Tuesday, November 01, 2016

'They' Is Officially Singular; Midnight Diner; Airbnb's Anti-Discrimination Agreement

Here are three in one - just brief mentions of things that caught my eye.

1.  "They" is word of the year  -
Singular "they," the gender-neutral pronoun, has been named the Word of the Year by a crowd of over 200 linguists at the American Dialect Society's annual meeting in Washington, D.C. on Friday evening.
 "Friday evening" was last January.  This isn't new news, but I only just found it.  It's been a slow evolution for me, but it does make sense.  Now using 'they' as a singular pronoun (to avoid gender issues) is grammatically acceptable.

2.  Midnight Diner:  Tokyo Stories - Netflix television.  Season 1 Episode 1 is charming.   I don't want to say more.  If you want a light but wonderful visit to a Tokyo noodle shop, this is it.  If the link doesn't work, just google it or search for it in Netflix.

3.  Airbnb sent out an email telling members that they will have to sign a non-discrimination agreement if they want to continue to use AirBnB as client or a host.  Here's a link to the new policy.  Below is from the email.

The Airbnb Community Commitment


  1. Maybe the singular "they" is acceptable to 200 linguists at a convention (was this before or after cocktail hour?) but it isn't acceptable to a lot of professional word people. Including me.

    Why resort to this careless usage when it's so easy to do it right by other methods? Fine, use this in speech but in writing, when you want to make a good impression, there are many ways to recast the sentence without this grammatical glitch. (Of course I suppose lots of people don't particularly care whether they make a good impression in writing, so just glob on, wtf.)

    PS I understand from a bit of googling around that the linguists actually had in mind NOT "ask the customer what they want" -- as a write-around when you don't know what gender your words are going to apply to -- but "Pat shrugged their shoulders" -- as a write-around when you don't know what gender the person in question likes to be known by. That sounds like an entirely different ball game to me. Don't like that ball game either.

  2. Kathy, I understand your discomfort with this. Steven Pinker freed me of mine some years ago. I don't remember which book it was. But here,from a different source, is the gist of what turned me.

    "The resurgence of singular they in the twentieth century was driven by a different sort of social force: an acknowledgement that the so-called gender-neutral he is not really gender-neutral. Research has shown that gender-neutral uses of he and man cause readers to think primarily of males, even when context makes it clear that the person could be of either gender. (Here’s just one example.) They send the message that men are the default and women are other. Embracing gender-neutral language, whether it’s he or she or they or some other solution, is about correcting that imbalance by acknowledging that women are people too.

    And in case you still think that singular they is just some sort of newfangled politically correct usage, you should know that it has been in use since the 1300s and has been used by literary greats from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Orwell.2 For centuries, nobody batted an eye at singular they, until grammarians started to proscribe it in favor of generic he in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Embracing singular they doesn’t break English grammar; it merely embraces something that’s been part of English grammar for seven centuries."

  3. Dear Kathy and Steve

    Problem, in short, is in borrowing Kathy's helpful phrase above for illustration (and what really hits my poor ear badly):

    "ask the customer what they want" (per Kathy)

    "ask the customers what they want" (extant plural)

    "ask the customer what they wants" (new singular)

    So if we must agree this shift, can we all agree to still use grammar so we know if we're talking with the to-be-trialed, indefinite singular/plural or just going about using an old-fashioned plural?

    Finally, this new discussion is about 'gender-bias' pertaining to gender-expression and NOT about sex-bias in the language raised with feminist criticism (Prof. Pinker's apology comes to mind here).

    We are dealing with a distinct retooling of the language quite apart from sex discrimination. It is a further advance in linguistics meant to cross both sexes AND include non-binary (non-identified gender) individuals in writing and speech.

    By way of example, I can say:

    1. The doctor said he was going out the door.
    2. The doctor said she was going out the door.
    3. The doctor said they was going out the door.

    Feminist criticism accepts male/female gender being used in 1 and 2. Gender theorists do not as 1 and 2 require this doctor as either/or re (their) gender pronoun.

    THIS is the NEW criticism. It is also a very new sensitivity we are called to own and respond to. I can see why the majority who DO see themselves as cisgender (that is, male or female as birth-given) are wondering why they should bother at all with this change in language. Just why bother for so few? It's not like 50% of the species, is it?

    So I guess it's up to us, isn't it? And this is where I, the singular non-binary, non-sexist pronoun steps up. It's been around quite a long time, too. I think Shakespeare used it, too.

    We can do better than they singular. At least, I think we can.

  4. One other note to add!

    I want.

    He / She wants.
    (singular current form) Customer wants.
    (singular new form) They wants.

    We want. They want. (many) Customers want.

    English isn't consistent now, is it? Why not have all verbs remain constant re their/its subject number?

    Well, maybe because we want to know if there ia/are more than one subject? One way or another language strives to make our reference to number clear.

    I still think 'ze' is a good way forward (new indefinite singular pronoun). It recognizes that English, in this case, doesn't have to break with its grammar and lets us know the person referenced is making no claim to a specific gender identity. We can still say 'he' when a person is he and 'she' when a she. Or 'ze' when not. I would think it entirely possible ze would become a new normal in time replacing he and she just as we have done well enough by using the indefinite 'I'.

    Steve, what about Chinese or Thai in all this?

  5. I was just noting this . . . It looks like it deserves a post of its own.


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