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Disclaimer:

I am in no way part of any under-represented group, quite the contrary, so if anyone feels that I am out of place with this suggestion please let me know.


Of what we can piece together from the mess that unfolded the last few days one of the reasons for this all is an upcoming change to the Code of Conduct (CoC). This change supposedly resolves around using correct pronouns (not necessarily those indicated by the gender you are born with, but those you feel comfortable with as a person).

To be clear: I personally have no problems whatsoever with using any pronoun. However, I sense there are users, within the Network at large, that have (religious) objections to using pronouns that are not those that one is "born with".

One of the arguments many have voiced is that we are a Q&A site, questions and answers, nothing more nothing less. This seems to deny the notion that we, users are human beings, with human needs of confirmation. So for any that seek that: It is okay to be YOU, whoever you are!. Another point is that whilst we are strictly about questions and answers we also have comments. Comments don't always tend to be nice and can make this place less than welcoming. Of course, we have moderat(ing/ors) for troubling comments, but I can read my notification a lot quicker than anyone else can flag that obscene comment, and any moderator can resolve that. Hence the damage is done almost immediately when a comment is written. This also includes misgendering any user when writing a comment.

A second scenario where the use of pronouns can be needed is the interaction between moderators/staff and users. Also in this case misgendering is hurtful, as it always is. Avoiding pronouns in a message altogether is also not desirable, it just makes for an awkward message.

The third scenario is chat. A place where we let go of the reigns a bit more. Resulting in rooms needing to be locked every now and then, and locking doesn't happen because there is a peaceful tea-party going on. I'll just leave it at that.

Now to summarize:

  • Pronouns are a thing we need in communication.
  • We hurt users by misgendering them, something we should definitely strive to avoid.
  • There are users with objections to using pronouns other than those of your sex at birth indicate.

As we want to be an inclusive community we should welcome everyone to participate and be a part of the network. Therefore I wonder if we can't just Live and let Live. To me, that would mean using ONE, and only ONE pronoun, singular they. In this way, we don't single out any group.

Now, these are my two cents. I'd love to hear yours. So to conclude:

Are there any objections to using singular they for everyone?


Conclusion: Yes, there are plenty objections from all sorts of angles. I am pleased by all the feedback written in polite ways.

  • 93
    "Are there any objections to using singular they for everyone?" Largely depends on the context. Am I being forced to use singular 'they' under the threat of being suspended even though that's not a linguistic approach I'm comfortable with? Then, yes, I have objections. Or am I simply being encouraged to adopt singular 'they' because it's gender-neutral (and because we don't yet have an equivalent and popularized word in the English language, having a clear distinction between singular and plural)? Then, no, I don't have any objections as such. – S.D. Oct 3 at 7:31
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    [cont.] What's absolutely crucial to note here is that a vast majority of the population on this site are non-native English speakers. In my part of the world, singular 'they' is considered to be absolutely awkward and foreign. In fact, I had never even heard of that usage before joining Stack Exchange. – S.D. Oct 3 at 7:35
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    @Blue the language on this site is English, so you should use that language. If you want to be a part of the network, you should adapt to fit in. Simply stating that it is awkward is not a real objection, but something you should come to terms with. – Luuklag Oct 3 at 7:37
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    You're missing the point. There are several variations of English. US English or UK English are not the only two. Forcing me to adopt those just in order to use this site is unacceptable to me. In that case, the site has to do without me, as such a policy is basically asking me to violate my own identity and roots. I will simply not come to terms with such a policy, at any cost. – S.D. Oct 3 at 7:38
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    @Luuklag So you would happily see my technically sound comments deleted and me being punished because I would have used 'he' or 'she' in them? And, of course, in the name of openness, tolerance and inclusivity? Sorry, but I came here to help people, whoever they are, with their technical problems, and I really don't feel welcome to participate in the world that your vision and rules try to build. – Thierry Lathuille Oct 3 at 7:54
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    @ThierryLathuille "I really don't feel welcome to participate in the world that your vision and rules try to build."... not to mention, that brings in mental images of all kinds of dystopian societies. ;) – S.D. Oct 3 at 8:09
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    @Luuklag There's a vast difference between misgendering people and refusing to use non-binary pronouns or singular they as there are better alternatives. This is the exact source of confusion that led to Monica being unjustly fired. This debate/argument has been done and dusted several times in the past couple of days and I'm tired of it now. – S.D. Oct 3 at 8:11
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    Rather than add fuel to the dumpster fire based on speculation, why not wait until the new Code of Conduct is published, and then discuss what it actually says and requires? – Raedwald Oct 3 at 8:17
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    @Raedwald Well, one counter-argument is that it might be too late by then. There's still a chance that they'll modify their envisioned CoC after seeing the responses here. – S.D. Oct 3 at 8:19
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    Objections from whom? If there exists even one person who objects, you have your answer. I am sure you can imagine such a person exists. So what is the point of the question? To poll for everyone who objects? – Raedwald Oct 3 at 8:21
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    A lot of user in the review queue can barely talk in english. Please be inclusive and allow them this kind of cultural mistake. I dont care about all of this if I can understand their problem. You want to enfore something? I will trade any cultural identity problem for a better and more strict [MCVE] policy. – aloisdg says Reinstate Monica Oct 3 at 9:11
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    please don't use the phrase "preferred pronouns." Just say "pronouns". This isn't a preference. Is my "preferred name" Kate? Nope, it's my name. If you call me Kathy you're misnaming me, not just ignoring my preference. If you need to distinguish between someone's pronouns and the wrong pronouns, you could use adjectives like "correct" or "actual". – Kate Gregory Oct 3 at 13:06
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    Sorry @tblue, you are entitled to your beliefs about gender identity, but you don't get to impose them on others. If someone wants a gender-neutral designation that's their choice to make. – PM 2Ring Oct 4 at 5:17
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    @KateGregory you're misrepresenting what I said, I'll assume unintentionally. I wasn't saying that I get to choose what to call you, I was saying that insisting people say "pronouns" instead of "preferred pronouns" to legitimize an opinion with which many people disagree is exactly the type of newspeak language manipulation that is causing this problem. – zaen Oct 4 at 17:05
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    @KateGregory I'm not the one asking others to change the way they use language to fit my worldview. – zaen Oct 4 at 17:47

20 Answers 20

136

Given that your motive behind this policy is to find a minimally offensive compromise, it's worth noting that some people, especially trans people with "he" or "she" pronouns, will consider referring to them as "they" to be misgendering them and find it offensive. So your proposed policy fails at (and perhaps actively undermines) its primary objective of minimising offence caused through pronoun use. That, in itself, is probably a good reason to reject this idea.

But for the record, there are some other possible objections, too. Some are situational (in that they're uncontroversial points, but only apply in some scenarios); others are controversial.

  1. Sometimes using "they" is grammatically ambiguous about whether it is standing in for a person or a plural noun. For example, if I say:

    Bob climbed up the tower and put his bags on top. Then he fell off.

    then it is unambiguous that Bob fell. But if I say:

    Bob climbed up the tower and put their bags on top. Then they fell off.

    then it's unclear whether the bags fell, or Bob.

  2. The use of singular they, especially to refer to a particular named person with a known or presumed gender, is briefly confusing to many readers, especially non-native speakers, especially those who come from languages without a gender-neutral singular pronoun.

  3. Some people consider singular "they" to be grammatically incorrect and object to its use on that basis.

  4. Sometimes using gendered pronouns is useful for distinguishing between two characters without having to reuse their names. For example:

    Jack and Jill went up the hill. He gave her an apple. She smiled and thanked him.

    Assuming that you know that "Jack" is a male name and "Jill" is a female name, you implicitly understand, when reading this sentence, that Jack gave the apple to Jill, and not the other way round. This is something you can only do with gendered pronouns. Sometimes writers (including me) will even deliberately assign different genders to two hypothetical people they are writing about, in order to allow them to be distinguished by pronoun. Enforcing singular "they" everywhere eliminates the opportunity to do this.

  5. Using gendered pronouns is normal in English. This isn't in itself an argument against you, personally, choosing to avoid them, but is definitely an argument against banning their use, since:

    • Even if you try to ban them, new users who don't bother to read the CoC (or have poor English and struggle to understand the CoC, or read the CoC but then make their first post a year later after they've forgotten about it, or just plain don't care whether their conduct complies with the CoC) will use gendered pronouns. Suddenly we've got to set loose the mods on a huge proportion of our new users to tell them off for... ordinary use of language that they didn't realise was against any rules.

    • Even users who are aware of the rule may slip up by accident.

    • Even most users who are aware of the rule would be likely to be uncomfortable and on edge in their writing, since they would be writing prose that feels unnatural to them and would know that simply slipping up and writing normal prose can put them in violation of the rules.

