1. jannert

    jannert Member Supporter Contributor

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    Pronoun for an asexual humanoid being?

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by jannert, Oct 10, 2018.

    In a discussion at my writers' group tonight, one of our members asked us if we knew a pronoun to use for characters who are (supernatural) asexual beings? These are sentient beings with superior language skills and other powers, but they consist of pure energy. They appear to humans as male humanoids, but they are not male or female. (A distinction which is important to her story.) Gender doesn't exist at all for these beings.

    My writer friend is torn between simply referring to them as 'he,' which works in a grammatical sense, but is factually incorrect, or coming up with another pronoun. But choosing another pronoun can either be silly (she tried 'them,' which quickly became a grammatical shintangle) or slightly offensive ( 'it' doesn't work because calling a sentient being 'it' seems disparaging.)

    Any ideas?
     
  2. Homer Potvin

    Homer Potvin Digging out my Balzac Contributor

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    I've seen "xe" used here and there. Hasn't really caught on yet, but the x sure makes it sound supernatural.
     
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  3. AbyssalJoey

    AbyssalJoey Member

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    I think calling them "he" works just fine, we´re (technically) talking about higher beings so I doubt they'll have a problem with being called that by "lesser beings".
     
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  4. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributor Contributor

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    I'm totally in favor of the singular "they"/"them".
     
  5. Bone2pick

    Bone2pick Member

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    Imo it is only disparaging when applied to humans. I would go with it/them.
     
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  6. Laurin Kelly

    Laurin Kelly Contributor Contributor

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    Oh man, did I struggle with this in my short story Kneadful Things, where one of the MC's was a shape-shifting genie who could appear as either a human male or female. Even my editor was torn; how do you know what an inhuman creature's preferred pronoun would be (as a writer) when gender is essentially a human construct?

    I eventually decided that since the POV was a very human, not-very-worldly MC, I'd just go with "he" when Jin appeared as male, and "she" when appearing female. I just figured Adam would refer to whatever pronoun his eyes were recognizing, though I'd never do that with a human genderqueer/genderfluid person. In that case I'd allow them to define their own pronouns, even if the preference was situational.

    As @ChickenFreak mentioned though, I don't think you can go wrong with the singular "they."
     
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  7. John Calligan

    John Calligan Contributor Contributor

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    In "Our Dark Duet" Victory Schwab uses the singular they/them for a supernatural humaniod, and it worked fine.

    [​IMG]
     
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  8. izzybot

    izzybot Transhuman Autophage Contributor

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    I'd vote for the singular they. It takes a little getting used to, but we already use it in more situations than we realize -- it's not that hard to grasp. Otherwise, 'it' or a non-traditional pronoun like 'xe' or 'ze' or 'e' could work (though I expect they'd be about as tricky to get used to as singular they).
     
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  9. Alan Aspie

    Alan Aspie Active Member

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    Easy.

    Protagonist asks them. They answer. That pronoun is fine because they themselves told to use it.

    Problem solved.
     
  10. jannert

    jannert Member Supporter Contributor

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    They and them. Well, from a PC perspective, that makes sense. UNTIL you try to use it in a story. Just try. I challenge you.

    My friend read out her version, using 'them,' which was a lengthy scene containing two of these energy beings as well as the first person human protagonist. It was impossible to follow what was going on, because we couldn't tell if 'them' referred to a singular being or both of them together—never mind getting mixed up with the regular traditional uses of the plural pronoun 'them'—them produced a string of Christmas lights and turned them on. It was a dog's breakfast. Trust me. It didn't work. It also called way too much attention to itself, detracting mightily from the story.

    She also tried a version using a non-traditional pronoun ('nem') which, as the other writer in the group said—amidst laughter—"sounds like a Monty Python sketch."

    The third solution she tried was to eliminate the pronoun altogether, and just use the names of the beings. That didn't work because then the names (including repeating 'Christmas lights,' or just 'lights') became too repetitious, and THAT called attention to itself.

    We ended the session with her resolved to go back to calling them 'he,' because they have taken male form. While the first person protagonist knows they are genderless, it seemed the most logical solution to the WRITING problem—not the 'what kind of pronoun should apply to a genderless person' problem.

    I suppose logic goes out the window when it comes to pronouns, sometimes. I mean ...ships are 'she?' In what sense?

    It was a goofy meeting, I can assure you! But it did set the question. What DO you do in this kind of situation? And the corollary issue: would the use of 'he' offend anybody in this context?

    Thanks for the input, everybody. I'll pass your thoughts along to her. It's a knobbly question, and I hope someday there will BE a pronoun for these things that doesn't hit the ear like Monty Python. It's probably what is needed.
     
