Loscon 45 Incident: What Happened, and the Committee’s Update

“New Masters of Science Fiction” panel at Loscon 45 with Mel Gilden, Alvaro Zinos-Amaro, Gregory Benford, and Brad Lyau. Photo by Kenn Bates.

Over Thanksgiving weekend at Loscon 45, code of conduct violations were alleged against Gregory Benford for a couple of statements he made on the “New Masters of Science Fiction” panel. Afterwards, a Loscon co-chair took the unprecedented step of removing Benford from the convention. However, this action bypassed Loscon’s incident process. The board of directors of LASFS, which owns Loscon, got involved. The issue was returned to the process so con Ops could gather information. Loscon later made an announcement that “the actions desired by the aggrieved parties have been either met or exceeded.” However, at the time Ops met with the party who reported the incident she was still under the impression that Benford had been removed, which was not the ultimate outcome. On November 28, the club posted as its final resolution a statement written by Benford himself which says the co-chair apologized and he accepted the apology.

What happened at the panel: On Saturday morning the “New Masters of Science Fiction” panelists — Alvaro Zinos-Amaro, Mel Gilden, Brad Lyau, and Benford — were discussing the question: “We know the old SF masters — Heinlein, Asimov, Vogt, de Camp, McCaffrey, LeGuin — who are new masters?”

Alvaro Zinos-Amaro and Gregory Benford. Photo by Kenn Bates.

According to Kenn Bates, who was present, Benford said N.K. Jemisin should get her science right.  “He did qualify his comment by saying that he liked hard SF and he was sure that his opinion was biased by that. He also said that PSI powers to control the earth and earthquakes had already been done in the fifties.”

Benford later told readers of David Weber’s Facebook page specifically, “I said, not to anyone in the room, ‘If you write sf honey, gotta get the science right.’”

Isabel Schechter says, “In addition to the ‘honey’ comment, Greg also made another comment-when one of the panelists recommended a Latino author, Greg asked him to spell the name, and then asked again several times before giving up and saying that some or those ‘names have too many vowels.’ He made this comment several times.”

Schechter, who has been in fandom over 20 years and co-chaired the successful San Juan in 2017 NASFiC bid, asked to be called on and made several comments:

I said that we were supposed to be talking about new masters but instead were talking about old ones. I remember saying “old white men” at some point in that description of the old masters, but not about the panelists (two of whom are not White). I did say that there were not any women on the panel (there was one assigned, but she didn’t show up-which I didn’t know). My comment about the female authors was in reference to the contrast between the men being discussed.

I did tell Greg that his use of the word “honey” was “offensive.” He tried to interrupt me and I told him I was still speaking. Shortly thereafter, he declared, “This panel is over!” and left the room. The panel went on without him, with panelists answering several questions after that.

The process: Isabel Schechter says she contacted the committee about events at the panel, beginning with Program organizer Justine Reynolds. Other conversations followed with Loscon co-chairs Christian McGuire and Crys Pretzman, then head of con Ops Lee Almodovar, and Robbie Bourget.

After the panel, several people were talking to me about the panel and Greg’s behavior, and Justine Reynolds, the Program Chair happened to be just outside the room as we walked out. I told her what happened, as did the other people. She apologized and said she would look into it, or something along those lines. I then went about my business. At some point, maybe an hour later, I was told that Greg had been asked to not be on any more programming. I said thanks and thought that was the end of it.

Then maybe an hour later, someone (I don’t know who, but they looked like staff) told me the conchairs wanted to talk to me, and walked me over to them, where they apologized for Greg’s behavior. They said they didn’t want me to think that the convention found his behavior acceptable and that they would not allow that kind of thing there. I thanked them, and again thought that was the end of it.

What happened next is that Christian McGuire, accompanied by someone from the hotel, located Benford at his 1 p.m. signing in the dealer’s room. According to Brandy Grote, “My husband witnessed him being escorted away by Hotel Security during his autograph session.”

Ginjer Buchanan, who read about this on David Weber’s Facebook page, commented, “Short of someone physically assaulting someone else in public, I can’t think of any reason for tracking down a person, no matter who they are, and having them do a perp walk out of a con. This strikes me as a bridge too far…”

What’s more, this step was taken without going through Loscon’s process for handling code of conduct violations. In response to my question, LASFS’ Kristen Gorlitz explained, “We do have a process for dealing with violations, but in this case, the proper channels were bypassed in favor of haste. This was thereafter rectified and the proper channels were consulted. (This is why we have an Ops team).”

