Monday, November 15, 2010

childish pronouns

Monica emailed me recently with this query:
Often when I'm reading something from a British person, I'll run into a statement like this: "it made a cute face."  OK, so I'm thinking someone's talking about a cute little puppy or kitten.

WRONG!

Said statement is referring to an infant or child!

This one gets my blood boiling every time, because it seems so dehumanizing.  Is that actually correct English in ANY form, and if it is, in your experience, is there indeed a difference in usage, and, am I the only American to have this reaction?  What about people from the UK?  Do they feel the same way?

Now, I was so confident that I'd already written about this phenomenon that I've spent a very long time searching past posts for it.  But apparently I haven't.

The quick answer is this: referring to a young child as it is far more common in British English than American. But. But but but.  But the practice is dying out.

And Monica, you're not the only American to have this reaction. After Grover was born, an English friend (who's in his early 60s) came to pay his regards.  He knew her sex, but he repeatedly referred to her as it. And each time, I corrected him with a her ('my child is not a thing!') I told this story to other English friends, and they found it a bit surprising that he would use it when he knew the sex of the child (it would have been more excusable to them if he hadn't known), but not very surprising--after all, they figured/reckoned, he's probably not that interested in babies and he's old enough to be old-fashioned. She's nearly three years old now, and I'm still recounting the story, so we can safely conclude that it bothers at least one American.

But it's also starting to bother some British people, as evidenced by this blog entry, where a father recounts doing the it-she correction.  What interested me, though, was one of the commenters who seemed to think it was a (BrE) storm in a teacup/(AmE) tempest in a teapot:
You know, people get SO offended when you refer to a child as "It". Even if it's your own child! I can't tell you how often my boss has yelled at me for saying something as simple as, "Yes, it's fine." Or "No, it didn't go to it's father's this weekend."

Sigh. She...it. Whatever.
 And that commenter appears to be American.  So there's no accounting for tastes.

For a more objective measure, I searched the Corpus of Contemporary American English and the British National Corpus for instances of "{child/baby/infant} has {its/his/her/their}".  The numbers of hits were small enough that I could make sure that in each case the pronoun referred to the aforementioned child or baby. (The search strings containing infant got no hits in either corpus.) Of 22 hits in the American corpus, only one had its.  (Three had the gender-neutral their, and the rest had a gendered pronoun.) In the British corpus (which is a quarter the size of the American one), there were 7 hits, three with its (and zero with their).  So, 18% of the AmE cases used a gender-neutral pronoun, but only one of those (4.5% of the total) was it.  In BrE 43% of the hits were gender-neutral and all of those used it.

You could look at that and say "Well, maybe the American corpus had more instances where the writer/speaker knew the sex of the baby", but I don't think that's true. Instead, some of those gendered pronouns in AmE refer to babies/children whose sex isn't known, or to babies generally.  It's too rude in AmE to call a baby it, frowned-upon to use singular they, so parenting magazines, for instance, just pick he or she. Three of the American four baby has her examples, for instance, were general advice for parents (e.g. Your baby has her own inborn temperament). There were no BNC hits for baby has her or baby has his

Here's a more targetted search. I looked for "give the baby its/his/her/their own" on babycenter.com and babycentre.co.uk.On the UK site, I got only one hit, and that was for its. But, interestingly, on the AmE site I got as many its as their (three each). Now, on the internet, it could be that these people using the American site aren't actually American. But in all the contexts in which the its occurred, the baby wasn't born yet; parents-to-be were discussing what they would do about names or sleeping arrangements once their babies were born. And you know what? None of those examples bothered me. This one even began with an it in the question:

Will you be sleeping with the baby when it's born? - October 2010 .

23 Oct 2010... safety for the baby, but also so id doesnt get dependent on sleeping next to you, i think its a good idea to give the baby its own bed.
If you'd like to read more about what others say about all this, searching for the phrases "refer to a baby as it" brings up a number of discussions.  Searching "refer to the baby as it" is very depressing, as many of the hits are about how (not) to talk to bereaved parents.

And on that note, I think I'll go give Grover a kiss on her sleeping head.

80 comments:

@mikcooke said...

Possibly it's also to avoid confusion with a name's gender: until you told us that you would kiss Grover on "her sleeping head", the expectation was that Grover was male. Grovers Cleveland & Underwood, even Sesame Street's Grover: all male. Then, of course, you conclude with AmE mom's "I'll go give Grover" whereas a BrE mum would say "I'll go AND give Grover" . . . but that's another story.

Jane said...

