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James Harbeck

Calling Them What They Want

Copyright: lamaip / 123RF Stock Photo
Copyright: lamaip / 123RF Stock Photo

We’re all professionally attentive to detail, so I’m sure we all appreciate that, having earned a PhD, I am technically Dr. Harbeck, and it could be rude to call me Mr. Harbeck. My wife, having a master’s, is Ms. Arro — not Miss Arro, because she’s married, and not Mrs. Arro, let alone Mrs. Harbeck. Letters addressed to us as “Mr. and Mrs. Harbeck” will be received as uninformed or rude, depending on who they come from.

Now, if I were a judge, you would call me “Your Honour”; if I were a lord, I would be “sir” or “my lord”; if I were a king, I might be “Your Majesty.” When we refer to politicians, nobility and high-ranking ecclesiastics, we have to make sure we include, as appropriate, “the Right Honourable” or “His Eminence” or whatever. We’re in the business of calling people the right thing: the title to which they are entitled.

Or calling them what they want to be called. Even non-editors know it’s rude to call someone something they don’t want to be called. We don’t call Sir Edward “Eddy baby” unless he asks us to. We also don’t call people who have changed their names by their old names, especially if their identity has changed. We don’t call Chelsea Manning “Bradley Manning” or Caitlyn Jenner “Bruce Jenner” (although we may use that name historically, for instance in stories on the Olympic Games).

We don’t always call people by names and titles, though. Sometimes we just use pronouns. There are languages (such as Turkish and Finnish) in which the sex of a person makes no difference in the pronoun, but English is not yet one such. Since the binary distinction is an unnecessarily restrictive imposition, the singular they is gaining currency (since number sometimes is relevant, however, expect to see they-all becoming popular in its wake). But some people do want to use pronouns for gender presentation. There are a few different pronouns in use, not just he, she and they, but also others such as zey. But not nearly as many as there are honorifics, let alone names.

And yet, some people — even ones apparently capable of attaining and requiring “Doctor” before their names — find it beyond endurance to have to keep track of these pronouns. They deride it as silly faddism or political correctness — terms of abuse for people who refuse to stay in the boxes you have made for them. They can manage to remember who is Mr., who Dr., who Your Excellency; they can get a grip on who is Alex, who Sandy and who Alexandra; but keeping track of pronouns is just too much for them.

Of course it’s not really. They just don’t want the dominance of their paradigm challenged.

As editors, we like to ensure adherence to chosen sets of arbitrary standards. But we also like to check our facts and get the myriad nice details right — such as what pronoun a person has asked to be called by. It’s not all that difficult, and it’s good manners, too.


Previous “Linguistics, Frankly” post: The Ongoing Demise of English.

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8 Comments on “Calling Them What They Want”

  • Marnie Schaetti


    Our kids have been encouraging us to understand the value and importance of the singular they for several years. Gritting my teeth, and out of deference to them and their friends, I began using it. It’s still not my first or automatic choice, but it’s the choice I’m happy to make. I’ve learned it really matters to people who really matter to me.

    • That’s a great reply, Marnie. Thanks for sharing.

      My thought when I first encountered the notion of people who preferred to be referred to in the singular as «they» was that 25 years ago, when I was a young editor, we were in the midst of a battle over whether «he» was still a reasonable choice as a default generic singular. At that time I was ALSO a young woman starting out in the professional world, and I appreciated it when people, especially editors who’d been around a while and had some influence, and especially men, stood up for language that I felt included me. So I thought I could do nothing other than stand up for pronoun inclusivity for another historically advantaged group today.

  • Calling a person by the name he or she chooses is a matter of respect. I once had a student therapist insist on calling me «Mrs. Hertzberger» in spite of my wish to called by my first name. It was her professor who ordered her to do this. You can imagine what that did to my trust in her professor – and I wrote her a letter about my outrage.

    That said, I also see some power tripping going on with those who insist on titles when the relationships are casual and outside of the professional. That’s just snobbery or one-upmanship.

  • Virginia Durksen


    If only pronoun choices were simply a matter of good manners or even good editing. It is not. The University of Toronto has managed to turn it into an Orwellian form of self-censorship. It is perfectly reasonable to ask others to use specific forms of address, including specific pronouns. It is, however, beyond ridiculous to require anyone to adjust their speech to suit those individual preferences.

    If gender is an entirely fluid concept, as queer theorists would argue, then we already have two or three perfectly good pronouns that are themselves fluid enough for the amazing variety in human sexual identity. We can invent more if we like, of course. But we should keep the pronoun police off campus and out of public discourse.

    • D


      Therefore, I can call you «he,» and it would be beyond ridiculous to require me to adjust my speech to suit your individual preference. «He» is a perfectly good pronoun that is fluid enough for you. Keep the pronoun police away from me.

      • Virginia Durksen


        Yes, if calling me «he» floats your boat! That’s what freedom of speech looks like. It can be messy and at times it can even be rude.

  • Margaret Shaw


    Hear, hear, James. We have friends whose daughter used to be a son, and she takes great offence – as she should – when people, especially those close to her, can’t or won’t remember to say «she.» Good for you for commenting on this important topic.

  • Thank you for commenting on this important topic, James. I am proofreading medical journals that still keep «he or she» and «his or her», and it makes me grind my teeth every time. If Medicine ever gets to the point of using gender-neutral pronouns unself-consciously, it’ll be a miracle.

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