Mx.

 

 

 

From today’s New York Times:

 

For Laura Campbell, a manager at Half Price Books in Renton, Wash., being laid off was an emotional blow but not, at least in the short term, a financial one. Because of the extra $600 per week being paid to unemployed workers right now, Mx. Campbell — who uses the gender-neutral title “Mx.” and plural pronouns — is making more than the $16.05 hourly wage at the bookstore.

“I have been able to pay off two credit cards,” they said.

Still, the experience has exacerbated Mx. Campbell’s longstanding concerns about the future of retail. Even before the pandemic, workers often asked one another how long the business could continue in the Amazon era. And while not expecting physical retail to disappear overnight, Mx. Campbell doesn’t plan to wait to find out: They will start a new job, at a local tech company at the end of the month.

 

 

— “When Shoppers Venture Out, What Will Be Left? A 16.4 percent sales decline in April may signal the bottom for retailers, but the climb back will be hard, and some companies may not make it,” by Ben Casselman and Sapna Maheshwari, The New York Times, May 15, 2020

 
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Despite my dislike of language engineering by the language police.

I do feel the advisability or necessity of observing certain conventions in language use dictated by present day rules that have somehow been promulgated and are now accepted and expected as the norm in polite discourse.

For example, when I was in high school, black people were referred to as Negroes — not only by whites but, ordinarily, by blacks, including civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. I would not be so obstinate or misguided to continue using Negro in speech or writing.

I have a distaste, to put it mildly — as does former New Yorker proofreader Mary Norris (author of Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen) — for the ugly sounding and unpronounceable Ms. — yes, it (Ms.) looks on the page like Mr., but the time honored “Mister” sounds just fine to me.

But I am not going to try to buck the trend, so to speak. If I am writing to a woman (especially a woman I don’t know well) whose last name is Simmons, it’s “Dear Ms. Simmons.”

 

 

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I love studying languages (as I have written before), both foreign ones and my own. Like a boy poking his head under the hood of a car to see how the engine works, or opening up a watch, I love to examine details and how they vary from one language to another.

How Russian and other Slavic languages lack the definite and definite article and there is no present tense verb to be in Russian. How nouns designating inanimate things in most European languages have a gender, while in English common nouns (with a few exceptions) don’t.

I don’t like to contemplate meddlers mucking around with or dismantling basic grammar.

It has occurred to me: will the officious language purifiers (as they view their self-appointed role) be calling any day now for the eradication of gender in languages such as the Romance ones and German? It’s a frightening thought: el mano becomes x- mano. Or maybe just mano. But then one loses the distinction in meaning conveyed by definite versus indefinite article.

Believe me, the language police won’t care.

The “problem,” which is to say the key issue, here is that languages are fine tuned for a reason. Obviously, they were not designed or constructed a priori, top down. They evolved. But most grammatical features convey information (often making fine distinctions), such as gender. In the case of pronouns, we do this with he versus she. (In Cantonese, this is not possible because there is only one third person singular pronoun.)

Recently, on Facebook, I saw the following. It confused me for a second. (I or anyone fluent in English shouldn’t have to be confused.) “Anne Kelleher [a Facebook friend of mine] updated their cover photo.”

Whose cover photo? Anne’s? Or some relatives or people she knows? Did she do someone not conversant with Facebook a favor?

Well, I can guess the answer, but why should I have to stop and think? Facebook’s language engineers have gone politically correct. Of course, it’s convenient for them in this case.

Instead of THEY will start a new job — since non-binary gender people don’t want to be spoken of with gendered pronouns — how about Mx. Campbell will start a new job? It doesn’t matter if Mx. Campbell is repeated a few times.

I was actually confused, momentarily, when I read this. I thought the Times writers were by way of example talking about the difficult work experience of an individual. Why should I have to be confused by a story in The New York Times , which prides itself on clear, straightforward, factual reporting, just so some self-appointed wordsmith/overseer doesn’t get offended? Just who is writing the piece anyway?

 
— Roger W. Smith

   May 15, 2020

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