Gosh you stay up late! This Englishwoman in Canada would innocently use "it" whenever I didn't know the sex of the baby. I think there would be an age cut-off though. I can't imagine calling a toddler "it" even if I was unsure of the sex. When children called trick or treating this Halloween I wasn't always sure of their gender, so I described them as "she" when I was telling my husband about their costumes.

I'll avoid using "it" for babies in future, while I'm in Canada anyway.

lynneguist said...

Grover is not Grover. See See back here for explanation.

vp said...

Originally BrE but lived in the US for a few years. I've always found "it" for a baby a horrible usage, even when I used to live in England. I'm delighted that it seems less common in the US, and that it's apparently dying an unlamented death in the UK.

Johnny E said...

What Jane said. I don't know if it's the humanising effect of being able to walk, or if it's just that you can refer to a baby as "the baby" which seems to fit the impersonal pronoun better, whereas you wouldn't say "the toddler" or "the child". Though you could say "your child", so who knows.

Janibach said...

I don't mind 'it' when referring to a new baby, but once its gender is generally known and it has a name, it's better to refer to 'he' or 'she'. Either way I have always disliked 'they' when used to avoid 'it'. It sounds clumsy and ungrammatical - but the English language doesn't have an acceptable replacement for it.

conuly said...

Oh, Johnny, maybe you can't say "the child", but that doesn't mean I can't.

My mother uses "the child" often when recounting stories about misbehavior:

"We were in the kitchen, and all of a sudden, do you know what The Child said?"

"Which child?"

"The YOUNGER child, Evangeline."

"What did she say?"

"She said 'Oh! My hand must have accidentally fallen into this sugar!'"

or maybe

"Do you know what The Child - the OLDER one - did? We were playing cards, and she got upset, and she threw her cards in her sister's face!"

or even sometimes she'll use it without the story or the misbehavior

"Give this to The Child, would you?"

[singular they] sounds clumsy and ungrammatical

Hey, Shakespeare did it, I believe it, that settles it :P Really, you're gonna argue with Shakespeare? Sure, he never spelled his name the same way twice, but that's just like stepping in a river or something.

Anonymous said...

There's a pretty well-known autobiography in the States about a guy who was abused as a child by his alcoholic mother. The title? "A Child Called 'It'".

tortipede said...

British speaker here & fairly new father: I was explaining to someone (also AFAIR a British English speaker) that we chose not to find out our daughter's sex before she was born because, basically, we didn't mind whether it was going to be a boy or a girl -- and I was reproached for using the word 'it'. (I can't now remember whether she'd even been born yet at the time this conversation took place, in which case we still didn't know the sex.) For heaven's sake! If I'm not allowed to use 'it' for an unborn child of unknown sex, can someone please invent some new pronouns for me?

And to be honest, whilst I would never describe her as 'it' now that she's been born, I would be quite happy for a text discussing babies in general to use 'it' (or a Shakespearian singular 'they'): if they assume 'she' I'm offended on behalf of parents of baby boys, and if they default to 'he' for the baby (to balance out the fact that the mother is always 'she'?) then I'm offended on my own... Maybe it says something about how I construe gender identity that I'd rather you called my daughter 'it' than 'he'...

Marc Naimark said...

The flashback to Grover's birth was sweet. How lovely that she's grown up so well and become a clever little it.

Anonymous said...

"Maybe it says something about how I construe gender identity that I'd rather you called my daughter 'it' than 'he'..."

UK. Not a parent, but I have always used "it" for babies of indeterminate sex, and my parents certainly do. Despite the fact that the shops are desperate to get babies into pink or blue (princess or thug) identifying clothing ASAP, a sexualisation which I find far more disturbing that the use of a gender-neutral pronoun, the really important thing about a baby one doesn't know is generally going to be that it is a baby, not what set of genitals it possesses.

Nineveh_uk @ LJ

arnie said...

BrEng here, no offpring.

My parents' generation (1930s) would often refer to a young (born or unborn) baby or child as "it", but I've always felt that the usage was slightly impolite. If I don't know the sex I'll use "your baby" or a similar rephrasing to avoid the use of a pronoun.

I am a little amused that parents seem offended if you don't know the sex of their child and seem to expect you to know automatically, even if you don't actually see them. :)

Pink/blue clothes can be useful in identifying the child's sex, but some parents will earnestly explain that they wanted to avoid stereotyping so have dressed
little Johnny in pink. They still seem offended that you have mistaken him for a girl, though ...

lynneguist said...

Arnie, you've given me a flashback to my time in the (BrE)antenatal/(AmE) prenatal ward pre-Grover. There, the nurses/midwives used Baby as if it was the f(o)etus's name--I took this sometimes as a means to avoid pronouns.

thenakedlistener said...

