Our word choices in speech and writing are often reflexive rather than reflective. Some words become so engrained into our vocabulary that we use them out of habit rather than after careful consideration. We think we are communicating clearly because everybody “knows” what a particular word means so we don’t pause to consider what the word might really mean or suggest. This can be particularly true of professional vocabulary, wherein we are inculcated with a set of specialized terms and word choices early in our training that are later reinforced throughout our careers by journal articles, books, and at educational meetings.
Even the rhythm and meter of spoken language can silently work their way into professional oral presentations. The next time you attend a multi-day conference pay attention to how the speakers at the end of the conference may unconsciously repeat the speech patterns of the speakers from the previous days. I first noticed this phenomenon about 10 years ago at an annual genetic counseling education conference during which a few speakers at the beginning of the conference frequently used a high-rising terminal (i.e., a rise in pitch at the end of a sentence). By the last day of the meeting it seemed like every speaker was raising their pitch at the end of too many sentences and it was starting to drive me crazy (I’ve since adapted). The “right” way to speak or write is the one that we encounter most often and most recently by respected members of our professional and social circles.
Reflexive vocabulary usage can sometimes mislead or confuse. Let me offer two examples of vocabulary used by – but not unique to – the medical genetics community that in my view need some reconsidering and revision: whole exome/genome sequencing and gender neutral pronouns (for related discussions, see my prior postings about the words “psychosocial.” and “mutation“).
Whole Genome/Whole Exome Sequencing – These are inaccurate and misleading terms. The descriptor “whole” suggests that the entire genome or the entire exome is being sequenced. In fact, the analysis usually includes a lot of the genome or a lot of the exome – but not the entirety of either. They don’t quite go the whole nine yards. The limits of some “whole” techniques and platforms become even more salient when you understand that they may not reliably detect some of the most common DNA-based disorders such as Down syndrome, fragile X syndrome, and alpha-thalassemia. I suggest that we drop the word “whole” and simply call it genome sequencing or exome sequencing, a practice I’ve already seen in some journal articles. But it should include a descriptor that indicates which technology was used to sequence the genome – short read, long read, optical mapping, etc. Each has its strengths and limitations and knowing which technique was used informs us as to which conditions are reliably or unreliably detected.
Incidentally, genome was coined (as genom) in 1920 by the German botanist Hans Winkler. Until the discovery that most DNA was non-coding, the word genome implied the sum of an organism’s genes. Now that we know that only a smidgen of an organism’s DNA are genes as we understand them today, the 20th century sense of genome does not align with the current sense of genome that refers to the entirety of an organism’s coding and non-coding DNA. Exome, on the other hand, arose out of 21st century technology. The earliest article I could find in PubMed that used exome in it’s title or abstract was a 2008 publication about J. Craig Venter’s exome (Venter was the senior author).
Gender Neutral Pronouns and Verb Agreement – I wholeheartedly support the use of gender neutral or third gender pronouns in English, even if I think a few of them like zie, zir, and ver will not likely catch on. The vagaries of language evolution could ultimately prove me wrong but no matter how conscientious and respectful you try to be, these neologisms entail learning new words that have no clear etymology to guide the user or listener as to their meaning. However, pronouns such as “they” or “them” as a singular subjective or objective pronoun or “their” as a singular possessive pronoun have gained more linguistic traction. These pronouns have historical usage as a a singular form. Take the sentence I wonder who left their mobile phone on their seat in the auditorium? Whoever it is, they are not going to be happy when they realize it. “They” is a pronoun substitute for the singular “that person.” This sentence would have been perfectly clear and acceptable in just about all English dialects well before gender neutral pronouns became a subject of debate and discussion. Further, “they” and “them” do not have a linguistic history of denoting a specific gender.
My question, though, is not about which pronouns will survive the test of time but rather which verb form to use with that pronoun. Does it call for the plural or the singular verb form, as in “They are” or “They is?” I vote for “They is.”
I confess to being a bit of a fanatic about the arcana of grammar and syntax, but I am not a language tyrant. Language evolves so quickly that the “rules” desperately try to keep up with usage. Good writers instinctively know the rules and then go about flaunting and manipulating them. I am not trying to be snobbishly picky when I raise the question of pronoun/verb agreement. There are two important issues raised by verb choice in this situation, one of meaning and one of value judgment. “They is” clearly communicates the meaning of one, and only one, person rather than a group of people. The value judgment implied by using the singular verb is implicit acceptance and acknowledgment of the person’s choice to not identify as being of male, female, or any gender. The slightly jarring effect of hearing a singular verb follow a typically plural pronoun makes “they” stand out in the sentence. It’s not just any old use of “they.” It’s a special case that reflects and honors the desires of that person.
Yeah, I know. “They is” just sounds plain wrong. But it only sounds wrong because we are used to having heard it another way for our entire lives. If the singular verb is used more frequently and consistently, the dissonance will fade. I remember the endless discussions about whether one should use a singular or plural verb with the word “data.” Now, it’s like Who Cares? “Date are” and “Data is” both now sound equally fine and either form is considered acceptable by most authoritative usage guides. Rule-obsessed grammarians can argue all they want; the rest of us just get on with our linguistic lives.
No doubt some of you will disagree with my suggestions. So I open up the discussion to the Good Readers. What do you think? And is there other vocabulary that needs reconsidering and discussion?
5 responses to “Vocab Rehab”
1) English has already informally used “they/them/theirs” as a non-gendered third person singular for a long time. Always with “are” rather than “is” as the copula. The meaning has broadened from genderless plural to genderless regardless of number. I don’t know that there is a value judgment inherent in the choice of copula.
2) If in doubt for an individual person, I would say observe how they use their pronouns, or ask. But I personally haven’t met anyone who uses “is” with they/them/their pronouns…
Bonus third thought:
Using the more familiar and natural sounding “they are” is likely to help they/them/their catch on as widely used genderless single pronouns. “They is” may align with our notions of “is” being used with singular nouns, but sounds awfully strange. And English is full of illogical, inconsistent rules anyway (despite the attempts of Enlightenment-era philologists to make it as close to Latin as possible); why make an exception for this one?
No real correction:
Since Robert Resta always keeps a wary eye on language and writing, the expression “Genom” was and is in German written with a capital “G” (see Winkler’s quote below).
“Ich schlage vor, für den haploiden Chromosomensatz, der im Ver-
ein mit dem zugehörigen Protoplasma die materielle Grundlage der
systematischen Einheit darstellt, den Ausdruck: das Genom zu ver-
Ich danke Ihnen lieber Herr. Details matter!
What a pleasant discovery your article was for me today, nestled in the middle of way too much junk mail in my email inbox. I’ve had similar thoughts about the “they is” vs. “they are” question. I am sort of a grammar nut too (although you probably wouldn’t know it from how sloppy I’ve gotten with my own writing lately). I recently struggled through a well-written teen literature book where the main character referred to themself (???) as “they”. I didn’t have a problem with the person identifying as who they wanted to be, but it was hard for me to block out years of wincing when people write “they” when they really do mean “he” or “she.” The book was good practice for me in trying to re-train my brain toward the evolving language you allude to in your article.
Good to know that others share my language passions and foibles. I noticed a news item today that Webster’s dictionary has added “they” as a singular pronoun, though as far as I can tell offered no opinion on verb agreement.