implicit misgendering

In my AMA on #InternationalPronounsDay 2020, one question I really appreciated was this:

Are there times when using they is just as wrong/harmful as using he or she incorrectly? Is there an asymmetry of how hurtful it is when I use the wrong pronoun?

Short answer: using they for someone who doesn’t use they/them as (one of their) pronouns can be implicit misgendering, which is the inappropriate use of non-gendered words when gendered words might be more appropriate. This can be a problem because trans and gender-nonconforming people are much more subject to implicit (and explicit!) misgendering than cis people who aren’t GNC. How hurtful misgendering is always depends on context — if it happens once in a blue moon, it stings, but if it happens dozens of times every day, it feels devastating. If you’re using they as a default, make sure you’re not just doing this to trans/GNC people… and switch when asked!

Longer answer: I’ve actually never heard of this being a problem for anyone except trans women, specifically. Which means it’s a really shitty problem and you need to cut it the hell out.

This is also the case not just in interpersonal interactions, but also at large institutional levels; take, for example, the response from Virginia’s Republican legislators after Delegate Danica Roem was elected. Republicans, who as a group are famously opposed to gender-neutral language and pronouns, essentially threw a temper tantrum. Rather than refer to Delegate Roem by the appropriate title for the setting (“gentlewoman,” which is kind of an awesome title in my opinion), the Virginia House GOP threw out gendered titles completely.

So, as a linguist, I feel like my job here is twofold: first, I am going to make you learn a bit of linguistics; and second, I am going to convince you, via linguistics, that using they for someone who doesn’t use they is a linguistic weapon that disproportionately affects trans women and you need to be really careful about not doing that.

What’s the linguistics behind this, Kirby?

Paul Grice, or “Squidward Grice” as I called him in fully three drafts of my dissertation (because I kept forgetting to look up his first name) was a linguist who wrote a very handy book that’s weirdly difficult to get ahold of. Here is a scanned PDF with zero OCR, hat tip to whoever at MIT just left that lying around. The wiki article on this is already rather good, so if you want to skim that you can go ahead. I’ll sum up with examples using third person (gendered) pronouns in English, because that’s, like, what we’re talking about.

General premise:

The basic premise of Grice’s work is that language-users are trying to have productive conversations and tend to want to follow certain norms. Basically, if everyone is being a cooperative participant in the activity of “doing language together,” there are four main principles that people tend to follow. These aren’t inviolable, and in fact some of the principles are a matter of balancing opposing aims. Furthermore, if people are generally assuming that their conversation partner is at least trying to be cooperative, sometimes an apparent ‘violation’ of one of these principles can be taken as adding implied meaning to the conversation. This is where we’ll be talking about implicit misgendering — it arises when the misgendering comes from the implied meaning of balancing these principles relative to the other principles.

Strategy 1 for being cooperative: don’t say false stuff

This can be summed up pretty easily. If you’re trying to be a good sport in a conversation, try these quick tricks:

  • don’t just blatantly lie
  • don’t just randomly guess when you have no idea what you’re talking about.

This is known as the Maxim of Quality. When we’re talking about gendered third person pronouns in English, this principle has two consequences:

  • don’t say a pronoun you believe doesn’t apply here
  • don’t guess a pronoun if you aren’t sure

Obviously, different people have different beliefs about what pronouns ‘apply,’ hence Virginia’s House Republicans going way out of their way to avoid using feminine forms or she to refer to a trans woman.

For people who aren’t, however, completely evil fucking goons, the Maxim of Quality mostly means ‘try not to misgender people,’ which is sometimes in conflict with ‘try not to randomly guess if you’re not sure.’ This is what leads some otherwise-fine people to sometimes use they for GNC people (of any gender/assigned sex) — it’s a way of avoiding having to guess a more specific pronoun (like he or she).

One thing that’s interesting to notice is that lots of folks seem to use they as essentially a non-guess, which is relevant for the other principles. It’s reasonable for us linguists to deduce that singular they completely lacks gender, based on this (and other evidence).

Strategy 2 for being cooperative: give an appropriate amount of info

If you are, again, being a cooperative participant, you should probably try to give the right amount of information.

  • don’t give too little information — don’t be weirdly vague and mysterious? Don’t leave out information that would be useful for the conversation? That’s weird, don’t do that.
  • don’t give too much information — don’t go into extreme unnecessary detail about every damn thing!

This is called the Maxim of Quantity! In terms of gendered pronouns, what this means is:

  • don’t use a gender-neutral pronoun when a more specific one applies. Gender-neutral pronouns give us zero information about someone
  • don’t use a gendered pronoun when it’s not necessary or relevant. Gendered pronouns give us more information than we might necessarily want

This obviously seems like a sort of tricky balancing act — you may be thinking, how on earth am I supposed to decide when the gender is necessary information or not? Good news: as a language user, you’re probably already deciding this multiple times every day. You’re (on some level) aware that choosing one or the other (neutral or gendered) has implications — if you leave gender out, people assume it’s because it’s not important to the story, or because you’re not sure, or because you don’t want to talk about it. If you include gender, people assume that this means you’re close to the person you’re talking about, or their gender is relevant to the story, or because it’s important for clarifying who you’re talking about.

Here, as a little demonstration, is an example. It’s the before times, and we’re sitting in a lovely little coffeeshop in Seattle. We’ve ordered a pot of tea to split and we’re intending to sit here and gossip for at least a couple hours. (I’m tearing up writing this.) Got the scene set? Okay, here’s the hot goss:

Avery* told me ____ might not take that job offer from gougle** because of the twidder** drama.”