I don't understand what your beef is with using "it" for a baby. Everyone in the UK (at least back in the Sixties and Seventies when I grew up there) always say "it" for young babies. Now I'm in Hong Kong, the folks here do the same thing in Chinese (Cantonese).

Don't get me wrong - I'm not launching on you. It's just that, when my family was living in the States, people can be a bit tetchy about kids. It's not like we're blind to the its sex (the kid's). So we would say he/she/him/her in the States. Then we go back to normalspeak when we're in some other country. Just go with the flow.

Carin said...

USian non-parent here. I wouldn't hesitate to refer to a baby as "it" in a circumstance where I was distancing myself from the infant in question and/or the baby was completely anonymous to me, as for example "There was a baby on the flight and it screamed the whole time." (I'm typing in an airport right now.) I wouldn't use "it" to the parents' face or, I'd hope, in their hearing, though.

Roger Owen Green said...

US: I agree w the last commenter. Not knowing the gender of the child in utero (that actually STILL happens; our 6 y.o. girl, e.g.), "it" would not have offended me. Referring to a screaming child of unknown gender as "it" beats the tedious "he/she"; or the language could adopt a non-specific gender other term, but, based on the length people have been talking about it in some circles, it's unlikely to happen.

Harry Campbell said...

On a slight aside, what I dislike is the increasing (I think) tendency to avoid "it" when discussing mere animals, even when the sex is unknown or irrelevant. It's one thing to say "the mother rat builds a nest for her babies" where the reference to the gender is relevant and natural, but I've seen some quite unappealing creatures anthropomorphised (as I would consider it) by the use of gender-specific pronouns where I'd say "it(s)". Today we have to be polite even to wild animals.

And if the animal is a pet, which to some people is almost their child, and you have no way of knowing which sex it is (or maybe don't care, as when someone's dog is doing something anti-social), God forbid you should call it "it", you're forced to guess at the animal's gender or risk insulting its owner.

Nicholas said...

I suggest that there might be another aspect to this issue, which only becomes clear when looking at the other Germanic languages, that still retain noun gender - child must be grammatically neuter.

Interestingly, I think, in Danish dog is grammatically common, which gender is an amalgam of the former masculine and feminine. However, if one refers to such animals as he or she, native speakers will find it very strange - use the common gender it form.

From this it might easily be deduced that children are lower than dogs…

Canadian said...

I do not recall ever hearing anyone here refer to a child as "it", but I was fully aware that it is (was?) the practice in the UK because I have read a lot of British books. I read The Chronicles of Narnia as a child and then graduated to C.S. Lewis's other books. I think that's where I first came across the practice.

I don't find it offensive. (Admittedly, I am not a parent.) I do find it offensive to rail against an innocent term/practice that is standard in another culture.

Shaun Clarkson said...

Firstly I have to agree with Lynne that I too could have sworn I've read something by you on this before. I wonder if it could have been a guest post or comment on someone else's blog.

I remember what must be at least 20 years ago my aunt phoning a doctor about one of her grandsons and being very annoyed when he said it when asking about symptoms. I was very surprised by this, it seemed perfectly normal usage to me, especially as at that stage the doctor didn't know the sex of the baby. My aunt's sharp response might have been influenced by her worry, and that she didn't like the particular doctor who turned out to be on call that evening. I'm not a parent, which might be a factor in my attitude.

I wonder if 'it' becoming taboo is part of a general trend to see certain terms as inherently insultingly impersonal.

Jan said...

Like "Canadian," I've read so much British lit I don't find "it" for a baby (or even a toddler) at all odd in the right context. (I'm hearing it as affectionate, even -- "Isn't it a naughty one!" Angela Thirkell?)
I have wondered whether "A Child Called It" contributed to American sensitivity on the issue. But we're an offense-seeking society: I regularly hear from people convinced that using the relative "that" of a person -- "the girl that I marry" -- is disrespectful. (You may have posted about this, or I may have -- but obviously it's not true!)

Cameron MacDonald Black said...

Rail away, transatlantic cousins! I am a Scottish Brit and I hate "it" referring to a baby. Not keen on it for a dog or cat either, and to a lesser extent for other pets. If I don't know a being's gender, I use a technique I've worked out called "asking" or I use singular they.

Joel A. Shaver said...

To get all diachronic for a second... Apparently the 'it'-for-children thing gradually became a prescribed grammatical practice in the eighteenth century. This article by Sylvia Adamson, which I coincidentally re-read just yesterday, says that Joseph Priestley was one of the early advocates of this prescription. I don't think his sentiments are too widely shared these days, which might be contributing to its decline (who's harsh?):

"We can hardly consider children as persons, because that term gives us the idea of reason, and reflection; and therefore, the application of the personal relative who in this case seems to be harsh."

