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2:09pm on Sunday, 6th October, 2019:

Singular Response


At the IGGI conference in York last month, we all had name badges. The badges all had a section for us to fill in with our preferred pronouns.

I didn't fill mine in.

We were passively-aggressively informed that we all ought to fill them in, so as not to make people who really wanted to fill them in feel as if they were standing out by filling theirs in.

I still didn't fill mine in.

I don't like gendered pronouns. I'm more connoun than pronoun. I took a dislike to them when writing MUD, because they forced the issue of gender on the player. As for deciding which pronouns you want used, well it's not as if people use them about you in conversation with you anyway.

Ah, but my dialect is that of the East Riding of Yorkshire! We use the singular they there. If I don't like gendered pronouns, why didn't I just write down my preference as "they" instead of leaving it blank or putting "he"?

Here's why.

The programming language Prolog has a system of variables and values. Variables are either instantiated with a variable or not. Prolog statements are mixtures of variables (starting with capital letters) and values. In the statement f(X, 4, Y), X and Y are variables and f and 4 are values. Statements can be matches pairwise with other statements, a process known as unification. When two statements in Prolog are unified, any variable in one that matches a value in the other is instantiated to that value. For example, the expression f(X, 4, Y) unified with f(3, Y, Z) would instantiate X to 3, Y to 4 and Z to 4 (because it unifies with Y, which is instantiated to 4). The result would therefore be f(3, 4, 4). Were we instead to unify f(X, 4, A) with f(3, Y, B) , though, that would leave A and B uninstantiated (but referring to the same variable — let's call it AB). The result would be f(3, 4, AB).

The singular they is like a variable. It's what you use when you don't have a value. You might say "We have a new teacher starting soon, but I don't know their name" because you can't instantiate their gender. You don't know whether to use "his" or "her", so you use the singular "they"; if you did know, you'd unify the variable with the value and use that.

When people used to use male pronouns for variables, there was confusion over whether they were indeed variables or values. Saying "We have a new teacher starting soon, but I don't know his name" suggests that you do at least know he's male. Use of the singular they gets round this.

This does not happen when the word "they" is used as a value rather than a variable.

If an individual insists on having the singular they used as their preferred personal pronoun, it's as a value, not as an uninstantiated variable. If I say "We have a new teacher starting soon, but I don't know their name", it now seems to mean that I may not know their name but I do know that they self-identify as neither male nor female.

Unfortunately, though, I don't know that at all. They may happily self-identify as female. I want to use a variable there, not a value. It is a value, too, because saying your gender is non-binary is not the same as saying it's unspecified. It could be a changing value, sure, but it's still a value.

People who advocate the use of the singular they as a pronoun but who don't know this dialect usage will often point to centuries of precedence ("Shakespeare used it", that kind of thing) without necessarily picking up on the value/variable distinction of my dialect use. They're looking for a justification for their turn of phrase, and history provides them with plenty. They don't actually need a justification, of course — language use is always changing — but it can help them counter arguments that any use of the singular they is inappropriate.

That said, dialects are languages, too. My dialect doesn't just have a singular they, it has a singular reflexive form. The word "themself" is fine — I was at university before I found out it wasn't regular English. I'm very attached to this usage, and although I understand why some people would want to ground their personal pronoun as "they", I don't like what doing this costs my dialect. I don't, therefore, ever use the singular they as a value; I only use it as a variable. OK, well I guess I might do it to humour someone to avoid an argument, too.

Ah, the politics of personal gender identity versus the politics of personal regional identity.

I really don't like gendered pronouns...

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Copyright © 2019 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).