On grammar and transphobia (with an idea for an experiment)

Many people take a dislike to the word they or their being used to refer to a single individual (as in “You say you met a rather interesting individual today? Could you tell me more about them?”) or with antecedents that normally take singular agreement (as in “Could everyone raise their hand, please?”).

This usage tends to be referred to as “singular they” and it has a most venerable history (it was used by Shakespeare and the translators of the King James Bible, among many others, and continues to be used by respected writers and speakers). It is also clearly useful: by using “they” in such circumstances, we don’t have to use a word like he or she that implies a particular gender. Some people prefer not to employ it, and are welcome to their preferences. To accuse those who do of “grammatical incorrectness”, however, betrays either a failure to understand what grammar is or an ignorance of English.

Whatever their origin, the relevant assumptions seem to be, first, that any noun or pronoun in English must belong exclusively to one of two categories (singular and plural), and, second, that a pronoun in one category must not be used to refer to an antecedent in the other.

Now, these assumptions look rather a lot like some assumptions that occur elsewhere: specifically, that every human being must belong exclusively to one or two categories (male and female). There’s a further, closely related, assumption that any person with two x chromosomes should be referred to as “she”, while a person with an x and a y chromosome should be referred to as “he” (even if this contradicts their wishes, or their own sense of identity).

Which leads me to think we should expect a very high correlation between transphobia and opposition to singular they. Not only does singular they itself violate the exclusive-category assumption noted above, but it also allows a speaker to avoid assigning human beings to the male or the female category. I think there’s a clever experiment waiting to be devised.

Some readers may point out that this usage leads to “they” being ambiguous, since it will not be clear whether it is being used to refer to one individual or several. This is true, but not a very good argument against employing the usage (and no argument at all for calling it “ungrammatical”): cases of genuine ambiguity are rather rare, and there are fairly straightforward ways of avoiding them when they arise.


Filed under Language, Sexuality and gender, Thoughts and rants

On language, reason, and lego

I’ve touched on prescriptivism a little in this blog (there are some relevant links here), but I haven’t said much about how strong the bias towards it seems to be, and how strong the emotions can be. Language Log, not unexpectedly, has quite a few posts on this topic. I have a strong suspicion that’s it’s partly connected to perceived group membership. We associate not talking like us with not being part of our group (and we associate certain specific usages with certain specific groups), and so our response to the way people use language is tied up with all sorts of other deeply emotive things, like feelings of belonging, cooperation, competition, xenophobia, racism, treachery, and so on.

But then, if you read my thesis, you’ll see that I would say that. And there must be other factors involved too. I was particularly struck recently by my own response to a particular usage. I like to think of myself as a fairly rational chap, not given in particular to xenophobia and the like, and in particular someone who has a better than average understanding of how language works. So you’d expect my responses to linguistic usage to be fairly rational, right? So why do I recoil whenever I hear someone use “lego” as a count noun? What is it about the (in the US entirely unexceptional) word “legos” that irritates me so much? And in a way that isn’t true of plenty of other features of American English?

The bad and irrational response to this would be to complain about people saying this and to start instructing them not to. There are two good responses: to try to override my feelings with reason, and to try to get to the bottom of where they come from. I’ll see what I can do.


Filed under Language

Interestingly shaped aubergine

Since PZ Myers is publishing pictures of amusingly shaped aubergines, so will I. Meet Mr Aubergine Head:

Mr Aubergine Head

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Filed under Silliness

Acupuncture, induction, and why I don’t know how much to squirm

We’ve attended a few birth classes here in New York, and they’ve been very good. The first was just an introduction to the Birthing Center at Roosevelt Hospital, but it included some general advice about low-interventionist birth. The second was a series of classes organised by Birthday Presence, which gave a broad overview of what to expect in giving birth, and how to cope with labour. We’ve been impressed, we’ve enjoyed attending, and we’d strongly recommend these classes. However, one thing has made me squirm a little: the frequent claims (in both classes) that acupuncture is a good, drug-free, way of inducing labour if the baby’s taking its time. These claims comes from both the teachers and the students. Apparently, acupunctural stimulation (actually moxibustion) of the little toes can also work wonders for turning a breech baby round.

This makes me squirm because there’s no scientific evidence for either of these claims. There’s also no good reason to think it would work.

