The Singular “They”

They1And we’re back to the heavy topics. No, it’s not sex. It’s not atheism. It’s not the relative merits of “Harry Potter” versus “Lord of the Rings.”

It’s grammar.

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been deeply buried in Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. I plan to blog about it as soon as I finish it — but one of his tangents reminded me about a rant I’ve been wanting to make about the third person singular pronoun. In the section where he talks about the consciousness-raising potential of Darwin, he makes an analogy to the consciousness-raising potential of non-sexist language:

“Gendered pronouns notoriously are the front line of such consciousness-raising. He or she must ask himself or herself whether his or her sense of style could ever allow himself or herself to write like this. But if we can just get over the clunking infelicity of the language, it raises our consciousness to the sensitivities of half the human race. Man, mankind, the Rights of Man, all men are created equal, one man one vote — English too often seems to exclude woman. When I was young, it never occurred to me that women might feel slighted by a phrase like ‘the future of man’. During the intervening decades, we have all had our consciousness raised.”

HeThis sums up neatly, I think, both the sexist insult of using “he/him/his” as the generic third person singular personal pronoun — and the clumsiness of trying to be both politically and grammatically correct by using “he or she.” (Douglas Hofstadter also does some excellent writing about this in Metamagical Themas — including a mind-blowing essay in which he uses “whites” as the generic term for people instead of “men.”)

So what do we do instead?

Many people have invented gender-neutral pronouns to replace “he or she,” “him or her,” “his or hers,” etc. And not one of these pronouns has caught on. The problem (according to Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct, anyway) is that, while we invent new words all the time and at an astonishing pace, it’s nearly impossible to invent replacements for words that perform complicated and largely unconscious grammatical placeholder functions. Those words get learned very young, they’re deeply rooted in our brain, and trying to replace them is like trying to uproot an oak tree with a toothpick. They evolve very slowly, if at all, and the most we can do is to shuffle them around a bit.

Simple nouns and verbs and adjectives? Absolutely. We make them up on a daily basis. Pronouns and articles? Not so much.

And “it” doesn’t work. We clearly see “it” as referring to objects, and using it to refer to people is, well, de-personalizing. Dehumanizing, even. Like in Silence of the Lambs: “It rubs the lotion on its skin, or else it gets the hose again.”

They2Which is why I’m advocating the singular “they.”

It’s not a made-up word, so it has much more potential to be adopted. In fact, in its current usage (third person plural), both its literal meaning and its grammatical placeholding functions are extremely close to the meaning/function I’m advocating — so close that expanding its meaning/function would be relatively painless.

In fact, not only can it be used this way — it’s already being used this way. In casual conversation, anyway.

And this, I think, is the best argument going for it. No other gender-neutral third person singular personal pronoun has made anywhere near as much headway as the singular “they.” Not only can it be used this way — it is being used this way. You can’t say that about any other alternative.

I think the singular “they” is the best solution we have. And I think we should move towards incorporating it — in casual conversation, but also (gradually) in more and more formal usage as well. I’m not saying we should get rid of “he” and “she” — gendered pronouns are useful, too. But when we want a third person singular pronoun to refer to a person whose gender is unknown, I think “they” is going to be our best bet.

Now, the big argument against the singular “they” is that it’s ungrammatical. “They” means third person plural, the argument goes, not third person singular, and that’s the end of it.

YouBut I have two counter-arguments to that. One is the argument from precedent. We already use “you” to mean both second person singular and second person plural. And we do so with minimal confusion. Our grammar is obviously capable of using the same pronoun for singular and plural — there’s nothing in the structure of our language to disallow it.

In fact, “you” wasn’t always both the plural form of the second person pronoun — it used to be the second person plural only, with the now-archaic “thou” taking the second person singular. Clearly our grammar is capable, not just of having one pronoun for both singular and plural, but of allowing for a switch from one to the other. (A quick shout-out to Cecil Adams of “The Straight Dope,” for pointing out the plural-singular shift of “you” in a discussion of this very issue.) The singular “they” also has centuries of literary precedent, including Shakespeare, Thackeray, Austen, the King James Bible, and others.

The second — and probably more controversial — argument is my general descriptivist approach to language. To say that a word or usage isn’t correct because it isn’t grammatical is, in my opinion, circular reasoning. It’s grammatical if it’s generally accepted as such by everybody who uses the language
 as long as it doesn’t violate the basic structure of the language (and I believe the abovementioned precedent proves that the singular “they” does not). Grammatical is as grammatical does. Language changes — in fact, change is essential to the way language works — and usages that were considered incorrect 100 years ago now are now accepted without argument by even the most passionate prescriptivist. (And vice versa.)

