57

I came across a post that used a neopronoun for a group of people that, as far as I'm aware, has not expressed a desire to be known by a neopronoun (and would not as far as I can tell).

Illustrative example (changed from the original to avoid the meta effect):

A typical American would consider perself a sports fan.

I edited it to say (amongst other spelling corrections):

A typical American would consider themselves a sports fan.

The edit suggestion was declined by two votes to one. The rejection reasons were:

I see no difference between the edit I made and changing a reference to Joan of Arc from "he" to "she", as her correct pronouns are feminine.

Did I do the right thing? Should I correct the pronouns of well known binary gendered figures and groups of people in the future or are all pronouns off limits as the rejection comment implies?

  1. Was the original user right or wrong to use a neopronoun?
  2. Was I right or wrong to change it?
  3. Should I do it in the future?
  4. Should pronouns be ignored when making other improvements?
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    Question: How is the average Joe meant to fathom whether 'perself' or pronouns like it aren't spelling mistakes and are actually meant to be a pronoun? I'll admit I thought it was supposed to say 'herself'... – Script47 Dec 23 '19 at 10:22
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    @Script47 You can tell from the context, especially when it ends in "-self". – Cool Fool Dec 23 '19 at 10:23
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    Using the context (of the sentence you provided) I thought it was a spelling mistake, hence my question. – Script47 Dec 23 '19 at 10:25
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    I'm confused as to what the question is here. (1) Can a user use neopronouns for any third party? (2) Did I do the right thing? [in the specific case of "perself"] (3) Should I correct the pronouns of well known binary gendered figures and groups of people in the future? (4) Are all pronouns off limits as the rejection comment implies? – Rebecca J. Stones Dec 23 '19 at 10:25
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    @RebeccaJ.Stones 1. Was the original user right or wrong to use a neopronoun? 2. Was I right or wrong to change it? 3. Should I do it in the future? 4. Should pronouns be ignored when making other improvements? – Cool Fool Dec 23 '19 at 10:27
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    If the example is really accurate: what were you contesting? That the "typical American" wouldn't want to be referred to with a "neopronoun" as "perself"? What did mean to accomplish with your edit? – yivi Dec 23 '19 at 10:29
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    I would argue that the first rejection reason is objectively wrong, because the edit does make the post easier to read. Many more people understand "themselves" than "perself". As for your questions... what Glorfindel said. – wimi Dec 23 '19 at 11:31
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    Surely in this case, though, rephrasing in the plural ("Most Americans would consider themselves sports fans") would be still better? Singular themselves is even harder to parse than singular they, especially, I'd surmise, for non-native speakers. – Connor Harris Dec 23 '19 at 14:44
35

Using generic language and pronouns is fine and is encouraged both to refer to groups as well as to individuals when the gender of the person is not known.

Using a so called neopronoun for someone who has not indicated a preference for it is akin to misgendering and should not be permitted.

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    The neopronouns I'm aware of are all for specific uses, not for generic alternatives to themselves. Even if a generic neopronoun was in existence I'd see no reason not to replace it with the much more accessible regular pronoun. IMO neopronouns should be used only for specific individuals who request them. – curiousdannii Dec 23 '19 at 15:35
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    But the author deliberately chose this neopronoun. Now, it could be argued it was a political choice but if instead it was dictated by sensitivity and respect to the LGBTQ community should that person be accused of misgendering? The last time someone was accused of this, the situation got very messy... – Mari-Lou A Dec 24 '19 at 11:37
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    @Mari The OP seems to have only just learnt this neopronoun and seems to have mistakenly thought it was a generic indefinite pronoun rather than a specific third person pronoun. I don't think this situation is likely to occur very often. However even supposing it was deliberate, the CoC only says to respect the pronouns of others. I don't think we should be accommodating neologisms people want to use for people other than themselves. That's not an identity issue. – curiousdannii Dec 24 '19 at 11:42
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    Good luck with substituting/editing a recognised neopronoun with a more conventional one in the future. Regardless of whether the singular subject is a specific user or a generic person, an author's words and voice should be respected if it doesn't offend or harm anyone. In theory at least… – Mari-Lou A Dec 24 '19 at 11:56
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    @Mari as would be expected from this post, I don't agree. Posts belong to the community, and are expected to be edited to be accessible. Using neopronouns for indefinite referents is needlessly inaccessible. – curiousdannii Dec 24 '19 at 13:22
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    I, for the most part, agree with the conclusion, but not the premises of this answer: "so called neopronoun" is dismissive of the competing viewpoint. And using an (obscure) neopronoun instead of a common synonymous pronoun is not misgendering. Even assuming bad faith, I'd only be able to say it's a deliberate attempt to normalize the word, but that's not against the CoC. I'm inclined to weigh accessibility and clarity over that competing interest, but it's not categorically wrong, any more than using uncommon words for any other topic would be. – TemporalWolf Dec 31 '19 at 20:21
56