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    With respect to 4, there are great many languages that manage without the distinction. One useful trick is to use names. (Some such languages: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… ) – Tommi Oct 3 at 10:21
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    @TommiBrander Certainly. Indeed, one can see that it's trivial to adapt the example I gave to not use pronouns - just replace "he" with "Jack" and "she" with "Jill". It's just very slightly longer and more awkward. But that's the nature of English; for whatever idea you want to express, there is - to borrow the motto of the Perl programming language - more than one way to do it. You could probably remove most of the words from the English language and still express your ideas with it. But the redundant options are useful; they often allow prose that is more nuanced, or has a nicer flow. – Mark Amery Oct 3 at 10:26
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    Example: Jaakko ja Heli nousivat kukkulalle, missä Jaakko antoi Helille omenan. Heli hymyili ja kiitti. – Tommi Oct 3 at 10:30
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    Re point #2, as a native English speaker, I find referring to a known person with singular "they" extremely confusing: "Joe came over last night. They had some beers." Immediately I'm thinking "who was with Joe?". – DaveG Oct 3 at 13:27
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    @DaveG I'd also be confused by that sentence, but for me it's not as broad as finding the singular "they" confusing when referring to a known person; it has to be a known person with a known (or presumed) gender. If the sentence was "user1234 came over last night. They had some beers." then it no longer reads strangely to me. – Mark Amery Oct 3 at 13:30
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    For note 3: nonbinary singular they is officially in the MW dictionary, as of only a few weeks ago: merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/… – Phlarx Oct 3 at 19:01
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    @Phlarx Indeed - but still not in other dictionaries, like Collins. – Mark Amery Oct 3 at 19:19
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    @MarkAmery that is true, however, the important note here (at least for me) is that language and its usage is no more black and white than the issues which it describes. I would be surprised if this specific 'ungrammatical' argument were to last until the next generation. – Phlarx Oct 3 at 19:32
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    6. English is a language where, by fortune or lack thereof, gender is present only in pronouns. Nouns & adjectives are genderless. So using "they" instead of "he/she" may look like a solution to misgendering [though there's still cases like "they are an (actor?/actress?)", but I digress]. HOWEVER, the CoC applies to all sites in the network —some of which, because of their nature, use other languages like French, German, Spanish, Italian, Russian... where everything has a gender. For some of those there're m., f. and n. gender; for some others, only m. and f., n other option. [cont. ...] – walen Oct 4 at 8:13
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    6. [... cont.] A CoC forcing the use of "they" would be outright impossible to enforce in sites where these non-English languages are used: their users cannot use "non-gendered" words along with the pronouns. Such words don't exist in other languages. As simple as that. It also forces Lavender people to choose between male and female pronouns, since there is no actual neutral pronoun they can pick. As good as the intention is with such a policy, for a global network like SE to make misgendering a ban-deserving CoC violation would cause more problems than before. – walen Oct 4 at 8:14
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    Wouldn't it be (under the new CoC): Jack and Jill ran up the hill. They gave them an apple. They smiled and thanked them (they? it?) – CGCampbell Oct 4 at 17:32
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    I would personally consider #3 to be the biggest factor in this situation, as many of the other issues are lessened or nonexistent if singular "they" is used properly (i.e., when gender is unknown or unspecified, and/or in a context that makes it difficult to ascertain subject genders; when gender information is available, usage of singular "they" introduces ambiguity, and is thus (IMO) incorrect). I personally prefer using it as a "gender unspecified" or "gender not available in context" pronoun, and find it makes discussing subjects in the third person significantly easier. – Justin Time 2 Reinstate Monica Oct 4 at 22:08
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    [Note that in the case of false positives, the proper solution is for the mislabeled individual to politely correct the assumption, just as with any other assumption that turns out to be incorrect and isn't related to gender identity. Otherwise, communication will quickly break down, as happened here in Canada when (IIRC) Trudeaun't hamfistedly attempted to enforce a "government officials must determine proper pronoun before using pronouns" policy; in this case, officials were rendered unable to do their jobs expediently, due to the mandate hampering their ability to clearly communicate.] – Justin Time 2 Reinstate Monica Oct 4 at 22:14
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    [For the record, in the Trudeau example, my understanding is that the policy rendered government officials unable to use pronouns in official government conversations, until after the individual they're conversing with specified which pronoun to use... even when the correct pronoun is already known. This seems to be the direction the new CoC is headed, and it is highly likely to slow communications to a crawl, to the point where it may even need to be rescinded.] – Justin Time 2 Reinstate Monica Oct 4 at 22:20
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    @aparente001 The very thing Monica got demodded for was saying that she chooses to avoid the singular "they" for the sake of clarity, for instance by using names. I have no problem with your "Jack gave Jill an apple" example; if Jack and Jill both go by "they", then it's reasonable to use their names to avoid confusion. I agree that's consistent with "being considerate about people's gender preferences". But: it's exactly the thing the staff (and the progressive side of the current argument) say, at least in the abstract, is unacceptable, CoC-violating transphobia that requires punishment. – Mark Amery Oct 7 at 9:30
188

I'm a member of the LGBT community. So perhaps, let me share our side of the story, rather than you folks making guess about our feelings. (Percentage-wise, the majority of you aren't LGBT.)


The truth is, we don't really care. Well, yes, we do, but much, much less than what you folks think. If we do, we'd have made it clear what is our preference. If I'd like to be called "she / her", I'd be wearing dresses & earrings in public. If I'd like to be called "he / him" I'd be wearing sport shirts, a golf cap and jeans, and having a mustache. It is how we behave in public. And it reflects in our online preference as well. If I prefer female pronouns I'd call myself Fiona. If I prefer male pronouns I'd call myself Mike. If I call myself BatteryHorse645, I don't really care.

I feel like this is being blown way out of proportion. To put it in code-jargon, it is like senior software engineers refusing to produce code to the point of threatening to quit, when the argument is whether you should put curly brackets in one-line for-loops.

The use of singular-they is problematic because it is not taught in most schools. In acknowledging we have a diverse community, we must also recognize that Stack Exchange has an international user base. Users come with a wide variety of cultural background. And, English skills.

And...well, people just don't talk naturally that way.

Just communicate in a friendly tone. Simple.

  • 82
    "Just communicate in a friendly tone. Simple." Thanks for speaking up and saying this in clear terms. I certainly agree that this issue gets blown way out of proportion by self-elected representatives of groups that they don't even belong to. – S.D. Oct 3 at 9:45
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    One problem is: You're not representative either. You don't care, but others do, and the do (or pretend to?) care immensely: And as soon as someone who does not open his answer with "I'm a member of [some minority]" even dares to say that ~"this issue might not be of utmost importance", he is nearly inescapably defamed as "transphobic and disrespectful", and the post is downvoted into oblivion. I sincerely don't understand the aggression that can be observed in these cases, but in that regard, the last line of your post is all that has to be said. One could also just say: Be nice – Marco13 Oct 3 at 14:01
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    @Marco13 I can assure you that there are many more ways to insult a LGBT person; we've heard them all. A sentence can have the correct pronoun and still hurt immensely. My point is, the discussion has boiled to a point where the principles are lost. The starting point is be respectful. Now the argument is whether using singular-they should or should not get prosecuted. It is not like a particular pronoun in English language automatically makes it disrespectful, like we run some Regex over the text and give it a matching score. Human to human communication is not like that. – kevin Oct 3 at 14:26
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    Thank you for taking the time to share your perspective. I apploud you standing up for the community you are part of. – Luuklag Oct 3 at 15:09
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    This is the most rational thing that's been said about this issue since the fire started. – FreeMan Oct 3 at 18:33
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    And, of course, one person who's a member of a relevant community saying it doesn't bother them doesn't cancel out people who it does bother. That said, @RobertHarvey, as a trans person there's a big difference between some level of accidental misgendering and systematic, especially harassing, misgendering. Misgendering can be a good way for people to reveal that they don't believe you are the gender you know yourself to be, which can be a very painful experience for someone who is already experiencing that from society at large. – anon Oct 3 at 19:29
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    @anon: Well spoken, but there's too much general bigotry directed at Christians in the world at large to make that particular example a good one. – Robert Harvey Oct 3 at 19:32
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    This is not how I feel about the issue at all. – AGirlHasNoName Oct 3 at 23:00
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    What you are suggesting doesn't work. You mention Fiona and Mike, but what about Guorui, Mihamina, or even Константин? They is just a single word (or 5, including its other cases), but you'll never be able to know everyone's names (or what gender, if any, they are typically associated with). – Laurel Oct 4 at 1:17
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    @Laurel I don't know about the first two, but Константин is clearly a male name :D – John Dvorak Oct 4 at 16:41
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    "when the argument is whether you should put curly brackets in one-line for-loops" loops without brackets is madness! Definitely a reason to quit ;) – Oleg Oct 4 at 21:30
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    @shiny-metal That's correct. It can often be observed that people claim to speak for a certain group - and these people speak loudly. And very often, when talking to an actual (other) member of this group, you get a totally different viewpoint. Further reading: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Individuality – Marco13 Oct 8 at 13:36
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    @shiny-metal Ohkay... I'm not sure what "mindfuck" and "nonsense" should refer to now. There are cases where a group agrees on a viewpoint, and (roughly:) communicates this to "the rest of the world" (one (not perfect) example is: political parties). But there's a problem when "belonging to a group" is not determined by "sharing the same viewpoint", but by one aspect of personality that is totally irrelevant for "viewpoints" - specifically: When someone overestimates the group identity, and claims to speak for all others who (by chance) share one, random attribute with this person. – Marco13 Oct 8 at 13:56
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    BatteryHorse645, you forgot your correct staple :D – Cerbrus Oct 16 at 7:49
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    Funny, I was never consulted on what "our side" is. I must have missed the conference where we all decided what "our side" is. – Richard says Reinstate Monica Nov 10 at 20:23
83

If you want to adopt this policy of your own free will, that's absolutely fine – with me.

However, I fear that this is not how the upcoming Code of Conduct changes will be explained; all evidence so far points to the addressed person having the final judgement about whether language directed at him/her/them is respectful or not. (Which, depending on your viewpoint, either makes some or a whole lot of sense.) So hypothetically speaking, let's say that I'm offended when referred to by they/them/their, I can, by the Code of Conduct, require you to use he/him/his instead.


Trying to impose this policy on all users is a definite no-go. It would be really strange having to avoid some very common and natural words (he/she/...) only on Stack Exchange while continuing to use them literally everywhere else. Not even just in writing; whenever you see someone, your mind will automatically try to classify it as male or female.

Furthermore, on the scale of Stack Exchange, such a policy would be unenforceable:

  • There are so many old posts out there using non-gender-neutral language, they're simply too much to be edited.
  • There are so many new users coming to the site every day, they simply can't be taught fast enough

(Well, unless maybe we block the words 'he', 'she', etc.) like we do with link shorteners </evil thought> ... We can't even have the Community user mass-edit-without-bumping 'he' and 'she' to 'they', since that would lead to grammatical errors like 'they writes faster than they thinks'.)

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    Aside what the actual changes for the CoC are, since we haven't seen them yet, thank you for bringin up a valid point other than the often heard I don't want to. – Luuklag Oct 3 at 8:08
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    I don't know them either (I've seen a little more clarification than what is public right now, but not much and I'm not allowed to disclose it.) - it could be that my explanation is wrong or at least not 100% correct. If so, I'll edit it once the final changes are known. – Glorfindel Oct 3 at 8:11
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    I haven't seen the CoC update, but what I personally would find extremely problematic is, if it were to ban the ability to choose between various non-discriminatory forms (such as using the persons display name, using singular they, using preferred pronouns) and mandated a specific form which is the only allowed one. Otherwise I don't really care about the issue. I, too, have learned of the existance of the singular they only on SO and since then I'm trying to use it, whenever possible (I'm also no native speaker) – MEE - Reinstate Monica Oct 3 at 8:24
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    +1 for "such a policy would be unenforceable". We need to respect the pronouns of trans individuals, but that means respecting that a lot of them do use "he" or "she" pronouns. A blanket ban on those pronouns, like you're suggesting we might get, would not be productive in the slightest. – F1Krazy Oct 3 at 8:49
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    "So hypothetically speaking, let's say that I'm offended when referred to by they/them/their, I can, by the Code of Conduct, require you to use he/him/his instead." <-- Gold. – FreeMan Oct 3 at 18:36
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    @FreeMan I've seen that happen on Wikipedia before. One editor referred to another editor using the pronoun "their", the first editor responded with "my pronouns are he/him, do not refer to me using gender neutral pronouns", and then that was that. No big deal. – ahiijny Oct 3 at 23:40
  • @Glorfindel It would be really strange having to avoid some very common and natural words (he/she/...) only on Stack Exchange while continuing to use them literally everywhere else. So don't use them elsewhere either? It's not hard. Instead of saying "I spoke to a bloke today at work and he ...", say something like "I spoke to someone/a person at work and they ...". It's really not that hard, and when you focus on someone's personhood rather than their gender, race, etc, it starts helping you to remove some unconscious biases you may not have realised you had. – Boneist Oct 4 at 15:06
  • I can't help but wonder if the CoC also mandates respect for the preferences of cis individuals, @F1Krazy, especially ones who prefer "he" or "she". If we get a blanket ban on gendered pronouns, as you inferred, then wouldn't that mean that the CoC only respects trans people that prefer "they", and mandates that everyone else be disrespected? It's honestly something to think about. o.o – Justin Time 2 Reinstate Monica Oct 5 at 22:09
  • "let's say that I'm offended" I feel like a mistake a lot of you all are making is couching this in terms of "offense". As a non-binary person who uses they/them I'm not "offended" if people don't use the "correct" pronouns (almost all the language surrounding this is fraught). Most people can't possibly know until and unless I ask them to. The only "offense" occurs if it's obvious (and we can tell) if someone is misgendering you when you've explicitly asked them not to. It's all just about common courtesy toward people, not "offense". – Iguananaut Oct 8 at 13:00
60

1. Why people might avoid pronouns?

The fact is that most people avoid using pronouns on users who are not clearly male nor clearly female not because they are queerphobic, transphobic or anything like that. It is simply because they don't know which pronoun they should pick up. So the easier way out of the situation is just to rephrase it and avoid the pronoun at all.

