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Preferred gender-neutral pronouns?
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jducoeur
Okay, here's a curious question: what sets of gender-neutral pronouns do you prefer?

The thing is, I'm writing LARPs in Querki nowadays -- that was the original motivation for the system (a dozen years ago), and while it's now only one use case among many, it's one that matters to me. In preparation for talking it up a bit at Intercon, I'm starting to get a first-draft LARP App ready, so that other folks can use Querki for LARP writing and management.

Gender has become a fairly hot topic in the LARP community: many people prefer to write relatively gender-neutral, not actually assigning genders to many or all of the characters until relatively late in the process. I tried this out myself for A Respectful Calm last year, and it was a fascinating exercise in pushing through my own assumptions: in the end, I would up with five "hard-gendered" characters, and 24 neutral. (That is, five characters were intrinsically gendered by the nature of their stories; the rest were left neutral until after casting.)

In order to do that, I had to create a way to write in a gender-neutral fashion in Querki; I did that by adding functions for the various pronouns. So for example, if you are writing in the context of a Character, you would say [[sie]] to mean "he or she". This works quite nicely in Querki -- a character sheet can refer to, say, B Ari (the CSI investigator) by pronoun as [[B Ari -> sie]], and that will become "he" or "she" depending on the final gender assigned to the character post-casting. Or in the Who You Know section of the character sheet, where any given entry refers to a specific character, you can just use [[sie]] and it'll interpret it appropriately. (I also added some special magic sauce in Querki to match case: if you say [[Sie]], it'll come out as "He" or "She".)

Of course, you can also leave the characters ungendered, and it'll just use the gender-neutral forms directly, but in my experience that's pretty unusual. Or you can completely ignore this whole mechanism and write in the traditional pre-gendered way -- this is more about allowing gender-neutral writing than requiring it.

It was an experiment, but I found that, once you get used to it, it becomes fairly natural. And the exercise changes the way you *think* about the characters, which opens up more design space: I found that there were a lot of characters where my original mental model had been for a particular gender, but in practice they worked fine (if, often, with subtly different culturally-influenced connotations) with the other. Indeed, about a third of them wound up cast opposite to my original expectations, and they worked well. It was quite refreshing.

But the thing is, I pulled the actual pronouns out of my ass. I used "sie" because it's the he/she I've come across most often, but wound up skating out onto thin ice as I figured out the rest of them. I wound up with:
  • Sie -- he / she (subject)

  • Hir -- her / him (direct object)

  • Hirs -- hers / his ("this thing is hers / his" -- I don't even remember which part of speech this is)

  • Hirp -- her / his (possessive -- this one was when I realized I was out of my depth)
The underlying mechanism is flexible, so folks can add their own variants if they like, but I'd prefer that the upcoming LARP App be based on the best consensus I can come up with.

So -- what set of gender-neutral pronouns do you think is best? Any particular reason, or just personal taste? I've found that I needed at least the above four parts of speech in order to write a complete character sheet, so I'm looking for suggestions that include all of them; I'm also quite open to more-complete sets. Also, to be useful, each pronoun must be at least as distinct as their standard gendered variant, since the point is to be able to translate these into their gendered forms automatically.
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They. They is a singular pronoun that is neutral, already in the langauge, and works with grammer the same way You does, both as a singular and a plural.

That's certainly one decent option. I have a mild twitch with it (too many years of mentally interpreting it as plural makes the gears grind a bit when I try to use it as singular), but they / them / theirs / their is probably the most real-English option. Do other folks prefer this?

GameTeX, which has been using macros for gender-neutral LARP writing for years (and presumably Template before that), uses they/them/their/theirs. This has the advantage of people being able to remember them, and the disadvantage of requiring confusing verb forms. For example, you'd need to write "\They{} wants more money." because that will evaluate to something like "She wants more money." but it's easy to accidentally write "\They{} want more money." because that's what'd be grammatical without the macro substitution.

I don't really have a better suggestion, though. I vaguely like the version of Spivak that's just forms of they with the "th" removed, so "\Ey{} wants more money.", because its relatively easy to remember, but it's hard enough in my experience to get non-programmer-types to use pronoun macros at all, and I feel like that'd be a harder sell for most people.

I expect you'll eventually want to add various not-really-pronoun things as well, so people can replace words like "wife" and "sister" and "aunt" and so on with appropriate macros.

GameTeX, which has been using macros for gender-neutral LARP writing for years (and presumably Template before that), uses they/them/their/theirs.

Useful to know -- I was wondering. This line of thought originally started the last time we had a "tools for writing LARPs" panel (a couple of years ago), and one of the things folks particularly liked about GameTeX was its support for gender substitution. Thanks!

I expect you'll eventually want to add various not-really-pronoun things as well, so people can replace words like "wife" and "sister" and "aunt" and so on with appropriate macros.

Yep, but I'm not sure yet how much I'm going to bother with in the base App -- you can always do this ad-hoc by saying, eg, [[gendered(""aunt"", ""uncle"")]]. (That's the general mechanism I was referring to.) So while we'll likely add *some* of those for convenience, I'll probably stop worrying about it when we get to diminishing returns...

I agree that "they" is what people have been normalizing on for a bit over a week decade.

Edited at 2016-01-13 08:25 am (UTC)

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Definitely helpful; thanks. You were one of the people I was hoping would comment.

At this point, based on this discussion, I'm leaning towards building in "they" and one of the neologisms, and then documenting how to add your own preferred set, so that writers can follow their own preferences if they choose...