    Last edited: Oct 11, 2018
  11. jannert

    jannert Member Supporter Contributor

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    Actually, you've hit the nail on the head, in terms of what my writer friend decided at the meeting. Just have the protagonist ASK how these beings want to be referred to. They are appearing in human form, so that makes perfect sense.
     
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  12. The Dapper Hooligan

    The Dapper Hooligan Member Supporter Contributor

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    I remember Ursula LeGuin wrote a couple of arguments about this as it pertained to her writing Left Hand of Darkness. In that book, she referred to the androgynous aliens as 'he's but the point of view character also viewed them as such and didn't really understand the difference until the end of the novel, so it seemed to fit.

    ETA:
    “A ship is always referred to as ‘she’ because it costs so much to keep one in paint and powder.“ -Chester William Nimitz
     
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  13. Alan Aspie

    Alan Aspie Active Member

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    Off topic

    In Finnish language we have only one word (”hän”) for singular third. And I think that way.

    If I try to write in English and refer to imaginary person I have a problem.

    "Kirjailijalla on ongelma. Hän ei tiedä mitä tehdä." No problems.

    "An author has a problem. He/she does not know what to do."

    There is an imaginary author. If I use he or she I narrow possibilities of what kind of author I am talking about. And I don't want to do it. And if this author does not have any details in my mind, I am not willing to give them. So I put both alternatives there. Reader can pick the one he/she wants to pick.

    (See... I don't know the sex of the reader so I can't name it. Reader can be he or she. It is not my choice to do.)
     
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  14. BayView

    BayView Contributor Contributor

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    It's often possible to pluralize these sentences... "Authors may have a problem and they don't know what to do," or "Readers can can pick the one they want to pick". But if that doesn't work, most style guides now accept the singular they/them, although I'm still struggling to accept it personally!

    For the OP, I agree that if the creatures appear male, it makes sense to use the male pronoun.
     
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  15. Oscar Leigh

    Oscar Leigh Contributor Contributor

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    In that christmas lights sentence, the singular "they" would operate as "they" in that sentence. It's not a "them" sentence like "looked at themself" and IMO if you use the different phrasal variants right with sufficient context and naming and stuff it can work.
     
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  16. Oscar Leigh

    Oscar Leigh Contributor Contributor

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    But you still have to decide what they answer. It gives you a pre-made excuse but it doesn't help you decide which one you prefer.
     
  17. jannert

    jannert Member Supporter Contributor

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    Yeah. We were startled, last night, to realise how BADLY the 'they/them' thing sounded in the finished piece. We were pretty much in gales of laughter by the time she'd finished reading the two pages—and she had been working for several weeks on attempting to make it work. She hadn't just zapped through her original 'he' version and simply substituted. But it just didn't work.

    The device stuck out like a sore thumb. Not only because we're not used to hearing they/them used that way, but because it causes huge confusion when you need 'they' and 'them' for normal purposes.

    I think if an author wanted to spend a lot of time attempting to avoid the pitfalls and wording everything so that the words didn't 'show,' fair enough. I don't know if it can be done, but I suppose people have already tried it with some success, as a few people have pointed out on this thread. But geez. Is it worth it?
     
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  18. jannert

    jannert Member Supporter Contributor

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    Trust me. Connected to what came before and what followed, it was clumsy as all get-out. Ditto repeating 'lights' and 'Christmas lights' instead of saying 'them.' A single sentence can be rejigged easily, but paragraph after paragraph? If it can be done, I haven't a clue how.

    My friend had tried (and had printed out) three different versions of this scene, and none of them worked—they and them, the invented pronoun 'nem' and then simply using no pronouns at all and naming everything every time the entity came up. Then she went back to 'he' and it flowed just fine.

    Pronouns are hard to work with at the best of times, but this.... yikes. I went into her question thinking there would be a solution that would be very workable. By the time we'd tried them all, I had changed my mind. We didn't find a workable solution in the 'real world' other than to have the protagonist ask the entities how she should view them, and have them tell her that 'he' was okay, because they had voluntarily taken on male form for her benefit.

    In my own head, I would like a new pronoun, like -xe, as several here have suggested. I've passed along everybody's suggestions to my friend, and she might want to try testing a pronoun like that. Perhaps the sound 'nem' is what made the alternate sound like Monty Python. (It did, actually. It was very funny.) But -xe might work, because it's close to the sound of 'he' without the gender OR plural connotations.

    Just a thought. So if she picks -xe for the singular entity, then what about two of them? Would it be okay to use 'them,' as it's okay to apply 'them' to plurals of just about anything?