However, it seems that the new CoC would forbid that too, leading to a dead end. I don't know which pronoun to use but I'm obliged to use it anyway and if I use it wrongly, I might be suspended for that.

2. Why using "they" as a catch-all pronoun won't work

Some people insists that I should use "they" to refer to them. I'm ok with that. But also, I think I also have the right to not be called as "they". I feel that "they" is not suitable for me and particularly dislike being referred to as "they". I prefer to be called as "he" when referred in 3rd person and I'm sure that everyone would be ok to call me as "he".

Also, I doubt that I'm the only single person in the universe that dislikes being called as "they" and would prefer to be called as "he". The same could be argued for some people preferring being called by "she".

Non-native English speakers might never learn that "they" can be used in singular, because that is not what English schools teach out there. Heck, I just discovered that with this controversy and never heard about that before. I also guess that even many native English speakers are not aware of that because using "they" in singular seems to be at least very unusual.

Now, I and a few of the regulars that are tuned in the controversy are now aware of the use of "they" for people who rejects both "he" and "she". But the millions of non-regular users and newbies from everywhere else in SE will be clueless, and it is not realistic to expect that they would ever be aware of the issue and start to use "they". That is simply not going to happen. The millions of clueless newbies would still continue to use "he" and "she" regardless of what is in the CoC that most of them don't even know that exist and much less have ever read.

I think uncomfortable to be called with "they". Misgendering "he" or "she" is a no-no. Most people will think that "xe", "zie", "fe", etc. are either typos or gibberish. This ends in a situation where there is simply no neutral-gender one-size-fits-all 3rd person pronoun in English and pretending that Stack Exchange will be able to change the entire world about that is not a very realistic expectation.

Now, to make things still worse, let’s say that HJ57 is a user that states that all the pronouns "he", "she" and "they" severely misrepresent HJ57's gender or sexual orientation. Most chances is that this user is simply a troll, but who knows? Supposing that such person is acting in good faith, how can we ever refer to that user with any 3rd person pronoun that doesn't sound offensive for that person?

3. Why finding out the correct pronoun is ineffective

Ok, now let's suppose that I would be posting a chat comment to User X answer like:

@UserX I like your approach to deal with the infinite recursion, but you got the foobar algorithm wrong. Take a look at Zaptro's approach on his answer.

See the problem? It is written "his", but I have no clue that Zaptro is a "he". If I'm unlucky and Zaptro happens to be a "she", people would flag my comment as offensive, and I would be warned that I'm not being nice, that I should not do that again and perhaps I could be suspended, banned or even having my diamonds revoked if I'm a moderator due to use of such blatantly disrespectful and offensive language.

I could just rephrase it as:

@UserX I like your approach to deal with the infinite recursion, but you got the foobar algorithm wrong. Take a look at Zaptro's approach.

But now, the new CoC forbids me of doing that because I'm avoiding the pronoun, which proves that I'm one of the most intolerant persons in the world. So again, this would be flaggable as offensive, but this time I do not even could hope for having luck in guessing the pronoun, because there is no pronoun at all to be guessed. So, I would be warned that I'm not being nice, that I should not do that again and perhaps I could be suspended, banned, impaled, hang, drawn and quartered.

To post that comment, I'm required to find out what is the best pronoun to use to refer to Zaptro even if this is completely irrelevant for the conversation and even if this is a task that drains me time and focus that could be used in something more productive and would be otherwise completely unneeded. But, to complicate things further, Zaptro's answer was posted two years ago, Zaptro is not around for months, so I can't simply ask that, and Zaptro's profile either is silent about gender or sexual orientation or features disorganized and contradicting information about that. So, I have zero information about which pronoun should I use. I could simply guess and take the risk, but what if I guess wrong and a week later Zaptro's come back and flags my comment due to misgendering? Even "they" might be unsuitable, because since I think that "they" is unsuitable for me, it could be for Zaptro too. Also, Zaptro's case is not an odd exception that possibly never ever happens, it is in fact a very common case.

Maybe trying this?

@UserX I like your approach to deal with the infinite recursion, but you got the foobar algorithm wrong. Take a look at this answer.

Oh, I'm still missing the pronoun! My bad for being a such offensive person! What a shame!

So, let's see the facts in this particular case:

  • (a) There is no one-size-fits-all pronoun that could be used every time.
  • (b) There is no way to find out what the correct pronoun is.
  • (c) Not using a pronoun has severe consequences (including losing your diamond if you have one with no chance for an appeal).
  • (d) Guessing the pronoun is a risk too big to be worth it (people who misgenders others should be burnt on a stake).

The solution? Simply not posting anything at all. That is the way to build a great community here and really help people!

4. If the user is around, why not just ask for the pronoun?

Asking for the pronoun is not very different than asking for gender and/or sexual orientation. Many people might take that question as offensive. Many things might go wrong.

For example, on some occasions, people that wants to irritate, insult, bully and annoy me, asks if I'm really a man or if I'm a little girl or perhaps asks me if I'm gay or do some other questioning casting doubts about my gender or sexual orientation even if they already surely know the obvious answer for years. Thankfully, this never happened to me in any SE community, but it is something that happens in real life with many people, not only me, because there are always lots of people that just want to be jerks in the worst way possible.

Now, get some random unknown person in the Internet asking something about your gender or your sexual orientation, and you will see that many people will interpret that as disrespectful.

Misgendering people is offensive for many people. However, asking for gender or sexual orientation data can be equally offensive.

5. We need to make the community more friendly, not less

Creating a rule that states that people (including newbies with poor English skills that joins Stack Exchange every day) should look somewhere in user profiles to find the correct pronoun to refer to them and be enforced to use that pronoun is not friendly.

Stack Exchange's Q&A already has a lot of complicated rules that many users takes years to understand (if ever). I'd seen even some moderators in many occasions having trouble recalling details of Stack Exchange rules and policies correctly.

The FAQs and help pages are already enough to fill a book, and most newbies don't have enough time to read because what them need right now is to just have their JavaScript question answered and then hurry to go back to their business. Inserting a new page about how to use pronouns in the middle of all that won't make them stop everything else and going there just to read.

6. "But user XYZ is really lgbtphobic, we have to do something about that!"

Surely, those people exists and sometimes posts comments featuring lgbtphoby. But we already have for many years the flag tool for cases of people presenting opinions that are lgbtphobic, sexist, racist, etc. Even the old CoC already covers that and the still older "be nice" policy too. So, there is no need to change the rules in that way. Posting that sort of stuff is not allowed in this site and has never been. There is no need for a change here.

7. Is avoiding the pronoun really offensive?

At least half of the profiles encountered in any Stack Exchange community features no easy way to tell the user gender or sexual orientation, and I think that this is very good and very rarely a problem. The reason is simply that in most cases, I shouldn't need to care about knowing whatever the gender or sexual orientation is of any user because this is not (or at least should not be) something of my business.

I have no problem with anyone here being a queer, trans, straight, man, woman, dog, alien, robot or whatever else for one simple reason: I don't care and I really think that I shouldn't care or even know that. Seriously, I don't want to know what your gender or sexual orientation is except if I have a very strong reason for that, and I almost never have.

Frankly, I really fail to see how on Earth those sentences could ever be offensive or misrepresent Zaptro's gender just because they lack a pronoun:

@UserX Take a look at Zaptro's answer, but I don't know if the argumentation is right.

@UserX Take a look at this answer, but I don't know if the argumentation is right.

There is nothing wrong in rephrasing stuff to avoid the pronoun! There is no reason to flag a comment like that. Also, it is much more clear and simple than writing this:

@UserX Take a look at Zaptro's answer, but I don't know if their argumentation is right.

The issue is not that people avoids using a pronoun to LGBTQI+ people due to intolerance. This is just a misrepresentation of the problem, a misrepresentation so severe that was used to unfairly fire an excellent moderator. The real issue is that people avoids using a pronoun on any person for which they are unable to determine the gender and so unable to choose a pronoun. This is not a form of lgbtphobia, it is just the form that people naturally and unconsciously chooses to be safe for not having an information that they shouldn't need at all, and there shouldn't be any reason to try to guess.

And as far as I can tell, the simplest solution is to avoid pronouns if you don't have to use them, exactly what Monica Cellio was trying to say, but Stack Exchange responded by shooting at the messenger. Instead, Stack Exchange seems to want to mandate that people uses pronouns just because that is the way it must to be even if that would need some English language contortionism to just add a pronoun where none should be needed.

There is no offense in avoiding a pronoun. Instead, the reason to avoiding the pronoun is exactly to avoid offending someone. We shouldn't promote a witch-hunt and burn at stake people that writes sentences avoiding pronouns.

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    Your "Zaptro's answer" and "this answer" examples are approaches I use all the time. It would never occur to me to make the comment more cumbersome by injecting a pronoun. This is the way I write. This is the way we train professionals in many fields to write. – Monica Cellio Oct 4 at 0:58
  • Re "user genre": Do you mean "user gender"? If not, can you elaborate on what you mean by it (past any dictionary entry)? – Peter Mortensen Oct 4 at 14:28
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    @PeterMortensen It should be "gender". That is because English is not my mother language (it is Portuguese). In Portuguese, both "genre" and "gender" are translated to the same word, so this is something that I might confuse sometimes. BTW, thanks for all those grammar fixes. – Victor Stafusa Oct 4 at 16:56
  • This is an honest & well-written. I too employ usernames and am concerned. I also don't want to accidentally offend anyone. (+1) – SecretAgentMan Oct 11 at 13:51
59

I am trying to very carefully avoid any identity / personal values /... pitfalls here (and yes, I do have an opinion, but that’s absolutely not what I want to bring into this minefield) and stick to two different issues where the singular they has a disadvantage and which are sometimes overlooked:

  1. The singular they is likely not taught at schools1 etc. I am not a native speaker and will freely admit that I stumbled over this structure for the first time when I started using the SE network and only after a while. Please don’t assume that a non-native speaker that already struggles with forming a coherent and understandable English post will adapt to what may seem counterintuitive or contradictory to what they learned. Offering some kind of “instructions” may or may not be helpful - considering how often I point new (and not so new) users to the Tour or Help Center, I would lean towards the latter.