Agreed on "they". The "wrong verb tense" ding is real, but I think outweighed by the correctness.

You could always include "they-singluar" as an alias that authors who have a hard time remembering the verb-tense thing could use.

Interesting -- does show just how mainstream it's becoming. Thanks for the pointer...

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(Ey might work, though; it follows the 'they/them/their/theirs' pattern, is concise, and notably different.)

Intriguing. At a gut level I like it, but I suspect it would introduce new and special problems relating to "a" vs. "an" (since Ey starts with a vowel, and is mainly being substituted with values that start with consonants)...

Cool, I didn't realize there was already a collection of these.

Jon made up/used esh in our roleplaying game years ago for he/she. I don't remember if he came up with additional an additional form for hers.

Interesting topic. Also, I didn't realize that's what you intended querki for!

Well, Querki as it stands *now* is extremely general-purpose -- I'm using it for a couple dozen different use cases personally so far.

But yeah, LARP-writing is where it started. A dozen years or so ago, I tried writing a LARP using a wiki -- I liked the ability to easily edit in the browser, but quickly got frustrated by how unmaintainable the result was. When you build a LARP in a wiki, you inevitably wind up with a lot of tricky duplicate data: one-way links and other sorts of duplications that lead you down a rathole of messiness. So I took one of the early wiki codebases (UseModWiki), hacked it to include a formal concept of "properties" and a primitive query language, and wound up with ProWiki, a semi-structured wiki that I then used for several games.

By 2007, though, I was clear that ProWiki was at best a primitive prototype -- crude, suspiciously fragile and very hard to use. So I started designing Querki as its successor. And in 2012 I realized just *how* powerful Querki could be, came up with a business plan, and started working on it full-time.

It says something that, even amongst all the different use cases I've put Querki to, LARP-writing and management is still, by far, the most *complex* problem to date. There's a lot involved in doing it right. (Heck, the casting questionnaire for A Respectful Calm is the most complex data structure yet existing in Querki...)

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Following up: I just realized that, in the specific case of pronouns, the "a" vs. "an" argument may be a strawman -- you don't use those in front of pronouns very often. So possibly I should include this or Spivak or some similar variant as an alternative...

My personal favorite is ta, which is Chinese for he/she/it (Gendered pronouns were imposed on China in 1917, but only in the written language). But this is Querki. Can't you make it user-definable?

Oh, certainly so. This is just a question of what I include out-of-the-box in the LARP App. My rule of thumb is that stuff should be flexible, but most people will just go with the default, so it's worth trying to get the default right...

"They" certainly seems very popular these days. I only bobble at it when I don't have the context about whether the speaker is talking about one or more than one person. (Example: "I waited for them at the hospital" was one of my FB friends' recent status updates and I was somewhat worried about whether the poster's whole family was hit by a car or something - turns out it was one person, no major illnesses or injuries involved)

Edited at 2016-01-13 01:48 am (UTC)

I like ze/zim/zir/zirs.

Hadn't come across that one, but I like it -- thanks!

This one is also my favorite, and the one that I seem to find the most gender-fluid people using themselves - which is, of course, the best place to start with this question.

The runner up in that population also seems to be "they" and its dependents.

the one that I seem to find the most gender-fluid people using themselves - which is, of course, the best place to start with this question.

Useful to know, and I concur. (I've also asked the question over on the Intercon FB page, which has a fair gender-fluid community.) I'm amused at the sheer variety of z-based variants out there -- Wikipedia lists four, and this is slightly different from all of them -- but I'm happy to go with whatever seems to be most popular.

The runner up in that population also seems to be "they" and its dependents.

Yeah, I'm seeing a lot of support for that. There are grammatical problems there (due to what it's being used for here, you have to remember to write all of the matching grammar in the singular, which is a bit tricky with "they"), but I don't object to trying it. At the moment, given the discussion so far, I'm leaning towards including "they" plus one of the neologisms as built-in alternatives. If ze/zim/zir/zirs is popular, I'm happy to go with that. (I find it pretty intuitive, personally.)

My personal preference is for "they", because a) it is already a natural part of the language and b) it feels like it fits in English in a way that I don't feel the conlanged ones do.

Second preference is for the Spivaks, as noted above.

The ones I've seen most often used are the zie/zir and sie/hir sets, though.

Okay, that's useful data -- thanks!

So, you could allow the user to use multiple placeholders to mean the same thing, based on what they were comfortable with:
[she][he][they][sie] -> all map to the same thing when filling in the placeholder
[her][him][them][hir] -> all map to the same thing when filling in the placeholder
[hers][his][theirs][hirs] -> all map to the same thing when filling in the placeholder

There's no need to only support one placeholder, as you're writing this from scratch anyway, right?


Correct, but I don't want to go *too* hog-wild with what I'm supporting out of the box -- the list of possible alternatives is large, and it gets unwieldy after a while. But I've already concluded that I need to support at least two alternatives, so it's possible we could go further...

Just anything but "hirp", please. It sounds like the whole "herp derp" thing which I still insist smacks too much of making fun of developmentally challenged people to be used in remotely polite company. Even if very few people agree with me.

That and "herp" being slang for herpes.

I'm pretty solidly in the "they" camp.

Yeah, even I don't like "hirp". I've sort of been thinking of that as "programmer art": the stick figure drawing that the programmer puts into the first draft of some software, which is intentionally so laughably awful that it *has* to get replaced by something better down the line. (Since, if you put in something that's at least barely adequate, management will say, "Good enough -- ship it!")

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