Oh my goodness, Vox Day is STILL going on

The story so far. Vox Day wrote a BS (sorry ‘rhetoric’) piece on a study on IQ changes in France which he tied to immigration – I’m guessing because he hadn’t read the studies in question. I wrote a piece about the actual studies he was referring to and their flaws. Vox,  got into a bit of a huff about that and to demonstrate his superior intellect posted the results of an online internet quiz on vocabulary. Mike Glyer at File 770 included that in a round-up, and then other people (including Timothy) also took the test. With me so far? Good.

John Scalzi then posted some tweets saying:

Friends posting results of an online test to show they have a huge vocabulary. But it’s not how many words you know. It’s how you use them.

Also, I suspect posting the results of an online test to show how smart/learned/nerdy you are is a test in itself, isn’t it.

Oh dear. That’s now the chips on both of Vox’s shoulders – sensitivity around IQ for some reason  and the big Scalzi shaped chip on the other.

Just to throw another log onto the bonfire of insecurities, ex-Star Trek actor, Twitter spokesnerd and Scalzi interlocutor, Wil Wheaton gave a speech to Mensa.

Vox posts a rejoinder which is very much about how he definitely does not have any insecurities, basically because God and playing sports. https://voxday.blogspot.com.au/2016/07/always-excuse.html

A few things to note:

  1. I don’t think Vox is unintelligent.
  2. The mistakes he makes are rarely the kind made due to a lack of intelligence. Typically they are just because he doesn’t really care about the actual truth of a situation.
  3. Declaring that you aren’t insecure about your intelligence and then citing things like your IQ scores or internet quiz scores or just plain declaring yourself smarter than people who disagree with you, creates the opposite impression i.e. it makes you look insecure about it even if you aren’t.
  4. Commenting on Vox’s mistakes about IQ wasn’t intended to wind him up – not that I’m trying to be nice to him either but I feel like I’ve accidentally poked a sore spot.

See, I can play nice. I’ll try and not comment on Vox’s errors and…um…and…oh. Darn, I just read the post he wrote prior to the one above. https://voxday.blogspot.com.au/2016/07/linguistic-racists.html [sigh] I’m trying not to spend my time pointing out daft things Vox says but seriously:

[on the topic of singular ‘they’]

So, are German speakers to begin referring to Das Frau and Das Mann in addition to Das Madchen? It would certainly be easier to replace Der Die Das Die, Den Die Das Die, Dem Der Dem Den with Das Die, Das Die, and Dem Den.

That would actually work, whether the Germans were amenable or not. But in Italian, where there is no Neuter, are we to refer to il macchino for the car or la libra for the book? The same goes for French, where not only the gendered “the” would need to be changed, but the suffixes as well. Shall we say le femme or la homme?

How languages with extensive use of grammatical gender deal with the possible issue of embedded sexism is a different question than how English should deal with it. English does not have grammatical gender running through it in the same way as French, Spanish, German or many other languages. Aside from personal pronouns, there are few places in English where a speaker (or reader or writer) has to worry about agreement on gender in a sentence.

Put another way gender is not baked into English in the way it is in many other languages. Therefore the places where it is apparently important is NOT because of deep properties of the language and therefore is there *for some other reason*. I wonder what that other reason might be? 😉

Now I can think of various reasons for using singular ‘they’ not least of which is that it has been around for at least as long as Modern English has been around. It isn’t new. But Vox offers an opportunity for what should be doubly persuasive – something that demonstrates the established use of singular they in English dating but also something that ties in neatly with a statement he made in his earlier post:

So, if you have a broken mind, if you feel anxious and insecure, if you feel like an imposter, I have two pieces of advice.