Hours after Benford was led out, the committee asked Isabel Schechter to make an official statement:

Later that evening, I was asked by someone (don’t remember who) if I could make an official statement to Ops, so I went to the Ops room and gave a statement to Lee Almodovar. While doing that, [Robbie] (an older blond woman) asked me for details because it turns out that the conchairs didn’t follow convention procedures/coordinate the process with Ops. She said the conchairs overreacted or were extreme or something, and that she preferred to talk to everyone involved to try and reach a resolution, but now that Greg had been kicked out, he might not be willing to talk. She asked me if I was satisfied with the outcome or if I wanted anything like an apology. I told her I would like an apology but didn’t think I would get one. Otherwise, I was fine with the resolution. After that, I again went on about my business.

What happened to Benford led to a retaliatory petition calling for Christian B. McGuire to be removed from the LASFS Board of Directors, signed by a number of LASFS members including Larry Niven, Harry Turtledove, Laura Frankos, and David Gerrold. The next meeting of the Board is in December.

What the public was told: Ops was still collecting information on Sunday morning when LASFS asked File 770 to post this announcement (which also went up on Facebook):

Please be aware that the Loscon committee and LASFS Board are aware of an issue which occurred yesterday during a panel and are conducting a full investigation to ensure that all parties have been heard and then making a final decision based on that investigation. We would request that if anyone believes they have information to approach Ops in the Board Room. We will have an official resolution within 24 hours.

Among the people who reacted to the Facebook request was Barbara Landsman, who had a different perspective.

I was at that panel and I was horrified. I actually stood up and told her that I did not want to hear her political agenda and that she should just stop. Gregory Benford caught my eye and I just made the cut it off sign to him and he just shrugged. He finally got so pissed off that he stormed out. I again made a comment to try to stop her from continuing on with her rant and she just wouldn’t give it up. So I left. If anyone wants my testimony I’ll be very happy to speak on this. She came into this panel with a notebook and made notes and took down names and she definitely had an agenda. She wanted to fight.

Two more fans said they’d been at the panel and had given statements to Ops, but they did not repeat them on Facebook.

On Monday morning, Kristen Gorlitz issued this update:

All parties have been spoken with either yesterday or today. The actions desired by the aggrieved parties have been either met or exceeded through the follow up actions by the Co-Chairs and Ops. We would like to remind everyone and also future Loscons of the importance of being fully aware of our Code of Conduct and how language can cause emotional and psychological harm.

The resolution: Convention committees usually keep confidential their internal deliberations about alleged code of conduct violations so, unsurprisingly, it remains unexplained why the Loscon leadership didn’t follow the process, or how LASFS decided the outcome. Nor does LASFS really show an understanding that it’s their process and they need to take ownership of the outcome, because at the end this what they distributed:

November 28, 2018

Greg Benford gave us permission to publish this statement, if you wish to update file770. Thanks!

Gregory Benford’s message to LASFS:

At the 2018 Loscon there was an incident at a panel where someone took exception to something I said in general—which that someone took to be about a third party, who was not there.  Things got heated.  I left the room, not wanting to continue.  Apparently that someone complained to the convention chairs and they over reacted. The chair has apologized to me and I accepted it gratefully. He and his co-chair were probably trying to do the right thing in these over-heated times.  We all are, I trust. I have been attending Loscon since it began, and my first LASFS meeting was in 1963. I respect these enormously.

People were upset by the way the chairs acted.  Many later came up to me to say they were disturbed over it.  They were more upset than I was.  Since then, I’ve received vastly many emails, calls, Facebook posts, the lot. It’s exhausting. Things are fine with me now.  I’m not upset.  And I hope people will keep cooler heads in the future.

I want to especially thank Craig Miller, John Hertz, Matthew Tepper, Harry Turtledove, Larry Niven, Steve Barnes, John DeChancie, Gordon van Gelder and Michelle Pincus for their help in dealing with this.

At risk of being too professorial, I recommend reading

https://quillette.com/2018/05/17/understanding-victimhood-culture-interview-bradley-campbell-jason-manning/?fbclid=IwAR0hPL1hJRW_ERe6hhokHE6QJL784V4qSojSR5zwLNLwMUcnoHzK08Lwkpg

This is probably the first time the subject of code of conduct allegations ever wrote up the determination for the con committee.

When Kristen Gorlitz answered my follow-up questions about the statement, I learned she was under the impression that Isabel Schechter and Gregory Benford had met and resolved things, which never happened. (Do any other LASFSians think that happened?) Schechter says —

They did not copy me on Greg’s statement. It would have been nice if they had, given that it concerned me.