  2. Outside the tech-oriented SE posts, it may actually matter whether we are talking about a “he” or “she” - from Workplace or Interpersonal experiences to metabolism differences on Physical Fitness. Yes, I am mixing sex and gender here (somewhat on purpose), but at least for the first two, the real or perceived gender will influence how the environment interacts with someone. Sticking to the “safe they” may actually make things less clear.


1 My eldest is in 8th grade of the German Gymnasium (which has the highest standards) and it was definitely not part of the curriculum. We introduced the singular they usage at home and it was initially marked as wrong by the teacher - “they” being plural.

  • Thank you for bringing this up. Instructing (new) users is something the network will never get rid off. So I don't feel we should avoid any change because of that. Your second point is a very interesting one, one I don't have a clear-cut "solution" to. – Luuklag Oct 3 at 8:30
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    @Luuklag as for the first, I am just trying to remind the native speakers of this aspect. Whether that means massive edits or not, the bottom line is that we should not assume bad intentions when a user with limited languages abilities (and different cultural context?) struggles with using “they”, yet wants to actively engage in the discussions here. As for the second - I don’t either. – Stephie Oct 3 at 8:34
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    Hello @Stephie, I'm also from Germany and I'm now in the Abiturjahrgang (12th grade). I can confirm your experience with the first point, having also learned the singular they on SE (and not in school). IIRC, the first time I understood its meaning was, when I read an edit summary with some content like "replace he with they, as we don't know their gender". – MEE - Reinstate Monica Oct 3 at 8:39
  • @MEEwasthemissingbracket thanks for the update - I would have double-checked with an acquaintance also in 12th grade later. – Stephie Oct 3 at 8:42
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    Amusingly - as an ESL person, (Yes, really!) - the only reason I comfortably accept the concept of singular they without much trouble is that its both a common construct in the language itself and the default in a specific dialect of the Tamil language my accent is based off of. Least on the generic, folks will need help wrapping their heads around it. SIlly things like "They is" or "They are" for example. – Journeyman Geek Oct 3 at 8:48
  • @Stephie and MEEwasthemissingbracket I'm curious, which pronoun would they teach at school to use in a sentence like "The patient should be told at the outset how much X will be required to pay."? – curiousdannii Oct 3 at 11:51
  • @curiousdannii if singular is mandatory, it would probably be “he or she”. For general statements, using the plural form would be recommended, also in official documents. And German “legalese” has a preference for the passive, which can also circumvent the issue. – Stephie Oct 3 at 12:19
  • @Stephie Okay thanks. But "The patient should be told..." is passive, so the passive won't solve the issue for all sentences ;) – curiousdannii Oct 3 at 12:20
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    @curiousdannii Never said it would. German doesn’t have a singular they equivalent, which has us doing that walking on eggshells thing as well. – Stephie Oct 3 at 12:43
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    Anyone who went to school in the US more than 20 years ago was not taught the "singular they", either. – FreeMan Oct 3 at 18:38
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    The Chicago Manual of Style has (5.46, page 215 in the 16th edition, 2010): "Because he is no longer accepted as a generic pronoun referring to a person of either sex, it has become common in speech and in informal writing to substistute the third-person plural nouns they, them, their, and themselves ...". But of course very few users will have a copy or even know what it is. – Peter Mortensen Oct 3 at 19:34
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    The same section (5.46) also says "it is still considered ungrammatical in formal writing". After discussing some alternatives, it suggests using "he or she", "him or her", and "himself or herself". And refers to 5.225 (page 302) for nine other techniques for achieving gender neutrality. – Peter Mortensen Oct 3 at 19:41
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    @FreeMan - well, since I went to school more than 40 years ago, had an English teacher for a mother, yet still knew the singular 'they' a long time ago (no idea when exactly - but more than 30 years now at least), I think that just shows how uneven different people's experiences are. – Jon Custer Oct 3 at 23:13
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    @PeterMortensen - several dictionaries on my shelf from the 1980's (both British and American) have entries for 'they' as a generic singular pronoun. The American Heritage Dictionary has a fairly long passage on usage. Seems to be an evolving issue of grammar, style, and usage over a long period of time. Perhaps English Language Usage now has a question or two on it... – Jon Custer Oct 3 at 23:34
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    @JonCuster EL&U has more than a question. Every six months or so someone brings up this old chestnut. What is being overlooked is that many computer developers, scientists, and programmers have a different way of looking at language than your average Joe on the street. I can assure all the naysayers that the singular "they" along with its plural verb is alive and well and has been for at least four hundred years. No one kicks up a fuss if they hear *“You look tired.” Is the speaker speaking to a group of people or to an individual? Well it could be either but CONTEXT removes the ambiguity. – Mari-Lou A Oct 3 at 23:42
37

English as a foreign language

English is not my mother tongue. I have learned English at school and from books. English not being my mother tongue, I do not feel that I am allowed to change it; I must use it according to the rules as stated in reputable books.

Moreover, at work I use English to communicate with many people from many countries, most of whom are also not native English speakers. To use English successfully as a language for international communication we must all use it according to the rules.

I do not have any objection to use "they" for both 3rd person singular and 3rd person plural. It means nothing to me, it's a foreign language. But this usage must be agreed by everybody, and it must be taught as such.

What are the actual rules for using "they" for both 3rd person singular and 3rd person plural? Do I write "they sing" for both singular and plural, or is it "they sings" for singular and "they sing" for plural? Does "they" also apply for words which would normally (that is, according to conventional grammar) require "she" (for example, "ship" or "frigate") or "it" (for example, "algorithm")? Are those rules universally agreed, and written in reputable English grammar books published in France, in Germany, in Romania, in India and so on?

In communicating on Stack Exchange I have always strived to avoid using "he" or "she" when I could use "they" within the boundaries of English grammar as I have learned it. I do not find it onerous, or exceedingly difficult. But I must stress that any general policy must take into account that a very large part of the users of this site are not native speakers of English; please think of us when mandating or promoting novel linguistic constructs, and explain them fully.

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    It would be "they sing" in both the singular and plural cases. Cases requiring "it" will remain "it", so no need to change those. – Davis Broda Oct 3 at 13:19
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    @DavisBroda: Citation needed. This rule (to which I don't object, I just question that is exists as formal rule) would imply that English allows the use of plural verbal forms for singular subjects, somewhat similar to the T-V distinction we have in Romance languages. – AlexP Oct 3 at 13:30
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    This is a concern in Spanish.Se. Not only the misuse of pronouns by users who are not completely fluent in one of the two languages of the stack, but also promoting novel linguistic constructs, as you put it, which may be in direct contradiction with the grammar rules that we are trying to teach language learners in our stack. – Diego - Reinstate Monica Oct 3 at 13:38
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    Are you looking for official rulings that singular they is considered acceptable to use, or for some more specific point of its usage. If the former, here is the Canadian Government's guidelines on the subject, when it ends up included in legislation. If the latter clarify what particular point. Additionally be aware that the acceptability of singular they varies considerably between regions and style guides, so no one source is authoritative everywhere. – Davis Broda Oct 3 at 13:44
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    @DavisBroda: You are illustrating my point perfectly. Singular "they" would be "they sings" -- because "sings" is the 3rd person singular of the indefinite present. If you say that the correct form is "they sing" this is not singular "they", this is using the plural for a subject in the singular, like we use in Romance languages for politeness. Make up your mind. (And, yes, thank you very much for the link to the guidelines by the government of an English-speaking country. Greatly appreciated.) – AlexP Oct 3 at 13:51
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    As you were asking about verb pluralization specifically here is an english stack exchange question on singular they and verb agreement. relevant quote from accepted answer: "They always takes a 'third person plural' form of the verb" – Davis Broda Oct 3 at 13:52
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    While the accepted answer on that question is more through, I think one of the other answers puts it much more succinctly: " 'singular they' is syntactically plural, and semantically singular". – Davis Broda Oct 3 at 13:58
  • "the rules as stated in reputable books" are simply one person's opinion of how everybody should speak and/or write – Stop Harming Monica Oct 3 at 15:43
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    @OrangeDog: They are also the only way for non-native speakers to learn a foreign language. Not to mention that many languages have authoritative grammar books, and using constructions not sanctioned by those books is to be reserved for artistic expression. Maybe "bad grammar" does not have a universally agreed meaning in English, but it certainly does in French, or German, or Romanian, or Russian. – AlexP Oct 3 at 15:47
  • @AlexP "using constructions not sanctioned by those books is to be reserved for artistic expression" - I know for a fact that's not the case for French and German, despite what the relevant bodies would like. – Stop Harming Monica Oct 3 at 15:49
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    @OrangeDog: Write a commercial proposal in non-standard French and see how it fares. – AlexP Oct 3 at 15:49
  • @AlexP that's not relevant - this isn't a network for submitting commercial proposals to French bodies – Stop Harming Monica Oct 3 at 15:50
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    @OrangeDog: So we foreigners are supposed to learn one English language for use in professional context and another English for use here? How does this work? Is Stack Exchange English even taught anywhere? Oh yes, in my own language I am perfectly aware of the difference between the spoken and written form. I could even write a not-so-short essay on the differences between formal written Romanian, informal written Romanian and high and low register spoken Romanian. – AlexP Oct 3 at 15:55
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    @AlexP no, you just need to be aware that just because a textbook says something doesn't mean that it's true - and you can also ask questions at English Language Learners. And be aware that online chat is almost never conducted in formal language. – Stop Harming Monica Oct 3 at 15:56
  • @Diego - I hadn't noticed that Spanish.SE was hugely concerned about participants making some mistakes with their English. Similarly, ELL is a very tolerant place -- as long as people can get the gist of the question that's being asked, folks will go out of their way to help, without criticizing or looking down their noses. – aparente001 Oct 5 at 5:03
29

Following up on @Stephie's observation–see below–I would like to support it with something that just happened to me recently.

Please don’t assume that a non-native speaker that already struggles with forming a coherent and understandable English post will adapt to what may seem counterintuitive or contradictory to what they learned.

Here is a page from a school textbook that I use to help prepare Italian students for a B2 English exam.

enter image description here

As you can see, the singular they is used throughout. It neatly avoids the awkward "he or she" expression that some of us find in well-meaning textbook publications. Unfortunately, my 18-year-old male student was confused by the meaning of they, he believed it to be always a plural pronoun. The student didn't feel confident enough to answer the question because he was looking for two or more people in questions 3, 4, and 9. Moreover, in the four stories nobody went on holiday alone, the person was either with his or her family, school or with a bunch of friends.