(BTW, if you’re unfamiliar with the arcane lingo of linguistic squabbles and don’t know what the hell “descriptivist” and “prescriptivist” mean, Wikipedia has an excellent entry on the subject. Short version: Prescriptivists tend to think people should use language according to rules set out in grammar books, and are more likely to resist changes in language; descriptivists tend to think grammar books should describe the rules of language as it’s used, and are more likely to embrace changes in language. The difference is often described as if it were between two clearly opposing camps, but in fact it’s more of a shades-of-gray spectrum.)

Now, while I am a fairly ardent descriptivist, I’m not a hard-line one. I understand that, while language has to change in order to work, it also has to have some consistency in order to work. If we don’t agree on what words mean (not to mention the structures we put them together with), then the language just becomes nonsense. And while I think it’s silly to resist changes in the language just on principle, I think it is worth debating whether any given change is necessary, desirable, comprehensible, and graceful.

They3But I think the singular “they” is all of the above. It’s needed, it’s wanted, it’s simple, and it works. And the more it gets used, the less awkward it will sound, and the more quickly it’ll be accepted as standard usage.

So let’s use it.

Catfish Doing Yoga: Greta’s First Foray into Friday Cat Blogging

Catfish

My friend Hayley used her camera phone to take this picture of Catfish doing yoga in front of the heater, and I thought it would be a good opportunity to begin my foray into Friday Cat Blogging.

I should warn you: Ingrid and I got a digital camera for Christmas (thanks, Judy and Lori!). So as soon as we figure out how to work it, this largely “sex and atheism” blog will be turning into a “sex, atheism, and cute pictures of our cats” blog.

Be afraid. Be very, very afraid.

The Ritualistic Year-End Top Whatever List

10Like salmons swimming upstream to spawn, writers are compelled by powerful inchoate longings to make year-end lists of the Top Ten, or Top 100, or Top 17, Things That Sum Up The Year In Some Vague Silly Way. For this blog, I thought I’d do a nice self-referential “snake eating its tail” one — and do a Top Ten list of the blog itself.

Here are the rules. I tallied up how many comments each blog posting gathered. I subtracted comments I made myself (it seemed like cheating somehow to include my own posts). So here are the blog posts that y’all thought were most chat-worthy — followed by a brief list of the blog posts I thought would collect a zillion comments but didn’t.

10. Tied for 10th place with 7 non-Greta comments each (thus actually making this a Top 12 list), we have:
Aging_slut
The Aging Slut

BravoBut Maybe They Didn’t Mean “Ha-Ha” Funny: Bravo’s 100 Funniest Movies of All Time

Dior
Mutant Sci-fi Dahlias: The 2006 Christian Dior Paris Runway Show

Tied for 8th place, with 8 non-Greta comments each:
Grand_theft_autoGrand Theft Auto: Jerusalem

Tag_1Tag, You’re It

#7, with 9 non-Greta comments:
North_koreaNorth Korea, and Reason 8,624 that the War on Iraq was a Bad Idea

#6, with 10 non-Greta comments:
GgwGoing Wild: A Feminist’s Defense of the “Girls Gone Wild” Girls

#5, with 13 non-Greta comments:
Mark_morfordTranscendental Skepticism: My Letter to Mark Morford

#4, with 16 non-Greta comments:
Believer_amd_skepticOh, The Believer and the Skeptic Should be Friends…

#3, with 18 non-Greta comments:
Dan_savageIf You Believe in Bisexuals, Clap Your Hands: My Letter to Dan Savage

#2, with 19 non-Greta comments:
Fred_flintstoneHow Fred Flintstone Got Home, Got Wild, and Got a Stone Age Life — what does it mean?

And the clear winner, the post that inspired the liveliest debate and conversation by a significant margin, with 23 comments not counting the 7 that I made myself…
Harry_potter_1#1 Why I Like “Harry Potter” Better than “Lord of the Rings”

My conclusion: Y’all like a good intelligent debate. You care about literature, sex, religion, politics, film, and deeply weird fashion.

But above all else, y’all are nerds.

And I love you all.

And now that I’ve buttered you up, I get to berate you for your shocking lack of interest in what seemed to be to be obviously compelling and controversial topics. I bring you the Top Three Posts On My Blog That I Really Thought Would Generate A Lot More Conversation Than They Did.

#3, with 3 comments:
Oral_argumentsOral Arguments (A Dyke’s Defense of Blowjobs)

Actually, I think I know what happened here. Laura D’s comment was so thorough, and so articulate, and said so clearly what lots of people were thinking, that nobody felt they had anything to add.

