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Why Singular They/Them is Not Illogical:
A Gentle Response to Richard Stallman

Posted on: 2021/11/18 | Author: Lian

I am a fan of the Free Software movement (despite not being able to run my machines fully on a libre basis due to educational and financial obligations) and I enjoy reading the antics and input of Richard Stallman.

He is a great inspiration for me and I respect him for both his contributions to society and the majority of the opinions he voices. However, I am also a linguist by trade, and adamant in my defense of descriptivism and the illogical quirks of natural language. I am also nonbinary using they/them pronouns, and while that does not give me unjust authority over the discourse, I think that weighs in a bit, too.

I have recently come across a 2018 blog post by Richard Stallman in which he — in short — argues in favor of singular (neo-)pronouns in they/them's stead.

I would like to comment on that article.

Descriptivism and Linguistics

Generally, linguistics is a descriptive science. We do not determine what is "right" or "wrong" from a central authority or using some kind of mathematical argument; instead, we describe the way people use language in their natural habitat. This works similar to something like ornithology, the study of birds: no ornithologist worth their buck would observe a bird's chirp, discover it was not documented before, and instead of document it as that bird's call argue that the bird is not allowed to make that sound because that's not what was observed earlier.

Similarly, linguistics is the study of language in its natural environment: society. We observe how people talk and use language, and if that changes over time, which it often does, we document that change, too.

That does not mean there was no concept of "right" or "wrong". No linguist would argue that "I goed to labour work tuday" was a grammatical English sentence. But what determines what is 'right' and what is 'wrong'? Simple: it's not as easy as black or white, and dependent on context and social circumstances.

Generally, something is 'correct' when it is largely understood by native speakers to be correct. Why is that? Because language is a tool for communication, and serves the purpose of transferring meaning. Something is 'correct' if it fits that purpose; and something is 'incorrect' if it is not generally understood by native speakers of said language.

Stallman's Argument

Now, I do not assume Richard Stallman is arguing prescriptively with a dictionary here. He would surely not, being a proponent of decentralized and democratic solutions over authority, be an enemy of descriptivism. He surely acknowledges that a significant number of people uses they/them pronouns in a gender-neutral way. His blog post is a call for how it should work according to him, not a call to ban they/them pronouns from dictionaries.

In the appends, he also argues against that misunderstanding of his position by saying he knows that language changes and that people have been using they/them pronouns for centuries:

"In response to this article, someone lectured me for believing that languages don't change. Perse did not trouble first to inquire whether that's what I believed. [...]
Any change can be good or bad. I am advocating a better change instead of a bad one. [...]
The adoption of singular "you" in the 17th century appears to have been a bad change for a similar reason."

What is he arguing with, then, if he is neither denying descriptivism nor that the word is in wide use? Well, he is appealing to the "logic" and usability of language, and that his pronoun choices are "better" than the ones available. Specifically, I quote him as following:

"This [they/them pronoun use] violates the grammar of English so deeply that it feels terribly wrong. It also results frequently in confusing expressions in which the referent of "they" is unclear."

According to a later amendment, he is also not demanding anyone to conform to his headcanon; which, well, communicates he is not a prescriptivist. It is hard to argue against that -- and I don't want to do that either, because he is free to speak however he pleases. In a way, this article is not an appeal to anyone to change their speaking habits either. That does not make his opinion immune to criticism, though, because he still chose to voice it publicly; clearly to convince or at least explain his preferences.

The Fallacy of Logical Grammar

RMS: Since when is grammar logical?

He himself argues that while a separate "thou" was more logical than the merge into "you", he would not argue for a revival of the word "thou". Why not? Why does they/them need to be ostracized, but "you" doesn't? He says:

"Opposing a bad change is less radical than reversing one."

I'd posit: the change is already done. Only because a gender neutral useage for they/them pronouns has been introduced further by social movements doesn't mean that the singular application of those pronouns is a new thing grammatically. Only in that specific use case. They are for all purposes as old as "thou" and are not going anywhere.

But: even if this change was fresh and current and could still be meaningfully opposed: why? Language is not and has never been a logical medium.

Why fight a fight against an admittedly somewhat impractical usage of pronouns that introduces ambiguity to some phrases, when there are so many other examples of that happening in natural language? Language is never logical or unambiguous. Fighting a crusade against they/them pronouns, even if it's just through individual action, in order to stop ambiguous constructs, is useless for there are hundreds of additional illogical quirks of natural language. The only attempts at fixing all of them would be a big prescriptive language reform, and we know that these do not work on a large scale basis. Language is defined by the way people use it as.

If Richard Stallman invests energy into criticizing they/them pronouns, why not do away with referential pronouns as a whole as a consequence? They can also be ambiguous in many natural situations:

"Max and his father went to the store, where he bought a pack of cigarettes."

The word "he" in the above sentence can, of course, mean either Max or his father. All I am saying is: if we can circumvent these natural ambiguities, we can surely navigate the ambiguities they/them pronouns introduce.

And it's not like plural forms for singular concepts are actually new. What about 'jeans'; why is a singular leg garment a 'pair of jeans', but a single leg sleeve is not a 'jean'? Why is 'data' plural when you might mean a single data point? Why do irregular conjugations and declensions exist?

