Another post about language, but not in the manner of previous posts. I won’t be spouting poetry, or analysing turns-of-phrase. This is about communication, connection, and companionship. I’ve written before about Manchester’s homelessness problem (let me stress here that it is not the homeless that are the problem, it’s homelessness), which is something that us everyday folk decide to not engage with every day.

I cross the city centre every day.  I live here, I work here, I go to the shops here, I study here, go to the gym here, go for a midnight walk here (more to follow on this seemingly controversial matter), live out my whole existence here.

At first, like so many other new Mancunians, I just accepted homelessness as an unfortunate consequence of living in a large city.  But as the years passed, the economy dwindled, and the political climate became harsher; and it became more noticeable.  Today, you cannot avoid it.  No amount of averting one’s eyes can hide the fact that we have a monumental level of homelessness in our city.

An integral part of the problem is the social deprivation that breeds the disillusion, unemployment, addiction, poor health, and non-participation that makes one more likely to become homeless. We cannot solve the rampant social malaise by putting a roof over people’s heads, but the preferred course of action is currently “do nothing”, which doesn’t seem to be fixing those problems either.

Anyway, back to language. I went off on that particular tangent to illustrate that homelessness is everywhere and most people don’t seem to give a toss about it (yep, sounds harsh, but if you can find any evidence to the contrary, I’d love to hear it – I’m not holding my breath). From my point of view, I do care, but I feel powerless to do anything. The structure of our society isn’t conducive to benevolence (I’m expecting John Galt to stroll in any day now), and as I said in my last post on homelessness, I would bankrupt myself if I gave just a tiny amount to each of the needy. So what then? Who gets my spare change? On what criteria should I pick and choose who deserves a meal or a bed tonight? No matter what choice I make, someone is screwed.

And because I can’t give to everyone, I apologise a great number of times per day to those doing the asking.  And things started to happen.  Often, I’d walk past someone, apologise, and be on my way.  But I’d receive acknowledgement, and a word of thanks, or wishing me a good night (I have NEVER had a bad experience with a homeless person in my decade-and-a-half here; the thousands of society’s leftovers that I’ve encountered are just trying to get on, like the rest of us).  And then one time in Piccadilly Gardens, a particularly persistent gentleman accosted me for more than the usual two seconds, and he told me a little of his story.  I listened and chatted for a few minutes, and as we parted, he thanked me for speaking with him.  “Most people wouldn’t” he said; and I don’t doubt that.

Nowadays, I give not just my spare change, but my spare time.  I’ll take a couple of minutes to sit and talk with homeless people.  I’ve learnt so much about other humans – many stories are tragic, but many are fascinating, and delightful.  The elderly man who carries all his possessions in two shopping trolleys and some carrier bags?  He was a historian.  The dreadlocked Big Issue seller I met in Cambridge?  He was a graduate of the University.  Everyone has a story to tell, and no-ones is worth more or less than anyone else’s. When we walk on past beggars without even looking them in the eye, we reinforce the idea that they are “other”.  I don’t always have money to give, but just a little human contact and a few words can make the difference between feeling human, and feeling cast aside.


I’m not going to touch on the “correctness” of the use of “they” as a preferred pronoun – I enjoy arguments over prescriptive vs. descriptive use of language, but that’s been done elsewhere.

I want to talk about why the use of “they” to describe an individual (in a gender-neutral sense) has practical uses for everyone; it’s not just useful for trans* and non-binary individuals. That’s not an apology – when we recognise rights for a minority, the change often improves things for everyone.

Scenarios in which third-person singular “they” has its uses:

Number One

So, there’s the obvious reason of “they” being fairly inoffensive if you’re ‘not sure’ of someone’s gender identity (it’s a balancing act between asking and waiting to be told, sometimes – none of us are perfect, and we sometimes find ourselves in social situations that we have no clue how to navigate). It’s better to be vague than wrong in my book.

Number Two

In my work, I deal with colleagues and collaborators from all over the world. Plenty of these people have names that I’ve never encountered before. And the rules that divide names into “masculine” and “feminine” in English don’t necessarily apply elsewhere. Sometimes you just don’t know – especially if you’ve not met yet, or have only ever communicated by email. In this situation, I again go for ambiguity over misgendering – it saves a lot of embarrassment.

Number Three

Now it’s time to get political. Third-person singular “they” is useful for eliminating the default designation of a professional as male. In my line of work, we will talk about “the architect”, “the builder”, “the electrician”, etc, without knowing the individual we’re describing (maybe they’ve not yet been appointed, perhaps we’ve not dealt with them until now for contractual reasons, perhaps we’re talking about a profession in general terms). Trouble is, there’s often a default to male, which

  1. Feeds into the perception that there are “male jobs” and “female jobs”, which belongs in the 1950s;
  2. Is wrong more often than our use of language implies, e.g.

“when you saw the nurse today, what did she say about your [insert embarrassing bodily ailment here]?”

“Er, HE said to put this cream on it and come back in two weeks.”

