Last night I read Tom Flynn’s post on the use of the pronoun “their/they/them” as a non-gendered singular pronoun. He picked a nit, to use his parlance, with the use of a pronoun he considers inherently plural for individuals. (EDIT: He was responding to an excellent post by Greta Christina in The Humanist, which for some reason he couldn’t be bothered to link. Go read it.)
Well, Flynn, this nit’s for you. For starters, “their/they/them” has been used to refer to singular, plural, and an ambiguous number of individuals since the Middle Ages. Beyond that, we all know that no language rules are static––has “nitpick” always meant what it means in his first paragraph? As a former copyeditor, I understand the importance of internal consistency, but that’s not what Flynn is talking about (and, indeed, if he was so inclined, he could change CFI’s conventions with regard to pronouns with a single email). Flynn is talking about who gets to decide what language is used to describe an identity, and especially after a goblet of peach blonde ale from Epic Brewing Company, I simply had no patience for that.
I thus analyzed Flynn’s post critically with help from Nicki Minaj and beer.
“If you’re confused about terms like “transgender” and “cisgender,” or feel uncomfortable speaking or writing to — or about — transgender people…”
Translation: I feel uncomfortable speaking or writing to transgender people.
“I’m down with all of that except the last bit.”
Translation: Allow me to assist you with the use of my language that I invented.
“I say that with empathy — I have friends who have adopted the plural pronoun…”
Translation: I don’t consider my friends capable of using language or claiming identities of their own, but they’re pretty cool.
Translation: I used Twitter for approximately four days in 2011.
“If you were formerly cisgender and later identified as transgender, that doesn’t mean the old you died and a new you took your place… From any progressive point of view, that’s an absurd way to look at things.”
Translation: That friend I had whose pronoun I refuse to use was supposed to help me out with this section.
“As languages go, English has long been proficient at distinguishing between the mention of individuals and the mention of groups.”
Translation: I have never used the terms “sheep,” “troops,” “water,” “advice,” “fruit,” or “you.”
“My options as a writer who wishes to describe this situation clearly have been reduced because the power of my basic linguistic tools has been blunted.”
Translation: Limitations on my options as a writer who hasn’t the energy for more than a single sentence-worth of imagery are more concerning than limitations on the ability to convey one’s gender identity.
“Still, at FI we generally insist on achieving gender neutrality on every occasion, even if that means repeating “he and she” at the expense of rhythmic expression. Or, again, we’ll recast the sentence to make the problem go away.”
Translation: There’s no way to recast CFI to make me go away.
“As a general rule, if we can be inclusive without courting inaccuracy, I think that’s the way we should prefer.”
Translation: Let’s get one thing clear: I will decide how to label you accurately. You sit tight.
“…namely the unambiguous handling of number.”
Translation: WILL SOMEONE PLEASE THINK OF THE NUMBERS
“Let it be noted that I have not discussed FREE INQUIRY’s embrace (also drawn from Chicago) of the so-called Oxford comma. Sometime when I want to write a really contentious blog post, I may tackle that.”
Translation: Enough about trans* people’s rights. Let’s get back to a subject I really care about: prescriptive grammar.
Special thanks to Courtney Caldwell for her gif location expertise.