And consider this: any expectant mother trying acupuncture as a means of inducing labour is likely to be pretty late in her pregnancy in any case, which means that she’s bound to go into labour pretty soon after any technique she tries. And she’s likely to be trying other techniques, some of which have some evidence behind them. In other words, most pregnant women will go into labour not very long after having acupuncture treatment to induce labour, which is a nice example of why correlation shouldn’t be taken to imply causation. Similarly, most babies turn around of their own accord eventually in any case (only about 3% to 4% of babies are breech at birth), and if they do so shortly after acupuncture treatment, then the parents are likely to associate the two things.

But I should be honest. I said there’s no evidence that it works, or reason to think that it should. What I really mean is that there’s no evidence that applying acupuncture needles (or warm mugwort) to particular special points of the body should do anything that other similarly dramatic rituals wouldn’t do. The point is that acupuncture is a relatively dramatic intervention, and there is good scientific evidence that dramatic interventions are associated with proportionally strong placebo effects. In fact, the placebo effect is really fascinating and much more powerful than people imagine. It would not be in the least surprising if labour could be induced by placebo (placebo does not mean that the effect is imaginary or “all in the head”). So while all the qi stuff and talk of special acupuncture points may be nonsense, acupuncture might in fact play a role in inducing labour. We might add that the ritual of acupuncture is also likely to be relatively calming, and to have something in common with grooming, which encourages the release of oxytocin, which helps induce labour (this is why having sex is supposed to help).

So maybe I shouldn’t squirm quite as much as I do.

You can read more about the evidence base of acupuncture here, by the way.


Filed under Life events, Thoughts and rants

However you look at this, we’re doing something wrong

This is a very disturbing case. In January 2009 a girl called Layla Ibrahim went to the police with injuries to the back of her head and breasts, a black eye, and bleeding from her vagina. She reported being attacked by two strangers, and feeling a “thud” in her vagina, though she had a poor recollection of the details of what happened. A year later, six months pregnant, she was sentenced to three years in prison for fabricating the story. You can read more details in the article I linked to.

There are several troubling issues here. One is the depressingly familiar story of a rape victim becoming, for no very good reason, the target of suspicion. Another is the possibility that her ethnicity played a role. But there’s a third issue that may not be so obvious. Let’s imagine for a moment that the police were right, that she had fabricated the story. This would involve not only constructing the story, but cutting and bruising herself, including causing the bleeding from her vagina. How should our society treat people disturbed enough to do something like that? By putting them in prison for three years? However you look at this case, there’s something we’re doing wrong.

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Filed under Thoughts and rants

Hitler killing a child

When I was in primary school I had a friend who claimed that his grandfather, fighting in World War II, had once seen Hitler kill a child. I found this very unlikely even then, and rather silly. When I challenged my friend on this, he just asked me if I was saying his granddad was a liar. I can’t remember what I replied.

In any case, I was reminded of this today when I saw the following on the BBC website:




I found the headline to have a strangely childish quality, until I read the text underneath and realised I’d misparsed it.

Language Log, as many readers will know, has popularised (though not coined) the term “crash blossom” for this kind of headline. You can read about them here, and in lots of later Language Log posts.

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Filed under Language, Silliness

Something about the riots

So I suppose I should say something about the riots that have been happening in England. I won’t say much, not least because every other blogger with a connection with Britain has had something to say about them. I had an email exchange with a friend back home that helped clarify my thoughts somewhat. He thinks some good may come of this, in that it may spur the country to deal properly with the social problems that brought it about. I’m more pessimistic, but you never know.

A few points that I think worth mentioning:

  • Even if you don’t think the rioters have any clear political cause or goals, that doesn’t mean the riots aren’t about important social issues. If a sick or frightened pet starts shitting on your living room floor, it’s about more than making a mess of your carpet.*
  • Saying this is about “criminality” doesn’t mean this isn’t about deeper social issues. Assuming it does seems to confuse proximate and ultimate causes for things. Rain can be about climate as well as clouds.
  • Deep social problems don’t lead necessarily to rioting and looting. But then an act of unprotected sex doesn’t necessarily lead to pregnancy either.
  • People on both the left and the right have been saying, “I told you so!” which isn’t very surprising, because both have failed to solve the social problems at the root of this. It’s not hard to make arguments that this is the result of both too little and too much state involvement.
  • The calls for sterilisation and shooting of the rioters are at least as horrific and troubling as the riots themselves.

That’ll probably do.

*This is an analogy. I’m not saying the rioters are animals, except in the sense that human beings are members of the animal kingdom. I’m also not claiming that the rioters are sick or were mainly motivated by fear, or that riots are just like defecating. You’d think I wouldn’t have to say this, but I’ve been amazed in the past how little some people understand analogies (or thought experiments).

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Filed under Thoughts and rants