#2, with 1 comment:
DegeneracyDomesticity and Degeneracy

This one surprised me. I really thought I’d hear more of all y’all’s stories about how you balance your wild lives and your domestic lives. But maybe this wasn’t as big a revelation to y’all as it was to me.

And my Number 1 Post That I Thought Would Generate More Conversation, with 1 — count ‘em, 1 — comment:
KatrinaHurricane Katrina, and What Government Is For

What the hell is wrong with you people? Where are the anarchists, the libertarians, the “government is inherently evil and oppressive” folks? Where are the hard-assed realists to tell me that my vision of government is hopelessly idealistic and naive? Where are the political science majors to tell me what government really is? Shame on you.

But seriously, folks. I love you all, and I’ve loved every one of these conversations. You’ve made me clarify and re-think my ideas, and you’ve kept me wildly entertained. I hope you’ve enjoyed it a tenth as much as I have. Let’s have as much fun in 2007!

Dream diary, 1/1/07: Multi-media Performance Art

MaryI dreamed I was taking a college class in multi-media performance art taught by my friends Tim and Josie. I had decided to do a performance about crying and grief, and was planning to project images of the weeping Virgin Mary onto my own face, while eating pizza, with music by Fred Frith in the background. I knew this was kind of a weak, half-assed idea, but I didn’t have the time to do anything better. But I needed to find some images of crying Virgin Marys, and I knew my co-worker Andrew had a big collection of Virgin Mary statues, so I knocked on his door and woke him up so I could take some photos of his Virgin Marys with my camera phone.

Reality check: My friend Tim and Josie do not teach multi-media performance art (although one is an artist and the other is a musician). As far as I know, my co-worker Andrew does not have a collection of Virgin Mary statues. And I do not have a camera phone. Just so we’re all clear.

Bread

LoafWe discovered a trick about bread recently that changed our lives — a small change, granted, but a wonderful one — and I wanted to tell you all about it. (And yes, I’ll be getting back to the Big Questions soon. Come the new year, I’ll be posting about atheism and sex and grammar and other controversial topics. I’m just giving myself a short break from it all.)

AcmeAnyway. Bread. I’ve always loved those crusty artisanal peasant breads from Acme and the like. They’re so… bready, so much like what bread is supposed to be like and what mass-produced sandwich bread is just a pale imitation of. But it goes stale so fast, in a day or two, and the two of us just don’t eat it fast enough to finish even half of it before it goes to waste.

BoulotBut we recently started getting Bay Bread Company bread in our Planet Organics basket (par-baked, so we can finish baking it fresh ourselves)… and it changed our lives. Not just because it’s amazingly delicious bread (although it is). It changed our lives because it came with instructions on how to keep a loaf of artisanal bread fresh.

I desperately wish I’d known about this sooner. I’ve wasted years of my life eating mass-produced sandwich bread just because it stays fresh longer. So in case any of you have found yourself in the same “can’t eat it fast enough before it goes stale” predicament, I want to pass these instructions along.

1. When you cut the bread, store it cut side down on a wooden cutting board.
2. Cover it snugly with a cotton cloth (a dishtowel is fine).
3. Once a night before you go to bed, sprinkle a few drops of water on the towel.

ClothSimple, no? And it totally works. The bread’s obviously not quite as fresh on the third day as it is on the first, but it’s still yummy and edible. And it means we never have to buy mass-produced sandwich bread again. For which we will be forever grateful. Enjoy!

Tag, You’re It!

TagI just got tagged with this, and found it pretty entertaining, so I’m passing it along. I am now tagging Charlie Anders, Jill Nagle, and Carol Queen. Play if you think it’d be fun, don’t if you don’t. This is not a chain letter, bad luck will not follow you if you break the chain of this silly game. (And if any of the rest of you think it’d be fun to play, please do!)

It’s a blog game. I’m supposed to pick three bloggers I know and ask them to:

1231) Pick up the book that you are nearest to with 123 or more pages. (According to early versions: Don’t search around and look for the “coolest” book you can find. Do what’s actually next to you.)
2) Turn to page 123.
3) Locate the fifth full sentence in that page.
4) Copy that and the next two sentences that follow.
5) Tag three more bloggers to do the same.

I got tagged by Iamcuriousblue, and got this result:

The closest book to me was a graphic novel, and page 123 did not have five full sentences. So I started counting with the first full sentence on that page and went to the fifth sentence after that, which took me to Page 125.

Crepax“And if eroticism needs the extraordinary, the new, then your innovations are a threat… some day all the variations will have been played out!”

