The Democracy of Language

PronounsAs someone who works with words for a living, I always feel a little bit traitorous when I talk about the fluidity of language. My undergraduate studies in linguistics left me with a dialectic view of how language works. The conventional view of language, though, has the same deep currents of judgment and correctness and power that lie simmering in the rest of any culture.

Should I accept those? Should I treat language as brittle and defend narrow meanings and usages from shattering change? Or should I treat language as malleable clay that can and must be sculpted to best convey any idea? My inclinations lie obviously with the latter, but I retain a fondness for the certain bedrock of the former, and an empathy for those drawn to that view. Thus I am always aware that when I advocate use of the singular “they,” for example, I am casting a vote that goes against the grain for some.

The democracy of language is my bridge. By treating language as a democratic exercise, I acknowledge both the importance of the consensus view and the option of disregarding it. If a majority of English speakers believe prepositions should never be used at the end of a sentence, I can acknowledge and respect their view as a convention. At the same time, I can look at the native grammar of English and realize that prepositions are perfectly fine things to end sentences with.

Likewise I can treat pedantry with some respect, and embrace it in the spirit of inquiry rather than the spirit of restriction it so often carries. To be corrected, to hear that consensus view, is no shame—it is just a broadening of knowledge. But by receiving it as one option among many, I can just as easily and comfortably set it aside.

Still, there are some moments when pedantry slips out of the realm of mere language and becomes a channel for cultural currents. In the hands of the righteous, pedantry can acquire the sort of disdainful viciousness only well-chosen words can really achieve.

I do advocate the use of the singular “they.” I think it is a natural, elegant, and gracious choice to give respect both to those who identify outside a gender binary, and, equally importantly, to acknowledge that gender can be incidental. I should not need to know your gender to hear your ideas, to hire you for a job, to convey a delightful anecdote about you to a friend.

And so, when I read from a colleague in higher education sweeping dismissal of the use or relevance of new pronouns, the singular “they” along with, I am annoyed. I would like to receive this pedantry as a suggestion, but I find that difficult in the face of arguments that “they are entitled to their own identity, but not to their own grammar,” (and why not, exactly?) and that faculty don’t know “how to deal with this violation of basic subject-verb agreement” (no doubt the top of the educational priority list). This is followed by some hand-waving arguments about not kowtowing to “safety” and “comfort” as if those ideas have any relationship to the inclusion of a singular and a plural in the same word.

Happily, this author didn’t provide their gender, nor do I need it to discuss their work. Gender does not matter to my opinion, which is that they are engaging in the worst sort of pedantry—that sort of pedantry that is stolid and unyielding and defensive, the sort of pedantry that is the usual province of grumpy old white men and stereotypical English teachers. So I will address such pedants directly, and this author in particular, and I will do it using what, if they had any historical view of language whatsoever, would be the bane of their existence: the pronoun “you.”

For you, Melvin the pedant, who does not know this: a piece of linguistic history. The pronoun “you,” like “they,” was once solely plural. The singular second-person pronouns were “thee” and “thou.” As levels of formality began to drop out of English, so, too, did the distinction between the singular and plural in the second person. You probably don’t realize that you are using a plural pronoun in the singular every time you address one of your students. And thus does the rest of your argument, which rests on the implicit idea that language is fixed, collapse under its own decaying weight.

Please, if you must be a pedant, be an educated pedant. Make arguments out of elegance, out of convention, out of inquiry and desire for precision. Do not make arguments out of the specious idea that your own set of language is the only set, or that it should be.

Because, for the rest of us, I maintain that language is a democratic exercise. And you are being out-voted.

Protecting Religious Liberty

ReligiousLiberty_via_Joel_KramerIn the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to affirm the freedom to marry for all Americans, regardless of gender and sexual orientation, a small but vocal opposition is loudly lamenting the horrific consequences. Their main argument, it now seems, is one of religious liberty. I am sympathetic. It is a good argument, and a just argument, and it is also fundamentally misapplied.