David Crosbie said...

That article by Sylvia Adamson reminds me of something I'd overlooked. The it pronoun used to refer to a baby can't be a sign of inanimacy — since we use who and whose for the corresponding interrogative or relative.

It follows that there are two sorts of it

1 signifying INANIMATE
— with corresponding what
2. signifying NEITHER MALE NOR FEMALE
— with corresponding who

By the same token there must be two types of she

1. signifying FEMALE
— with corresponding who
2. (of fondly regarded steerable mechanisms) signifying INANIMATE BUT METAPHORICALLY FEMALE
— with corresponding what

Left wing humanist said...

I find it quite normal to use "it" for a baby (if you don't know its sex): why not?

What I find very disturbing indeed is the use of "s/he".

This trend towards a technified and algebraic language, often for the sake of political correctness, is one of the reasons why the world is becoming more and more uncomfortable for me.

It would be a much better world if nobody said or wrote "and/or" and the like.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

I have no problems referring to a baby as "it" when I don't know its sex, although possibly in front of its mother I might confine myself to "Is it a boy or a girl?" and say something like "Oooh, gorgeous!" rather than "It's gorgeous!"

townmouse said...

I (BrE) did find it a bit odd when a German colleague was telling me about his newborn son and referred to him throughout as it - in fact I commented and he pointed out that was the way it was in German. So unless talking about an unborn baby I'd either use he or she, or if unknown something like 'they' (I know, I know but it's become part of the language now). I have noticed that when talking about the neighbour's cat, which I know is female, that I use 'she' but others (usually older, perhaps more traditionally rural people) use 'it', even when discussing the possibility of it having kittens.

Slightly OT, but I think it was Penelope Leach who first started using 'she' to refer to babies in her child-rearing books, I don't know if this is still the case

mlf said...

I think outrage at the word 'it' is a pretty silly overreaction. It is a gender neutral pronoun - we Americans don't have one and we have to resort to 'they' which makes one child sound like a cohort. It's certainly does not imply the level of child abuse described in "A Boy Called It", where the actual mother was using the word 'it' instead of the boy's name. If people don't like children and are using 'it' dismissively, they would probably use 'they' or 'their' dismissively too. "It" is a useful work and I wish we were able to use it in this sense in AmE too.

rhb said...

My Mum went to School in Glasgow between the Wars in Charles Rennie Mackintosh's gorgeous Scotland Street School. A few years ago I happened to be in Glasgow and took a picture of its facade.
There are three entrances: boys, girls and separating them, obviously sexually undifferentiated, infants. If you are not a boy or a girl you must be...

Andy JS said...

I think getting upset about people using "it" for a baby is not reasonable unless the speaker is obviously trying to be offensive. What matters in my opinion is the intention of the speaker. If they don't mean to be offensive than it's just silly to get offended about it. Only older people in the UK use "it" for a baby and 99% of them don't mean to upset anyone.

lynneguist said...

The problem with telling people that they shouldn't be offended because it's just another dialect (as has been the theme of several comments) is that one has to know that it is a valid part of another dialect before one can appreciate that. If you don't know this, and you hear people calling a child 'it', you have to interpret them with the linguistic/cultural resources that you have. And those resources might tell you that it's an insensitive thing to do.

I don't see how it can be claimed that it's not de-humani{z/s}ing, though. You wouldn't do it for an adult, so it is based in the notion that a child is more of an object than an adult is. You might think that. But considering other historical instances in which it has been accepted to think of some people as less human than others, it's easy to see why some might consider that kind of attitude to be dangerous and offensive.

Shaun Clarkson said...

Purely by chance I have come across this, where Lynne did make a comment on this subject on someone else's blog.
http://newpics.org/david/AreBritishChildrenMoreNeuterThanUSChildren.aspx
So your confidence that you had written about it wasn't misplaced!

lynneguist said...

Thank you, Shaun! I feel less certain that I'm going senile now.

Kel said...

"I don't see how it can be claimed that it's not de-humani{z/s}ing, though. You wouldn't do it for an adult, so it is based in the notion that a child is more of an object than an adult is. You might think that. But considering other historical instances in which it has been accepted to think of some people as less human than others, it's easy to see why some might consider that kind of attitude to be dangerous and offensive."

Lynne, did you really just invoke Godwin's Law?

lynneguist said...

Grrr, just typed a more elaborate response and got an error message from Blogger. So, here's a short response:

I hadn't even thought of Nazis.

Anonymous said...

"I don't see how it can be claimed that it's not de-humani{z/s}ing, though. You wouldn't do it for an adult, so it is based in the notion that a child is more of an object than an adult is."