Note that the task begins with the phrase, Which person… , and person is a singular noun, therefore the answer had to be the name of an individual. The four different names were: Pauline Vernon (a girl's name), Nola Tracey (an Irish name for a girl), Harry Green (a boy's name) and Sandy Henderson. "Sandy" is short for Alexander, Santiago, Alexandra or Sandra, and is what I'd call a unisex name, although I believe the expression a gender-neutral name is more commonly used today. (Despite doing my best to keep abreast with the trends of the English language, it's not easy when you live in a non-English speaking country for almost 40 years!)

When the gender of a person is ambiguous, as in the case of Sandy, in English we often use the pronouns they, their, and them. For example,

Sandy said they went to Yosemite National Park but the holiday almost ended in tragedy when one night they heard their friend screaming because a giant black bear was rearing.

Currently on EL&U there are 204 results for "singular they" I'd like to quote in full one of the answers. [Emphasis in bold mine]

Certainly many usage guides have advised against use of this "singular they" on various "logical" grounds. Nevertheless, singular they has long been part of the English language, and there are various posts on Language Log giving examples of it being used in the Bible, by Shakespeare, by the president, by the Canadian Department of Justice, etc.. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language's coauthor Geoff Pullum (a frequent Language Log contributor) calls the idea that they must never occur with a singular antecedent a myth.

There is no shortage of usage "experts" who advise against it, as the other answers in the question should make clear (though these days their reasoning tends away from a simple "it's wrong" towards something more defensive–"some people will think it's wrong, so avoid it"). But despite them, use of singular they occurs at all levels of the language, both spoken and written, informal and formal.

It's not ungrammatical per se on the basis of analysis of actual usage using reasonable linguistic methods. But use it at your own risk of being criticized by the self-righteous but misinformed.
@nohat♦ Aug 6'10

I hope therefore, I have shown that the singular and gender-neutral they is very common in speech and in writing but why it may also be confusing for non-native speakers who are unaware that they is used for singular subjects as well. They might even be offended if a user or a moderator addresses he or she as "they". Anything is possible nowadays.

As for genderqueer native speakers, if their pronoun is they, which is gender-neutral, I see no hardship in it. And truth be told, especially in recent years, I have never thought it to be a problem. But as a Stack Exchange user, I find the proposed gender free pronouns such as Spivak's: ey (they), em (them), and eir (their), Charles Crozat Converse's thon (that one), Mary Orovan proposed co or Bornstein's ze (zie, sie), and hir confusing and I hope the gender queer community will finally agree on one set of fixed pronouns. Until that day arrives, we (users) can use they and a person's username with the @ symbol to help avoid ambiguity. As an example:

@user44553322 gives strong supporting evidence in their answer but they didn't forget to mention the possible drawbacks.

Using the singular they is not hard to master once you understand how it is used. Overall, English pronouns are very simple words but they can be ambiguous at times, which is why context is always fundamental.

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    I think the first point is particularly valuable to highlight because it doesn't affect a single one of the staff or mods involved. While the company does have a Munich office, all their community-facing staff and those involved in decisions about this stuff are Americans. And while our mods are international and many don't have English as a first language, they are nonetheless all fluent in it (and indeed need to be, to do the job). A conversation amongst them that is purely based on their "lived experience" will therefore never touch on the impact that policies have on the non-fluent. – Mark Amery Oct 3 at 10:47
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    "Were" is plural. He/she/it was - they were. Now, if you show me one that has "they was".... And no one reads 'missed their home comforts' and thinks it is speaking of a singular person. – tblue Oct 3 at 15:53
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    The word "they" is used with plural verb forms throughout the entirety of the page you shared. If anyone thinks that pronoun use is uncontroversial, and that dislike of the changes is solely due to transphobia, I recommend looking up arguments surrounding "through" versus "thru", arguments about subjunctive mode (e.g. "even if I was" vs. "even if I were"), or any of dozens of other examples I could cite. Assuming that language choice is solely about "respecting the other person's wishes" is disingenuous at best. – Wildcard Oct 3 at 18:18
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    Use of "they" as a singular pronoun (albeit with plural verb forms always) is a controversial new change to the English language, and is not universally accepted. (When referring to a hypothetical person selected out of a group consisting of both men and women, it is less new and less controversial.) I understand that you "see no hardship in it" but for others, it is just as confusing as the ey/em/eir/ze/zie/sie/etc. examples you cite. – Wildcard Oct 3 at 18:22
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    @Wildcard You're mistaken about it's history, the singular "they" has been in use since the time of Shakespeare. Visit EL&U for greater detail. As for the verb being plural, no one is confused when someone writes "you are" or "you have" if the context is made clear. – Mari-Lou A Oct 3 at 18:53
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    Re "... they, which is gender-neutral": Someone (OK?) said they is no longer gender-neutral. Confused? – Peter Mortensen Oct 3 at 20:35
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    "Used since the time os Shakespeare"... but for so unusually that even native speakers don't know or repeatedly forget about that. Also, I would expect that every place where "they" are used in that image is either because there could be more than one person in the answer. – Victor Stafusa Oct 3 at 22:03
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    @tblue There was once a time when "thou art" was singular/informal and "you are" was plural/formal. Then, "thou" became obsolete, and "you" (with its plural-sounding conjugation) took its place as the singular second-person pronoun. We are witnessing the (re-)emergence of singular "they" with a similar conjugation carry-over effect. Based on trends, I'd speculate that singular "they" will become normal within a generation or two. In the meantime, the transition period is going to be awkward. – 200_success Oct 3 at 23:13
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    @PeterMortensen if "they" isn't gender-neutral, then please explain to me what gender it is. Is "you" gender-neutral or not? Is "we" gender-neutral or not? The only pronouns in English which are gendered are "he/him/his/himself" and "she/her/her/herself". – Mari-Lou A Oct 3 at 23:49
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    "They" as a placeholder for a generic/unspecified/unknown individual has been around forever, yes. "They" as a pronoun for a specific, known person is a much more recent development, and can definitely still cause confusion if sentences are not worded carefully. As an example, I read a story a few years ago with a "they" character, and it took me several times reading through the scene where that character was introduced to understand there was only one of them. Even then, I often had to go back and reread a bit when the character reappeared to make sure they were actually alone. – Kevin Oct 4 at 1:32
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    @Kevin If you had read my answer, I mention that "they" has its defects. But setting that aside, if a genderqueer person asks the community to use "they" instead of "he" or "she", do we turn round and tell them that "they" is too confusing, and that we're not sure if they is a single person or more than one. Wouldn't that sound incredible callous, selfish and incredibly hurtful? For example, does saying “@user44553322 gives supporting evidence in their answer but they didn't forget to mention the drawbacks” confuse you or anyone? – Mari-Lou A Oct 4 at 5:46
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    @Kevin I'm sorry, in that example I wrote above, is that not using clear unambiguous language? Am I misunderstanding something? Because there are hundreds of users whose username consists of nothing but a serial number. I don't think I have ever used a "she" or "he" with any user whose name was a series of numbers. Using "they" in those circumstances just comes naturally to me. – Mari-Lou A Oct 4 at 6:53
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    @Laure if someone's English is very poor, they'll have other greater difficulties with communication, let alone understanding "singular they". It really isn't difficult to master if your English skills are already at an intermediate level. And, nowhere did I even remotely suggest that the "singular they" be made compulsory, that was the OP asking the question. – Mari-Lou A Oct 4 at 11:10
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    @Laure Oh, I understand now. We got our wires crossed, for a moment I was a little concerned that my answer was confusing :) – Mari-Lou A Oct 4 at 11:37
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    @PeterMortensen then maybe next time quote the actual comment or mention by name who you are replying?? – Mari-Lou A Oct 5 at 21:39
22

The problem with the imperative and declaratory is sometimes folks lose track of what's really important. People. We get too caught up in rules and debate and politics and... forget.

A bunch of folks I hang out with, and respect me far more than I deserve, asked me about the current situation.

I'm not great with rules.

I'd say one part of this ought to be something we agree on.

If someone asks you to use a particular pronoun - it isn't just preferred, it is correct. You do it. No theying someone who specifically tells you they're a she. Any good faith request on this vein ought to be honoured. No ifs no buts.

I don't particularly care which venue this is in. I'd be deeply disappointed in anyone who intentionally acted in such a way that a fellow human was hurt.

As a generic in writing - it's going to be significantly difficult to actually enforce. It would affect every post written.

Someone talked about COCs having two roles. One was to set down the rules. The other is aspirational. I'd say that using the "they" as a aspiration - that which is expected for us to be the best.

This isn't simple. It's worth being mindful when slaying monsters that one doesn't become one themselves. Or create a worse one.

We need to acknowledge this will take time, patience and work. That it's more than something that can be enforced.

It's more something we need to build up slowly - to get the 'immune system' of the community in place. As many of the answers show - we need resources in place that help people transition to effectively use the singular they.

Then we can begin to start working towards making it the default. Not before.

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    To avoid misconceptions regarding the "If someone asks you to use a particular pronoun - it isn't just preferred, it is correct" part, I'd urge everyone to read the comment thread starting (roughly) from here. – S.D. Oct 3 at 11:33
16

I first joined the Stack Exchange back in 2012, on ELU. I liked the way it was different from other user forums; it was about getting answers – no distractions, no chitchat. It was largely drama-free. Oh, here and there occasional disagreements might get heated in the comments, but the Exchange as a whole had some good mechanisms in place to keep that in check – autogenerated messages that suggested moving the debate into a chat room, system-generated flags as discussions got too lengthy, user-raised flags when comments got too rude, and even a culture that reminded us that comments are ephemeral and could therefore be cleaned up at any time.

A couple of my more memorable tussles were with tchrist. He's been an active member of the Exchange for about a year longer than I have. Every now and then, he and I would get into a protracted argument over some linguistic puzzle, but we always managed to work things out, and I think we wound up respecting each other a little more in the end. Eventually, we both were elected as moderators – him on ELU, me on ELL. We still chat occasionally on Stack, and I'd consider him a friend, even though I've never met the man in person.

I hope no one who might be reading through my reminiscing is loathing right now, assuming I'm an insensitive, hurtful bigot. I haven't misgendered anyone; I haven't made any mistakes about Tom's gender identity (his name is on his profile, so I'll assume he doesn't mind me using it here).

Yes, erroneous presumptions about gender can be embarrassing, so it's wise to not to assume too much. Deliberate misgendering is a hurtful act that ought to be handled accordingly. But the solution is not to prescribe the use of singular they for everyone network-wide.

15

After having read the open letter by Monica Cellio and the resignation by Caleb, I suspect that the new Code of Conduct (CoC) is going to treat avoiding the use of preferred pronouns as transphobic behavior on the grounds of malicious compliance (i.e., referring to someone solely by their name is technically grammatically correct while completely missing the point).

