On the venerable Language Log earlier today, a post by Geoff Pullum [Annals of singular ‘they’: another case with known sex” 30.11.15] quotes Transparent writer/director Jill Soloway’s interesting use of singular they [recently named a WOTY for 2016]:
People will recognise that just because somebody is masculine, it doesn’t mean they have a penis. Just because somebody’s feminine, it doesn’t mean they have a vagina. That’s going to be the evolution over the next five years.
Pullum thinks this a “very revealing example”, explaining:
The striking thing about it is that singular they is used … in a context where the appropriate gender choice could be regarded as obvious because the sex of the person referred to by the antecedent is actually entailed.
the phrase “is masculine” entails the very thing that guarantees the appropriateness of the masculine gender pronoun for its subject, and the occurrence of they refers back to that subject.
And likewise, the predicate is feminine guarantees that a feminine gender pronoun would have been appropriate; so without any hint of oddness Soloway could have said Just because somebody’s feminine, it doesn’t mean she has a vagina.
The idea is that this quotation is evidence that singular they is growing from an age old usage in sentences where gender is unknown, e.g., “Someone took out their notebook” to overtake he/she in sentences where gender is known (or entailed, as Pullum says), e.g. “A boy took out their notebook”.
As it pertains to what Soloway said, not only is this plain wrong as a matter of reading comprehension (I say this advisedly, and with much head bending to see things from Pullum’s point of view–he co-editor of the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, Language Log regular, coiner of eggcorn–though OED quotes Liberman quoting Pullum, in a classic Eliot-Lewis bullshit moment–valiant counter-crusader against the passive voice mob, all-around force for linguistic good, etc.) it also totally misunderstands the politics of sex and gender at play in Transparent (about a transgender parent), and trans discourse more generally.
There are at least four different understandings of the term gender at play in Pullum’s post and its quoted parts. In order to avoid one usual terminological dichotomy (cf. Pullum’s reference to sex as distinct from gender, in the quote above), which splits sex (defined as biological construct) from gender (defined as a psychosocial construct), I’ll give my own brief definitions below.
A prefatory note: these are crude definitions which overlook many complexities inherent to each field of understanding. This reduction is intentional, for the purposes of focusing the topic.
So, the four types of gender overlapping and influencing each other in the post are, according to me:
- anatomical gender: Having male or female genital organs. Surely the oldest of these ways of thinking about difference, not without significant complications which will be ignored here.
- genetic gender: Having either XY or XX genetic profile. A comparatively very recent idea, and even more recently distinguishable from (1), due to surgical advances. Again, the picture is much bigger, genetically, but no time for that now.
- psychosocial gender: How individuals self-identify their own gender, based on a continuum marked out between sets of social conventions regarding the characteristics assigned to the previous two kinds of gender. A pretty ancient and cross-cultural idea, but recently reintegrated into popular consciousness in the West by progressive movements.
- grammatical gender: The marking of certain words such that they require morphological agreement with other words or referents–in European languages this is generally understood to correspond in some way to 1 and 2: i.e. either male, female, or neutral (but called masculine, feminine, or neuter). See Cambridge Grammar for the authoritative word on this.
Recently grammatical gender and psychosocial gender have come head to head in the political realm (just as grammatical gender and anatomical gender did a generation ago) with those advocating for persons of non-cis psychosocial gender (i.e. not male or female, but another category either between or going between – i.e. trans) arguing for the acceptability of pronouns not implying anatomical or genetic gender, with they, their the favoured forms. See this on the 58 genders once made available to Facebook users [now you just make up your own gender descriptor if you want].
Okay, so with those rough definitions and cursory explanations, we can start to disambiguate some of the crossover terminology in the posts.
First of all, masculine and feminine, words for two categories of grammatical gender, also demarcate pyschosocial gender attributes, but are not markers of genetic or anatomical gender (except in the set phrase, “the masculine/feminine sex [and sometimes masculine/feminine gender, with that usage corresponding to 1 or 2, above]”).
Second, the grammatical-gender pronouns he and she have historically been applied to anatomically male and female persons [in English – but not necessarily in other European languages], and, more recently, this has been extended to genetically male and female persons.
Third, the divergence of anatomical, genetic, and psychosocial genders–with the result that that in our current time one may display any permutation of the male-female split (or spectrum) in all and any of those categories (one can be anatomically male, genetically female, and identify as asexual, e.g., and so on)–means that a large number of people have rejected grammatically gendered pronouns on political grounds, preferring (among other available options) singular they to he/she.
These three facts explain why the sentence “He is quite feminine” is transparently paraphraseable as “That apparent (anatomical) male displays characteristics conventionally associated with apparent (anatomical) females”; and why some prefer to avoid the question of what is apparent and what is not by saying something like “They are quite feminine”.
This is a version of what Soloway is doing, but Pullum gets it exactly wrong when he says that it is an example of implied or entailed gender being overrided by singular they. Perhaps as a side effect of spending so much time on grammatical gender, Pullum seems to think the terms masculine and feminine are associated by Soloway (or in general parlance) with anatomical/genetic gender, when very clearly she intends them as elements of psychosocial gender.
The point is not at all to make masculine/feminine indicative (or entailing) of anatomical/genetic gender. The point is to avoid all implication or entailment of gender in the utterance. Like the sentence “They are quite feminine”, the phrase “just because somebody’s feminine” implies nothing about the gender of the “somebody”, and the subsequent use of singular they ratifies this. When Soloway says “Just because somebody’s feminine, it doesn’t mean they have a vagina,” she means: just because someone displays characteristics conventionally associated with anatomically, genetically, and/or psychosocially female persons, doesn’t mean that person is actually anatomically female. Or, more simply rephrased, a woman can be masculine, a man can be feminine, so based on the display masculine or feminine characteristics only, one should not assign anatomical, genetic OR grammatical gender to that person.
In the interview taken as a whole, it’s very clear that this is all said in the context of role writing for TV. Specifically, Soloway is talking about writing conventionally “male” roles for female persons, and vice versa, all of which might plausibly constitute an exploration of the idea of the transgendered. Especially if some of the males and females, masculines and feminines, are actually transgender.
So they is doing a lot of political as well as semantic work in Soloway’s refelctions. But one thing it is emphatically not doing is referring to a person of known gender, be it anatomical, genetic, or psychosocial [or anything else]. Instead it is consciously and conscientiously keeping that determination at bay.
PS. Geoff Pullum doesn’t welcome comments on his LL posts, which is why this became something longish instead of something short. But if you have something shortish or something long to contribute, please do.