Sunday, February 24, 2013

When He, She, or It Just Doesn't Work

English needs a neutral animate pronoun, for the variable case ("he or she"),  the unknown constant case (androgynous names such as Chris), and the gender-fluid case. "He" is no longer assumed to include both men and women. "It", the only gender-free pronoun, is used for nonliving nouns, or nonhuman cases where the gender is unknown or irrelevant to the speaker ("The dog dropped its bone.") and is insulting used for people. So what can we use when we need a pronoun for a person of unknown or fluid gender?

"They" and "their" are being appropriated for the variable case: "Each applicant should bring their paperwork to the interview". This makes a lot of logical grammarians unhappy, but it solves a real problem now that "he" is no longer assumed to include "or she".

It doesn't work so well for the unknown case. Telling someone about the cool clerk at the record store is challenging when I don't know if the clerk is a he or a she. "The clerk was great. They found exactly what I was looking for." That is seriously awkward, but avoiding the pronoun every time feels unnatural. "The clerk was great and found exactly what I was looking for" works well enough in writing, but in speech, it is hard to think far enough ahead to see the upcoming pronoun problems. It was a relief to ask the clerk's name and hear "Sarah" in response; that is a traditionally female name and I could feel comfortable using "she" to refer to her.

And the issue gets more challenging from there, because he/she is a binary concept and human beings are rarely binary. Picking one pronoun or the other is easy for anyone who has a settled gender identity (which is most of us, even homosexuals and many transsexuals), but there are some people who have fluid gender identities. What pronoun refers to them? "It" certainly doesn't work.

English being what it is, lots of people are working to find a way to solve the problem, just as Ms. was invented to replace Mrs. and Miss when a woman's marital status was unknown or irrelevant; now it is a natural part of our system for addressing people. Wiktionary serves up xe as one example of a neutral pronoun:
  1. (nonstandard, chiefly Internet) they (singular). Gender-neutral third-person singular subject pronoun, coordinate with gendered pronouns he and she.


These nonstandard pronouns sound clunky now, but chances are very good that one of them will take hold and become common in a generation. Like gender identities, pronouns are currently in social flux and it will be interesting to see what the solution turns out to be.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Saying What You Mean

The Gallatin County Sheriff's Office and the Bozeman Police Department have very similar jobs. The Sheriff has some extra tasks like coroner, search and rescue, and running the jail, but at base, both agencies are here to enforce the laws and keep us safe. So why are their mission statements so different?

As proud members of this Office, we are dedicated to protect and serve Gallatin County.
The Bozeman Police Department, in partnership with the citizens of Bozeman, is committed to improving the quality of life by identifying and resolving public safety concerns.
The Sheriff's Office statement makes perfect sense to me; it sounds like what cops do for their community: protect it. Pride and dedication are good, too. But the Police statement sounds more like a sanitarian's office. It's nice and warm, with popular words like "committed" and "partnership" and "quality of life", but it  doesn't tell me anything specific about this department, anything that distinguishes it from the department of health or public services. It sounds like it was written by a committee.

Personally, I don't care if law enforcement officers identify and resolve. I want them to serve and protect.

Saturday, February 9, 2013


What people are losing in their reliance on GPS is their wayfinding ability. Wayfinding is one of those terms that morphs to fit different situation, but it always includes helping people develop a sense of place and their relationship to it.

Originally, wayfinding referred to ocean navigation without compass, sextant, or satellites. The Polynesians used the sun and stars, the ocean swells and the color of the water, the presence of birds and animals, and the weather to travel clear across the Pacific Ocean from one island chain to another. They even built maps of sticks and shells to pass on this information to others.

In 1960, urban designer Kevin Lynch used the term to refer to environmental legibility, "the elements of the built environment that allow us to navigate successfully through complex spaces like cities and towns." From there, wayfinding became the art of helping people move through their environment, especially cities.
Wayfinding means knowing where you are, knowing your destination, following the best route, recognizing your destination, and finding your way back.  When people cannot do these things, outside or inside, we say they are disoriented. 
Signs and maps are part of this, but good wayfinding cues go far beyond that.
Sidewalks tell pedestrians where they’re welcome. Public art draws people down a boulevard. Street lighting indicates where it’s safe to bike at night. Street banners tie together an entire community – and inform passing cars when they’ve left it. Many of these little nudges speak to us on an almost subconscious level.
Subway maps make it clear how to get from one stop to another. Mountains, lakes, and rivers make it easy to orient in a place, an effect that can be (partly) replicated with plazas, unusual buildings, and large public art. Chinese dragons on lamp posts tell you that you are in Chinatown. There is a surprisingly detailed list of things to think about when you are setting up wayfinding cues.

By analogy, wayfinding in video games helps players know where they are in the virtual world. In website design, it helps visitors to a site know where they are in relationship to the entire site, something that is especially helpful if they come to the site from a search engine without any of the usual visual clues that would tell them how the site is laid out - much like using GPS to find a restaurant without paying any attention to where you are in the city.

Wayfinding is an old part of the human mind, early used gathering plants every year or moving goats to better pasture. As our cities have gotten larger and more complex, people have found ways to augment our ability to find our way. Wayfinding has even become important in the virtual world. It will be interesting to see what affect GPS has on our ability to comprehend and navigate our world.