Sciencewomen

i-9dc84d4d9156dccb30d5f62466b4219a-swblocks.jpgAfter the weekend, I’ll be back with a follow up to the post on my progress towards tenure, and I’ll try to address some of the substantive and thought-provoking comments that you all have raised. But, here in the States, it’s already a holiday weekend, and so for today, I’ll punt and take on a side issue from that comment thread.

Comrade Physioprof commented:

“hir” is a total …abomination! It is so …distracting it totally ruins the flow of reading, because it is NOT A REAL …WORD!

In terms of identifiability of an anonymous individual, how much difference does a factor of two make in the likelihood of identifying the person? And if you really think it makes a difference, for the love of god, just use “his or her”. [Use your imagination to fill in the ellipses.]


Dear Comrade Physioprof,

It’s taken me a long time to come to hir, because I felt similarly to you when I first saw it used. But, there is a rich history of use by people trying to solve the English-language gender neutral pronoun problem, and gender theorists like Kate Bornstein have used hir in their work.

But for me, using hir is a way of acknowledging the maleness of my field, without completely negating any possible female presence. If I said that my graduate students are women, it would still mark them as something special…as others in an impossibly male field. Given the number of women graduate students in the geosciences, identifying a student as female increases her identifiability not by a factor of 2, but by a factor of 3 to 5. If said that my graduate students are men, it would be an implicit acceptance of the “fact” that only men make proper geoscientist and even a woman who has made it to the junior PI stage can only be expected to produce male academic heirs.

(If you still doubt the maleness of my particular specialty, consider the phone conversation I was having while you were commenting. My co-author and I were discussing potential reviewers for an about-to-be-submitted manuscript. We came up with a list of 12 people, 0 are women. Of the 70 first authors in the paper’s reference list, there are 6 women. One is me. Three are collaborators.)

By using hir, I can take my students’ genders out of the equation and just let them be who they are. In the context of my post, they are simply human beings that I am trying to shepherd through graduate school for the sake of their careers and my own.

As far as grammatical correctness is concerned, hir is infinitely preferable to the old gender-obfuscating use of the singular “they” and its a lot easier to write than “his or her.” It’s also got a special place in my heart, because ScienceGrandma once told me that when I was in utero, my parents called me “Herm” since my gender was unknown in the days before routine ultrasound.

And finally, dearest physioprof, criticizing my use of non-old school English is awfully rich from someone who introduced me to half the terms in the urban dictionary. Eleventy!!!!1!1111!!!!!!

Your friend,

SciWo

Comments

  1. #1 Comrade PhysioProf
    July 3, 2009

    My solution to this problem is to always refer to *everyone* using the female grammatical forms. People who are familiar with my oeuvre know this, and thus I can use a real word that is not distracting, and yet telegraph nothing about the gender of whomever I am referring to.

  2. #2 Dave Munger
    July 3, 2009

    I think “They” is better than any of these options. It’s used in speech all the time.

  3. #3 Maria
    July 3, 2009

    My current workplace is slightly more than 50% women (including the principals, who are frequently subjects of conversation) but my ears still perk up whenever I hear someone talking about “she” or “her”, on the assumption that it is likely to be relevant to me. Old habits die hard!

    Pronoun-wise, though… if singular “they” was good enough for Shakespeare, it’s good enough for me.

  4. #4 Rosie
    July 3, 2009

    /delurking
    Yep, gotta admit the use of hir grates, since it’s completely unnecessary to coin a gender neutral term where one already exists. English grammar is already evolving naturally so the use of the third person plural pronoun “they” can be used as an indefinite singular term again (as it has been for the past 600 years) without pissing off anyone except a small group of grammarians. Therefore why not just write “My MS student should finish their MS by the end of 2010. If they do, I’ll be able to revise their work into a paper.”
    Also whenever I see hir used I usually assume that the author’s simply made a typo and is talking about a woman, which kinda defeats the purpose. Even if I realize it’s being used intentionally I pronounce it “her” in my mind anyway – making it non gender neutral.
    lurk reenabled

  5. #5 D. C. Sessions
    July 3, 2009

    I do so love prescriptivists. It’s so amusing when they insist on traditional address such as “Miss” and “Mrs.” in place of the now-common “Ms.”