(There are some who still cling to the idea that same-sex marriage is an assault on “traditional” marriage, but they sidestep any question of how to define traditional marriage. Amanda Marcotte brilliantly deconstructs that argument here.)

So what of this argument for religious liberty? I am afraid it is well-founded. Indeed, freedom of religion is a part of our constitution and a critical pillar of our society. Without it we might have a state-sponsored religion and a set of laws imposing one set of beliefs on everyone, regardless of their person choice. So, yes, protecting people’s religious liberty is incredibly relevant here.

But the religious liberty of evangelicals is not the liberty in question.

The people talking about religious liberty right now are prominent senators, presidential candidates, judges, pastors, and Fox pundits. They have never been forced to do anything against their beliefs, but they remain terrified of the possibility. In their view, extending the institution of marriage to same-sex couples might possibly infringe on the religious liberty of evangelical florists, wedding planners, clerks, caterers, and so on—people who might be involved in a gay wedding and deprived, by this ruling, of their religious “right” to refuse to participate. In effect, they want the religious liberty to discriminate against people they do not approve of.

Of course, that isn’t what religious liberty means. If evangelicals wanted to claim religious liberty as an argument for discriminating against women or black people, society would have no trouble piercing the veil of confusing language and identifying the bigotry at its heart. And before you think that would never happen, it has. Paul’s letters have been used, and are sometimes still used, to exclude women from leadership positions in Christian communities. The argument that black skin is the mark of Cain was used to justify persecution of blacks in previous centuries. In both these cases, religious liberty is not diminished when discrimination is outlawed.

In fact, discrimination is the opposite of religious liberty. However one tries to contort around the issue, the bottom line is that religious liberty—and all liberty—is not about the freedom to fully practice your beliefs. It is about the absence of any imposition of belief. Religious liberty means no one religion’s beliefs may be imposed on those who believe differently.

And let me be clear: discrimination is the imposition of belief. Offering a service, whether that is cake decoration, wedding planning, or acting as a public servant, is stepping out of your role as a religious believer and into your role as a part of society. Within that role, denying service to people you disagree with is institutionalizing your religious belief and imposing it on the people around you.

Of course I realize that liberty, and freedom, conflict. But the freedom of one person to believe and practice as they choose cannot and does not trump anyone else’s same freedom. If, for example, sacrificing children is a part of your belief, that does not mean your religious liberty is at issue if the law says you cannot do that. When the liberty of individuals conflicts, we must negotiate an equal path, a path that preserves the most freedom for the most people.

In the case of religion, you are free to believe whatever you choose, but you are never free to impose your beliefs on the rest of society. By living in a society with freedom of religion, you are implicitly agreeing to a social contract that subordinates your personal beliefs to the ideal of religious liberty for all, including those who do not agree with you.

You are free to disagree, and to disapprove, and to believe prejudicial things. That is your right. But it is never your right to discriminate. You don’t get to pick and choose the beliefs to which religious liberty applies, because religious liberty isn’t about beliefs. Religious liberty is about people. And religious liberty means same-sex couples get the freedom to marry, and you get the freedom to disapprove. But you don’t get the freedom to stop them.

A Singular Problem

Global Gender Issues

An abandoned book

The book lay forlorn atop a small table, abandoned beside a potted plant and a faint ring of coffee. The title, “Global Gender Issues in the New Millennium,” was splashed across the cover in bold yellow letters and surrounded by a rainbow of faces from around the world. I glanced around quickly for the owner of this book, but no one was in sight. The clock on the opposite pillar reminded me that classes had begun only five minutes before.

Collecting the book from the table, I headed for the library front desk. As I handed it to the librarian, though, I paused, considering my words.

“Someone left his or her book on the table. He or she will probably be back for it.” Hardly acceptable; I couldn’t determine which, if either, of those genders was appropriate for the individual in question, and it was stilted besides.

