The right doesn’t care what a pronoun is.

Stop trying to have arguments about grammar when fascists are trying to have arguments about trans people.

I am getting frustrated with a certain flavor of “quote tweet to dunk on the square” that keeps cropping up on Linguist Twitter (tm). The quoted tweets are of the following type:

  • “You’ll never catch me using pronouns”
  • “Only groomers use pronouns”
  • “Pronouns in bio, sjw detected”
  • “someone would have to be deluded to think they can use “they” as a singular”

The dunks are of the following type:

  • I’ve circled all the pronouns in this tweet (“me,” “you”)
  • It is impossible to not use pronouns
  • If you say you don’t use pronouns, I am going to obstinately refer to you only by name
  • you used singular they in this tweet about how they can’t be singular lol

I am getting extremely tired of these dunks for the following reasons:

  1. they do not change the original poster’s mind
  2. the original poster is intentionally posting bait to get attention, and you’ve given it to them
  3. Quote Tweet Dunks expose your trans mutuals to violent transphobic rhetoric and we already have a lot of trauma and you’re not helping
  4. the original poster is undertaking an intentional project of linking the concept of “pronouns” with a population of undesirables as part of their fascist eugenicist ideology
  5. there are linguistic subtleties of singular ‘they’ in particular that differentiate when people use them, and you’re risking alienating people who might be otherwise convinced towards trans acceptance

I’ll go through each of these one at a time.

1: They do not change the original poster’s mind.

I know that my Linguist Twitter Mutuals (tm) know this. I know also that it feels urgent and important to try to make these people see reason, but it will not work. You cannot make them see reason because their understanding of how the world works is too fundamentally different. If you wanted to actually change someone’s mind you would need a long genuine relationship as a foundation upon which to slowly make it possible for them to escape the transphobic cult. You simply don’t have the trust of a twitter stranger, and coming at them combatively is not going to help. It’s going to further entrench their feelings of us vs. them and their feelings of being a persecuted minority. They’re going to dig themselves deeper down in the muck. Quote-tweeting someone is already a very aggro move on twitter, so you cannot tell me that you genuinely think that doing so will help them understand the error of their ways. It’s just not going to help them or you.

2: It’s bait, and you’ve taken it.

With the especially egregious cases, the original poster of transphobic tweets (with varying frequency of dogwhistle) knows that they’re saying something extremely wrong, and they know that you can’t resist the temptation to quote-tweet to dunk on them. They’re betting on it: that’s where they get their audience. The engagement metrics reward outrage because outrage means clicks, and clicks and profile visits mean follows and retweets. The panopticalgorithm sees your outrage retweet as exactly the same as an effusively supportive retweet. These people are very good and intentional at playing the algo, and you are helping them. Be aware that transphobes on twitter are by far not the only people using this strategy; companies like Goop outright use this to as a marketing strategy! They know this works. Stop feeding it.

3: You’re making your trans mutuals see traumatizing shit.

I don’t think this one needs that much explanation. Basically every trans person I know has expressed some version of “twitter is too depressing” or have had to take a mental health break or retreat to a small locked account for their own safety. Amplifying these takes, even critically, feels like a constant onslaught of “hey, just as a reminder, here’s a bunch of people who want you to die.” I don’t want those reminders! I fucking know! Give us a god damn break, but for godssakes at LEAST tag it in a way that lets us mute the words so we see less of it. Goddddd.

4: they’re trying to link the concept of “pronouns” with transphobic dogwhistles on purpose

This one’s specifically for the linguists of Linguist Twitter. Civilians also have this issue of like — that’s not what a pronoun is! I have to correct them! But we linguists are extreeeemely susceptible to this incredibly strong need to try and communicate basic facts about linguistic terminology. I know it feels like a really bad achilles-tendon blister to see someone misusing linguistic terms for evil! I hate it too! But you have to understand that they are doing this on purpose, not out of ignorance, and they’re not going to respond to a correction with “oh, my bad! tell me more about parts of speech!” I am developing new ailments and refluxes and itises every god damn day seeing linguists approach these tweets as if they’re an innocent misunderstanding, as if anyone involved (the original posters or their intended audience) thinks that the grammatical category is the issue. They are intentionally, systematically trying to link these concepts as a way of expanding an ongoing political project, and underestimating their strategic intelligence is just not a good idea.

5: there’s something else going on with singular ‘they’ and we risk alienating people

This one’s a personal pet peeve of mine, in part because I’ve written multiple articles and a three-hundred page doctoral dissertation about it. People who use (and accept) singular they with a quantified or generic antecedent (like ‘someone’) will not necessarily accept or use singular they with a specific antecedent (like a proper name). Conflating generic and specific uses of singular they runs the risk of yelling at people or calling them hypocrites for something that is genuinely not hypocrisy, and possibly alienating people who would otherwise have been educatable. Let’s stop doing that? Also, I strongly encourage you to change the singular they messaging from “it’s been around hundreds of years, just get over it already!” to “if you are consistently making mistakes, there are some great strategies that can make it easier — it takes time and effort, but you can have help and support while you’re working on it.” That’s just going to catch more flies, in my experience.

Now you may be asking me, what should we (normal humans and linguists alike) be doing when we see these rancid takes? We surely can’t let them pass without comment!

My advice depends on context. Some if/thens:

  • If it is a rando: block, report the post and any other posts you can within the TOS, and log off and go touch grass or a cat or something. I know it’s hard but I believe in you.
  • If a distant mutual is (re)posting these bad takes: @ your mutual or DM them (use your best judgment) and say something that reinforces social ties: “I didn’t know you felt this way, that is disappointing. Can I ask why you reposted this?”) Budget time for a few questions, but if they don’t come around, give them a couple more chances before cutting them loose.
  • If an actual friend or beloved mutual is (re)posting these bad takes: same as above, but budget more time to have a real heart-to-heart. Ask questions (non-leading) and reaffirm social ties. Assure them that you are asking because you care about the friendship. Use “I-statements” and focus on how this is hurtful and disappointing to see, rather than “wrong” or other value judgments. Keep an open dialog as long as you can; if they are really salvageable, they’ll approach the conversation openly as well. DM is probably better than doing this on the timeline — public shaming isn’t a kind thing to do to a friend.
  • If it’s an IRL friend or family member, same as above but take the conversation offline as much as possible. Again, focus on relational and affective reasons rather than “correctness.”

None of these are guaranteed to change minds, but in my experience relational (“hey we’re pack-mates, let’s have social norms together”) and affective (“I feel really hurt and confused when I see you say this stuff”) approaches are going to work better than epistemological (“you’re wrong”) ones.

Basically, the Quote Tweet Dunk (QTD) is a genre that is making a problem worse and not better, and I am begging linguists and also everyone to please think more strategically about how to go about countering transphobic messaging online. Yes, we have to do something, but QTD is definitely not it.

Thanks for reading! I write about pronouns and linguistic justice. You might also like:

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

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Kirby Conrod

Kirby Conrod

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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.