“You Guys” Is Gender-Neutral

April 12, 2016 Comments Off on “You Guys” Is Gender-Neutral

Did you know there are two ups in English? It’s true! Watch, I’ll show you. You can say “I walked up the stairs” but you can’t say “I walked the stairs up” because this up is a preposition and English prepositions don’t work that way. On the other hand, you can say “I looked up the information” and you can ALSO say “I looked the information up” because this up is a particle and English particles do work that way even though most of us have never heard of them.

Descriptive linguistics is the reason we know this: The starting assumption is that anyone who is a native speaker of a dialect has an inherent understanding of its grammatical rules even if they can’t put into words why something is right or wrong. If you are a native English speaker, then the sentence “I walked the stairs up” made you do a weird mental double-take even if you have never heard of a particle. Linguists’ job is to figure out why something is right, not to figure out what should be right. (That’s called prescriptive linguistics and it is largely evil.)

What’s cool about this is that it works for any dialect that people speak natively, even so-called “uneducated” ones. The sentence “He shop here all the time” is not grammatical in my native dialect but is grammatical in others. I love this because it’s a radically democratic way of approaching the world, and I get all mama-bear when people start talking about wrongness in language. Once you’re judging people’s language as wrong it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump to judging people as wrong, which is where so much of the awfulness in the world comes from. There is Standard English and then there’s Chicano English and African American Vernacular English and so on and they are all equally valid dialects. It also hits home because, as I have written before, Wisconsinites’ inability to accept the word “pop” caused me a disproportionate amount of stress in college. Similarly, I’ve tried saying “You should come with” (complete sentence) and “Where are you at?” and have had the same icky feeling I get when I try to say “soda.” It feels weird. It’s not me.

Now I’m an educator. More than that: I’m a women’s self-defense instructor. And it has been on my radar for about a decade that there are a lot of people out there who consider the phrase “you guys” to be sexist, and advise speakers to remove it from their vocabulary. My own training involved some pretty tight attention to language and I am all in favor of watching your words. But in this instance, it’s misguided.

English doesn’t have gendered second-person pronouns. “You” is still super-safe even in what my Facebook world perceives as the currently ongoing gender-binary-destructive maelstrom; you might not know where on the gender spectrum the person in front of you places himself, or what pronouns she uses, or how hard ze’s going to kick your ass for making assumptions about either of those things, but at least you can look them straight in the eye and say, “How may I help you?” That part has always been worry-free, and it will stay that way because English doesn’t have gendered second-person pronouns.

On the other hand, most of us have always had problems with plain “you” as our plural second-person pronoun. It happens to sound the same as the singular “you,” and we want to be clear, so the majority of us have a fall-back method of clarifying.

You probably read about the Harvard dialect survey that went viral in 2013. The goal was a geographical survey of organic native dialects, expressions that sound just as right to their native speakers as “I walked up the stairs” does to us. (The variety of American English is fantastic! You should check the questions out.) Their question about a term “to address a group of two or more people” listed the following options:

  • you all
  • yous/youse
  • you lot
  • you guys
  • you ‘uns
  • yins
  • you
  • other
  • y’all

That’s quite a list! And 42.53% of respondents picked “you guys.” (Side note: I would bet anything that the majority of the 24.82% who said “you” picked that option because it was correct and they knew they weren’t supposed to say y’all or yins. I showed this survey to one friend who was proud that he had “picked all the right answers.” *headdesk*)

Notice that the question was ungendered. Those 4,578 people picked “you guys” out of a list of other second-person plural pronouns, which, again, are not gendered in English.

The idea of taking “you guys” out of my vocabulary entirely gives me the same panicked, tight feeling in my throat that I have every time I try to suggest that someone “come with.” It doesn’t feel right. That is not the language I speak. With my inherent understanding of my native dialect of English, I can tell you with certainty that “you guys” is gender-neutral. I think most people sense this same thing, except that without the linguistic background to argue for it, you feel like you don’t have a leg to stand on if someone calls you out on it.

