Monday, February 13, 2017

She vs Singular They

My Gender in Twitter as "Robot" (just for illustration)
English does not have gender-neutral pronouns just like many other languages. We tend to use "They" in place of she/he when necessary.

For example, I often say something like, "I went to the bank. They said my card will arrive in a week". They? Who? Of course, it was a lady in the counter who told this to me. I can in this case mention, "I went to the bank. She said my card will arrive in a week". This does not sound right. Who is "she" having a sudden appearance? When I said they, in a gender-neutral way, it was clear that I was referring to a human of bank.

In writing, it has been harder, as we cannot give informal talks like the above freely. Think of a computer scientist that we are describing in our research paper. We mention, "The scientist collects data. He/she processes them, and forwards the results to his/her colleagues". This sounds weird. So I resort to "she" as the gender-neutral pronoun, since "he" has already seen its lion share in writing, and now it is fair to give chance to "she". It should also be noted that females are underrepresented in STEM (Science, technology, engineering and mathematics), and this is our attempt at countering gender-roles.

However, recently, non-binary genders and gender minorities are receiving the attention that were never received before. To be politically correct, social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook lets you choose the gender you like, in addition to the traditional options of male or female. I think it is irrelevant for the social media platforms such as Twitter to even seek this information. After all, Twitter has nothing to do with gender. If it is Tinder, it makes perfect sense. I have currently identified myself as a "Robot" in Twitter, for illustrative purposes in this blog post. Pic or did not happen? See the fancy screenshot above, yourself!

As a cause, in scientific writing, it is now more and more acceptable and encouraged to use "singular they". One of the co-authors I work with, replaced all the "she" and "her" I mentioned in the paper with "they" and "their". He does not want to sound offending to the gender-minorities. I am happy with the progress. However, I still feel that this might make the writing sound a bit too legalese and/or boring. I am not a linguist anyway. 

Let's do a small exercise. Among the two paragraphs below, which one you like the most? I prefer the first one. It is less confusing, and easier for imagination. But of course, I understand this may mean less representation for those who do not identify themselves as "she" or "he".

Paragraph 1: You go to see the doctor. She asks you some questions to diagnose the symptoms. After a few minutes, a nurse comes in with an injection. He tells you not to worry.

Paragraph 2: You go to see the doctor. They ask you some questions to diagnose the symptoms. After a few minutes, a nurse comes in with an injection. They tell you not to worry.

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