Number Four

Just, why not? Seeing as we’ve already established that it’s not grammatically heinous (to most of us), we could use it in far more interactions than we presently do. No reason why you couldn’t interchange “he” and “she” with “they” – unless the person you’re describing has expressly said that they (um,) do not want this. We might find its use becoming more commonplace as we step away from the use of pronouns at all (in our work email signatures, and those of many firms, honorifics are omitted completely, and sometimes post-nominals too). Tom Scott has produced a video on this, in the link below. He does a load of other stuff on language and esoteric knowledge – you should check out some of his other stuff if you have the time.

None of us know what the future holds, and we don’t know if there will be a rise in gender non-conformity or an abolition of gender. But what we do know is that we can find ways to address people without putting our foot in our mouth.


One of my friends wrote an eloquent and meaningful poem on Facebook, and it captures not only the beauty of words, but also the problem of being too sure about oneself in debate, and the need to examine one’s own biases. [Skeptic friends, take heed]

(Check our her Twitter & YouTube, she posts some interesting, controversial and original stuff)

Debates can get heated, doesn’t feel nice to be questioned,
Our own mind’s picture, of a situation, seems threatened,
The instinct is to scramble, for a support to our position,
We don’t always step back and consider thought-omission.

We like to be right, it feels good to have knowledge,
If a view seems absurd, they must have missed college!?
They can’t be right, it doesn’t fit my agenda,
Must be time for ridicule “Oi, go play with your double ender!”.

But wait, step back, question everything, remember?!
That means your own axioms, too, that’s no surrender.
Combine the positions and question each angle,
Hopefully your opponent will follow your example.

It’s unlikely you’ll agree within a short conversation
But the discourse is important for further investigation.
Without common ground, you won’t find a solution
To the issue you see as a societal pollution.

So, stay calm and controlled, keep your words ever relevant,
Your discussion may be fruitful, if you stay in your element.
And remember, end of discourse, is not the end of introspection,
Plant a seed of encouragement, for personal reflection.


She also wrote another one, here, on a somewhat different subject. The wit is still as strong, and the tone is a little more cutting – but sometimes you have to be bold to get your point across.


I have just started learning to speak German – I have a number of reasons for wanting to do so:

  1. I went to Frankfurt and Dusseldorf on a work jolly (there was a lot of actual work done too, but I cannot deny that the alcohol was in full flow), and I felt so inspired by everything I experienced while I was there.  Germany (the bits I saw) is a lovely place, and I’d like the opportunity to work there in the future.  Engineers are also sought-after in Germany (they have a more robust manufacturing sector than the UK, as well as having similar service industries -like consultancy, where I work now).  And being bilingual is a very, very, useful thing for employers, especially if one of your languages is English – one of the universal business languages.
  2. I wanted to learn a new language, or to re-learn French.  My language education at school was slightly above the bare minimum, but not immersive enough to lead to fluency.  I also struggled with speaking and listening (um, rather important things when learning a language), although my written French is very good.  I liked the structure and patterns in French sentences; it’s a logical language with an easily understood set of rules.  Only trouble is, I don’t seem to have an ear for French.  I have difficulty understanding others, and there must be something seriously up with my pronunciation, because I am apparently unintelligible to the average French person.  However, German seems like a very easy language for an English speaker to pick up.  I’m able to pronounce the words correctly, it sticks well in my memory, the syntax is closer to English than French is, and it’s also made up using a set of rules (I do like rules).
  3. I have always considered myself a European, and I would like to spend more time on the continent.  However, my hand may be forced soon, because if we are dumb enough to vote Brexit next week, then I’m off to Germany to gain citizenship there.  Culturally, the UK seems about 40 years behind the rest of Europe, and I’d rather keep up with the rest of the world than lag behind it.  We’ve also caught a glimpse of what a detached Britain would be like over the last few months, and it is ugly as sin.
So those are my reasons for learning the language, and of course, it has its own unique beauty, as all languages do. However, I found something rather special when browsing a glossary of words. I’d heard the word “Fledermaus” before, as a friend invited me to a performance of the operetta Die Fledermaus, and so I knew that it meant “bat”. But what I didn’t know is that it is not a direct translation of “flying mouse” or “winged mouse”, there is something prettier behind the name. I found this website, which tells you more about its etymology:

So a Fledermaus is not a “flying mouse”, or a “winged mouse”, but a fluttermouse. This is just lovely. No matter how harsh German speech may sound, it has its moments of poetry. Of course I crave more, and while I’ve not yet discovered all the beauties of die Deutsche Sprache, I have found a couple more words that are just pulchritudinous:

Nacktschnecke: meaning “slug”, translates directly to English as “naked snail“.  This reminds me of a joke:


What did the slug say to the snail?
“Big Issue, please?”


Entschuldigung: this means “sorry”, with no hidden content.  But the word itself sounds quite funny when said out loud.  It’s like I could never apologise to anyone in German with any conviction.


I am very much at the start of my language learning.  I want to be able to speak it as well as a Native.  However, I’m only at A1 Beginner level with Busuu.  But I feel pretty confident about my ability – as well as learning, it feels like I’m really understanding and appreciating the language.  Maybe I’ll do a whole post in German soon….


Bis bald,
Die Wissenschaftlerin