As for me and Greg resolving things, I have no idea what they mean by that. I never spoke to Greg after the panel, or at any point during the convention, before or after the panel. He did not approach me, I did not approach him, no one put us together, and we had no interaction during the convention other than during the panel. I have no idea why Kristen would say this, and am at a loss for words to explain how confused I am by her comment.

Also, Greg’s statement, “someone took exception to something I said in general—which that someone took to be about a third party, who was not there,” is misleading at best-his comment was not “in general,” he specifically named N.K. Jemisin, I did not need to make up a third party.

After neutralizing effects of the co-chair’s startling decision to walk Benford out of his autograph session, and, so far as the statement shows, managing to keep his good will, it is probably unrealistic to expect LASFS to speak explicitly to the original complaint and say whether its code of conduct was violated by Benford’s comments about Jemisin’s sf, or the spelling of Hispanic names. However, since they are standing behind his statement, how that blank would be filled-in should be easy to guess.


Update 11/30/2018: Robbie Bourget of Loscon Ops forwarded this additional information about their role: “Ops was not involved until the day after the issues, although we did take a statement from Isobel in which she did say when specifically asked ‘what would you have wished to have happen’ she said ‘for Mr Benford to be spoken to about his use of language’ and when I asked if she wanted an apology she said it would be nice but did not expect it. Therefore, since Greg was spoken to, twice, about his language – the requests (actual) of all parties were met or exceeded, since he was excluded from panels that he was scheduled for from the point the Chairs first talked to him and from the floor from after the autograph session on Saturday until sometime Sunday when he was finally interviewed by Ops.”

195 thoughts on “Loscon 45 Incident: What Happened, and the Committee’s Update

  1. “Dude” and “Guys” are absolutely considered gender neutral in most of the US, although they can obviously also be used to mark explicit maleness a la “dudes and dudettes”.

    That’s a usage point, though, not a linguistic or historical one. The term “guys” evolved from a standard usage of all-male words for male and mix-gendered groups, which many people find a bit distasteful–myself included–and came to be a general term for people of all genders in certain contexts. People of all genders use it that way, and no amount of grumpiness from anyone for any reasons is likely to change that.

    “Dude” came to be commonly used in a gender-neutral manner by a similar path, and likewise is unlikely to be re-gendered even if a large minority would like it to be. And again like “guys”, it’s also still used in an explicitly gendered manner.

    I’m sorry if I keep going off on linguistic tangents. 🙁

  2. I have to say, reading the award winners and runners up for the last 10 years, the suggestion that The Broken Earth isn’t up to par comes across as more than faintly ridiculous. It’s easily as good as all the winners, though I daren’t comment on whether it might or might not be better, and I think that most of those so honored by being shortlisted would agree with that evaluation.

    Several of them would certainly be pissed as hell to have the honor of their being listed used as a hammer by Mr. Benford to attack the quality of Jemisin’s work.

    But by all means, Greg, please entertain me by continuing to dig yourself a deeper hole.

    ETA: I’ve just seen Farah Mendlesohn listed as a former juror. Perhaps Greg would like to make this argument to her face, juror to juror. XD

  3. @atsiko

    People of all genders use it that way, and no amount of grumpiness from anyone for any reasons is likely to change that.

    Are you as astonished as I am by how rapidly singular “they” is becoming acceptable? I’m all in favor, because I spent decades as a technical writer phrasing around the clunky “he or she”, mostly by recasting in the plural. I’m delighted at the change, and interested to see where it percolates to. Obviously, sticklers gonna stick, no matter how often you cite Austen and other greats. It’s certainly not showing up in AP style any time soon.

  4. I remember in the very early 1990s hating the term “dude,” and I ended up consciously using it sarcastically. After a decade it had become a fully normal part of my speech. Insidious word, that.

  5. @Madame Hardy

    Not at all astonished, but definitely happy. I think if people are willing to admit that language is far more malleable in practice than many insist it is in theory, we’ll all be happier.

    As writers, I think we should all encourage the creation of more tools for our toolbox rather than standing high and mightily on the porch declaring this or that the downfall of world literature. XD

    But, I hope they are equally willing to admit when a known context puts more meaning in a word than the raw dictionary definition, which issue has caused us a great number of headaches here due to disingenuousness on the part of many commenters. I won’t name names, but I think we all know who I am referring to.

  6. Ancedotally, I have the habit of using “you guys” as a gender-neutral collective phrase but do try to avoid it in mixed-gender situations if I think about it. (Unfortunately in speech this can lead to emergency substitutions of “you people” which probably just comes off as rude.)