But of an adult it's hardly possible to ignore whether IT's a he or a she. We use "it" for a baby simply because we don't know its sex, so we can't use either "he" or "she".

Kel said...

Ah, that's a relief! I'm sorry to have questioned it but I was genuinely concerned what comparison you were making, so I'm pleased I was wrong.

vp said...

Would anyone use "it" to refer to an adult whose sex was not obvious?

Quite frankly, if anyone referred to my little daughter as "it" then I would punch IT in the nose!

Anonymous said...

"I don't see how it can be claimed that it's not de-humani{z/s}ing, though. You wouldn't do it for an adult, so it is based in the notion that a child is more of an object than an adult is."

What? I also wouldn't say "(Name)... come here." in that low, warning tone for an adult, but I frequently use it to great effect when a child has crossed the line and needs to calm down and start behaving. This isn't because a child is more of an object than an adult is, but because a child is different to an adult and is treated as such. This is why children do not have to earn their keep and provide their own meals.

I loathe the early and rigid gendering of little children, and act to oppose it where I can. I'm not going to change my dialect to start automatically gendering tiny babies, just because some people think gender is the most important thing about them and somehow necessary for them to be human.

lynneguist said...

@Anonymous (one of you): But my example was specifically of someone who DID know the sex of the child but persisted in using 'it'.

Another @Anonymous: If it's a feminist, non-gendering motivation, then lets call adults 'it' too. Or are we saying that gender only becomes relevant once one is potentially reproductive?

My intent here is not to say that the British should be like Americans, but instead to note that (a) it's hardly surprising that some people find this practice offensive, as 'it' for the most part refers to inanimate objects in English, (b) it's not just Americans who have a problem with the practice, as we've seen in the comments. I'm certain, from what I've seen, that there's a(n imperfect, of course) generational divide on this matter.

vp said...

@Anonymous:

"If it's a feminist, non-gendering motivation, then lets call adults 'it' too. Or are we saying that gender only becomes relevant once one is potentially reproductive?"

What Lynneguist said.

Anonymous said...

@ lynneguist:

"But my example was specifically of someone who DID know the sex of the child but persisted in using 'it'."

Well, that sounds strange to me.

I can't find it now, but I'm under the impression that in his old "Modern English grammar" Otto Jespersen said that "it" is used with reference to babies only by those who ignore their sex. The baby's parents or (in Jespersen's days) the wetnurse always say "he" or "she".

Nick said...

(UK) I'm not around babies much, but it has never occurred to me that it might be offensive to refer to a baby as 'it'. If I don't know whether it's a boy or a girl, what else am I supposed to say? Using "he or she" in spoken language is ridiculous and singular "they" doesn't always sound right. I would only say that in certains contexts (for example after "someone") and you definitely can't combine it with "be".

vp said...

@Nick:

if you are speaking to the parents, you can say "your baby".

Deirdre said...

I'd use 'it' by default -- Americans have become wretchedly oversensitive to gender designations. "It" is no worse or better than "he" or "she", particularly when the gender is unknown or reference is being made that crosses gender lines/is in general discussion, and I'm fairly certain a parent would rather see "it" than mis-identifying the gender (particularly as Americans have a tendency to get all pink-and-blue), and have a tendency to lose their mind if you misspeak. If or when I have kids - I've absolutely no problem with 'it'.

(I'm an American, specifically a speaker of New England American English).

Anonymous said...

Until I know something's sex, it it is, and that is that.

Anonymous said...

I'm not saying that using 'it' is a feminist or progressive choice, I'm saying that deciding it is /definitely/ and /absolutely/ dehumanising not to assign a gender to a baby is a ridiculously reductive view, and I'm not changing my dialect to suit the views of those who hold gender as something essential to being human. Having had to fight to find a tea set that my tiny male relative can play with without making various people wince (why is it so hard to find one in bright, gender-neutral colours?), I'm feeling a bit sore about the gendering of childhood.

If your dialect includes calling babies whose gender you don't know 'he' or 'she' or 'they', I'm not going to harass you for it. Please don't harass me when my dialect calls for 'it', and please don't insist I am dehumanising the child.

lynneguist said...

Dear Anonymous,

My intention was not to harass, but to discuss.

But the thing I continue not to understand is the thing about the gendering of _childhood_. I'm completely with you that there's too much sex-differentiation at young ages, and that's something I'm fighting constantly in my own parenting. But I don't understand why it's seen as OK for children to be called 'it' but not adults whose sex one doesn't know. It's not that it doesn't happen with adults. I don't know who delivered my (AmE) mail/(BrE) post this morning, but I wouldn't say 'The postie left its fingerprints on the door'.