  6. #6 volcanista
    July 3, 2009

    I admit I lean towards “they” in my own usage, even though it’s kind of clunky. But “hir” and “ze” do more than address the “their/they” problem. Those pronouns move away from the gender binary and don’t exclude those identify as neither male nor female. If someone wants me to refer to them (heh – but actually, I’m not sure of the proper gender-neutral object pronoun) with a properly singular, gender-neutral pronoun, it really takes very little effort for me to go along with that. And a lot more effort for me to complain about it.

  7. #7 Julianne
    July 3, 2009

    But doesn’t “hir” sound just like “her”? I think that’s what makes me react to it poorly — it reads more like a misspelling than gender orthodoxy turned on its head. I’m usually cool with “his or her” or “one’s” or going to the neutral plural.

  8. #8 Comrade PhysioProf
    July 3, 2009

    I admit I lean towards “they” in my own usage, even though it’s kind of clunky. But “hir” and “ze” do more than address the “their/they” problem. Those pronouns move away from the gender binary and don’t exclude those identify as neither male nor female.

    They/their does the exact same fucking thing.

  9. #9 MCH
    July 3, 2009

    “hir” grates on me as well. As a previous commenter says, it always takes me a while to realize the author didn’t just make a typo. “Their” works just fine, and it’s easier to read and less distracting. I find “hir” just tries too hard to be gender neutral that it boarders on annoying.

    Plus, what’s wrong with knowing someone is a him or a her? As much as some don’t want it, our gender is a part of our identity.

  10. #10 D. C. Sessions
    July 3, 2009

    But doesn’t “hir” sound just like “her”?

    Well, if you pronounce it that way CPP may not call the language police on you. Alternately, you can pronounce it more like the Dutch vowel — sort of like “heer.”

  11. #11 Tsu Dho Nimh
    July 3, 2009

    My problem with “they/their” is that it’s seldom clear whether it’s plural or singular.

  12. #12 Julianne
    July 3, 2009

    Alternately, you can pronounce it more like the Dutch vowel — sort of like “heer.”

    True. But I’m not dutch.

  13. #13 D. C. Sessions
    July 3, 2009

    True. But I’m not dutch.

    That’s the nice thing about English: unlike with French, everyone knows that “the purity of the English language” is a C|N>K

  14. #14 llewelly
    July 3, 2009

    Alternately, you can pronounce it more like the Dutch vowel — sort of like “heer.”

    I suspect the majority of Americans can neither pronounce that phoneme nor distinguish it from the vowel sound in ‘her’ .

  15. #15 lylebot
    July 3, 2009

    “They”/”their” is the English standard gender-neutral pronoun. It’s almost always clear from context whether it’s meant to be plural or singular. Using them is far preferable to using words that very few people recognize or understand. This is especially true of pronouns, a class of words that change very little over time and that require a lot of mental effort when adapting to a new system (think of native Chinese speakers confusing “him” and “her” in English).

    What’s really unfortunate is that large numbers of people are convinced that “they” can only be used in the plural sense (even though its use as a gender-neutral singular goes at least as far back as Shakespeare, and everyone understands it intuitively). If you try to use it in a paper, at least one reviewer is going to ding you. But it’s still far easier to get people to accept “they” as a singular than to accept a whole new pronoun.

  16. #16 MathWoman
    July 3, 2009

    I agree with you on every point, ScienceWoman! Thank you so much for writing this. I feel that there needs to be greater acceptance and use of this gender neutral construction outside of gender studies and the LGBTQ community.

  17. #17 Kim Hannula
    July 3, 2009

    MCH, the issue has more to do with respecting the privacy of the student than with hiding gender. ScienceWoman has acknowledged that she’s a geoscientist, and that plus a little knowledge about her specialty plus knowledge of the genders of her grad students can essentially out her – and, worse, her students. (And if she called all of her students “she” and “her,” that would lead to speculation about who she is, as well, even if she was actually referring to male students.)

