this appears to be our other choice. In the recent story Norrie May-Welby, some groups believed that it was the only other option and referred to zem as such (an explanation of the pronoun I just used will come later in the post). This is not a perfect solution however. Think of how offended parents get when their babies get referred to as “it”, or some people with their pets. It is a gender neutral pronoun, but it is also usually an inanimate pronoun referring to things not people. There are those who prefer this pronoun, but many others will become very offended if you use it, so it should not be your default pronoun.

They: This is the most contested choice. The issue seems to be born out of high school English classes that cater to prescriptivist grammar that proclaim that they is always plural and to use it otherwise is incorrect and confusing (these are the same people that say multiple negatives and ending sentences with prepositions is incorrect and confusing, but I don’t have no problem with none of it and I don’t really know who they’re talking to). People use singular they all over the place. Say you’re going to the doctor’s office, but you don’t actually know which doctor you will be seeing, and thus whether the doctor is male or female (or not, though in a professional setting people tend to pick one or the other) and you don’t want to say “the doctor” over and over while talking about it. Now, some people default to “he”, but assuming your medical professionals will be male is huge patriarchal ass-shit so don’t, others will use “they”. Pay attention, you’ve used it, trust me. Plus, “you” is both singular and plural, and no one has any problem with it (it’s also handy; I can say “you” in this post and be referring to just the one reader or all readers at once. Actually, it’s probably a little sad that I get excited about that…). So, unless you’re one of those people who wants to bring back “thee”, you’re not allowed to use the “no singular they” argument with me. Don’t make me start quoting Chaucer (I hate appeals to authority, but it’s sometimes the only way to show people that “they” has been used in this manner for centuries). The problem here is that “they” is generic. That doctor in the example is being referred to as “they” because we don’t know them or who they are. When you finally meet them, you will begin speaking about the experience referring to them as he or she. Again, some people prefer this one, others get irked by it. So that leaves…

…Neologisms. Making up words is a big part of the non-binary experience (at least, as far as I’ve seen). Genderqueer, androgyne, bigender, trigender, polygender, neutrois, all words with lovely red underlines in my word document. So it makes sense that our pronouns are made up as well. Wikipedia has a nice selection, and I’m sure others come into being all the time. Zem, the pronoun I used above to refer to Norrie, is an example (the declension being z[i]e/zem/zeir), and, incidentally, the pronoun I prefer (also zeir preference, note the crapfail in the article by drawing attention to the use of the unusual pronoun).

The general rule should be, just ask. Honestly, if you don’t know a person well enough to have determined their preference and they haven’t brought it up, ask. Some people may get offended, but it’s better in the long run if you know and don’t assume.