He/she finds his/her pronouns a problem

November 3, 2015

kim newman - nightmare movies - horror on screen since the 1960sI’ve been stop-start-reading the revised edition of Kim Newman’s Nightmare Movies, a gift from my brother; it’s an encyclopaedic and thoroughly enjoyable account of Horror on Screen Since the 1960s, as the subtitle has it.

One chapter traces the development of the haunted house genre in film and literature, and upon reaching the landmark release of Rosemary’s Baby it offers an eye-catching usage:

There is no ghost, except the angry shade of Beethoven invoked by the unseen pianist’s stumbling attempts to get through Für Elise, but the Bramford [Rosemary’s apartment building] does have a Past. Ira Levin refined the parallel plot, a device that has been used in most subsequent haunted house films. While the protagonist is being overwhelmed by the supernatural forces clinging to his/her new home, he/she does a little detective work and pieces the place’s evil past together from newspaper morgues, friendly occultist know-alls, and ageing eyewitnesses.

This use of his/her . . . he/she I found a bit halting and self-conscious. It took me out of the text, and not simply because I attend closely to pronoun use. Instead of conveying the author’s intent discreetly, it’s orthographically conspicuous enough to be distracting. Especially because it’s repeated: one instance might sneak by, but two is a pattern that draws unwanted attention.

I’m going to rework the line in question a few times, so I’ll give each version a number. Here’s the original again:

1. While the protagonist is being overwhelmed by the supernatural forces clinging to his/her new home, he/she does a little detective work…

He/she and his/her are more equitable than generic he and his (which I see depressingly often), but they still give men precedence of position. S/he avoids this, but only by fragmenting she and leaving readers with something weird-looking and effectively unpronounceable. Simple reversals (she/he) are occasionally used, or the slash may be replaced by a conjunction: she or he, he or she.

But there’s another problem. All of these options implicitly adopt a gender binary that excludes people who do not identify as either he or she (see my post on Mx). Writing manuals and style guides commonly note that he/she is awkward or clunky, particularly when repeated, but they seldom acknowledge its politics. One of the reasons I support singular they is that it circumvents this restrictive paradigm.

In Newman’s text, however, simply replacing his/her and he/she with singular their and they could mislead readers into thinking that the new home is the (plural) supernatural forces’, not the (singular) protagonist’s:

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Mx: a gender-neutral title; and ludic language

June 12, 2015

I have two new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. The first is about a term you might not be familiar with but whose profile seems certain to grow: Mx – a new gender-neutral title.

Mx, which has been in use since at least 1977, made headlines lately because an OED editor said it might be added to that dictionary soon. (So far, Macmillan appears to be the only major dictionary to have done so.) Increasing use of Mx will lead to more recognition of it, both public and official, but since it’s still quite niche I aimed mainly to cover the basics, link to resources, and make the case for its linguistic, political, and cultural value:

To date, Mx has been accepted by various local councils, universities, banks, law societies, the Royal Mail, and government services such as the NHS and HM Revenue and Customs. Clearly it is gaining momentum.

Mx has been adopted by many people who don’t identify as female or male. (Non-binary people can complete a survey on the topic here.) Such preferences should never be assumed – for example, it’s not obligatory for transgender people, but rather an option they may or may not find suitable. Speaking of preferences, Mx is usually pronounced ‘mix’ or ‘mux’, the latter reflecting a sort of stressed schwa, like the options for Ms. When I asked about it on Twitter, Mx-users confirmed both pronunciations.

Or it may be pronounced as an initialism, ‘em ex’. The post also looks briefly at some of the parallels between Mx and Ms, and at the challenges of consciously engineering language.


Ludic language and the game of grammar surveys a subject close to my heart – or rather a cluster of subjects in the intersection of language and play:

Play is something we associate with children, but there’s nothing intrinsically childish about it, and language offers a large and inviting board on which to do it. This aspect of language helps explain the longstanding tradition of verbal play in informal discourse – what we might call ludic language, from the same root (Latin ludus ‘sport, play’) as ludo and ludicrous. And it’s popular in languages around the world – the latest Ling Space video has some great examples.