    (Seriously – the primary reason that I don’t use a pseudonym is that it would be pointless, if I wanted to acknowledge that I’m a woman and a geology professor and live in western Colorado. I can’t talk about my experience without outing myself.)

    I tend to use “they,” especially in situations that discuss a generic person (such as volcanista’s “If someone wants me to refer to them”). But when referring to a specific individual (such as”My MS student should finish their MS by the end of 2010.”), it sounds more awkward.

    I stumble over “hir” as well, but I understand why SW uses it.

  18. #18 D. C. Sessions
    July 3, 2009

    I feel that there needs to be greater acceptance and use of this gender neutral construction outside of gender studies and the LGBTQ community.

    Maybe its use in those communities is part of its rejection outside of them.

  19. #19 Annie
    July 3, 2009

    SW, I think you’re about the toughest cookie in the bakery box, and I agree with the majority of your posts. But at the risk of sounding like an airhead: OH HONEY, NO. As an English major with a love for words, I have to be completely frank and tell you that when I see “hir” I immediately get itchy. It also makes me think of “hirsute,” and I’m not sure that’s a word that anyone wants applied to his, her, OR their description.

  20. #20 fullerenedream
    July 3, 2009

    Once you read a few books with alternate pronoun schemes (e.g. some Greg Egan books), you get used to it. But I still prefer the singular “they”, probably because I grew up with it. I didn’t even know it was “incorrect” until junior high.

    Also, English is a mess anyway. We don’t even have a proper plural form of “you”. The closest we have is “you guys” (gendered again) and “y’all”!

  21. #21 Hope
    July 4, 2009

    Oh Annie, that’s so funny – when I first started seeing “hir,” my mind would always leap to “hirsute” also!

    Like a number of others who have commented, I prefer “they.” But I must admit that after reading certain blogs for a while, “hir” doesn’t bother me as much as it used to.

  22. #22 Paper Hand
    July 4, 2009

    I pronounce hir like “hire”.

    As for singular they, the problem is that it doesn’t sound right with a singular reference. If the reference is a generic like “a student” or “a friend”, then it’s okay, but for a more specific noun, it tends to fail. “My friend failed their test” sounds weird. And “Pat failed their test” is even worse.

  23. #23 lytefoot
    July 4, 2009

    I’ve always pronounced “hir” like “hear”… but yes, it pisses me off, too. As a woman in a male-dominated field, I’m honestly quite comfortable with the gender-neutral use of the masculine pronoun. My objection to “hir” and “ze” is primarily that, much as the purport to be de-emphasizing gender, in fact they do the opposite. When I encounter a gender-neutral “his,” no alarm bells go off, I simply don’t think about it. If I come across a “his or her,” it’s a little grating, but it serves. Gender-neutral singular “they” seriously irritates me, especially (as #22 points out) in singular references. I’ve also heard “you” used as a gender-neutral third-person pronoun, and that’s especially irritating. But “hir” always makes me think first that the author is pretentious and obsessed with gender.

    I’ve always interpreted the masculine pronoun to have two distinct meanings in English. If it refers to a specific person, it’s masculine; if it refers to a generic third person of unknown gender, it’s gender neutral.

    On the other hand… English already lacks *singular* second person pronoun. “You” is the plural form. The singular “thou” fell out of favor due to peculiar etiquette constraints. (Referring to a single second person was too accusatory.) So if peculiar etiquette constraints of the 20th/21st century lead to the creation of a gender-neutral pronoun, fine… but one shouldn’t expect it to happen quickly, or be quickly accepted. “Thou” died out over a very long time, vanishing last from formal works, and never went away completely. The awkward constructions will be the accepted method for some time to come.

  24. #24 Azkyroth
    July 4, 2009

    My solution would be two-fold.

    1) Use “they,” “them,” “themself,” etc. and
    2) Learn the Olde Anglish translation of “Languages change, stupid; adapt or die.”