I have recently encountered the same situation here, and a similar case on Chess Stack Exchange (where a user used 'he' to refer to a hypothetical character, and somebody suggested a gender-neutral version).

The FAQ on pronouns mentions this answer, which gives some advice about using pronouns for hypothetical characters. In those situations, gender-neutral language is preferred:

But sometimes you find yourself referring to a poster or a person that a poster mentioned:

IMHO (but I could be interpreting the CoC wrong) it's not required to do so.

So, to answer your questions:

  1. Was the original user right or wrong to use a neopronoun?

I wouldn't call that wrong, since it's not against the CoC.

  1. Was I right or wrong to change it?

Yes, you were right. Parsing the word 'perself' may be hard for users who aren't used to neopronouns, and 'themselves' is clearer. This is not a case where the neopronoun is part of a user's identity, which trumps readability considerations.

  1. Should I do it in the future?

Yes.

  1. Should pronouns be ignored when making other improvements?

No. You shouldn't actively search for old posts not using gender-neutral language and then mass-editing them, but if you're making other improvements, it's fine to change non-gender-neutral language.

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    I can't see how using a gender specific neopronoun for someone who hasn't indicated a preference for it could be seen as permitted by the CoC phrasing about generic language. – curiousdannii Dec 23 '19 at 15:12
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    +1 It’s so hard to read "xyrself" in the middle of a post with no good reason for it. Just unnecessary confusion; themself is a much more readable word. – Stormblessed Dec 23 '19 at 15:48
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    @curiousdannii frankly I think the CoC is confusing there. But the official pronoun FAQ "clarifies" the phrasing. It permits at least some uses of so-called "generic he". – sourcejedi Dec 29 '19 at 21:58
  • @sourcejedi That's not relevant to what this question is about. – curiousdannii Dec 30 '19 at 0:34
  • @curiousdannii I've re-read the question post, including looking at the wiktionary link. I don't understand what your original comment means in that context. The question post is about "per", a pronoun which is "gender neutral". Wiktionary says the same of "emself" (Spivak). – sourcejedi Dec 30 '19 at 19:59
  • @sourcejedi The CoC and CoC FAQ encourages us to use people's requested pronouns as well as gender neutral language where appropriate: for specific people of unknown gender or indefinite referents. It does not say we should use gender-specific (including non-binary) neopronouns for individuals who have not requested them. I disagree that just because the CoC/FAQ doesn't prohibit this that it's not wrong. – curiousdannii Dec 30 '19 at 21:58
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    There are neopronouns for non-binary people, there are also neopronouns for indefinite referents, as I see per is. I do not think it is appropriate to use either for specific users on this site, unless they indicate a preference for it. If you don't know their gender, just use they! And for indefinite referents, just use they as well, because neopronouns are needlessly uncommunicative IMO. – curiousdannii Dec 30 '19 at 22:03
  • 'Parsing the word 'perself' may be hard for users who aren't used to neopronouns' how will anyone become used to neopronouns if they are not used? While themselves may be in common use it is not an exact word, the online dictionaries I've reviewed have 2 definitions for themselves that are specific for groups before the 'instead of himself or herself'. – Jontia Jan 1 at 22:17
6

Clarity and comprehensibility versus a person's right to define what their gender identity is.

But what if the subject is not a single individual but a group of people defined by their nationality or by their occupation? Should Stack Exchange always embrace the usage of neopronouns, and should it always respect a user's choice of words as long as that neopronoun is inoffensive?

Across the entire Stack Exchange network, many users, unfamiliar with the pronoun FAQ and the recent changes in the CoC, will see what they think is a typo and "fix" it. By approving the suggested edit (themselves) proposed by the editor–which in my view was perfectly legitimate–there was the risk of initiating an edit war between the editor and the author of the post.