And let me clarify that this isn’t the same thing as changing your vocabulary. Terms change all the time, but they don’t affect the grammar of your dialect. It doesn’t matter if I ask you “Where are the fireflies at?” or “Where are the peenie wallies at?”—if “where…at” isn’t grammatical in your dialect, neither one is going to sound right. (Yes, peenie wallies! Seriously, take a look at some of those questions. Language rocks!)

The problem is that “you guys” happens to look and sound a lot like a phrase that you could conceivably use to address a group of men. Just like the preposition “up” looks and sounds a lot like the particle “up.” Just like singular “you” looks and sounds a lot like plural “you.”

Women in the 1970s re-branded feminist history as “herstory.” Of course, “history” derives from Ancient Greek and doesn’t bear any relationship whatsoever to the Modern English pronoun “his”—it was just a linguistic coincidence. That didn’t mean you shouldn’t say “herstory” if it meant something to you or was important for your own growth as a feminist… but seriously proposing that it be widely adopted was ludicrous.

The fact that “you guys” appears to be gendered is a similar linguistic coincidence. And in the same way, you are welcome to eliminate it from your language if it is important to you. But a solid understanding of descriptive linguistics, and why it is critically important not to cast other dialects as vulgar or uneducated, suggests why it isn’t right to advocate for its wholesale removal.

The Clown Joke

October 16, 2014 Comments Off on The Clown Joke

It turns out Barbara Kingsolver has only written seven books of fiction! And I have read five and a half of them. So on the one hand, life is good. But she’s also written nonfiction (my feelings on which are maybe a topic for another day), and the seventh book of fiction is Homeland, her collection of short stories.

I have categorically hated short stories for a long time. But every time I end up actually reading one, I can’t figure out why I’m so dead-set against the genre. It finally occurred to me that it’s probably because of the poor examples that were shoved down my throat in middle school, once “Reading” turned into “English.”

In ninth grade my class went on a camping trip in the Boundary Waters, and my group’s counselor taught us The Clown Joke: A boy is very excited to go to the circus, but a clown pulls him for an audience participation stunt that humiliates him in front of the crowd. He chokes out, “Fuck you, clown!” and is haunted for the next dozen years or so by all the things he could have said instead. This is where you’re supposed to draw out the joke for as long as possible, listing graduate degrees in comedy and joke workshops he runs and all the cutting responses he belatedly comes up with. Then the same circus comes back to town, and the man arranges to sit in the same seat, ready to have his revenge. Sure enough, the clown pulls him again, makes the same joke… and the man chokes out, “Fuck you, clown!”

The boys in my group howled, and The Clown Joke quickly achieved legendary status. It never struck me as very funny, partly because of the part where you’re supposed to drag the joke out as long as you can. No one ever did it very well, so the listener had to sit through an interminable, very forced list of stupid ideas. It was clearly nothing but a build-up to a punchline, and there was nothing for it but to sit patiently, try to manage a stiff smile when it finally arrived, and excuse yourself as soon as you could.

And these are the kinds of short stories you read in middle school. They don’t give you Barbara Kingsolver in middle school. They give you stupid, facile build-ups to a single line that read exactly like The Clown Joke. Middle schoolers don’t have the capacity to appreciate fine writing and quiet plots, so instead they fed us glorified Clown Jokes, third-rate drivel where you just had to grit your teeth and wait for it to be over. The first short stories I read I took as personal insults. No wonder I hate them!

Breakthroughs feel revolutionary, but of course there is always a lot of work to be done to follow through on them. Reading Homeland would probably be an excellent next step.

Both Feet

September 17, 2014 Comments Off on Both Feet

In my crazy-intense self-defense class last weekend I commented to the instructor that I was finding I was standing on both feet a lot more often than I usually do, which I associated with blossoming confidence and energy born of new skills. Then at choir, while telling people about my crazy-intense self-defense class last weekend, I noticed myself on both feet when I said the word “ready.”