“Your fears are vain, my friend, since eroticism is not inherited… it’s a personal adventure!”

“At this point you are seeing the second law of erotica… the need for asymmetry!”

It’s from the graphic novel “Emmanuelle, Bianca, and Venus in Furs,” by Guido Crepax. The really entertaining part: I was at work when I got tagged. This book really was the closest to me on my desk. Sometimes I love my job.

The New Comfort Food

Comfort_food_2So enough for the moment with the heavy blog topics that keep me up at night. About a week ago I invented a new comfort food, and I thought y’all would like to know about it.

I came home last week from a day of running errands in the cold and the rain, wanting something to eat that was (a) hot, (b) gooey and melty, (c) loaded with protein, and (d) chocolaty. If it weren’t for (d), I’d have gone for a grilled cheese sandwich like I usually do. But chocolate — hot, gooey, melty chocolate — was essential. Cranky hunger is the mother of invention, and I came up with this new comfort food treat that’s definitely making it into the regular rotation:

Chocolate_chipsThe Grilled Peanut Butter and Chocolate Chip Sandwich.

The recipe is simple. Self-evident, even. The only trick is that you have to put peanut butter on both slices of bread, so the chocolate chips get sandwiched in between. And you should grill at a fairly low heat, to give the chips time to melt. I used butter in the frying pan, for the deliciousness; and I used whole wheat sandwich bread, to pretend that it was marginally healthy, and also ‘cuz that’s what we had in our fridge.

SandwichI’ve probably re-invented the wheel here. I’m sure I’m not the first to think of this. But I’m ridiculously proud of it anyway. If any of you try it, tell me how it goes. And if any of you have ever invented any comfort foods, let me know! I’d love to hear about it.

Please Think of the Children: Sex Offender Hysteria

Snidely_whiplashI don’t normally expect to get interesting sex news from the Skeptical Inquirer. But they had a recent article about sex offenders and sex offender hysteria — a fascinating and important article, with info that surprised even me.

BillboardNow, some of the stuff here is just obvious — or should be. You’ve seen those billboards about how 1 out of every 5 children/teenagers will be approached online by a sexual predator? My first reaction to them wasn’t, “Oh how terrible, won’t someone save the children?” My first reaction was, “That can’t possibly be right. How exactly are they defining ‘approached by a sexual predator’? Are they including every piece of Viagra and porno spam that lands in the kids’ mailboxes?”

Teenager_onlineTurns out my instincts were pretty much dead-on. No, they didn’t get the “1 out of 5″ figure by counting Viagra spam. They got it, among other things, by counting unwanted requests for sex or sexual information that teenagers got — FROM OTHER TEENAGERS. In other words, if you’re 16, and your 16-year-old best friend emails you asking if your honey has ever gone down on you, and you think it’s none of their business — that counts as an act of online sexual predation. The pertinent quote: “When the study examined the type of Internet ‘solicitation’ parents are most concerned about (e.g., someone who asked to meet the teen somewhere, called the teen on the telephone, or sent gifts), the number drops from ‘one in five’ to just 3 percent.”

Sex_offender_signSome of the article’s other revelations are also not entirely surprising — although it’s fascinating to see these myths ripped up in such vivid detail. There’s a lot of stuff about how many of the sex offender laws — notification laws, sex offender registries, laws banning sex offenders from living in certain areas, etc. — bear no relevance to the reality of how sex crimes are committed and by whom, and are almost entirely ineffective in preventing further sex crimes. And the article has a marvelously clear-eyed analysis of how both politicians and the news media have taken people’s real fears about sex crimes and run with them screaming into the night — all the way to the bank. Pertinent quote: “Nobody really wants to go on the record saying, ‘It turns out this really isn’t a big problem.'”

TrackingAnd the article’s most crucial conclusion — that sex predator hysteria diverts attention and resources away from efforts that might actually be effective — while it’s extremely important, is also not entirely surprising. Pertinent quote: “The resources allocated to tracking ex-felons who are unlikely to re-offend could be much more effectively spent on preventing child abuse in the home and hiring more social workers.”

But this article doesn’t just confirm the obvious (or what should be obvious). There are some very commonly-held myths about sex offenders that turn out to be total bullshit — myths that I believed myself until I read this piece.

And the one that surprised me most was the one about repeat offenders.

Repeat_offenderIf you’ve watched any crime shows ever (fiction or non-), you “know” that sex offenders are more likely than any other type of criminal to repeat their crimes. This “fact” is what’s used to defend practices like monitoring and registering sex offenders. And it is apparently completely untrue. Pertinent quote #1: “In the largest and most comprehensive study ever done of prison recidivism, the Justice Department found that sex offenders were in fact less likely to reoffend than other criminals.” Pertinent quote #2: “A study released in 2003 by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that within three years, (only) 3.3 percent of the released child molesters were arrested again for committing another sex crime against a child.”