Sensitive Editing

On the one hand, it's easy to mistake a neopronoun for a spelling error and suggest an edit. When edit is carried out or approved of, the author of the original post might feel hurt, annoyed, or offended. In search of validation, they could flag the edit and accuse the editor of being disrespectful or, worse still, unwelcoming. How should a moderator react to such a flag? Ignore it? Decline it with a boilerplate message? I think not. In the aftermath of Monica Cellio's demodding, that option is no longer available. The moderator will either have to rollback the edit or explain why that neopronoun was unacceptable....

Whereas if the author simply chose to remain silent, the editor would be unaware that their edit hurt that author's feelings or was unfavourably received and (perhaps) continue editing out any neopronouns in the future, oblivious to the storm that is brewing in the background.

Am I blowing this out of proportion? No, I don't think I am because recently, someone suggested that an edit of mine could be viewed as being unwelcoming and that simple spelling fix, which by the way was totally unrelated to neopronouns, may have contributed to the newcomer's impression that the site was unfriendly and spurred them to delete their question.

In all likelihood, we're going to see an increasing number of similar episodes in the future, as seen in @Glorfindel's cool-headed answer as well. Unfortunately, offending someone's sensibilities has become a minefield of late. No one is exempt.

Some Stack Exchange sites will be affected more than others, but on social media it seems there is a growing movement of vocal LGBTQ+ supporters who use their platform to criticise a celebrity's Tweet (etc.) by employing the slurs; homophobic, transphobic, or TERF, accusations which were also posted in comments and in posts last year. Unfortunately, this trend will continue to spread if the Stack Exchange management does not provide clear unequivocal guidelines to their volunteer moderators. It is not enough to say in the CoC

Use stated pronouns (when known). When in doubt, don't use language that might offend or alienate.

I would hope that moderators will be provided with more substantial assistance and training.

In contrast, I do believe the reasons for rejecting the edit was done in absolute good faith, the intention was to respect the voice of the OP. But it must be pointed out that the suggested edit–themselves–is completely gender-free. There is no one sex or gender associated with they, them and themselves. The editor could have suggested the singular themself, although that probably opens another can of worms.

A typical American would consider themself a sports fan

I use the pronoun themself quite happily myself but purists will object, leading to new discussions. Generally speaking, users and native speakers alike, remain largely unaware of the existence of these neopronouns despite their somewhat long history.

One the earliest gender-free pronouns was coined by Michael Spivak as long ago as thirty years ago

In 1990, Michael Spivak used them in his manual, The Joy of TeX, so that no person in his examples had a specified gender. […] Many users enjoyed choosing pronouns that didn't specify their gender. The pronouns then became a common feature of other multi-user chats made throughout the 1990s.

list of Spivak pronouns: e, es, ey, em, eir

The Spivak pronouns are the ones highlighted above: e, em, eir, eirs, emself

To sum up, like it or not, we all need patience and time to become accustomed to these new pronouns in the English language, it will not happen in the space of a year, it will take several. We are only at the beginning but the change is inevitable.