The problem with 'it' is not that it doesn't have a sex-associated gender, but that it is associated with inanimacy. Here is the OED definition for it:

' 1. a. As the proper neuter pronoun of the third person sing. Used orig. instead of any neuter n.; now only of things without life, and of animals when sex is not particularized; hence usually of all the lower animals, and sometimes of infants.'

If the claim is that gender is not what makes one human, fine--but if 'it' is just a genderless and not an inanimate pronoun, then it should be OK to use it for people whose sex you don't know. But that's not what any English dialect that I know of does.

I make these points not to say that you shouldn't use your own dialect. Go ahead, but please be aware that when saying it to people who are unaware that is a dialectal feature, there is a risk of offending them.

Instead, I've kept up the discussion because beyond saying 'it's my dialect and I like it', you seem to be making an argument that that dialect's pronoun choice is superior on some sort of political or logical grounds, and I don't see that that argument can be supported.

There is perhaps a better way to have put the point about 'dehumani{s/z}ing', the word that has added fuel to the fire. The 'de-' indicates that humanity has been taken away from someone who previously had it. 'It' use for children (but not gender-non-specific adults) seems to come from the view that humanness is something that develops in people, rather than necessarily something that one is born with. This kind of thinking is widespread around the world--there is the notion of an 'age of reason' before which a child cannot be a sinner, for example. The quote from Priestley that Joel gave illustrates that motivation for using 'it'.

So, perhaps not dehumani{z/s}ing, but certainly not humani{z/s}ing either.

lynneguist said...

Grr. I wrote a response. It was long. I was taken to an error message that said 'comment is too long' and then no way to get back to the comment to shorten it.

The highlights:
- I don't mean to harass, I mean to discuss.
- Yes, by all means use your dialect, but please be aware that it will offend people who don't reali{z/s}e it's a dialectal feature and not insensitivity.
- But there has been an argument here that it's not just a dialectal feature, but somehow a more logical or acceptable pronoun choice, and that is hard to see. If 'it' just meant 'thing without discernable gender' it would be acceptable for me to say 'The (BrE) postie left its fingerprints on my letter' or 'Each student should collect its exam paper'. But it is not, because modern English 'it' is strongly associated with lack of animacy/humanity.

-But part of the problem is around this word 'dehumani{z/s}ing' from my correspondent's original email. The 'de-' indicates taking something (humanity) away. But this use of 'it' comes from the position that babies/young children are not _yet_ human. This is a widespread idea around the globe, and evident in Joel's quote from JB Priestley. It's a fairly modern notion, I think, that babies are humans from (or depending on your religious persuasion, sometimes before) birth. So, it's not so much that 'it' is 'dehumani{z/s}ing as that it's not 'humani{z/s}ing', and some people expect babies to be humani{z/s}ed.

This got long again. Learned my lesson and am copying it before trying to post. Here goes...

lynneguist said...

Wait, both showed up!

I think the second one might be better--but need to not spend more time thinking about which one to delete...

Tim(CdnEng) said...

Could there be a Germanic influence here? "Das Kind", "het kind/jonge"... these are all neuter words, neither masculine nor feminine.

Dru said...

I'm surprised nobody has mentioned the question 'what has it got in its pocketses?'. Written by a UK expert in linguistics but from an older generation, it is instantly recognisable even to a 9 year old reader - and intended to be - that you don't refer either to a person or a Hobbit as 'it'.

Jack-of-all-trades said...

In old Greek and in German, diminutives are neuter, even when they denote human beings: "tò meirákion" ("the lad"), "das Mädchen".

The reason is, I think, psychological: it means something like "(dear, poor) little thing". So, the neuter can also be used to form terms of endearment. It needn't be interpreted as meaning reification or dehumanisation.

David Crosbie said...

Jack-of all-trades

You don't have to go as far as German and Greek. Old English had diminutives which were neuter in gender — including the words for child and girl. The latter was clearly related to German Mädchen and survives in modern(ish) English as maiden.

The fact that we now use she to refer to a maiden reflects the fact that English grammar has moved decisvely from 'grammatical gender' to 'notional gender'.

We assign he and she on the basis of perception and/or presumption of biological sex — much the same way as sociologists use the term 'gender'.

British speakers of my generation hesitate to make this presumption of the sex of other people's children and pets.

Raphael said...

I am perfectly fine with "it" because I would argue that the perceived "dehumanization" -- what a strange accusation to make! -- starts with using "child" in the first place. When I use this word instead of "boy/girl" or "son/daughter" I imply that I do not know the gender or it is not significant for the (general) point I am making.