And I realized I had lied to the instructor. I stand on both feet all the time. Several of my favorite activities involve both feet—I even have my keyboard adjusted to standing height. All the times in my life I feel happiest, most competent, most relaxed, I’m on both feet. If I tied that balanced stance to the confidence and energy of last weekend, I should start listening to myself more often. It makes me think that even the idea of being slouched over on one hip is a lie. Anything that makes me reel like a melting snowman is out. And anytime I find myself standing balanced, I should tune in to the power and jump in with both feet.

So Bored with Sex

July 24, 2014 Comments Off on So Bored with Sex

I’m reading A Song of Ice and Fire right now, which is very fun and clever and I love the politics and I can’t put them down and so on, but I find them very lazy. Martin has bricked himself into a stupid medieval rut that seems to bore even him, but dutifully slogs through soul-sucking tournaments and genealogies only one step removed from “Jaseth begat Horren begat Prian begat…” It’s so much effort even to skim a new set of names and a new family history (going much further back than necessary and complete with coat of arms presented in real heraldic jiggamababble) that every time a new narrator is introduced I want to cry. He names half his characters by misspelling normal names like a 12-year-old writing his first story, and the other half are tragically plagued by ys and aes and qs with no us. The characters mostly fit into neat little slots—tomboy, sadist, succubus, square, outcast, drunk, greedy—even if those slots are sometimes up a notch or two from caricature. The characters who do not fit into slots are exciting, but there really are a only a couple.

But mostly, I am SO BORED with sex and rape. They’re two of the dumbest shortcuts that exist in fiction. The problem is that in stories like this sex and rape are not used to comment on or depict someone’s character, but are a magic plot device with a pre-determined outcome. (Priapus ex machina?) It’s like if you chopped up onions and carrots and waved a magic wand and suddenly the pot was full of steaming ready-to-eat stew. If you wave your sex-wand (ha), suddenly a noble, intelligent man is effectively disabled by his need to get with a lady. (Never a man, obviously.) If you wave your rape-wand, suddenly a strong woman is broken into little pieces and can be led around by the nose. Martin uses sex and rape to cut his characters to the desired shape instead of showing how sex and rape caused them to grow into that shape.

And the most irritating thing is the rape culture of his world, and yes, I understand that medieval times were sexist and a terrible place for women and so on. Aside from the irrationality of using the social-realism defense in swords-and-sorcery fantasy, it’s clear that Martin is doing it out of laziness and a really thick-headed understanding of sexism. A short story that describes the main character’s day by giving equal weight to everything he does would be dull as dirt. By the same token, just because uncouth guardsmen’s first reaction to a woman with a sword might really be to make a crack about how their sword is bigger and they’d like to show her doesn’t mean that you should include it every time. If it’s a joke, it better be funny. If the point is to be “realistic,” maybe instead of actually quoting the idiot you could tell how the woman ignored the guards’ hilarious suggestions and commanded them to move aside. If the point is to demonstrate sexism by have a talking penis throw around the word “wench” and meditate aloud on how much he would like to get laid, then Martin has totally missed how sexism really works. He puts in these glaring stupid scenes where blackguard mercenaries leer at the serving wench and put their hands down her giggling bodice until they finally suddenly gang-rape her on the table and it makes me want to scream. These scenes do not advance the story I care about, nor do they convincingly portray the men’s villainy or do anything at all for the character of the serving girl—if she were ever important. There are other ways to be evil besides raping serving girls. There are other ways to be sexist and privileged besides using the word “wench.” There are other ways to be traumatized besides being raped. There are other ways to rape someone besides violently, in a big happy group. It’s shockingly, actively un-creative. It was fun when Martin answered that he writes strong female characters “because [he’s] always considered women to be people,” but it would be nice if he considered all his characters people, instead of NPCs he can puppet around and make hump each other.

Sex is supposed to be some great motivator, but it is almost always a shortcut around having to actually create a character or imagine an interaction. Every good story ostensibly about sex is about a relationship so finely shaded it has tides. Sex is not a replacement for competent character creation. The better the writer, the sadder this is. There is some breathtaking writing in these books, and it makes me wish he’d written a story that he was really interested in, all of it, instead of creating something where he delivers exposition in toneless monologues and defaults to HBO tricks like blood and boobies to give his characters raisons d’être. If he ever bothers to care about something he writes, I’ll line right up. In the meantime… I’m off to read a scene where a girl gets raped. (Guess which book I’m on!)