  • Thank you for clarifying! I would also have preferred to use "themself" as I see nothing wrong with it and think its meaning is clearer, but I realise this usage is not universally accepted. That's why I made the conscious decision to use "themselves" as it is technically correct and appears to be accepted by more people. – Cool Fool Dec 23 '19 at 23:11
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    Are spivak pronouns etc being used for indefinite referents or only for non-binary individuals? – curiousdannii Dec 27 '19 at 1:48
  • @curiousdannii the second link, nonbinary.miraheze.org/wiki/… , provides at least one example of a non-binary person using spivak pronouns. (And the quote, of people who chose to present online without binary gender, whether they would like to do so offline or not). Not that I think this detail is particularly relevant to the answer. There are a various different pronouns people have chosen. I don't think we need to develop comprehensive taxonomies or histories on Meta. Just address the issues that affect StackExchange. – sourcejedi Dec 29 '19 at 21:47
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    @sourcejedi Yes we all know neopronouns are used for non-binary individuals. That's not what this question is about. – curiousdannii Dec 30 '19 at 0:35
  • @curiousdannii Are you asking if there a context where spivak pronouns are used for people of unknown gender now, as opposed to the older example(s) quoted in this answer? – sourcejedi Dec 30 '19 at 19:41
  • @sourcejedi Yes, either for specific people of unknown gender, or for indefinite referents. There are no examples of such a use quoted in this answer, hence why I asked. – curiousdannii Dec 30 '19 at 21:54
  • @curiousdannii 2006, is at least later than the more prominent citations ("1990s Internet culture"). 2012. 2011. Absolutely "this usage has been declining". Wouldn't be surprised if the most common usage "now" is cases like the first link in Glorfindels post: someone experimenting with it and later being told that singular they does most of the job and is very widely understood. – sourcejedi Dec 30 '19 at 22:44
  • "[...] vocal LGBTQ+ supporters who use their platform to criticise a celebrity's Tweet (etc.) by employing the slurs; homophobic, transphobic, or TERF. And I fear this trend will only spread." @Mari-Lou (I know you can't reply for a while). 1) "TERF is a slur" specifically, as wikipedia says on TERF, is a partial opinion. Better if you can simply avoid taking that side here. The argument isn't necessary, could easily be removed (and I certainly wouldn't expect any good from debating it underneath here). Just as I don't think I'd enjoy seeing Qs phrased "Does tweet X mean shes a TERF?" on SE. – sourcejedi Jan 1 at 22:14
  • 2) It doesn't say precisely whether you fear essentially all uses of "homophobic" or "transphobic", nor whether you're being specific or you don't want to see "sexist"/"racist" thrown around either. But if I always tuned out at those words, I would be skipping a lot of incisive analysis, and skipping the native discourse and feelings of a large proportion of LGBTQ folks (etc). Let's say, the latter is not the approach I've been recommended, to help work through the various prejudices from upbringing and current environment. – sourcejedi Jan 1 at 22:40
  • (Ahem. There is a run-on sentence in the last paragraph.) – Peter Mortensen Feb 5 at 14:33
  • I think the last paragraph is fine with or without the semi colon. But thanks anyway for telling me. – Mari-Lou A Feb 5 at 14:55
-19

I initially rejected your suggestion that may have sparked your question.

I then stated as a custom rejection reason:

Please don't change pronouns, see https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/xyrself and What does the Code of Conduct say about pronouns?

While the pronoun "xyrself" wouldn't be my first choice either, I don't see why it would have to be changed given the current Code of Conduct.

You attempt to change a genderneutral neopronoun with a more common genderneutral pronoun, and I'm not sure if that improves the answer given the current Code of Conduct. I am aware of your most recent edit suggestion linking to this question. I have not voted on that yet, awaiting what happens at this question, but I am still not sure if it improves the question. Personally, I hope to see some of the framers (to stay in the realm of politics ;)) provide their view on the matter.

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    The edit improves the answer's readability and is not against the Code of Conduct. "Increasing inclusivity" is one but not the only valid reason to approve edits. – wimi Dec 23 '19 at 13:58
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    The OP (coolfool) didn't want to point the finger of blame to anyone, and respect the author's identity, so why did you post the link? – Mari-Lou A Dec 23 '19 at 14:11
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    @JJfor no, replacing the neopronouns that a user used to refer to themselves would not be fine, because that is against the Code of Conduct ("Use stated pronouns when known"), which supersedes the readability issue. But replacing the pronouns used to refer to an abstract party (which has by definition not stated any pronouns) is fine, as long as they are replaced by a gender-neutral pronoun (otherwise, again this would violate the CoC "Prefer gender-neutral language when unknown"). Disclaimer: this is only my interpretation of the CoC, which might or might not be the same as my own opinion. – wimi Dec 23 '19 at 14:13
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    It’s like if I had an answer in completely normal English, then inserted some super weird phrases that, while correct, don’t have any real benefit. "The carbon-based biped walked down the rectangle covered in black concrete." is pointlessly confusing. Same thing here. – Stormblessed Dec 23 '19 at 15:53
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    As a non-native speaker who learned about neopronouns only recently through MSE drama, I would have thought a post using xyrself as a pronoun for a third party group (that is not usually known to use a preferred pronoun) as an attempt to make fun of neopronouns. I would have edited it to say "themselves" for that reason. – user204841 Dec 23 '19 at 17:26
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    This is why "assume good faith" should be in every CoC. – Braiam Dec 23 '19 at 19:55

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