At some point, we might as well stop fighting the natural evolution of language and start adapting our minds to using it as-is. Our brains are surprisingly adept at making sense intuitively of illogical constructs and irregular patterns. I, for one, have no issue navigating they/them pronouns in ambiguous situations. If you are looking for a purely logic-based approach to communication, do away with language as a whole and start communicating in code. In fact, that might be a good idea.

In short: if RMS argues with the logics of language, he is arguing like a data scientist; someone scrambling to beat sense into a machine so that it can understand the edge cases of language. But human brains are not simple machines. Why is an illogical construct bad if we can all use it instinctively?

And that is the real question. Maybe to RMS it's difficult and off-putting to compute they/them pronouns in natural speech, and he is having issues with parsing them in cases of ambiguity. But, honest to everything that's holy and without inferring any ideology on it; it really isn't hard or alien to me. I have genuinely never come across a frustrating ambiguity with that pronoun set that couldn't be solved with a single followup question at most. Our brains are the most sophisticated learning devices we know.

So, my central argument is: a language change would not survive in natural language if it was illogical to the point of introducing problems with understanding phrases utilizing it. And since that is clearly not the case, as they/them is in wide us, it is not objectively illogical. It might be to RMS, but I honestly think if that's the case, it's just because of a lack of exposition or a certain stubborn ideological ignorance. Nobody is seriously struggling with they/them ambiguity as long as there are so many different ambiguities in natural language that we can effortlessly navigate. Our brains are built to navigate these constructs. And if it was different, language would have evolved differently.

Tangent: Social Change Is Not Prescriptivist

There is also another view that, while not presented by Stallman in his blog, is common in the debate around gender-neutral they/them pronouns, so I am going to address it too.

Even among people who acknowledge descriptivism, there is the notion that the social movement towards gender neutral language is a prescriptive, not a descriptive one. That the change was not a natural, unconscious movement that we should describe, but a conscious, prescriptive effort by a progressive minority seeking to exert their opinions over the majority. To an extent, this is true; no "social justice" council of linguists, academics and activists — and there are plenty — has either the right nor means to change how society uses a language.

But while language evolution is not a centralized prescriptive effort by some authority, it is also not entirely alien to conscious movement. The language shift towards acknowledging gender neutral pronouns among society at large is unconscious — the movement leading to that change is deliberate. That's the same reason some formerly innocent words become considered slurs; they start taking on that meaning subconsciously after people have accepted the very real and subjective arguments of social activists. Social shift is one natural cause of decentralized language evolution, and not prescriptivist.

The Ethical Case

Natural language is illogical. Changing personal language to fit an idealistic principle of logic is futile, but not the end of the world either -- after all, any person has free choice over how they talk.

RMS is, thus, also free to talk as he pleases. However, the pronoun situation is not just any grammatical construct, but it is one of significant cultural impact. He argues that nobody should be forced to conform their perception of grammar to satisfy someone's wishes, but -- ignoring for a minute that convention is the metric language is based around -- it's also simply a dick move.

I could understand it if this was about computing standards, like the "master/slave" controversy: I think it is stupidly big of an effort to change billions of lines of code worldwide to fit a politically correct term for something that was only offensive by association in the first place. But the use of they/them pronouns is not that kind of abstract, full of effort change in standards connected to spending hundreds of collective manhours to change.

Grammar is naught but convention. Grammar is not logical. RMS does not seem to understand that grammar has no concept of right or wrong except what is convention between speakers. Sure, it would be convenient for, say, machine learning, if all language was practically confined by logical constructs and systems following the UNIX philosophy, but that's not the case and never will be, since brains do not work that way and large scale language changes cannot be implemented like that.

Even if RMS keeps saying 'per' instead of 'they'; his language will never be truly logical to his standards (although it will very well be to native speakers' language processing centers).

So why argue? What does it change, even for him? I'd argue it has no impact whatsoever because his useage of other pronouns is already allowing for ambiguity. His language is riddled with ambiguities, phonological quirks as holdovers from centuries past language crossovers; his change is but a speck in his perceived logicalization of language. I'd argue it does no benefit at all.

But it has a disadvantage: for people who connect trauma or other emotional issues to their set of pronouns, it is an act of disrespect to override their wishes and can in rare cases come with serious harm. Even if it is not misgendering them, it is still explicitly disrespecting their wishes for a meaningless personal agenda based on fallacies.

If RMS started calling every oddly named white suburban child (like "Aeshleigh") by the "correct" version, he would maybe arrive at a slightly more logical system for names that is still technically correct, but everyone with such a name would consider him quite the cunt for disrespecting the correct spelling for their name -- correct by convention.

Nobody is or should be allowed to police others' grammar juristically, of course, and saying he's wrong for doing that is a stretch; since 'per' is not misgendering anyone. All it would cause is discomfort in those among us who have stronger pronoun preferences than just conforming to their gender.

And that says nothing about language: it just says something about RMS, namely that his distorted ideal of a logical language, by all means impossible to reach or even get close to, is more important to him than the real life impact it can have on his peers. And I don't think that's a hill the decent man that he is wants to die on.

Edit History / Appends