Xir Back

Jordan Peterson may have made a career out of refusing to use made-up personal pronouns, but the demand that others use each individual’s choice of pronoun hasn’t fallen by the wayside in fits of laughter over the silliness of the self-indulgent. In fact, the New York Times is back on the case.

Using an analogy that only xe could endure. Barnard English prof Jennifer Finney Boylan throws out the underhanded pitch.

Mrs. Sonny Bono, Jorge Mario Bergoglio and Donald J. Trump walk into a bar. Assuming you’re the bartender, by what names will you address them?

Oh, wait, that’s easy. Call them “Cher,” “Your Holiness” and “Mr. President.”

Because those are the names by which they are known.

See what she did there? This is why she doesn’t teach logic. Putting aside “her truth” that Mrs. Sonny Bono is Cher, as opposed to Mary Whitaker, she conflated proper names with third-person pronouns. This might have escaped your notice, but since Boylan is an English prof, it probably didn’t escape hers.

“Hers”? Is that the pronoun she would prefer I use to discuss her? Because the use of third-person pronouns isn’t the same as speaking to “her” directly, where I would use her proper name.

Yes, pronouns. Even though Barnard is a women’s college, it’s routine for there to be students in the room who don’t use “she.” In part, this is because men from Columbia (our sibling institution) routinely cross Broadway to enroll in a class at Barnard, and also because I might have a few transgender students in one of my classes. (Barnard admits students who identify as female at the time of their application to the college; students coming out as trans men while matriculating continue to be welcomed as part of the community.) Still other students use the gender nonspecific singular “they,” or the gender-neutral pronouns “ze” or “hir” or “xem.”

There are lots of others as well.

Boylan isn’t so foolish as to make her pitch on the basis of any claim to violence, and instead says she, calling herself a “grammar snob,” shares our pain. But it’s a simple matter of respect.

This would be the moment some readers — especially those, like me, who were painstakingly trained to be grammar snobs — might lament the atrociousness of the singular they, not to mention the strangeness of invented pronouns like ze and hir. There was a time when, if I heard an individual refer to himself or herself as “they,” I would have assumed ze might be crackers.

But I use the singular they all the time now — as well as other nonbinary pronouns — because the absence of a gender nonspecific singular pronoun in English really does present a problem, not just for transgender folks but for all people who feel that every word out of their mouths need not necessarily reveal the mysteries of their underpants.

If Boylan, the grammar snob, can do it, who are we to question?

And while conservatives — and others for whom the vexing issue of gender identity is considered a problem of no importance — might well resent any evolution in the mother tongue, it’s worth remembering that English has a long history of adapting to cultural change. That’s something we should celebrate, not lament.

The language is constantly evolving, so stop clinging to tradition, you dinosaur. Which is a great argument for language that better serves its function, to communicate ideas more precisely. Boylan makes a slightly better point when raising the introduction of the word “Ms.” to eliminate the distinction between married and unwed women.

The honorific “Ms.,” first proposed in an issue of The Sunday Republican of Springfield, Mass., in 1901, was finally adopted by The New York Times in 1986.

Except Ms. was finally accepted as a social convention that applied to all women, with the caveat that women who objected to it would be given the honorific of their choice if known. The better analogy would be to say the default pronoun from this point forward will be “xe” rather than “he,” but that’s not what she’s saying.

More simply, though, I’ll call my students they, or “xir,” or “e” (the pronoun coined by the mathematician Michael Spivak) simply because calling people by the names they prefer is a matter of respect. (Even calling them “preferred” pronouns does a disservice, because people aren’t choosing their identities out of fussiness or caprice; they are doing so, usually, as part of a hard-fought search for truth.) Using this language doesn’t mean that I see the world through their eyes. But it does mean I greet them with an open heart.

In other words, if you fail or refuse to use a person’s chosen pronoun, you are being disrespectful and greet them with a closed heart. Bear in mind, you’re not talking to them, but about them to others. And yet, each of them not only gets to dictate the words you use, but gets to compel you to speak in tongues to others about them or be branded a hater.

Why fight it? Why not just acquiesce to whatever pleases others as a sign of “respect” for their feelings? Forget for a moment the silliness of a language, a means of communication, reduced to confusion under the guise of other people’s feelings. Why can’t we just use the words that would be more pleasing to another person? Would it kill us to be kind?

This is a teachable moment. The word Boylan abuses isn’t “he” or “her,” or even the singular “they,” but “respect.” If you fail to use the words that please another, you are a bad person because you have chosen to be disrespectful of their feelings. Their feelings, therefore, are more important than our common language. They are entitled to decide what you are then obliged to say, and your failure to adhere to their desires makes you disrespectful.

George Orwell appreciated this manipulation of language, and warned against it. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson said it in his own way.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

While every young and sensitive soul may be master of xis own domain, is each to be master of your words? It’s better to teach them to respect the language than feel entitled to be its master.

36 thoughts on “Xir Back

  1. Dan

    “for all people who feel that every word out of their mouths need not necessarily reveal the mysteries of their underpants.”

    Unless he routinely speaks of himself in the third person, none of the pronouns he uses to refer to himself will say anything about the mysteries of his underpants.

  2. delurking

    My instinct is to be a prescriptivist like you, but logically I conclude that descriptivism is the better linguistic philosophy. I think you, with your distrust of the police power, should agree. Despite what logic tells me, I have to work hard not to be annoyed, and feel superior, when some lunkhead uses “flaunt” when they really mean “flout”, even though it is quite obvious that “flout” is now one of the meanings of “flaunt”.