In both cases, the neutral "it" is justified and certainly far less weird than "their" which feels grammatically out of place. Choosing one gender at random is also bad since it renders a general statement gender specific; too bad that this genderisation hysteria has so many followers.

But then, I am not native to any English speaking country and tend to say in any language what makes sense, not what steps on fewer toes.

Dilsnik said...

It seems strange to me as an AmE speaker, that my BrE cousins seem not to get the point that saying "it" in reference to a person has nothing to do with gender in AmE. It is not genderization, but rather personification. Perhaps the way I would say he or she, to refer to a person, no matter the age, is recognizing the fact that I am refering to a living being. If the gender is unknown, I say (he or she), or (his or her). I can not say in AmE, the rock rolled HIS way down the hill, OR the baby spoke its first word. Does BrE not make a distinction between people and things?

Anonymous said...

Well, I'm British and I wouldn't refer to a baby or child (or even an animal I knew as an individual) as "it" - but I don't see anything offensive in referring to an anonymous or hypothetical baby that way, as in Lynneguist's example "Will you be sleeping with the baby when it's born?"

Kate (Derby, UK)

HelenB said...

I'm British and wouldn't have a problem with anyone using 'it' for a baby if they didn't know the sex - I would think it was unusual if they knew the baby well though. My feeling is that you can't tell the sex of a baby (apart from clothing) and it's irrelevant whereas by the time they are toddlers the hair has usually been styled to gender them and so it would be normal to mark that gender with he/she. 'They' probably works less well for babies as they are more likely to be object than subject and 'them' is really clumsy.

David Crosbie said...

Dilsnik

Does BrE not make a distinction between people and things?

Well, no. At least I don't, and I don't think many of my generation do.

We make a distinction between

•animate and obviously male

•animate and obviously female OR inanimate with metaphorically female characteristics

•inanimate OR animate but not obviously male or female

I say 'obviously' but this extends to cases where the sex of a non-human animal or a human child is known but overlooked.

Of course we do classify entities as people, things or animals — but this isn't necessarily reflected in the grammar.

vp said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
vp said...

@David Crosbie:

I really don't think your claim is tenable. Do you use "it" to refer to adults whose sex is unknown? For example, would you use "it" to refer to any of the anonymous commenters on this thread? I think not.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

@ vp: But is "they" really any less impersonal than "it"?

I could, and did, comment on a scan of my grandchild, whose sex was, at the time, unknown, that "it looks as if it is sucking its thumb"; however now that he has been born I refer to him as "he".

vp said...

@Mrs Redboots:

David Crosbie claims that BrE doesn't distinguish between
* inanimate objects, and
* animate things of unknown sex.

I claim otherwise, on the grounds that "it" is used of inanimate things, and not of adults whose sex is unknown. The consequence is that those who use "it" of infants implicitly classify them with inanimate objects rather than with other human beings.

Singular "they" is, as far as I am aware, used only with persons. So this supports the claim that inanimate objects are generally treated differently from human beings in BrE.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

@ vp: I am inclined to believe that in BrE, at any rate, "baby" is a neuter noun and takes "it" just as "ship" is a female one and takes "she" (as do various other inanimate objects in my husband's Northern Ireland dialect).

Certainly I would not consider it impersonal to refer to an unborn baby as "it", as, I think, most people do unless and until they find out its sex.

David Crosbie said...

vp

We can use it for a non-infant human of unknown (or ignored) biological sex, but rules of politeness restrict the use to questions like Who is it? In other contexts we use the similarly non-gendered pronoun that or a non-gendered noun phrase such as that person.

The only difference between British speakers like me and the generality of American speakers (together with some British speakers) is that they extend these rules of politeness to infants, and we don't.

It's not a question of grammar. English has lost its neuter gender. And we have rejected common-gender he as sexist. For pragmatic cultural reasons we use he and she when we can and just struggle when the biological sex is unknown.

It is still available to some of us — but politeness restricts this to almost entirely infants.

That is sometimes usable, but often precluded by the syntax.

• Singular they is not universally accepted, and so is confined to informal styles.

So, yes I concede we do distinguish between inanimate objects and post-infant humans of indeterminate sex — but not through our grammar.

David Crosbie said...

vp

I missed your other point about singular they being restricted to humans.

I think this has to be explained as a secondary effect of politeness rules.

For an animate individual of unknown sex:

• Few of us feel an absolute need to avoid it for a non-human.

• Some of us don't feel the need to avoid it for a human infant.

• All of us feel the need to avoid it for a human post-infant.

For those who find it acceptable, singular they may be used when the decision has already been taken to avoid it.