Structured language games are another feature. Puns and riddles allow for variation atop a familiar template, while Scrabble, rebuses and tongue twisters are perennially popular. Nor is the playful use of language always trivial…

The post lists additional examples of language play of various structural types. This includes recent online fads like doge and can’t even, which seem deliberately ungrammatical, and I speculate on what motivates the subversive element of this linguistic behaviour.

Older posts can be found in my archive at Macmillan Dictionary.

Gender differences in listening signals

June 9, 2015

Deborah Tannen, in her 1991 book You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation,* describes how easy it is for a speaker to get the wrong idea about a listener’s behaviour if the listener is of the opposite gender.

Referring to ‘A Cultural Approach to Male-Female Miscommunication’ (PDF), a 1982 paper by anthropologists Daniel Maltz and Ruth Borker, Tannen notes that women are more likely to ask questions and give more listening responses: using ‘little words like mhm, uh-uh, and yeah’ throughout someone else’s conversational turn to provide ‘a running feedback loop’.

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Occupying metaphor: the reappropriation of slurs

March 9, 2015

Marina Warner, in her book Managing Monsters: Six Myths of Our Time (essentially her 1994 Reith Lectures in book form), has a note on the practice of reclaiming slurs and insults, often called reappropriation:

Moving in to occupy the metaphorical objects of derision and fear has become a popular strategy. Sometimes this takes the form of ironical co-opting of a jibe, or even an insult – as in the open defiance of the black rock group called Niggers With Attitude, or the ironic names of women’s enterprises, like the famous publishers, Virago. In Zagreb, five writers were recently denounced as dangerous women in the Croatian nationalist press: the targets immediately accepted the label, and their supporters now wear badges proclaiming them ‘Opasna Žena’ – a dangerous woman. This is a form of well proven magic, uttering a curse in order to undo or claim its power, pronouncing a name in order to command its field of meaning.

I like Warner’s description of this act as occupying metaphorical objects, like sleight of semantics: it captures the tangle of abstraction we employ in constructing identity, while also prefiguring the global use of occupy in political uprisings and protests in recent years.

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The unsung value of singular ‘themself’

January 23, 2014

I’ve written before about the reflexive pronoun themself, showing its history in English and potential to fill a semantic gap in the language. Once a normal, unremarkable word, themself became less preferred over time, and its use today is low: Oxford Dictionaries says it’s “not widely accepted in standard English”, while Macmillan Dictionary says “most people consider this use incorrect”. Many dictionaries omit it.

This is a pity, but these are not permanent prescriptions – they’re observations about the usage’s current state of acceptability. And they are subject to change, because language is, because we are.

stan carey conspiracy keanu reeves meme - singular themself as a descriptivist plotThemself is no mere quirky substitute for the more familiar pronoun themselves: it enables us to make subtle anaphoric distinctions. As my earlier post shows, there are situations where the use of themselves in place of themself would be misleading. By avoiding and stigmatising themself we miss a useful linguistic trick.

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Gender-neutral ‘henchpersons’

January 2, 2014

Discussions about gender-neutral language generally centre on usage issues that recur frequently: singular they, generic he and man, generic guys, Ms/Mrs and other forms of address, suffixes such as –ess, –ette and –trix, and common terms like chairman/chair(person), spokesman/woman/person, and fireman/firefighter.

Other items crop up less often: one such is henchman. That it’s relatively rare even in the niche of sexism in language is evidenced by its omission from Casey Miller and Kate Swift’s Handbook of Non-Sexist Writing, which includes a fairly thorough thesaurus (the Hs include handyman, heiress, heroine, horseman/woman, hostess, housewife/husband, huntress, and husbandman).

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Ms., Mrs., and Missing options

August 19, 2013

Ms. was coined as a title for women analogous to Mr. for men, implying nothing about marital status. In this respect it is crucially unlike the traditional forms Mrs. and Miss.

In a recent post, linguistlaura says a friend of hers faced the choice of Mrs. or Ms. – no Miss – in a website’s dropdown menu. This, Laura writes, undermines the point of having Ms., because:

if it’s used in opposition to Mrs., then it implies ‘unmarried’, becoming synonymous with Miss. For it to retain its purpose, it has to be the only option (with Mrs. and Miss not available) or the Mrs./Miss system must be available: both options must be present.

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