“This book was left on the table. The person who left it will no doubt return.” An acceptable use of the passive voice to draw attention to the object of the sentence, but not an efficient way to communicate. It also seemed needlessly formal.

“Someone left their book, and they’ll probably be back for it.” Of course; this is a perfectly acceptable sentence in spoken English, and it is really only in retrospect that I hesitated. In most cases, I wouldn’t give it a second thought—and nor, I wager, would you.

Despite the shrill protestations of those who declaim on the decline of discourse, the use of the singular “they” and its derivations is by no means a new phenomenon. That vaunted authority, the Oxford English Dictionary, records usage of the singular “they” as early as 1375, and that in writing. It also notes that the third-person forms of “they” were likely borrowed as a result of “functional pressure” to “disambiguate” the third-person plural and singular pronouns. In other words, the very existence of the word “they” in English is probably because we needed third-person gender-neutral pronouns, singular and plural both.

OED: a1375   William of Palerne (1867) l. 2179 Hastely hiȝed eche wiȝt..til þei neyȝþed so neiȝh..þere william & his worþi lef were liand i-fere.

Why then do some grammarians rail against this useful and distinguished form of the word? For me to ascribe motivations would be rank speculation, but were I inclined to do so I might suggest of such a grammarian that they are a rule-bound pedant with no understanding of the descriptive nature of definition or grammar in a living language. I might also, if I were inclined to cast aspersions, say that the prescriptive rigidity of such a person does a disservice to the very heart and soul of language.

But rather than spending all my time rebuking such persons, I shall make my argument with the positive cases for the use of the singular “they” in writing—yes, even in formal written English. As I noted above, it is commonly used in informal speech, and likewise on internet message boards, in e-mail, and, I dare say, in blogs. (Some may disagree, naturally. If anyone has a particular disagreement, I would be happy to discuss it with them.)

The simplest benefit of the singular “they” is that it provides a gender-neutral pronoun for those cases where we are discussing a specific person, but their gender is unknown. Have you ever had someone cut you off on the highway and then groused about their driving later? Have you ever tried to speak about the owner of a lost item (as I had to above)? Have you ever tried to talk about a group by discussing its archetypical member? In all these cases, the singular “they” easily sidesteps questions of gender and lets you focus on the matter at hand.

A subtler, but perhaps more important, benefit of the singular “they” is its deft avoidance of exclusion. In cases where scientists, psychologists, teachers, reporters, or politicians must speak about members of a group, the use of the awkward “he or she” may actually introduce bias into the discussion. Defaulting to “he” as a supposedly neutral option is even less productive. In fact, some research shows that while “they” is gender neutral, the generic “he” and even the speciously balanced “he/she” still generate, for the reader, a mainly male image of the supposedly generic person in question. John Gastil, who performed this research, noted drily: “That this bias could reinforce itself in sexist thought and behavior seems eminently plausible.” Bias towards a gender dichotomy is encoded in much of formal academic language, but the singular “they” nullifies the issue with one simple step.

My final argument for the singular “they” is, in essence, an argument from linguistic conservatism. I firmly believe that language should be free to evolve as it needs to, but I also believe in making the most economical linguistic choice available. For that reason I do not think it worthwhile to employ stilted rephrasings of the sentences that come first to mind, nor to sidestep the issue with “he or she,” nor to sit quietly in the background of academia ruffling no feathers and waiting for others to lead the way.

Nor, even, do I think we should invent new words like “xe” or “ze” to cover our meaning, because it is not simply a matter of having an inclusive choice—language is a fundamentally democratic exercise, regardless of what some grammarians may tell you. While “xe” might catch on in limited circles, I think it is too dramatic to be adopted by the public at large—usages become widespread most often when they are intuitive, and “they” already fits that bill quite nicely.

The singular “they” is simple, elegant, intuitive, and has existed for centuries—and if anyone doesn’t believe that, they are welcome to look it up themselves.