Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Pronoun ambiguity

Speaking of prose that's are hard to follow, consider this passage from a local online news source:

Jung-Allen identifies as transgender, as they do not identify with the gender they were designated at birth. Terms like non-binary, genderqueer and gender non-conforming are more tailored fits, but are still also umbrella terms for people who place themselves on a spectrum among multiple, if not endless, genders. Jung-Allen does research, but isn’t pressed on defining what exact subgroup they might fall in at the moment, putting it this way: “I’m 16.” Their focus, aside from school, looking at colleges in New York and Connecticut, poetry and using their work to create conversations around transgender lives, is more focused on getting people not to misgender them in speech, or refer to them with the proper name.
They transitioned around last summer. The word “she” began to feel like a curse word or a slur, Jung-Allen explains. Support came through conversations with PYPM (Philadelphia Young Poetry Movement) members and staffers. Lee Mokobe, one of their good friends, shared stories about Mokobe’s own path to becoming a transboy. “When I heard that you could be either or both, you could be gender noncomforming, you could agender, you could be whatever you wanted. That was the light for me,” they recall.
If someone wants to be called "they," I'm find with it--so long as they show tolerance towards me as I adjust linguistically and occasionally slip up and "misgender" them.

But using "they" to refer to individuals does have a linguistic downside. In erasing the distinctions not just between male vs. female, but also between singular vs. plural, such usage supports not just gender ambiguity, but also linguistic ambiguity. The alternatives to the ambiguous pronoun references seen in the above passages are either a probably dehumanizing use of "it," or a potentially tedious repetition of proper names, as in my rewrite of paragraph 2:
Jung-Allen transitioned around last summer. The word “she” began to feel like a curse word or a slur, Jung-Allen explains. Support came through conversations with PYPM (Philadelphia Young Poetry Movement) members and staffers. Lee Mokobe, one of Jung-Allen's good friends, shared stories about Mokobe’s own path to becoming a transboy. “When I heard that you could be either or both, you could be gender noncomforming, you could agender, you could be whatever you wanted. That was the light for me,” Jung-Allen recalls.

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