(Hint: It’s a trick question.)

Ci vuole un fiore

May 19, 2014 Comments Off on Ci vuole un fiore

“Black thumb” is a little too harsh. Let’s stick with “untalented.” I don’t exactly kill plants, but I coexist with them in some kind of timeless state of distant appreciation from which I occasionally emerge to find, to my constant idiot surprise, that they need water, or light, or less water, or less light. I have exactly the same response every time, the same slow glimmer of understanding that the beautiful green things might need something from me.

I am inching towards setting up my expensive but very cool Windowfarm as if it were a blind date, worrying whether the seedlings will like me and what if I blow my chance with them? There are much more serious matters I should be concerned with—life and death, for instance. If I knew any sentient plants they would be preemptively reporting me to the proper authorities and/or making plans not to come over for the next couple months.

But for what it’s worth, I like plants, and I especially like watching them lift their heads after a good watering. It’s one of my favorite things, and of course every time it happens I watch raptly, astonished, because I don’t ever seem to learn. In a similar way, I should have retained all the articles I’ve read that say that writers cannot write without reading for fuel. For the first time in a long time, I am reading for pleasure, and my poor parched little writer-plant is straightening its shoulders and brandishing its leaves, and here I am, as usual, gaping at it, as if I’d had no idea this was going to happen. It doesn’t take much rain to make a flower happy.

Review: Unplugged

April 30, 2014 Comments Off on Review: Unplugged

I picked this book up because the author is presenting “Scenes and Songs from the Novel Unplugged” the day after tomorrow, and I was curious. Turns out the man has talent! Just not a very good editor, apparently. It’s about rock star Dayna Clay, who abruptly deserts her tour, tries to kill herself, then drives aimlessly until she ends up in the Badlands, which speak to her and heal her. It’s an enjoyable book in spite of reading very young.

McComas uses too many words. I found myself rewriting as I read, just a little—well, not even rewriting, just crossing out a word here and there—and it was amazing how much tighter the book could have been. There’s a lot of “she paid for her groceries, walked to her car, put the bag in the backseat, and got in,” a lot of “‘I think,’ she said out loud, ‘that that might be true,'” and he has an embarrassing adolescent infatuation with ellipses and quotation marks. But the talent is apparent even so, and not just as pertains to the style. McComas has great psychological rhythm: he is skilled at creating effortless little significant episodes, something I have always struggled with, and the pacing of these is mostly good. I found myself swinging Tarzan-like from neat vignette to lovely phrase to solid dialogue exchange, and the next vines arrived with enough regularity that I was comfortable reading like that (as opposed to some books, where you reach out, grasp air, and go into free fall).

In a way it’s too bad the protagonist is a gritty bisexual rock star struggling with depression and a history of abuse—it looks awfully Mitch Albom, doesn’t it, especially when you drop her into a plot where she finds herself by dropping everything and driving west, getting in touch with nature and falling in love—but I have to say, it’s well done. The story would be saccharine and corny in most hands, and the Big Reveal would be enormously built-up and anticlimactic, but somehow the book turns out right. One exception is the interview published by a reporter who tracks her down—it’s nothing but a soapbox for a bunch of pet topics: defining someone by their sexuality, sugarcoating the truth, the validity of sex vs. marriage, why Biblical literalism is bad, etc. Blah. Occasionally the symbolism gets a little heavy-handed; occasionally the woman-to-woman attraction scenes start to sound a little too much as if they were written by a man; occasionally depression and suicide are portrayed pretty simplistically. But I can’t come down too hard on all this because there’s a totally outlandish scene at the end of the book, where she strikes out into the wilderness and ends up having a kind of spirit quest, complete with visions and communion with animals, which is just perfect and wonderful and possibly enough to make me want to buy the book. Plus it is indeed true that the Badlands are magical, and I am currently very homesick for them and may need to make a pilgrimage.