That being said, I suspect changes to the CoC are likely to be a non-issue for the vast majority of network users and this goes above and beyond using the singular they. To break things down a bit:

  1. On most technical sites (ex., Stack Overflow) you can just enforce gender-neutral language in the questions and answers. The net change would likely just be to enforce that. For comments things might be a bit trickier, but are likely within the bounds of issues the moderators can address.
  2. On sites where gender does play a role (ex., The Workplace) it seems like most people are already used to using the gender when it is known or necessary to address the question. There might not be any change other than addressing malicious compliance (if recognized).
  3. Chat rooms here appear to operate like most others in that people are referred to by their handle most of the time. As with above, the major concern would continue to be addressing malicious compliance.
  4. Moderators might have to adjust things a bit when dealing with the public, but in the absence of knowing someone's gender things are unlikely to change. When dealing with someone one-on-one you tend not to use their gender and given the sheer number of users on the network, referring to them by name is typically appropriate.
  5. Moderators working with other moderators may have to adjust their behaviors.

Obviously one concern for all of this might be if Stack Exchange requires users to disclose their preferred pronouns as part of their account. However, gender is sensitive information under the General Data Protection Regulation requiring special handling. Thus, this goes back to the original point: this is likely to be a non-issue for most network users.

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    I didn't downvote, but if it were such a non-issue, it wouldn't have blown up Meta the way it has. Also, if it were such a non-issue, then it shouldn't require a CoC change in the first place. – Wildcard Oct 3 at 18:28
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    I think you're missing the point. Attributing malice if someone wants to avoid using singular "they" (a language construct that is quite new and not universally liked or accepted), is the opposite of "assuming good faith." Rather than "malicious compliance" you could more accurately call that behavior just, "compliance." But a mod was fired for asking how she could comply with the new, as-yet-unpublished rules, given her dislike for singular they. And her questions were not answered. "Malicious enforcement" is a bigger problem than you make it to be. – Wildcard Oct 3 at 18:39
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    I will be shocked if the published wording (if that ever happens) includes anything even close to that level of specificity. The drama here for some has to do with they way they interpreted and acted on the relatively simple idea for others with the paradigm shift that idea represents away from other metrics of conduct. – Caleb Oct 3 at 18:52
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    You're right this probably will be a non issue for most network users. The vast majority in fact. The volunteer mods are almost certainly the ones that will have the hardest time interfacing with the change, which brings up the question: why didn't they matter? But (save this for later) this won't stop here. Someday somebody will look back on this and assess it as the moment there was a paradigm shift that opened pandora's box. – Caleb Oct 3 at 18:55
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    @rjzii they seem to be treating any non-use of singular "they" or any other pronouns as malicious. They seem to be making enforcement decisions based on what they imagine people's reasons to be. – Monica Cellio Oct 4 at 3:16
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    @MonicaCellio - Wait, who's "they" in your last comment? Aack! A malicious pronoun! This is funny for me because my German spouse is sometimes impossible to understand, playing fast and loose with confused pronouns and demonstrative pronouns, and then on top of that, using German syntax when overtired.... I keep trying to convince my spouse not to use pronouns on less than 8 hours' sleep, for me to stand a chance of understanding. // But seriously, who is "they" in your comment? – aparente001 Oct 5 at 5:08
14

The question in the title is easy to answer: Yes, there are objections.

But ... the same would be true for any question that starts with "Are there any objections...?", so this won't help us here. Cynicism aside, there are multiple dimensions along which this issue could be analyzed. Some of these aspects have already been discussed (some of them ad nauseam), and mentioned in the comments here:

  • Being forced to use a certain pronoun, and being threatened with suspension, is not acceptable for a variety of reasons. Dictating a language or a certain form of speech is bound to influence the way you think. While this may be perceived as something positive in this particular case, in that it ~"could increase the acceptance e.g. of non-binary people in the broader society", the measure that is taken to achieve this goal is highly problematic. There is a crucial difference between "educating" people so that they behave "properly", and forcing people to behave in a certain way.

    Some people refer to "Newspeak" and "thought control" at this point, but that tends to sound hyperbolic - at least compared to more differentiated views, like the Sapir-Whorf-Hypothesis

    But actually, forcing people to use a certain pronoun is not even what this issue is about. From what I have read so far, the goal is not to enforce a certain pronoun or a gender-neutral form. The goal seems to be to force people to use the pronoun that the other side demands, whatever that pronoun is.

  • One could argue about how relevant this issue is. And maybe people will continue reading before downvoting my answer for this sentence alone: This does not refer to "how relevant misgendering is", but "how relevant pronouns are on this site": Most interactions on the site are not about persons, but about questions and answers. It is rarely the case that people interact directly, one-to-one. And if they interact directly, the issue is even less relevant, because when interacting directly, there usually are no pronouns involved anyhow. Still, there are cases where people interact in a way where pronouns could be used, even though they still may be avoided in most cases.

    Frankly, I cannot remember being referred to in third person at all, ever, on this site. I have received comments like "Thank you, Sir", but that's a different issue, and "Thank you"-comments should be avoided anyhow

  • Most interactions of this kind are singular events. Several million users are writing several million contributions. At one point, UserX may refer to a user called "Sasha" as "he", and Sasha says: "Hey, I'm a woman!". In the course of the ongoing discussion, it would be awkward to not refer to Sasha as "she". (It would at least be awkward. One could even call it "impolite". But not necessarily "disrespectful"). Two years later, UserX and Sasha interact again. Realistically, UserX cannot even know whether it's the same "Sasha", and once more refers to her as "he". Should this be a reason to ban UserX?

    There are many, many users who appear once on the site, maybe do not even speak English very well, and try hard to articulate the question that they'd like to have answered. Punishing them for not using a form of speech that they may never have heard of seems to be counterproductive (and not welcoming, for that matter...). In most cases, educating them about how to properly state a question is far more important than details of a language that they hardly speak, and that not even the native speakers can agree on...


So I think that this issue is mainly relevant for staff, community managers, moderators, and maybe a few long-time users. Or to put it that way: It is mainly relevant for people who know each other and 1. interact within a group, and 2. interact with other individuals, as a group.

And for these, one should assume that they will not intentionally "misgender" people, and if one of them does, one should assume that they are able to resolve this conflict without trying to enforce impractical rules for the community.

After all, managing and resolving conflicts may be the most important part of their job.

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    No-one has ever said a user would be banned for misgendering or that anything would ever happen to a user (a post might be edited or comment deleted) for misgendering. A moderator announced they would never call a user they even if that's what the user wanted, because they don't believe in singular they. SE decided that was incompatible with being a mod. Your whole answer is a strawman argument opposing something that is never going to happen. it doesn't help. – Kate Gregory Oct 3 at 15:39
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    @KateGregory I find it hard to believe that a long-time user who repeatedly (as in "(perceived as) intentionally") misgenders people would not face any repercussions. Beyond that, you mentioned "...announced they would never ...because they don't believe in...". A lot of things have been said, but I'm pretty sure that this argumentation is not exactly the one that was used (that's not nitpicking - details matter, obviously). At least, you seem to agree that this mainly affects mods et al, so what you call a "strawman" may still have a footer that is highly relevant for the discussion... – Marco13 Oct 3 at 15:48
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    "Dictating a language or a certain form of speech is bound to influence the way you think." This site has always had moderation and rules. A fundamental part of moderation is dictating rules for what people can and cannot say. Some people think they can spam their magic ATM card scam here, but they cannot. Some people think they can proclaim that other SE members are racially inferior, but they cannot. Most all of us agree with that; this is a space with rules. Similarly, some people think they can knowingly refuse to call people what they wish to be called; SE is saying they cannot. – Zach Lipton Oct 3 at 16:51
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    @GhostCat I don't disagree - but do you think "Two years later, UserX and Sasha interact again. Realistically, UserX cannot even know whether it's the same "Sasha", and once more refers to her as "he". Should this be a reason to ban UserX?" is a reasonable worry? I do not. – Kate Gregory Oct 3 at 18:24
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    @KateGregory, "A moderator announced they would never call a user they even if that's what the user wanted, because they don't believe in singular they. SE decided that was incompatible with being a mod." Please note that nothing in what Monica said has anything to do with disrespecting a person's gender choices. It has to do with language choices. Refusing to use the singular "they" is an understandable position. It is not incompatible with respect. I refuse to use xe/xem/xyr; that is likewise my choice and is not incompatible with respect. Also, SE has not given their reasons. – Wildcard Oct 3 at 18:33
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    I did not say it was disrespecting a person's gender. I said she has refused to use "they" - she is on the record with this. You may feel that sticking up for a non-existent grammar concept (we have had singular they for hundreds of years) over people's gender isn't disrespecting their gender - I would disagree. Refusing to use someone's pronouns because you "know better" feels disrespectful to me. But none of this is relevant to whether the Monica situation puts ordinary users in some sort of peril just because they forgot someone's pronouns. I say it doesn't. – Kate Gregory Oct 3 at 18:42
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    Then, @KateGregory , who exactly will the mysterious new CoC rules apply to? Only staff and mods? I'd be surprised of mods were forced to behave/speak in a certain way, and not obliged to "push" this down the hierarchy and enforce it as part of their moderation activity. And (apart from their right to refuse compelled speech), this is where things become impractical, for the reasons that I laid out. But frankly, we can not profoundly argue about the details that we are arguing about right now, because that's part of the internal decision making processes that are not made transparent... – Marco13 Oct 3 at 19:57
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    @KateGregory I would like to see where Monica is on record as refusing to use "they". I haven't been able to find it so far. – Nacht - Reinstate Monica Oct 3 at 23:43
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    Once and not again: "I don't use singular they or words like chairwoman" is a direct quote from Monica in theregister.co.uk/2019/10/01/stack_exchange_controversy I find that definitive, myself. – Kate Gregory Oct 3 at 23:48
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    @KateGregory The quote is attributed to Monica, but I didn't find it in her post (not even in the edit history). Maybe it was a comment? Maybe it was deleted? Who knows. Leaving "Under some pressure I said I ... solve the problem other ways" out of the (presumed!) quote pictures a different story, by the way, but for the reasons mentioned above, we'll likely never be able to resolve this completely. – Marco13 Oct 4 at 18:24
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    I told you it was a quote in the news article, @Marco13 and gave you a link right there after the word "in". (Maybe nobody knows this any more, but for some news articles, reporters actually contact people and ask them stuff instead of just pasting stuff in from social media.) So yeah, I guess you will never be able to resolve if Monica said she would not use singular they. It's a complete mystery forever. – Kate Gregory Oct 4 at 18:42
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    @KateGregory 1) "I don't use" is in no way equivalent to "I refuse to use". 2) I would have thought the quote you were referring to was on SE somewhere, given that the logic is supposed to be that she was fired over it. – Nacht - Reinstate Monica Oct 5 at 7:03
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    @KateGregory I notice you refer to Monica as “they” in your comment, something that she has explicitly requested not be done. She is a she. Given the amount of criticism you have leveled at her for supposed misgendering and/or disrespect of others’ choices of how they want to be referred to, I think your misgendering of Monica is highly problematic and displays a hypocritical double standard of callous disregard. – Wildcard Oct 5 at 8:32
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    My comment didn't identify anyone. Using they for an unspecified person is not unfriendly, but hey, if your theory is "people will be unfairly punished for doing reasonable things" then I guess you have to walk that walk yourself. – Kate Gregory Oct 19 at 0:04
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    Look, I know some people in other comment chains seem to think I'm trolling, which is a little odd to me. Sometimes I do think humor and sarcasm are effective ways to respond to certain things, but I'm being dead serious here. This policy CANNOT be successful if it is not enforced predictably and universally. I disagree strongly with SE on a number of things, but would love to see a major developer site successfully incorporate a good pronoun policy. – De Novo supports GoFundMonica Oct 20 at 2:33
13

In my native language we don't have gendered pronouns. When I talk I have to use extra brain power to determine which pronoun to use as I was raised in an environment where this was a non-issue. It is really hard to think about whether to use he or she if you were simply not raised up to care about genders when talking about someone in the third person.