    Just like I have an affinity for the older definition of “flaunt”, I think you have an affinity for the older definition of “respect”. These days, it doesn’t mean as much.

    Anyway, as an aside, I really would like to ask Prof. Boylan if she appropriately conjugates the verb that follows the singular “they”, or if she thinks “are” should be singular as well.

    1. Wrongway

      You could’ve just said that that asshole & “their” definitions are turds in a taco..

      that would’ve pretty much covered it..

      1. SHG Post author

        You realize that somebody will come up with a “raw turd taco” for $49.95 and it will become the toast of Palo Alto.

  3. B. McLeod

    I think the bartender would look at each in turn and ask, “What’ll it be?” No need for pronouns. This is a lost cause for the SJW assholes of the nation, as they cannot, in practice, force people to you pronouns at all.

        1. SHG Post author

          If it was enforced, it probably would be, but nothing they do is more than symbolic so it’s never subject to challenge.

    1. KP

      I expected “Yeah, whaddayouswant…”

      and later on-

      “Yousahadda too much, get ouddahere..”

      Pronouns should be no problem in New York.

  4. Scott Jacobs

    In other words, if you fail or refuse to use a person’s chosen pronoun, you are being disrespectful and greet them with a closed heart.

    Finally, a manner of addressing people that shares my true feelings.

    Language truly is amazing.

  5. Pithy the Fool

    Mrs Sonny Bono? is it not a person on it’s own merits? His actual holiness the Patriarch? Francis, or Frank, or El Frankerino if you aren’t into the whole brevity thing. Did it really just deadname Papa himself? a prof of English who doesn’t know there’s a neutral pronoun? It must be parody.

    from the wikipedia:-
    One author who consistently wrote in this manner was the children’s author E. Nesbit, who often wrote of mixed groups of children, and would write, e.g., “Everyone got its legs kicked or its feet trodden on in the scramble to get out of the carriage.” (Five Children and It, p. 1). This usage (in all capital letters, as if an acronym) also occurs in District of Columbia police reports [there is no citation 🙂 ]

  6. Fubar

    More simply, though, I’ll call my students they, or “xir,” or “e” (the pronoun coined by the mathematician Michael Spivak) simply because calling people by the names they prefer is a matter of respect. (Even calling them “preferred” pronouns does a disservice, because people aren’t choosing their identities out of fussiness or caprice; they are doing so, usually, as part of a hard-fought search for truth.)

    After a hard-fought, arduous and deeply personal search for truth costing ten minutes of fy life that Fi’ll never get back, Fi have discovered fy personal pronouns:

    First person, fy pronoun is fee.
    For the second, fo foo sets you free.
    Third: fim, fum (or feirs,
    If you’re puttin’ on airs).
    You respect fee and Fi’ll respect thee!

    1. Patrick Maupin

      What something’s called
      Alters not what’s installed.
      But that specious bitch,
      That hypnotic witch
      Has the unthinking enthralled.

  7. DHMCarver

    I was amused that Boylan argued how language evolves, but then posits that if people do not change on a dime, they are being disrespectful. But then again, as you pointed out, she is not a professor of logic.

  8. Dudeman

    …” the absence of a gender nonspecific singular pronoun in English really does present a problem…”

    Perhaps, “it” would suffice?

    1. SHG Post author

      Talk about objectifying a person. How about it “really” doesn’t present a problem at all. It’s just a useful descriptive word. Nothing more.

  9. wilbur

    I thought the students called the teacher “Xir”. Like “To Xir, With Love”.

    Maybe that’s a viable remake for our good friends in Hollywood.

      1. wilbur

        How could one not love Lulu?

        We’re after hours, so please permit me a tangent. It seems, that in all these Teacher-Turns-Underprivileged-Kids-Lives-Around there’s the obligatory scene where the male teacher lead role (or a surrogate) has to finally take on the villainous bad kid who ruled the roost before the teacher showed up, and none better than the original – Glenn Ford kicking Vic Morrow’s ass in Blackboard Jungle. Very similar plot device seen in westerns, it occurs to me.

  10. WFG

    “Bear in mind, you’re not talking to them, but about them to others.”

    This (to me) is the most maddening thing about the pronoun-of-choice nonsense. It doesn’t matter to the listener if Bob’s preferred pronoun is her, xim, ze, ou, or anything else; if referring to Bob as any of those pronouns confuses the listener or makes the meaning unclear, then the pronoun has failed to do its only job.

  11. Shadow of a Doubt

    I sometimes worry about this in my homeland of Canada, where our quasi-judicial so called “human rights councils” can levy fines enforced by jail times upon failure to pay for the “crime” of using the incorrect pronoun on purpose.

    I am comforted however that being as there is no limit to what those pronouns can be, if I’m ever summoned to one of these “courts” to answer for this crime, they (and any reporting media) will be compelled to refer to me as C–t/C–t/C–tself (without redaction of course) or face the same penalties.

    This is what happens when you aren’t vigilant against the “speech police”, do not ever give up the fight for freedom of speech, because no amount of doublethink will save you if it’s lost.

      1. Shadow of a Doubt

        I’ll apologize afterwards of course, otherwise they might let a moose loose aboot my hoose.

  12. Michael Woodward

    Memo to Shadow of a Doubt
    As a Canadian myself, please just stick with “Michael the Magnificent” as my established moniker/bastardized pronoun.
    Yours in modesty.

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