Monday, February 11, 2019

I think ze was confused -- in favor of genderless pronouns

You've probably heard the following:

               At first I didn't want to get an X but now that I have it, I can't imagine life without one.

X could be telegraph, radio, TV, color TV, VCR, CD player, streaming, Netflix, Amazon prime, an uber account, Washer and Dryer, Car Phones (remember those), Cell Phones. If you go back in history  wrist watches or sun dials (or wrist-sun-dials!).

This has happened to me recently though not with an object. I read an article someplace saying that ze can be used instead of he or she. It was referring to nonbinaries (using `they' never quite sounded right) but actually it would be great if this was a general genderless pronoun. I am not making a political statement here (although I doubt I have any readers who are against genderless pronouns).

Once I came across the term ze I found places to use it and now I can't imagine not using it.

In a recent article I wrote I needed to say that someone was probably confused, but I did not know their gender. I used

                                                         Ze was probably confused

which is much better than

                                                         S/he was probably confused

                                                         He or she was probably confused

                                                         The student was probably confused

                                                         They were probably confused.

Note that the first two leave out nonbinaries.

0) In the article I put in a footnote saying what ze meant. In the future I may not have to.

1) Will ze catch on? This blog post is an attempt to hasten the practice.

2) Is there a term for his/her that is non-gendered? If not then maybe zer.

3) Will there be political pushback on this usage? If its phrased as a way to include nonbinaries than unfortunately yes. If its phrased as above as when you don't know the gender, what do you do, then no.

4) Is  nonbinary the correct term? If not then please politely correct me in the comments.

5) Has Ms replaced Miss and Mrs?

I have used the term ze several times since then- often when I get email from a student such that I can't tell from the first name what their gender is, and I need to forward the email, such as

                   Ze wants to take honors discrete math but does not have the prerequisite, but
                   since ze placed in the top five in the math olympiad, we'll let zer take it.


  1. I agree that English would be simpler and better if we could introduce widely-accepted gender-neutral pronouns.

    However, I don't think that's what the recent "pronouns movement" (or whatever it is called) is doing. It seems to be introducing more complexity to pronouns, not less.

    In particular, I don't think you're supposed to refer to someone as "ze" if their preference is for "vey" or one of the many other options ( ), so it's not a catch-all.

  2. I am all for a non-gendered singular pronoun. I think English speakers are voting for "they" by adopting it fairly widely, so I think it is the one that will win. Already many style guides allow for a singular they, so publications are more likely to use it than other options. Some people find it off-putting to use plural verbs with a singular subject or worry that the singular/plural ambiguity will be a problem with singular they, but we don't seem to have a problem with that when it comes to the word "you." I'm not against ze or ey or any other neo-pronoun, but I think the expedience and familiarity of "they" is already winning out. Personally, singular they was a little awkward to my ear a few years ago, but I've adjusted and find it pretty natural now.
    BTW, in answer to some of your questions:
    I believe ze/hir/hirs is the most commonly used set of "ze" pronouns.
    I would use "nonbinary" as an adjective, not a noun. I would say "nonbinary people" rather than "nonbinaries."
    I would definitely use Ms. instead of Miss for any adult woman. Ms. seems safer than Mrs. if you don't know which one a woman uses. (And of course, Dr. when the woman has a doctorate.) Mx. is a non-gendered alternative.

  3. Response to both comments- I am not so much pro-ze as pro-some uniform non-gendered pronoun. `they' is fine though it will take some time getting used to since it also means plural.

    It is my hope that ze or they or ve or something REPLACES he and she, but I doubt that will happen.

    It is my hope that Mx replaces M(r, rs, s, iss) but I doubt that will happen either.

    for that matter, why do Doctors (medical or phd) get to have a special honorific? Another unneeded division.

    Mx Gasarch

  4. Personally I would find it dehumanizing is someone referred to me by a genderless pronoun. Maybe it is only me.

  5. What I really want is a gender-neutral term for "sibling-of-parent node" in a tree.

    1. we do have a gender-free term for parents-of-parents:

      But you make a good point: Uncle, Aunt, Brother, Sister, all gendered.

      I know a few people who have a nonbinary sibling and they just refer to them as `my sib' That could work and is aleady sort-of in the language. but it might not reall work as this real conversation shows:

      Bill: Do you have any siblings?

      Students: Yes, I have a younger sibling.

      Bill: is it a brother or a sister (my bad for asking?)

      Student: my sibling is a nonbinar person.

      Bill: Is ze good at math?

      so if people use the term `sib' it may just raise the question of gender.

    >`they' is fine though it will take some time getting used to since it also means plural.

    `You' was originally plural. The singular was `thou'. As we transitioned to singular `you', we will relegate `he/she' to history and use `they'. We are also in favor of forgetting the singular `I' and referring to ourselves with the plural form `we'.

  7. Language emerges from people, not the other way around. Stop the Orwellian crap.

    1. Owellian implies some sort of coercion. I am raising the issue and people are discussing it. The very people that you say language emerges from are discussing it. So whats our problem? To say

      I hope that a genderless pronoun (either ze or they or something) catches on.

      is one person expressing an opinion and starting a discussion, not coercion.

      Incidentally- `Orwellian'- nice word! Now that I've seen it I'll start using it an promote its use. As a person.

    2. I actually think it's too late. They has caught on. And having two or more genderless pronouns is really hard, because you have to remember which pronoun is associated with which person.

  8. A genderless pronoun is likely to catch on. As the wiki article above mentions, there are multiple choices, and as Evelyn notes, 'they' seems to be a popular front-runner. I think it's fine to use any of these choices for generic examples, say in problem assignments, documentation, or research papers when describing a generic person. The preferred model at our institution when referring to a particular person is to simply ask their personal preference. This has become so common that students can list their preferred pronoun on their registration data, faculty commonly ask students to list their preferred pronoun along with preferred name during the first week of class, and students and faculty often sign emails with their name and preferred pronouns. It seems like overkill at first, but once it reaches a critical mass, nobody really thinks anything of it and people are free to express a wider range of preferences.

  9. "They" is already in wide common usage for the singular when gender is not known, so this shift wouldn't be much of a change.

    In the academic realm, when one refers to an author's argument it seems very common to use the pronoun "they" even when we know who the author is. We are so used to multi-author papers that it can seem a somewhat jarring extra cognitive load to use a gender-specific pronoun. (Of course, getting the gender-specific pronoun wrong is the most jarring.)

    The "preferred pronoun" choice has also been common at our institution for a few years. The choice of these pronouns is fine but I wonder if the use of these pronouns could actually mitigate against the more common usage of "they", since "they" seems to be used solely as an indication of non-binary gender.

  10. The real issue is that it's impossible to divorce language from politics and ideology. Even if you use the word for purely practical purposes people will interpret you to be taking particular ideological stands by using a word like 'ze'. As such 'they' seems strictly better.

    But while it is good to have such a word as an option I think that the existence of trans individuals demonstrates just how important gender information is to people. We think the indication of gender is so important that misgendering isn't a mere inconvenience like a mispronounced name but a serious issue. In professional and official contexts it would be nice if we could do this by fiat but that's not how language evolves so if anything I'd expect that if society accepts non-binary genders language won't hide that information but highlight it.