In English classes we were usually told to use he in translations from our native language unless we knew that the person is female. This default did lead me to some issues when I moved to the UK as I did use he simply too much - even when I actively knew the other person being a female. I started actively using they afterwards, as that was definitely the easy way out for me, whether I knew the gender (and preferred pronoun) of the other person or not.

However I know that in English the use of they can be disrespectful to some group of people. Women might object to the usage as it removes their gender from conversations, which especially in male-dominated fields can be problematic, as the reader might assume a male behind the pronoun. Also some trans people might also object to it as it can be one kind of misgendering, as it can mean you are trying to avoid referring to them using their new gender.

I am always trying to use they in conversations both written and oral. However if anyone objects I'm happy to use their version as well, as that is the nice thing to do.

7

Are there any objections to using singular they for everyone?

It's not my habit (though I might change my habit if asked).

My habit is:

  1. Use "you" as a pronoun -- why gossip about 3rd parties?
  2. Refer to 3rd parties by their username -- or, often, as "the OP"
  3. Use "they", unless I think it's obvious -- but take it as obvious (and therefore use "he" or "she"), if:
    • The username is a conventionally male or female name
    • Or their avatar depicts a man or woman

Nobody has ever asked me to change a pronoun I have used -- so I suppose this has been a fairly harmless habit, as habits go.

FWIW I've never even noticed anybody ask other people to use a specific pronoun.

6

You can use "they" for everyone if you really want to. The CoC requests that you do so when you're unsure of the respondent's pronouns.

It's a known factor that in some cases, using "they" as a singular creates a potentially confusing grammar. It would seem appropriate and acceptable to side-step that grammatical issue by referring to someone by their screen name instead. Indeed, this would seem preferable in order to identify to readers which one out of the multiple people you're referring to. And this usage is fine, otherwise there would be a whole lot of confusion surrounding who is referring to who as "they".

However, people have a right to be addressed by their pronouns where possible, and where requested. By intentionally side-stepping their pronouns, you're denying their gender in a way that can be deeply hurtful. This is something that Stack Exchange wishes to avoid in their aim to be welcoming to all.

I know this is a subtle and difficult concept and it's taken me three weeks to understand and process this.

In general, use "they" when you're not sure. Use "he" or "she" or "they" (or whatever else) when you are sure, or asked to. It's ok to assume gender in the face of strong evidence (for example, Michael is usually male, but except when a character in Star Trek:Discovery), but be prepared to be corrected and accept that correction moving forward.

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    This reads like you know the actual content of the CoC change, is that the case? If so, I think SE is stepping over some other things that are deeply important to people, religion being one of them. People can read Caleb's resignation notice if they want to know more on that. – Luuklag Oct 3 at 9:03
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    "The CoC requests that you do so when you're unsure of the respondent's gender or how they wish to identify." - I don't think it'd be proper for me to fully share my reasoning, but I'll simply say that it seems pretty damn unlikely to me that the CoC will end up saying this. Note that some trans people who prefer gendered pronouns consider "they" to be misgendering, and that enforcing using "they" for someone whose name and profile picture is male- or female-presenting (but about whose pronouns you are nonetheless unsure of) would be almost the maximally upsetting policy for this group. – Mark Amery Oct 3 at 9:24
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    I've cleaned up some of the wording here that was more verbose than needed (ex.: "preferred gender identifying pronoun") and edited to match standard style guide format. In general, it's worth being aware that excessive qualifiers can be othering. I've done my best to preserve your meaning as I understood it (despite disagreement with certain aspects). – Aza Oct 3 at 9:30
  • @Aza Thank you for the edit. And please correct me on anything I may have misunderstood or misstated. I hope that I have in some small way expressed the essence of the issue here. – user351483 Oct 3 at 9:33
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    Stack Exchange tries to be "welcoming to all" and that's the result. Destroying their product one moderator at a time. Slow clap. – Eric Duminil Oct 3 at 9:37
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    @Snow I think this is significantly closer than your prior comments from the last few days/weeks, for sure, so I definitely appreciate it. "You can use 'they' for everyone, if you really want to" is less nuanced than I think it ideally needs to be (if someone says "he/him" you really shouldn't use "they" for him), but that's essentially it. – Aza Oct 3 at 9:38
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    Thanks Aza. Like I said, I’ve done a lot of learning over the past few week, I’m probably still not there yet, so thank you for your patience. – user351483 Oct 3 at 9:42
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    Happy to help, any time. Thanks for taking the time to learn, amidst heavy social pressure not to. I'm always pingable in The Reading Room on Literature if there's anything I can help with. – Aza Oct 3 at 9:49
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    An issue with "You can use 'they' for everyone, if you really want to" is that, while many people will use it as a convenience to avoid unnecessarily gendered language, some people will use it maliciously to mean "I do not acknowledge your identity." Intentionally and repeatedly using 'they' for someone who you honestly know full well prefers 'he/him' communicates the message, intentionally or not, that you don't believe their self-identification is legitimate and won't respect it. I like this answer as revised, but I'd consider removing the first sentence. – Zach Lipton Oct 3 at 16:40
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    @ZachLipton, the problem in the scenario you describe is the actions, not the words. Banning the words is going to make trouble for ordinary, well-meaning individuals, while the bad actors are just going to find other ways to be insulting. – Mark Oct 4 at 1:18
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    @Mark I agree. I'm not aware that anyone is proposing a ban of the singular 'they' or any other pronoun in general. My point is not about banning words; it is that using 'they' for someone you legitimately know uses something else is not well-meaning. Ordinary, well-meaning individuals will just say "sure" and make a reasonable effort to do as they're asked. – Zach Lipton Oct 4 at 1:35
  • I don't think it is subtle and difficult but I fail to see how you would tell whether the screen name is used in order to avoid grammatical issues, the pronoun itself or just because it naturally came to the writer's mind just by looking at what was written. I can see how the distinction makes sense conceptually but not as policy. – Stop harming Monica Oct 4 at 21:54
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    BTW I find your claim that "[b]y intentionally side-stepping their pronouns, you're denying their gender" highly offensive. Not that I expect it to matter much but in all fairness that's how it is. – Stop harming Monica Oct 4 at 21:59
6

I have another problem with the use of "they" that hasn't been mentioned yet. There are hundreds of minorities out there. People with special psychological conditions. People with special physical conditions which make them see things different and which also affect their emotional lifes, and which makes them more sensitive to things than is healthy. And others, which I don't even know exist.

For example, we could accommodate people who have had bad experiences with parents who have been drinking too much alcohol and who feel uneasy if you mention "beer", as in "there is no free beer". So should we avoid phrases like "free beer", because there are some people who may find it offensive?

What is so special about trans and LGBT+ people that they deserve special treatment as a minority? There are uncountably many minorities out there, and not every minority even has a name, and we can never accommodate all of them. We can only try to be excellent with each other and to not force our own point of view on everyone else. Firing someone right before their religious holiday because of supposedly incorrect pronoun usage is just ridiculous. That person you fired is also part of a particular minority, but Stack Exchange values that minority less than they value the LGBT+ minority.

In other words, the new unforgivable social sin is not actively affirming a belief with which you disagree. -- from the resignation letter of Caleb

I don't want to use "they" as a pronoun, because I don't want to give the impression that I am happy about Stack Overflows latest management decisions. If this violates the upcoming CoC, feel free to ban me. I believe that there are two genders; I am sure there is a word ending in "-phob", that describes people like me. (And of course I know there are some people who don't fit into this model, but they are extremely rare, and most of them self-identify as either male or female. And this phenomenon has nothing to do with "trans" or LGBT-whatever.) People who use it don't want tolerance; they want agreement, which is not the same thing. Gender is not something you self-assign.

At least, we should acknowledge that there can be a difference between what you are and what you want to be. A white person cannot just say "I feel like a black person", and a black person cannot just say "I feel like a white person". (We would call that "cultural appropriation", I suppose. Ok, maybe they can say that, but that doesn't change who they are.) I disagree with most people on something. I hate only very few. Disagreement is not the same as hate, and I hope Stack Exchange will understand this some day.

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    What is so special about trans and LGBT+ people that they deserve special treatment as a minority? Doesn't one use "they" to refer to anyone who might be man or woman, even regardless of whether they may be LGBT -- i.e. it isn't only to be polite to people who identify as LGBT, it's also to be polite to anyone who identifies as man or woman? – ChrisW Oct 4 at 18:15
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    @ChrisW: I asked because they are special to SE. If you know anything at all about religion, you know that among christians and jews it is common to think that there are two genders and that you get your identity from God, and not from your free will. Although I'm not a religious person, I have talked to many religious people, and they don't seem hateful when they explain their reasoning. Monica Cellio was a moderator on a site about the jewish religion, and Caleb was a moderator from a site about christianity. (1/2) – Michael Oct 4 at 19:16
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    @ChrisW: Hosting sites for religious people and then harassing them about pronoun usage.. thats hypocritical and insensitive. This is what I was referring to. (2/2) – Michael Oct 4 at 19:17
  • i see. my point was that being careful about pronouns isn't only for the sake of being polite/inclusive to LBGT people but equally for all women and men -- i.e. perhaps it's how we should/might speak anyway, about anyone whose gender we don't know -- it isn't only about (you said) "LGBT being so special and deserving special treatment". – ChrisW Oct 4 at 19:32
  • i am a religion mod just by the way, and even read a little about radical feminism (so i've read that this kind of controversial in some circles). but, at the risk of showing my privilege, i'd like to think "we're all just folk now". – ChrisW Oct 4 at 19:36
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    @ChrisW: I understand your point. I certainly wouldn't feel offended if someone uses "they" to address me. (Although my first reaction is always that this is a 3rd person plural pronoun, and I can imagine that this may cause misunderstandings.) I just think it should be possible that people who like to be addressed with "they" and people who don't want to use that pronoun can coexist. Saying that one point of view is legitimate and the other is not just seems arbitrary to me. (And I think SE did that with their actions.) – Michael Oct 4 at 19:57
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    my first reaction is always that this is a 3rd person plural pronoun I think of "you" versus "thou" (literary and religious), and of "vous" versus "tu" in French (colloquially) -- these are used not only for singular versus plural but also be "polite/formal" in the plural versus "familiar/intimate" in the singular. So to me it's just a convention and normal formal politeness -- though I too avoid it in case it's misunderstood. According to this answer I both deliberately escape/avoid using it, and prefer using it, depending on the situation. – ChrisW Oct 5 at 5:21
  • Related: TechLead's take on it (warning: possibly very subtle sarcasm ahead (difficult to know due to its very nature)). – Peter Mortensen Oct 5 at 22:48
  • Referring to people in the 3rd person by mentioning thier sex, gender, or anything else is a linguistic convention independent of God having made n sexes, or genders, or anything else. Or maybe you think God made that a rule of grammar that you must follow? A Person Paper on Purity in Language – philipxy Oct 9 at 5:45
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    @philipxy: For me, this has little to do with God. I just don't want to be forced to jump through other peoples hoops. Also, I know that there are plenty of people out there with "non-standard" sexual identities, who don't feel the particular urge to let everyone know that they are different. These people are not part of the public discussion because they don't start fights over pronouns, but they are the majority of the group. (I was simplifying a bit..) - Treating the whole pronoun-issue as a settled case that must not be debated is deeply unfair (SE does that), and it doesn't help anyone. – Michael Oct 9 at 7:48
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    “I believe that there are two genders; [...] (And of course I know there are some people who don't fit into this model, but they are extremely rare, and most of them self-identify as either male or female. And this phenomenon has nothing to do with "trans" or LGBT-whatever.)” This, 1000 times. – Andrea Lazzarotto Oct 14 at 13:08
4