*hypothetical person, not a real Avery, this is a fictional example, please do not get distracted below by trying to figure out who I’m talking about
**not a real company, as you and I both know (:

That blank might be she or they. Depending on which one I use, that’s going to convey some kind of info to you. If I use she, that’s more information, more specific — you might interpret that as meaning that Avery’s gender is relevant because gougle is such a sexist workplace, and that’s why she’s turning down the offer. You might interpret that I’m using she to differentiate this Avery from the other Avery we both know (who doesn’t use she). You might interpret that I’m using she because I’m a huge lesbian and I only date people who use she and this is in the middle of a conversation about how I have such a big crush on Avery. Lots of possible interpretations here!

Conversely, if I use they, that also gives information, but it’s implied by sort of opposite reasoning — they tells you nothing about Avery’s gender, actually! You might interpret this as meaning that Avery is nonbinary, but you might also interpret this as meaning that I’m not totally sure what pronouns Avery uses, or that I’m not that close with them and don’t really feel the need to specify, this is just a friend of a friend and the real gossip that I’m sharing is really focused on the gougle drama and not Avery. I might also use they for Avery if in past conversations you’ve been a weird sexist asshole and I kind of want to avoid mentioning gender for fear that you’re going to say sexist crap! I might also be using they if Avery is in the process of transgendering and isn’t out to everyone, and I don’t know if (they’re) out to you yet or not so I’m trying to sidestep the issue completely.

All these interpretations based on a lack of gender information are because we assume that when someone witholds information, there’s a reason for it — just as we assume that if someone includes information, there’s a reason for it! Hang on to this thought when we get through the rest of the principles, and we’ll come back to it.

Strategy 3 for being cooperative: try to say relevant stuff

If you are being cooperative, you’ll also try to have some kind of connection between topics of conversation. We have strategies for changing the topic, of course, but it’s something you kind of need to give me a heads-up for! If you introduce something that seems totally unrelated to me, I’m going to try and think of possible connections about why you’re bringing that up. This principle is just “try to say stuff that’s relevant.” It’s called the Maxim of Relevance. Nice, easy to remember, love that for us.

This is why if you include more information (from Maxim of Quantity, above), I assume it’s relevant. Sometimes when you exclude information, I’ll assume it’s irrelevant, for the same reason. With good-faith actors (i.e. not transphobes, not the Virginia House Republicans who are the villains of this blog post), using they for someone is often because gender is simply irrelevant. Many times have I been telling my coworker about something cool one of my students did, and I use they because the student’s gender is just freaking irrelevant to their syntax paper.

Strategy 4 for being cooperative: don’t be an asshole

Grice called this one the Maxim of Manner. It is generally just the assumption that we’re not going to, like, call each other slurs or scream at each other. It’s also about trying not to be really opaque — like, I should not use an inside joke with you if you haven’t heard of the joke. I also should probably not curse as much when I’m talking to my fancy emeritus colleagues as when I’m talking to, like, my bros. Grice says to “be perspicacious” in this one.

This is the one that the Virginia House Republicans are not doing so hot at.

SO, back to them! Their ranking of constraints is that QUALITY is more important than MANNER, meaning that they refuse to use a pronoun or title they believe to be “false” and will do so even at the expense of being unspeakably fucking rude.

Unfortunately for all us good democrats out there (ha…), what this means is also that the implications of using gender neutral language when referring to trans women especially takes on this sinister cast. It’s not that I think you, dear hypothetical reader, are trying to do transmisogyny every time you use singular they for some random stranger. You’re probably trying not to! But when they is your default, trans women are the most likely to be caught in the cross-fire.

Okay, so what pronouns SHOULD I use for strangers, then?

Circular sign on a cafe door, around the edges are rainbow colors and the text “Until they say, use them or they”
Circular sign on a cafe door, around the edges are rainbow colors and the text “Until they say, use them or they”
A cafe sign telling us about the they/them default — it’s just like this in Seattle

Am I telling you to forget all that advice you’ve seen about how you should use they if you don’t know someone’s pronouns?

Well, okay, not exactly. What I’m asking you to do is to start paying WAY closer attention to when and how you use pronouns. Some reflection questions to ask yourself:

  • Am I using the same strategy for every stranger I meet, or am I using one strategy (she/he) for people with some gender presentations, and another strategy (they) for others?
  • Am I casually using they for some people and not others?
  • Would the Virginia House Republicans be okay with how I’m using this pronoun? (Here’s a hint: if they might approve, you’re doing it wrong!)
  • Would I do this in front of the person I’m talking about? Do I only do it when they’re not around?
  • Am I getting weirdly angry or defensive when someone asks me NOT to use they for them?
  • Would I be okay if someone used they about me in this context? Would I be okay if someone used they about my mother in this context?

Fundamentally, the dangers around using they are mostly around existing patterns in the social fabric of our language, not something that any one individual is doing. But you can reflect on whether your use of they is in fact a case of implicit misgendering, and if what you’re doing is making life shittier for trans people and trans women especially.

If you’d like to read more of my writing about pronouns, you might like my other posts on medium!

This work is supported by my ko-fi tips. You can also follow me on twitter

Dr. Conrod is a linguist and scholar sort of at large. They write about transgender stuff, the linguistics of pronouns, and ways to work with your brain.