    I feel like I'm disappearing up my own—
     
    Last edited: Oct 11, 2018
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  19. The Dapper Hooligan

    The Dapper Hooligan Member Supporter Contributor

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    They/them is my personal favourite way to be gender neutral. Using 'zer' and 'xim' seems to draw unnecessary attention to themselves and 'it' is generally uncomfortable for everyone involved. I do think that the devices infrequency, though, is pretty much the biggest stroke against it right now. Almost everything feels or sounds awkward when we're not used to it, just ask my grandma about using appropriate racial descriptors. As for the confusion, the only thing I can think of is a creative and subtle use of names, signifiers and synedoche, to keep everything in line?
     
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  20. FifthofAscalante

    FifthofAscalante Member

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    From the writing perspective it’s an interesting conundrum. I remember this one time when I went to McDonald’s with my mum, almost 20 years ago. The person that took our order also delivered the meal to our table, and both times my mum adresssd this person using a different pronoun. It was an effeminate boy, I know because I read the name he bore on his breat.

    In any case, I think “he” or “she” are both fine, but you have to establish that the being addressed is asexual. I think that for the reader it will be easier to stomach a common word that has a special meaning in a special context, rather than a completely forgein word with a special meaning. When a unique magical tree is addressed in the story, it is called “the tree” or “it” or by its name. At that point, conjuring up a special word, that essentially also just means “the tree”, seems redundant. Going back to my little story, you could even make the pronoun difficulty a point in the story where the characters can’t make their mind between “he” and “she”.

    How do people address pets that have no sex, or if they can’t recognise the sex? They use the classic two pronouns depending on whether they associate the creature more with feminine or masculine attributes.
     
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  21. Iain Sparrow

    Iain Sparrow Contributor Contributor

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    Oh c'mon guys. You are so underestimating humankind's ability to come up with degrading slang terms for such beings. If they're formless beings, that would make them ghosts by my reckoning. I'd call them, Spooks. Why would we hold these beings in such high regard? And I'd argue that since they've decided to put on the shell of male humans, that it's perfectly acceptable to give them male names, and use he.
     
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  22. jannert

    jannert Member Supporter Contributor

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    Actually, they are re-imagined and very powerful angels.
     
  23. Cave Troll

    Cave Troll Contributor Contributor

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    I have used 'it' as a pronoun for a amphibian like creature, that was indeterminate.
    And again for a Veritoss ( a biological brain in a machine), though I do have a secondary
    character that call it a he, cause they do have an odd exchange of dialogue.

    The first was because they kinda knew the creature could change gender to suit enviornment
    for survival reasons, and the second because it is 90% robot and has no junk, so to speak.
     
  24. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributor Contributor

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    It seems to me that that example would be solved with specifying the lights again: "....they produced a string of Christmas lights and, with a high-pitched humming, turned the lights on...." But I realize that it's just one example out of a gazillion.

    OK, I have to test:

    "Lights!" said Jane.

    "Christmas lights!" said Joe.

    They exploded from the car and started unpacking--blue lights, green lights, multicolored lights, enough white lights to be seen from space, a life-size plastic Santa (in two pices), and at least fourteen plastic reindeer.

    Alien Bob murmured, "What is this tradition?"

    I shrugged at Bob. "It's a festival. Wait till later; we can watch videos."

    Bob brightened--literally; their head began to glow and their tentacles waved gently. "Videos are always enjoyable."


    And then Jane and Joe were before us. They had beaming faces and I was quite sure that I could smell whiskey. "Are you drunk?"

    "No," said Jane.

    "Yes," said Joe.

    Well, Jane was the one driving, at least. I told her, "You realize your behavior is indistinguishable from one another?"

    "Yes," said Jane proudly. "I can be joyful without drink. Congratulate me."

    Alien Bob murmured, "Drunk?" They tilted a head, eyeing Jane and Joe. Well, I say eyeing, but instead of eyes...oh, never mind.

    I nodded and took their arm. Alien Joe materialized beside Bob, and I took their arm as well. Tugging them both up the sidewalk, I said, "Fermented fruit or grain. Come on, Bob. Come on, Joe. Lights and slush are a recipe for electrocution. Let's make cookies."

    I just can't tell if it's one of those things I'd get used to in a page or two, like movies with English in very strong accents not my own, or if it would annoy me forever. Of course, I could have inserted "Bob" in the their and they, but that's just because I have a name, so it's cheating.

    Edited to add: Another option could be to capitalize the They and Their when it's intended to serve as a singular pronoun. I don't actually like it, but...
     
  25. jannert

    jannert Member Supporter Contributor

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    The capitalisation trick might work ...it certainly would help when it comes to silent reading. I'll pass that on as well.

    So how many theys exploded from the car? :)
     
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