  25. #25 Ksks
    July 4, 2009

    At least you’re lucky because English is a fairly gender-neutral language, except for a few pronouns. It’s much worse in French : plurals are gendered, and adjectives too ; it’s nearly impossible to speak about somebody without making an assumption about their gender.

  26. #26 Adam Cuerden
    July 4, 2009

    I personally much prefer “they”, as it has a long history of use. “Hir” does not, so I side with abomination.

  27. #27 Adam Cuerden
    July 4, 2009

    Also, “they”, since it has a long history of use, it does not seem at all weird to anyone who’s read enough books and such of the right period. In fact, singular “they” is quite common here in Britain.

  28. #28 Patience
    July 4, 2009

    I feel that there needs to be greater acceptance and use of this gender neutral construction outside of gender studies and the LGBTQ community.

    Oh, please. GLBT people are not some monolith. My friends and I, certainly queers and one of us trans, all of us feminists, would not touch this ‘hir’ and ‘ze’ bullshit with a 10-foot linguistic pole. Among other things we are historians, linguists, and the singular they/their construction is perfectly legit and less disruptive. It deemphasizes gender, which was supposed to be the point of ‘hir’ (which does read as an illiterate misspelling of ‘her’ and is pronounced the same in this end of Virginia), except that ‘their’ does it with a native-word feel that is non-disruptive. It actually achieves its goal. ‘Hir’ is a failure of made-up language and I can’t wait for it to be dropped.

  29. #29 Jason Dick
    July 4, 2009

    I have to agree with many previous posts in the comments: they is better!

  30. #30 Lab Lemming
    July 4, 2009

    Why not go whole hog, and use “hyr”?

  31. #31 SeanH
    July 4, 2009

    I love how almost everyone’s objection to “hir” is that it offends their delicate aesthetic sensibilities. I am truly sorry that so many people have acquired this sensitivity to the slightest deviation from Queen Victoria’s English, but I don’t see why we should care that much, given that in scientific writing we’re trying to be clear rather than pen great works of literature.

  32. #32 ScienceWoman
    July 4, 2009

    “Ze is going to defend hir MS next week.”
    “They is going to defend their MS next week.”

    Seriously, the second construction is really less offensive to your grammatical senses?

  33. #33 Rowan Edwards
    July 4, 2009

    SW, I think that would be (singular) “they are”, rather than “they is”, in the same we use (singular) “you are”, not “you art”. (Replacing “he or she is” and “thou art”, respectively…)

  34. Well, I would stick with the grammatical rule for “they” as 3rd person plural, even when using it as a 3rd person singular: “They are going to defend their MS next week.” And hopefully it would still be obvious from context (a prior mention of “my student” or “a student”) that it was intended as a singular. I have to agree that a pronoun that has been used for this purpose for hundreds of years already is much more likely to be eventually accepted as proper grammar and achieve widespread use and acceptance.

  35. #35 D. C. Sessions
    July 4, 2009

    Fascinating the way that dominoes fall.

    First it was, “‘they’ is singluar.” Given the “They is going to defend their MS next week” example (which would be perfectly correct if they/their were indeed singular) we’re instructed to also use the plural verb forms for agreement.

    I am curious how one is to know that “They are going to defend their MS next week” doesn’t mean a group effort.

  36. #36 Comrade PhysioProf
    July 4, 2009

    I love how almost everyone’s objection to “hir” is that it offends their delicate aesthetic sensibilities.

    My objection to “hir” and “ze” has nothing to do with aesthetics and everything to do with the fact that they completely disrupt the flow of my reading, because they are not words and they interfere with syntactic sentence parsing.

    And, as was pointed out, this is a very different situation than neologisms that are nouns, verbs, or adjectives. Made up nouns, verbs, and adjectives do not disrupt reading because even if you don’t know what they mean, they do not interfere with syntactic parsing of a sentence. Made up pronouns or prepositions interfere with parsing. Pronouns and prepositions change very, very slowly over time for exactly this reason, and making up new ones–especially for political purposes–is just fucking stupid.