1. Humble yourself before God.
2. Give Man the opportunity to humble you.

Let’s go ask God about singular ‘they’! OK, I don’t have a direct line to God but we do have the King James Bible which should be of some note to Vox given the above but from a purely secular perspective was a key document in codifying English. As always the trusty Language Log is ready to help with a post from way back in 2006 http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/003572.html which in turn refers to a post here http://englishbibles.blogspot.com.au/2006/09/singular-they-in-english-bibles.html

The reality is not that singular ‘they’ is a new invention being crammed into English but rather it is one of those tricks that English has embedded in it but which has been frowned upon due to a misplaced understanding of how English works. Specifically a long-running and incoherent attempt to apply grammatical rules from other languages to English (particularly Latin).

Now note I’m not saying that language reform is mistaken or that German speakers or French speakers shouldn’t look at how assumptions about social gender play out in grammatical gender. The point is simply that singular ‘they’ exists, has existed for a long time and grammatical gender is largely NOT important in English.

Not using it because of the way German works or because of the way French works is an absurd error of reasoning akin to capitalising all your nouns in an English sentence because that’s what German does.

OK, I’ll try and ration Vox commentary and post about something safe and neutral like Global Warming…


9 thoughts on “Oh my goodness, Vox Day is STILL going on

  1. I always say “he/she” or “he or she” rather than resort to a singular “they” on the grounds that the singular “they” ends up meaning “he.” Yes, it’s more work to say “he or she,” but it does remind people that the person in question could be a woman. Saying “they” isn’t really inclusive at all; you can’t include people by leaving them out.

    The example uses of singular “they” from old Bibles cited above all have distributive antecedents. (E.g. “Does everyone have his/their pencil(s)?” Even modern pedants agree that those require plural pronouns when the antecedent doesn’t C-command the referent. E.g “*Everyone was feeling sad, so I bought him a beer.” These expressions have always had ambiguous number, even syntactically.

    By contrast, I haven’t seen any cases where singular “they” was used in an unambiguously singular context up until very recently. For most native speakers, “*Someone lost their pencil” isn’t English. Not yet, anyway.


    1. The idea of using singular “they” in contexts where the gender of the individual involved is unknown doesn’t seem as though it is being exclusive to me; if anything it feels almost the opposite – far more inclusive because it is offering potential rather than defining the limits. (And that’s without even going near the notion that “he or she” are the only valid options…!)

      I mean yes, I agree that far too often it is used as a cheap replacement for “he”; I’m not sure that negates its value though. That’s more a fault of writers who think that’s all they need to do to resolve these issues than with singular “they” itself.


    2. Maybe its a regional thing but “Someone lost their pencil” sounds very uncontroversially English to me – e.g. like a teacher talking about a specific student but acting like they don’t know who “someone has forgotten their manners”

      I think your first point is a solid one. With institutionalised sexism default ends up equaling male.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I see that as somewhat like the attempt to use the word “queer” to eliminate the need to say LGBT. Every time someone writes “LGBTQ” you can see how well that worked. (There was an alternate argument that people were “reclaiming” the word, but just imagine how people would react if Donald Trump started saying “queers” instead of “gays” and you’ll see how well that idea worked as well.)

        I really do think it’s a very deep principle that you cannot have inclusive language that leaves people out. If you want to change the world, it’s going to require a lot of work, and remembering to name the underrepresented people you’re trying to help is very little work by comparison.

        As for acceptable modern use of “their,” I should just say that languages change while linguists watch and wonder why. I’m prepared to believe that we’re watching a change happen, but I don’t think we’re there quite yet.


  2. I’ve been using they/their since grade school (hurt my grades but I persevered) specifically because it doesn’t have the “men” bias in it. Now we are working on being more inclusive of gender fluidity they/their works better than any other words I can think of. It exists, it fell out of regular use, it’s coming back, it doesn’t carry the same baggage as words like people (men) because of the various reasons it’s making a comeback.


  3. I had to laugh – Scalzi talked about “Imposter Syndrome” and little Teddy had to huff that HE didn’t even know what that was like.

    Of course Teddy didn’t – he’s famous as the poster child for Dunning-Kruger syndrome.


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