Monday, September 14, 2020

Anne Fadiman on singular they

In Harper’s, Anne Fadiman writes about coming to terms with singular they :

For more than six decades, I’ve accepted without thinking that when we say that someone went to the store, we don’t have to specify whether that someone was old or young, rich or poor, fat or thin, tall or short, but we do have to specify whether the someone was a “he” or a “she.” Now I’m starting to think that’s a little weird.
My thinking about singular they has changed twice: first about the use of the word with an indefinite pronoun and again about the use of the word to refer to a non-binary person. A sentence of my own made me rethink things the first time. It was a radio commentary by Geoffrey Nunberg that made me rethink things a second time.

Thanks, Stefan, for pointing me to this essay.

comments: 4

The Arthurian said...

I have such trouble with the "singular they"... but more trouble with the "nonbinary they". If "singular" refers to ONE, then "binary" refers to TWO; and "nonbinary" therefore refers to NOT TWO.

But a "nonbinary they" that refers to three or more is standard stuff: "They are Larry, Moe, and Curly." It is only when the "nonbinary they" refers to ONE that it is non-standard, e.g. "Taylor has a lot going for them".

The phrase "nonbinary they" is being used to mean "singular they" but the use is confused and camouflaged by the inclusion of basically all numbers other than TWO. The argument favoring "singular they" is not neat and tidy, and
I think I should end these remarks immediately.

Michael Leddy said...

With reference to gender, “non-binary” is taken to mean not one or the other, not exclusively or simply female or male. I’ve always understood the term as having its source in structuralism’s binary oppositions (and the dissolving of such oppositions in post-structuralist thought).

I have to admit — it now takes me about a nanosecond to process singular they with reference to a particular person. A singular they followed by themselves sounds awkward to my ear, because they has become so clearly singular. I think I notice singular they more in writing, but that’s because I tend to scrutinize writing, not everyday speaking. Like Geoffrey Nunberg, I think of singular they as a courtesy. If someone does not hear he or she as describing who they are, they is fine by me.

But again, people change their minds about these things, as you can see in previous posts I’ve written about this pronoun.

The Arthurian said...

ML: With reference to gender, “non-binary” is taken to mean not one or the other, not exclusively or simply female or male.

Yeah, I got that. But I didn't get it right away. I had to read a few paragraphs a few times to decipher the meaning of the word. That's what I object to.

I already know the meaning of "binary" and I know what happens to a word when you put "non-" in front of it. But none of the stuff I know applies to the world anymore, because people think they can change the world by changing the meaning of words.

As I think you know, Michael, I see the problems of the world as economic problems. I am frustrated by a world that sees those problems as political, because political solutions cannot solve economic problems.

And if political solutions won't solve the problems, then we are even farther from solutions if we think the answer is to invent new meanings for our words and new genders for ourselves.

So it goes.

Michael Leddy said...

The first OED citation for non-binary with respect to gender is from 1995. The older meaning from philosophy and linguistics, “not characterized by or involving a binary distinction or opposition,” has a first citation from 1971. No one has to acknowledge changes in a word’s meaning (e.g., decimate), but meanings do change and multiply.