  37. #37 random student
    July 4, 2009

    After working with assorted language purists and feminist scholars to boot, “he or she” and “him or her” are really the only way I have found to address the issue. It’s better than s/he, and if I write “they” in a singular sense I had better be able to identify a plural subject. One of my favorites was catching all of the grammar associated with “A student” and “their” in the same sentence in my colleague’s paper. Any one that we missed came back circled. With regard to gender-neutral pronouns in conversation the ze/zim/zer progression keeps my tongue from slipping. However, just because something is common in spoken speech does not make it grammatically correct.

  38. #38 CW
    July 4, 2009

    I am curious how one is to know that “They are going to defend their MS next week” doesn’t mean a group effort.

    Hopefully from context. While it is possible to write a sentence in which the meaning of “they are” is unclear, it is also quite easy to make your meaning clear through context and construction. It’s not like this is the only element of the English language which allows sloppy handling to result in obfuscation. We are, as the man said, tied down to a language which makes up in obscurity what it lacks in style.

  39. #39 Kate
    July 4, 2009

    Personally, I’m on the side of hir OR their. Whatever the writer prefers for gender-neutral usage. Sure hir is a bit disruptive, at least at first, but can’t we appreciate attempts to 1) keep from outing people when writing about work situations on a blog and 2) attempts to create room for women in masculine disciplines? These are ScienceWoman’s original points and, I think those should be the focus more than whether we like new pronouns or their interference with “syntactic sentence parsing.”

    Arguments against women and LGBT folk in the military have included similar ones (they interfere/distract the men), as well as arguments for certain dress codes for women (show too much cleave and you’re distracting, too little and you’re not following appropriate gender norms, which can also interfere with work), and other similarly oppressive situations. Frankly, I’m for any and all attempts to diffuse or end oppression. Maybe the interference is GOOD, because it gets us thinking.

  40. #40 David
    July 4, 2009

    ‘hir is infinitely preferable to the old gender-obfuscating use of the singular “they”‘

    - Why?

    I recall being taught at school in the 1950s to use ‘they’ and ‘their’ as singular terms. These words sound right to me, in the singular context. We do want to obfuscate (if you insist on using a word with emotional baggage) gender in this case. What, exactly, is wrong with them, that we have to invent a new word, or use the clumsy she/he, etc?

  41. #41 D. C. Sessions
    July 4, 2009

    What, exactly, is wrong with them, that we have to invent a new word, or use the clumsy she/he, etc?

    Some people aren’t comfortable with new words, some aren’t comfortable with “they is” and some aren’t comfortable with using plural verbs for singular subjects.

    It comes down to the usual decision tree, and the first item on the tree is whether English should remain static. If it does, then we use masculine gender for generic or unknown individuals, feminists can STFU. After that, all choices violate someone’s comfort level — that’s just the nature of language changes.

    CPP has problems parsing new pronouns but has no problem with verb/noun disagreement, I’m the other way ’round.

    In the immortal words of Ricky Nelson, “You can’t please everyone, so you got to please yourself.”

  42. #42 Rick Pikul
    July 4, 2009

    I actually have the opposite problem with using hir as gender neutral: I come from a reading background where it is firmly settled as being gender specific to hermaphrodites. For pronunciation, I use “herr” along with “shay” for shi and “cher” for the honourific shir.

    When I need gender neutral: I tend to use they if it’s going to be on its own, alternate between he and she if I have a series of people of unspecified gender and either he or she if there is also a person of known gender, (Bill went to the doctor and she said…).

  43. #43 Jason Dick
    July 4, 2009

    No language is static, so we can dispense with that possibility straight away. All languages change. All the time. The fact remains that use is going to determine what the preferred gender-neutral singular third-person pronoun is going to be. I personally prefer they: it’s less clunky, has a history of use, and is understood without explanation. I suspect it’ll win out. But we’ll see.

  44. #44 Comrade PhysioProf
    July 4, 2009

    But we’ll see.