I heard about this book through publicity for Sexual Assault Awareness Month, but that’s not really what it’s about. It’s a surprisingly quiet little read, considering how loud the characters and plot should be…but if it were that loud, I would never have finished it. Despite constant internal criticism of the editing, I am very glad I read it. But dude, if you’re looking for an editor for your next book, drop me a line.

Review: Harlot’s Ghost

March 21, 2014 Comments Off on Review: Harlot’s Ghost


And now, after years of piecemeal reading, long hiatuses, and a rant I couldn’t keep down, I am not sure what I think of this book. Go figure.

Let’s start with this: I will not take back anything I said in my rant. Not only do Mailer’s characters talk completely unlike real people, they talk so completely unlike real people that I was totally alienated for several hundred pages. The narrator gradually acquires experience but he never grows up and is always kind of an idiot boy, even at the end.

But I wonder what I would have thought of this book if I had known from the beginning that it doesn’t really have a plot. It’s more like a three-hour movie shot on a handheld camera focusing on the back of someone’s head—around the sides you can see classified conversations and dull fiddly Agency politics, Marilyn Monroe and Fidel Castro, Florida and Berlin and Uruguay, but clearly that isn’t what the movie is about, it’s just the backdrop against which you watch the narrator’s head bob and occasionally make out with a stewardess.

By the end of the book it becomes clear that nothing is going to resolve the way you might expect it to. Instead of joining the weave in an orderly manner, the plot threads in this book swing in like comets, leave a blazing trail over a hundred pages or so, then arc back out into space, never to be heard from again. Getting to the end of the book was amazing, because the first thing you do (after reading a paragraph of Mailer’s afterword and decided nothing will ever be worth listening to him talk about himself and closing the book) is take stock of all the loose ends that were not tied up. But in the course of making the list you realize that none of them actually touched on what was important to the narrator—he hasn’t quite figured out himself just what that is—and that he is letting all these things go in favor of the mission he states on the last page …and the reader, at least, has to let that go as well.

It’s an odd way to tell a story. But it is not necessarily an odd way to tell a character. And for all their unrealistic bombast, the characters are very good: complex and multi-dimensional and uniquely shaped. The question I’m left with is whether the characters in this beautifully executed character sketch were worth getting to know. I have the bothersome idea that it is a waste of time to spend any energy on pretentious, self-righteous people who preen themselves on their intellect and take it for granted that they are high, high above the peons who comprise the rest of humanity. It’s true that these people are the most likely to be, say, extremely high-ranking officials in the Central Intelligence Agency, and arguably it is worth understanding the extent to which they are willing to play god, but, particularly taking into account that this is fiction, it is a profound waste of perfectly good life-time to follow their shenanigans.

The worst part is thinking that Mailer probably thinks he won. One character is a little unhinged toward the end of the book, and it ends without divulging whether he committed suicide or not. And as I wonder whether he did, I can hear Mailer laughing snidely and thinking with insufferable smugness that if I were an astute judge of character, I would know, without being told. Granted, I do sometimes worry excessively about what dead authors think of me, but I have such a strong impression that Mailer expects the reader to be SO IMPRESSED by how awesome his writing is, and what a subtle mind to come up with so many genius characters with amazing thoughts! and weren’t you just blown away by how he subverted all your expectations about the ending?! that I feel that I need to take a stand for all Harlot’s Ghost readers everywhere, and roll my eyes and say loudly that it was okay, I guess.

There are many, many things about it that are superb, but all those things that were stuck in my craw way back on page 600 are still stuck in my craw. I resent that the reader’s role is to be as obsessed with Harry Hubbard as Harry Hubbard is and to care about what Harry Hubbard cares about. This book is excellent but it is full of the kind of people I take pains not to know, and I don’t care to take on the worshipful role Mailer wrote for me.

I read an article once about what a perfect jerk Mailer was, and I thought, what an odd thing for people to get hung up on. Almost no one is famous for being a good person, and if you like the work they do or their acting or the way they write, who cares what they’re like? You’re not looking to them for moral guidance. But Mailer’s choice of major characters says a lot of very unflattering things about him, and I’m afraid I find myself hung up on them.

So…it was okay, I guess.

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