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  • Pronouns on TV: pop culture meets inclusive language

    You know that gender pronouns like hie and zie are a thing when they start showing up in TV dramas. If you haven’t noticed them, never fear, for I, your professor of pronouns, will now enlighten you.

    Let’s start with hen. It’s Swedish, not English, but be patient, because there’s an English tie-in at the end. 

  • Heer, hiser, himer: Pronouns in the news, 1912 edition

    On January 7, 1912, a headline in the Chicago Tribune breathlessly announced, “Mrs. Ella Young Invents Pronoun . . . Makes Principals Gasp.” Ella Flagg Young, Superintendent of Chicago’s public schools, told the Tribune she thought up what she called the “duo-personal” pronouns he’er, his’er, and him’er as she walked to a meeting with school principals. The story went viral. Then it unraveled.

  • The oldest genderless pronouns are lo and zo, for French, and e, es, em, for English

    In 1765, Joachim Faiguet de Villeneuve invented two genderless third-person pronouns, lo (singular) and zo (plural), for an artificial language that he called Langue nouvelle, or ‘new language.’ English didn’t catch up until 1841, when Francis Augustus Brewster coined e, es, and em.

  • A grammar lesson for Justice Alito

    By a vote of 6-3 in Bostock v. Clayton County, on June 15, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “an employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender violates Title VII.”

    But in a section in his dissent in the case headed “Freedom of Speech,” Justice Samuel Alito warns that the Bostock decision not only opens up bathrooms and locker rooms to sexual predators, it runs afoul of the First Amendment by forcing people to use gender pronouns against their will.  

    Justice Alito is wrong about pronouns, and so here’s a little grammar lesson for him. 

  • The French Academy wants you to remember, this virus is feminine

    With millions around the world getting sick and dying from a pandemic virus, the French Academy wants you to know that the virus is feminine: la covid 19, not le covid 19. Young and old, previously healthy or immuno-compromised, recently arrived from abroad or never been out of the hexagon, breaking quarantine or sheltering in place, it seems that the French have been treating the pandemic as masculine. But the rule makers at the French Academy want to put a stop to all that. 

  • Verbing pronouns

    Nonbinary singular they has become so normal that people now want to know the rules for how to use it. Which is right, they is or they are? Is the reflexive themself or themselves? Even if your answer is, “Wait, what rules? There are no rules,” the fact that anybody’s asking is all the proof we need that English pronouns are continuing to change. Here’s the latest change: as we see in this tweet from the British writer and gender activist, Shon Faye, nonbinary singular they has become a verb:

    A trans man described his period of identifying as nonbinary to me the other day as “I was they/themming at the time.”

  • It’s National Grammar Day. I can’t even, and you shouldn’t either.

    National Grammar Day is March 4 because it’s the only day of the year that’s a complete sentence. It’s a command, March forth, right? Verb plus adverb, if you’re being pedantic. 

    Except that National Grammar Day is the Day of Purism, not to be confused with Purim, which is actually a week later. And purists believe—forgive me for stereotyping—that a noun can’t become a verb. March, the month, is a noun. March, the command, is a verb. So if a purist is to be consistent, their belovèd National Grammar Day is based on a lie. 

  • From they to tey to te: pronoun mansplaining in the 1970s

    In 1971, Casey Miller and Kate Swift coined the gender-neutral pronouns tey, ter, and tem. Writing in the preview issue of Ms. Magazine, Miller and Swift called their creation “the human pronoun” which would help women to be recognized “as full-fledged members of the human race.” Three years later, Warren Farrell came up with te, tes, and tir, barely acknowledging Miller and Swift's coinage, but explaining in great detail why his "human pronouns" were superior. 

  • It’s National Handwriting Day: there’s an app for that

    Now that we keyboard everything from novels to shopping lists and texting on our phones has become the main way to reach out and touch someone, the digital age has stirred a nostalgia for the good old days when everything was writ by hand (apparently no one wants to bring back making actual phone calls). And so we have National Handwriting Day, January 23, the supposed birthday of John Hancock, who penned the signature heard round the world. It may seem ironic, but the only way to find out about National Handwriting Day is to go online.

    That’s not the only problem with National Handwriting Day. It’s sponsored by the makers of pens and pencils, and not surprisingly their message is a commercial one: writing with a pen is personal and typing on a machine is anything but. But even though we still buy pens and pencils, no one actually wants to re-learn handwriting, which was nobody’s idea of fun. For some of us it was actually torture. 