I really need to stop getting my legal information from “Law and Order.”

There’s just one important piece of information missing from this article. It has to do with how “sex offender” is defined in the first place — and in my opinion, it’s central to this discussion.

WoodstockHere’s the thing. When you see statistics on how many sex offenders there are, or what percentage of people will be victimized by one, you should know this: In many states, including California, “sex offender” statistics include people who have committed consensual sex crimes. Depending on the state you’re in, it can include prostitutes, johns, gay men arrested for cruising in public parks, teenagers arrested for having consensual sex with other teenagers, etc.: folks who are totally not what people picture when they’re getting freaked out about how the streets are crawling with sex offenders. (An old friend of mine is very likely being counted in sex offender statistics due to a public indecency arrest — not from flashing women in dark deserted streets, not even from getting a blowjob in an alley, but from a midnight skinny-dipping adventure with friends when they were in college.)

So when you see statistics in the paper about how many convicted sex offenders there are, or how likely it is that there’s one in your neighborhood, remember that they’re not just talking about rapists and child molesters. They’re also talking about people like you and me.

Of course we should be upset about rape, child molestation, and other violent, invasive, actual sex crimes. But let’s aim our anger and fear in a direction that makes sense, reflects reality, and might actually make a difference.

The Science of Cow Farts: My Letter to Debra Saunders

Cow_fart_1Debra J. Saunders — a conservative commentator for the SF Chronicle, who occasionally used to be smart and snarky and worth paying attention to but is now mostly stupid and snarky — just wrote this column about global warming that I had to respond to. The gist of it is that (a) a few scientists don’t agree with the human-caused global warming theory, therefore there is no scientific consensus about it; and (b) cow flatulence creates more greenhouse gases than auto emissions, therefore we don’t have to worry about reducing auto emissions.

Cow_fart_5I wrote a letter to the editor in response, but they didn’t run it. I’m not annoyed — I know they get a zillion letters, and in fact the response they did run (third from the top on the Letters page) was a good one. But my letter was good too, dammit, and I thought y’all would like to see it. So here it is. Enjoy!

*****

Cow_fart_3Editor:

Debra Saunders’ column about global warming (12/12/06) makes it clear that she has no idea what science is, or how it works. The fact that a handful of scientists don’t believe in human-caused global warming doesn’t undercut the theory — any more than the handful of AIDS denialists undercuts the theory that HIV causes AIDS. Serious disagreement within the scientific community is not the same as an overwhelming scientific consensus disputed by a handful of cranks.

Cow_fart_4And her argument about cows is just silly. The meat industry is as much a product of human civilization as the auto industry. If cow flatulence creates more greenhouse gases than auto emissions, it’s hardly an argument against reducing auto emissions. If anything, it’s an argument for reducing the consumption of beef.

-Greta Christina

*****

Cow_fart_2One final note: I would just like to point out that a Google image search for “cow fart” yielded 87 results. An additional 20 for “cow flatulence.” Impressive. Not as startling as the 453 results I got from “sexy fishing” (see The Aging Slut), but not bad.

Dream diary, 12/13/06: The Greyhound stagecoach and Weird Al Yankovic

BusI dreamed that I was taking a Greyhound bus to visit my family in Chicago. I boarded the bus, but soon realized that (a) the bus was being pulled by horses like a stagecoach, and (b) the driver was Weird Al Yankovic. Weird Al handed me the reins and insisted that I drive the bus, which scared and upset me — I didn’t know how to drive a stagecoach, and the horses were going really fast, careening around corners and nearly tipping the bus over. I kept screaming at Weird Al to take the reins back, but he just laughed like a maniac, and kept insisting that everything was fine.

Weird_alI eventually managed to stop the horses. I screamed at Weird Al for a while and then stormed off the bus. But I was stuck in the middle of nowhere, in a bad neighborhood, and I had no idea where I was (although I was pretty sure I was still in San Francisco). Eventually another Greyhound bus pulled up, also going to Chicago; but the driver was very cranky, and since my ticket had already been torn, he didn’t want to let me on the bus. He eventually did, but there were no seats left, and as the bus pulled off, I wondered if I’d have to stand all the way to Chicago.

(P.S. I really wish I could have found an image of a bus being pulled by horses, or that my Photoshop skills were up to the task of making one. That was a truly vivid and frightening image, one which no simple picture of a bus could ever convery.)