Prolific writer Joyce Carol Oates apologises after ‘they’ pronoun tweet sparks controversy
Acclaimed writer Joyce Carol Oates has apologised after she suggested that the singular “they” pronoun will never become “part of general usage”.
On Wednesday (6 October), Oates tweeted a link to a New York Times op-ed by linguist John McWhorter. In his article, McWhorter argued in favour of the use of gender-neutral pronouns such as “they” and “them”.
Sharing the article, the 83-year-old author added: “‘They’ will not become a part of general usage, not for political reasons but because there would be no pronoun to distinguish between a singular subject (‘they’) & a plural subject (‘they’). Language seeks to communicate w/ clarity, not to obfuscate; that is its purpose.”
Joyce Carol Oates was widely criticised for her remarks. Many pointed out that the singular “they” has actually been used for centuries and is far from a new development, while others asked her to respect trans and non-binary people’s lived experiences.
In a rare occurrence for Twitter, what subsequently unfolded was a mature, respectful conversation that concluded with Oates offering a sincere apology.
Joyce Carol Oates was told to avoid staying ‘stuck in the past’
One Twitter user responded to Oates to tell her that she was “wrong” on her understanding of the use of “they”.
“I am trying to get better about this,” Ron Waxman wrote. “It is hard after decades of using ‘he’ or ‘she’. Don’t stay stuck in the past.”
Oates quoted Waxman’s tweet, adding: “I am happy to say ‘they’ if the context requires and a person has so requested. My remarks were that it is not likely that a plurality of English-speaking persons will use ‘they’ in referring to an individual, not that it is good or bad; just a neutral conjecture.”
I am happy to say "they" if the context requires & a person has so requested. my remarks were that it is not likely that a plurality of English-speaking persons will use "they" in referring to an individual, not that it is good or bad; just a neutral conjecture. & generational. https://t.co/GDS1KAgHU0
— Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates) October 6, 2021
The author closed out her tweet by suggesting that the adoption of gender-neutral pronouns is a “generational” issue, which led to more criticism.
From there, Oates continued to double down on her bizarre claims.
but I do use "they" in this context, often. of course: language does evolve.
it may be generational, or related to education, geography, politics: people not active on Twitter, or who don't read books, approximately 94% of Americans. https://t.co/Q5nfL21XoF— Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates) October 6, 2021
(but I do use "they"–often! I wasn't talking about myself. I was speculating about the probability of a general use of the term, not a highly specialized use, as in, for instance, the majority of Americans who are not "woke" or even anti-"woke." just–not au courant.) https://t.co/EPAHQCUluj— Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates) October 6, 2021
absolutely true! originally, I was responding to an Op-Ed column by John McWhorter, but that link has been lost. I do use "they"/ "them" often. I am not suggesting that it is kind, or unkind. I was speculating about a general usage, not necessarily related to my academic life. https://t.co/xHJRDgYiGa— Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates) October 6, 2021
The tide finally started to change when writer and journalist Sim Kern pointed out the impact her words could have on trans and non-binary people – particularly those who deal with misgendering and incorrect pronoun usage on a daily basis.
Kern summed up the issues succinctly when they wrote: “Being trans in this world is hard enough without the most powerful voices in our profession using their enormous platforms to attack us and try to invalidate our identities.”
That tweet, it appears, had an impact on Oates.
“Gosh! I did not at all mean this. I do apologise, truly. You are quite right. (But it’s very hard to think of myself as a ‘powerful voice’ – as one who lives with cats.).”
She continued: “I do use the singular ‘they’ pronoun often. It was a purely speculative tweet and not meant to ‘invalidate’.”
gosh! I did not at all mean this. I do apologize, truly. you are quite right. (but it's very hard to think of myself as a "powerful voice"–as one who lives with cats.) I do use the singular "they" pronoun often. it was a purely speculative tweet & not meant to "invalidate." https://t.co/i7u6OBsKBo
— Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates) October 6, 2021
Oates’ apology played out over a number of tweets in which she directly responded to those expressing dissatisfaction with her comments.
it was purely a speculation about the use of language among a large, general population; I had not even thought that it might suggest an "invalidation" of something that is of course entirely "valid"– (nor would I have thought that I had any power over "validating" anyone.) https://t.co/LvokEkp57j— Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates) October 6, 2021
it's purely a misunderstanding, which, I can see, issued from the brevity of the tweet. it had been longer–& had been cut. I am 100% supportive of transpersons & have always been an adversary to those who are cruel to others, especially minorities. so, thank you for correcting. https://t.co/nOcBgnDgz4— Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates) October 6, 2021
Crucially, when one Twitter user tried to absolve Oates of wrongdoing, she happily corrected them.
“You’re not wrong, Joyce,” the Twitter user wrote. “Cancel culture can’t cancel the English language. You haven’t harmed anyone.”
But Oates didn’t agree.
“But I think that words, however inadvertent, can harm, especially psychologically; so, what was meant as a linguistic speculation, had evidently real-life significance, not unlike taboo words which we should respect for their meta-linguistic power.”
but I think that words, however inadvertent, can harm, especially psychologically; so, what was meant as a linguistic speculation, had evidently real-life significance, not unlike taboo words which we should respect for their meta-linguistic power. https://t.co/hsGWDocpdj— Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates) October 6, 2021
Oates went on to retweet some of her critics – and also shared a link to the Black Trans Fund, a national resource designed to uplift and support Black trans social justice leaders.
She closed out the discussion by saying that she wouldn’t be deleting her original tweet – and she explained why, too.
to delete the original tweet would mean that the dialogue that followed from it would be lost. I think it is valuable. I'd never said that I "opposed" anything linguistic, just wondered how widespread the usage would be in the US. language evolves…it can't be "opposed." https://t.co/LGKUrCcfn4— Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates) October 6, 2021
(I am well aware of the power of language to isolate & hurt–like slur words, which can be weaponized. it had just not occurred to me that a purely amateur speculation about language could have such real-life meaning; this is good to know. really!) https://t.co/lDTx4ligrE— Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates) October 6, 2021
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