    I suspect that we will all be dead long before there is a genuine consensus-accepted gender-neutral singular third-person pronoun and possessive.

  45. #45 rx1 zayıflama
    July 4, 2009

    I have to agree that a pronoun that has been used for this purpose for hundreds of years already is much more likely to be eventually accepted as proper grammar and achieve widespread use and acceptance.

  46. #46 JD
    July 4, 2009

    I’m going to go out on a limb here and stand behind SW’s use of hir. She says: “using hir is a way of acknowledging the maleness of my field, without completely negating any possible female presence.” I work in a completely different male-dominated area of science than SW, and the intended gender-neutral use of they/their almost always conjures up a male image in my head even though I am a woman scientist who earned a Ph.D. working in the lab of a woman scientist; this is precisely the problem with this historically accepted use of our traditionally plural pronouns. Yes, it’s gender-neutral. Yes, it obfuscates a person’s gender when that is necessary or desirable. But in academe it may also lead a reader to assume that the person in question is a man, because in many disciplines this is what we see on a day-to-day basis. I like the use of hir for the precise reason that it is aesthetically jolting, and reminds me of the intelligent, savvy, gifted women working at all levels in science.

  47. #47 Comrade PhysioProf
    July 5, 2009

    I like the use of hir for the precise reason that it is aesthetically jolting, and reminds me of the intelligent, savvy, gifted women working at all levels in science.

    Then why not do what I do and refer to *all* unspecified scientists as she and her? This is jolting to expectations in a good way, yet doesn’t require the use of a made up shitty fake-ass word that fucks up syntax.

  48. #48 AspiringGradStudent
    July 26, 2009

    Thank you for your blog and this post in particular!

    I am engaged in an extended debate with some colleagues regarding the merits of gender neutral pronouns in and out of academe, and I wonder if you could recommend any recent articles on the topic. I’m surprised more people did not mention the feminine default (using feminine pronouns in all ambiguous situations) alternative that is increasingly used in my field, although it also has its faults.

    @ D. C. Sessions, what is your opinion on the reverse issue, of refusing to honor women’s decisions to identify by antiquated titles like Mrs.? Is it impolite to call self-described Mrs. Dick Grime Ms. Grime instead? What about addressing a married women who has changed hir name by hir (maiden) name, rather than hir husband’s?

  49. #49 IrrationalPoint
    July 30, 2009

    Re the use of “hir” vs “she” or “he or she”:
    The whole point of hir and other gender-neutral pronouns is that they avoid the gender binary. Some people are not accurately described as either “he” or as “she”, and hir is useful for those people. Certainly, when one is using a pronoun as a generic, “she” works just fine, as does “s/he” or but note that the exclusive use of gendered pronouns erases the existence of people who don’t want to be identified with the binary at all.

    Re the use of “they”:
    “They” is certainly useful and gets around a lot of the gendering issues I mention above. However, it does have one or two genuine syntactic issues. Consider:

    (1) Someone in my engineering class asked a question. They had to repeat it because they spoke so quietly that nobody could hear the question.

    (2) *That is Hilary’s essay. They are clearly a person with a strange world-view.

    Example (1) seems syntactically fine, and such constructions are in common use. But (2) is rather bizzare (I have used the linguistics convention of using a star to mark an unacceptable sentence). It’s not clear that “they” is permitted when the person it refers to has been named. So there are at least a few situations where “they” just won’t cut it, even if they are few and far between.

    Re the pronounciation of “hir”:
    I have always heard it pronounced like the English “here”, which native speakers of English can both say and distinguish easily.

    –IP

  50. #50 kj
    October 17, 2009

    I personally approve the gender-nuetral pronoun because people treat me differently based on perceptions of my gender. As a writer, it’s frustrating that the tide of good and bad reviews depends on what they think my sex is, which has no bearing at all on my writing!

  51. #51 Zayıflama Yolları
    April 17, 2011

    “And finally, dearest physioprof, criticizing my use of non-old school English is awfully rich from someone who introduced me to half the terms in the urban dictionary.”
    Effective finish..Effective article..