    Enter handwrytten.com, a start-up that will turn keyboarded text into a personalized note so you don’t have to. 

  • Will the Word Pedometer make babies smarter?

    It’s the giving season, and the most intellectually woke gift for that underprivileged infant on your list is the Word Pedometer®. Just attach its voice-activated mic to a bit of clothing and the pedometer counts every word the baby hears. People will want to talk to the baby just so they can watch the the baby’s daily word-count soar. Because according to the manufacturer, hearing lots of words before age five is the key to success in school and later in life—it’s even better than Mozart for developing the infant brain. So increasing the number of words a baby hears will make that baby smarter, especially if they are from a poor or minority family that normally can’t afford extra words. 

    At least that’s the theory behind what is essentially a Fitbit for Words. But the theory is wrong. It perpetuates the long-discredited belief that economically deprived minorities are also linguistically deprived. Talk is cheap, so give them words, not food stamps, and babies will succeed. Yes, babies need to be talked to, but metering the words they hear won’t make them baby Einsteins.

  • Thats all Folks: The Apostrophe Protection Society Gone for Good

    With all that’s going on in the UK—an election, Brexit, terror on London Bridge, another Donald Trump visit—it was surprising to see the British media so eager to report the death of the Apostrophe Protection Society. The Times, the Standard, the Independent, the Daily Mail, BBC radio and TV, and RTE all ran stories about it, as did the Guardian (two articles on two consecutive days), together with outlets as far flung as Australia and New Zealand, not to mention the Washington Post and the New York Post. 

    What happened was that the society’s 96-year-old founder announced that the ignorant had won, and he, the nation’s self-appointed pedant-in-chief, no longer had the energy to campaign against the rude, apostrophic errors of the ignorant. So he called it quit’s.

  • Gender conceal: Did you know that pronouns can also hide someone's gender?

    Gender reveals have been exploding in the news recently, but there are also a growing number of gender conceals—using a pronoun to hide someone’s gender. Historically, two English pronouns have been used to mask a person’s gender: it and they. But so far the definitions of it and they don’t include the gender conceal.

    First let’s look at they. The Oxford English Dictionary lists three senses for singular they: 

    • referring collectively to members of a group (everyone, everybody)
    • referring to an individual generically or indefinitely (someone, a person, the student)
    • referring to someone who is nonbinary or gender-nonconforming (Sam Smith’s pronouns are they and them).

    I think it’s time to add a fourth sense:

    • referring to someone whose gender needs to be concealed (the whistleblower…they).
  • Grammar-shaming Trump

    Donald Trump is torturing the English language. Says New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, the president “is as inept at English as he is at governing,” adding, “He’s oxymoronic: a nativist who can’t really speak his native tongue.” What got Bruni riled up was not just the nonstop alt-right ravings, but also Trump’s constant misspellings, his oddball capitalization and bizarre punctuation, and his word-manglings like hamberder and covfefe. 

    Berating someone for making language mistakes is called "grammar shaming." Grammar shaming ordinary people doesn’t work: their English still won't meet your expectations and they'll resent your superior attitude. And there’s no point grammar shaming Trump because he’s incapable of feeling shame....

  • Teachers' pronouns

    I’m a teacher; my pronoun is _______.

    If you answered, My pronoun is they, you’ve done nothing wrong. Yes, teachers are expected to model good grammar as well as teach it—sometimes the job depends on it—but no matter what you’ve been told before, singular they is grammatically correct, and the American Psychological Society’s influential Publication Manual (7e) is the latest authority to agree. The APA manual stresses correct grammar in writing, and it approves the use of they, them, their, themselves, and even themself, when an individual’s pronouns are unknown or irrelevant.

    Teachers have a reputation for stressing grammatical correctness, but the last time the National Education Association had a style manual, back in 1974, it didn’t even consider singular they as an option. At the time, Mildred Fenner, editor of Today’s Education, reported that for many years the NEA journal used generic she for teachers because most teachers were women. But in the 1960s men began to complain that expressions like the teacher . . . she were responsible for teachers’ poor public image and their low salaries. One man objected at an NEA meeting that generic she was both bad English and a bad look for the profession. . . .

  • Pronouns and the law

    A Virginia teacher was fired for refusing to use a transgender student’s pronouns. Now the teacher, Peter Vlaming, is suing his former school for violating his First Amendment rights. Does he have a case?