Its reference is not necessarily confined to people. Speakers whose attitude to animals precludes the use of it may choose to use they for a single animal.

Singular they is not used for a single inanimate object because there is no need to avoid it

David Crosbie said...

Mrs Redboots

I am inclined to believe that in BrE, at any rate, "baby" is a neuter noun and takes "it" just as "ship" is a female one and takes "she" (as do various other inanimate objects in my husband's Northern Ireland dialect).

I do agree with what you say — but not with the terms you use to say it.

It's not the noun baby that's in question — as is it is with German Kind or Russian ребёнок (rebyonok). Those nouns are neuter — English baby isn't. It's the individual infant that counts. You said earlier that your grandchild is always he — even if he's referred to with the word baby.

Any seagoing vessel of a particular sort may be referred to with the word ship. It needs to be a ship you have some affection for to qualify as she.

And it's not nouns in you husbands's dialect that 'take she' — but rather the inanimate objects themselves.

Young women have always been female, but in Modern German and Old English the nouns Mädchen and maiden that label young women are neuter.

It may seem nit-picking, but this is the essence of how English gender differs from gender in most neighbouring languages.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

I am always interested by the fact that people seem to consider the impersonal "they" a recent innovation. I know for a fact we used it at school in the 1960s: "Is anybody sitting there?" "Yes, they are!" We were told, repeatedly, that the correct usage would be "Yes, she is", but it sounded odd and we persisted in saying "They are" or "No they're not" as appropriate (BrE, Hampshire, 1960s).

David Crosbie said...

Mrs Redboots

I don't know whether your interest stretches to jokey treatment by serious linguists, but you might enjoy "Singular they": God said it, I believe it, that settles it.

Précis: Singular they is commonplace in translations of the Bible — the King James Version and earlier.

Lily said...

I often accidentally say 'it's so cute' about a baby, it's like they're not a real person, they're so small!
And if you said 'she' when it's actually a boy baby, or the other way round, the baby's parents would be so offended!

I just wanted to say, I love America. I've been there and want to go again, and I love the tv shows, especially Friends and Modern Family. But on my macbook, Pages is really annoying me! On inspector you can choose what language you're writing in, Australian English, British English, Canadian English and... English. As if American English is the default, original English language. I am in England where English came from but I can't choose to write in English, I have to change it to British English otherwise it will automatically correct words to American spellings! Sort it out Apple! ;)

David Crosbie said...

Lily

In recent operating systems (Leopard and Snow Leopard), you choose the language not in an application like Pages but in the Language & Text part of System Preferences.

I think the principle's the same in Tiger and earlier cats, but the detail's a bit different.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

LOL! Thanks for that, I love it!

Dru said...

If it's not too late to add a comment, surely a f(o)etus is 'it' in all dialects? Until it's born, it hasn't got a known gender?

And to refer to a f(o)etus as a collective singular 'they' should really terrify the prospective parents.

lynneguist said...

Most western parents have the opportunity to find out the sex of their baby before it's born these days...though the gender might be another matter. :)

Rose said...

I'm British, and it is used to refer to babies, or children where the gender is unclear. Yes, I agree, it is dehumanising.

I am also aware that many people have a problem with how animals are also referred to as "it", even when the gender is clear. A similar issue, perhaps?

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

I thought of this thread this morning when my husband was driving, and we were coming up behind a rubbish lorry with rather bright orange flashing lights. I saw a cyclist between us and the lorry, and heard myself saying: "There's a cyclist! I expect you know, but I think it's rather difficult to see it with that lorry." Then realised I'd referred to the poor cyclist as "it", and quickly said, "him or her!"

Little Black Sambo said...

"It" of a child (n.b. not if the child has already been referred to as a boy or girl): - it is amazing to see how prescriptive people can become, who in other circumstances would be happy to observe and record the use of words, without judging the speakers.

enitharmon said...

Anybody calling my little girl 'it' 32 years ago would have been on the receiving end of some choice rhetoric from me. But nobody ever did.

Where gender is not specified I tend to use she/her. If nothing else, it annoys a certain kind of man.

Albert Welch said...

Massachusetts-

For those who wait til the birth to find out their baby's sex, the cliche'd announcement is "It's a boy!"

I don't refer to adults as it even if (first person neuter possessive) gender is unknown, but I'd like to. It'd be much cleaner than using he/she, less awkward than he/she or (s)he, and less jarring than they.

For pets I'll often link a gender to a species. Cats are feminine and dogs are masculine. This sets up cognitive dissonance if the animal is the other sex. Especially when the owner is uptight about such things.

Albert Welch said...

Edit: I of course meant to say (Third person singular neuter possessive).

I feel so embarrassed for the slip-up. =/