Leaving this here as well.


I point to this list here.

List of protologisms/third person singular gender neutral pronouns

I submit that they, them, or their be allowed to refer to any and all of those in that list, based on the evidence that I submit below. I submit that if they has been the preferred inclusive word for the existing pronouns, then it should also be considered the standard for all other pronouns.


Cesar said it himself.

Official FAQ on gender pronouns and Code of Conduct changes

The vast majority of people go by the pronouns sets “he/him” or “she/her.” A small but increasing number of people use “they/them” pronouns or another pronouns set -- sometimes simply because they don’t want to go by pronouns with a gender association (just as some folks go by “Ms.” whether or not they are married, because they don’t think their marital status should be a relevant issue), and sometimes people use pronouns that aren’t associated with one of those two most common (binary) genders because they are nonbinary (i.e. people who are neither exclusively a man nor exclusively a woman -- e.g. genderqueer, agender, bigender, fluid, third/additional gender in a cultural tradition, etc.).

I want to draw attention to the fact that the text Cesar quoted uses "they" in the rest of their post. Why? What's the reason? This thread is a defense of Monica's stance and I believe a necessary inclusion within the new Code Of Conduct. I will do my best to remain completely unbiased and use nothing but language, history, and trends that I can cite.

In The Handbook of Non-Sexist Writing for Writers, Editors and Speakers by Kate Swift and Casey Miller, they rightfully state that the traditional usage to refer to a person of any gender would take the male form. This has been true for thousands of years.

  • Plurality in Latin, Spanish, and many other languages takes the male form.
  • In English, he/his is often used in place of indeterminate antecedent. Example: Each person to his own, but they or their is becoming more popular. See Cesar's quote above.

Efforts to reduce the male bias has led to a more inclusive switch to neutrality.

Some people may take issue with this from a grammatical standpoint. However...

In In Search of Gender Neutrality: Is Singular They a Cognitively Efficient Substitute for Generic He?" Julie Foertsch, she writes this:

As ungrammatical as this shift may be, the justification for it is quite clear. The generic he that grammarians prescribe is typically perceived as referring to a male, not as being all-inclusive (Khosroshahi. 1989; Kidd, 1971; MacKay & Fulkerson, 1979; Martyna, 1978a; Moulton, Robinson, & Elias, 1978; Silvera, 1980).

and

Eor this reason, it is perhaps not surprising that the pronoun they—a technically plural pronoun— was readily accepted for all four antecedent types. Indeed, when the antecedent was an indefinite pronoun, readers actually processed singular they faster than he or she, and the rules of prescriptive grammar have already been changed to accommodate this apparent preference.

This demonstrates that they is also preferred by speakers. As a Q&A site, I believe we should strive to maintain clarity and inclusiveness for everyone.

  • People already struggle with the English language. They have complained that they will have trouble articulating and formulating the various pronouns. However, I will also add that as a native speaker, I too will have that trouble.
  • As someone on the autism spectrum, I do not feel inclusiveness or friendliness towards my constant, daily struggle to follow social norms. I would like a break and for the SE mods/CMs to recognize that it is polite to be neutral.
  • It allows those whose conscience cannot allow them to use specific pronouns. For whatever reason, they feel like they cannot. I do not put this here to debate their intentions or moral compass. However, I strongly feel that it is professional to remain neutral.

Going back to Cesar's quote, they use they in the text to refer to each individual in the identity groups. It is very telling that Cesar refers to each and every non-binary as they or their in his own post, without even realizing it. The question is: Why?

Because our brains process the word differently.

Firstly, when there was no explicit antecedent, a larger fronto-central positivity was observed 750 msec after pronoun onset for he/she than they, possibly reflecting the additional difficulty involved in establishing a referent for he/she than for they when no explicit referent is available.

That's the difference. They is an implicit referent. It's so natural to our brains that StackExchange themselves couldn't avoid it, to the point that you'll see comments like "If someone asks to be called ze, oblige them," even though the list states that the accusative would be zim.

In summary, they, them, and their are not references to self. They are placeholders for references. They act as a catch-all for he, she, xir, zir, xe, or any other identity that a person would like to have.


I will end this with a biased opinion, and how I feel.

I saw Shog9's answer stating that "language changes." Yes, it does change, but it's changed for the better with the inclusion of gender neutral language. I believe their answer is at odds with the evidence and ideas I've put forth, and that his stance, while well written, does not sufficiently defend the idea that neutrality is a form of misgendering.

I believe StackExchange has made a mistake in believing that neutral language is a form of misgendering, as certain words weren't invented to be a gender, but to refer to any gender, and that includes the words I've defended here.

A lot of users here have talked about freedom of speech, the law, etc. I feel like this is a red herring. I do not feel like it applies here. I feel strongly that the right to be neutral isn't a legal right. It is a right given to me by the universe itself. By virtue of being a lifeform with a central nervous system, I was given the abilities to be silent, refrain from sides, decline to be included, and to do nothing.

I feel very strongly that taking away neutrality such as a centuries old word that the LGBTQ+, feminist, and other activist communities have spent years to include and embrace to avoid bias and exclusion is at odds with that right.

  • The perspective of non-native English speakers about this entire set of issues, and the singular "they" particularly, is almost certainly different than the cited research indicates. Specifically, this is the case due to different gendering conventions in other languages (e.g. arbitrary binary gender choice for inanimate objects). – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Oct 22 at 10:53
  • I'm not forcing anyone to use it. Non-native English speakers will already have trouble understanding different things and I am not going to use that logic to dictate what I can or can't say. – The Anathema Oct 22 at 21:56
  • I wasn't contradicting what you said (nor downvoting) - just making a comment. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Oct 22 at 23:22
1

English is not my mother tongue. I first learned about singular they on this site. It was confusing to me for about twenty seconds, then I understood how that pronoun was used from the way I saw it used and am now comfortably using that pronoun in this meaning. Not being a native speaker did not make singular they more difficult for me than many other new things I had to learn about English since I began using the internet, and it certainly didn't make using Stack Exchange difficult or unpleasant. Everyone who says that singular they is confusing to non-native speakers is implying that we are too stupid to quickly grasp such a simple thing.

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    All valid, but it doesn't answer the question. The question is whether there are any objections to using singular they for everyone. A huge number of problems (although not all) would go away if the answer to this question was an unambiguous "Yes." Yes, it's neutral, yes, you can call anyone that. Yes. Yes. Make the answer to this question Yes. Not "Yes, but." Not "Yes, except..." Not "Usually." One word. Yes. Yes. Yes. – Scott Hannen Nov 10 at 13:57
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    @ScottHannen I am objecting to some of the objections in other answers. In that way, I answer the question. – I am not the way you speak Nov 10 at 14:45
1

Generally, it often is not a good idea to tell people "don't say this" and even worse "do say this". For two reasons:

It's an absolute rule which defines words or sentences to mean something very specific; that hardly works in a socio-cultural context as language is dynamic and ambiguous. The the more diverse context and community is, the broader the perception of phrases and words may be due to different backgrounds

Second, even when everyone is a native speaker of the same socio-economic background, it is just expression of a thought-ban. The fundamental rule which is supposed to be enforced requiring specific wording, remains much broader though and can be summarized much simpler: be polite, be respectful, don't intentionally harm other people. (There is no way to avoid harming people unintentionally at times, even when you are polite and respectful - but you will be forgiven the verbal harm you caused unintentionally, if those are also polite and respectful towards you).

As such, I'm not convinced that any requirements on wordings from people is useful but harmful - words and phrases often get their meaning from context.

-4

My two cents: each user will be able to add "he/him", "she/her" or anything else to the profile. Ideally as a new field, otherwise to the About Me section.

That won't bound anyone by itself, but those who care will be able to see quickly and clearly how the person they address wants to be addressed without getting into comment discussions.

The important part: Without such info in the profile, the user won't be able to complain about mistreating when being addressed in the "wrong way". For example, when raising a flag on a comment or chat message, the moderator will be able to say "Please update your profile to indicate your preferred pronoun".

This will put some order in the chaos, since comments are often deleted and people can't possibly know how others want to be addressed before writing.

-8

Using "they" in place of preferred pronouns is objectionable in some circumstances, yes.

Also, failing to use “they” as a preferred pronoun is objectionable.


Using "they" is fine if you are describing a hypothetical scenario in which gender is unimportant.

Otherwise, failing to use preferred pronouns or acknowledging the role of gender in a situation actively disenfranchises and diminishes the real challenges faced by some individuals.

This site, like all organizations and communities, prioritizes certain values over others. I think it is reasonable to prioritize inclusion highly - i.e., it seems reasonable to ask you to behave in a way that maximizes inclusion even if that behavior is contrary to your personal values.

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    Being required to use "they" in the singular form can also be objectionable. – Wildcard Oct 3 at 18:24
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    "I think it is reasonable to ask you to behave in a way that maximizes inclusion on the site, even if it is contrary to your personal values." This sentence is a study in contradiction. Would it be reasonable to ask a non-binary person to act as though they are a man or a woman, so as to maximize inclusion, even if it is contrary to their personal values? (Obviously not.) Which personal values are counted towards "maximizing inclusion" and which are disregarded? And who decides that? – Wildcard Oct 3 at 18:26

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