  7. Atsiko:

    ETA: I’ve just seen Farah Mendlesohn listed as a former juror. Perhaps Greg would like to make this argument to her face, juror to juror. XD

    Yeah, or Lisa Yaszek. Either. *snicker*

    While I was waiting at the vet’s during one of the dog’s annual exam, I Googled the award (Campbell Award Benford) which ended up at KU and so I presume it’s the new writer award not the other one.

    History and Jury

    Gregory Benford
    Sheila Finch
    Elizabeth Anne Hull
    Paul Kincaid since 2008
    Christopher McKitterick since 2002 (Chair beginning in 2018)
    Pamela Sargent since 1997
    Lisa Yaszek since 2016

    Former jurors:
    Kingsley Amis
    Paul A. Carter retired in 2009 after serving almost since the Award’s inception
    Paul Di Filippo from 2009-2015
    James Gunn served the jury since its earliest days, and was committee Chair from 1978 – 2018
    Sam Lundwall until 1996
    Farah Mendlesohn from 2006-2008
    Eric Rabkin
    T.A. Shippey served the Campbell Award for 40 years. He joined the panel of judges in its second year, which looked at the novels for 1974, and retired in 2015.
    Brian Stableford
    Robert H. Wilcox
    Originating jury (1972 – 1973): Brian W. Aldiss, Tom Clareson, Harry Harrison, Willis McNelly, and Leon Stover

    Twenty-two different jurors over 46 years (some serving decades), mostly white men, especially at the start. Big names. Manly names. Yep, all for the radical cutting edge of innovation in sf. I skimmed the list of winners and recognized a few names but mostly not to my taste. There are a few women (one year, actually two women won wowzers) but none of the feminist sff writers I know.

    More to my taste both in terms of results and process is the Tiptree Award where the Motherboard appoints a new five person jury every year and the process is much more open and the results are less…hierarchical.

    The motherboard, the jurors, and all the people who recommend, donate, or otherwise contribute make up the “Tiptree Award.” Like our namesake, we are complex and many-sided.

  8. The Tiptree process is less hierarchical; I’m not sure I’d call it “more open.” I was on the 2003 jury, and our instructions were something like “you define your process. Books and short fiction will be sent to you; if you want to consider works you haven’t been sent, ask Guy and he’ll try to arrange it. All your inter-jury emails are confidential for at least the next fifty years.”

    There was a panel on judging that year’s Tiptree at Wiscon–at which I learned that one of my fellow jurors hadn’t liked one of the shortlist stories as much as I had, or thought she had–but that’s one hour of whatever those jurors (not all five) felt like disclosing. Even if someone took detailed notes there, what they’d get is a lot of “Vicki liked this because” and “Nisi thought X about book Y,” not about our process or anyone’s opinions about the dozens of other books we considered.

  9. Gregory Benford – God grief. You can read the JWC judges list and every year’s short list of novels online. Do so. None of that is secret.
    You don’t have to stay ignorant.

    Speaking only for myself, I’m unwilling to be schooled by someone with so little understanding of nuance that he sees no difference between did not appear on the short list and publicly divulging the attitudes and critical judgment of his fellow jurors.

    Were you a peer, I might ask if you were high. You aren’t though, so I’ll merely wonder at your lack of principles.

  10. While the JWC memorial award has some good winners listed it’s not exactly a bastion of getting the science right. I mean Central Station, Radiomen, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August (just to pick from the last few years) are all good books but they either don’t depend on science or don’t do it particularly rigorously – and that’s fine by me.

    (I’m aware that I’m contributing to a derail here, but Gregory Benford is clearly avoiding commenting on any of the facts that show he’s been a bit mendacious in his version of events, so why not)

  11. @Vicki Rosenzweig:

    The Tiptree process is less hierarchical; I’m not sure I’d call it “more open.”

    Eh, more open than JWC in terms of what information is available on the website *and* (this is important) not having the same group on the jury for decades! No way could every point of discussion be shared.

    I also like the fact that they publish the long list, and I see a lot more of the jurors talking about their experience in fairly general terms.

    It’s a relative thing.

    And i like many more of the winners with the Tiptree as well.

  12. A propos of nothing much, except having just gotten back from the local Swedish community’s Christmas Fair, complete with Sankta Lucia ceremony, I wish all our Swedish friends an (early) happy Luciadagen. Enjoy the gingerbread, not to mention the glögg.

  13. @OGH: I’ve heard Delany’s story before, but hadn’t tracked it with the Reynolds novellas (which I read in Ace Double IIRC). I’m surprised Campbell pulled that; given how the magazines were sorting out even then, “This story is just too bugf*** crazy for Analog” would have been more accurate.

  14. Re: Benford’s use of “honey.” All this discussion of southernisms and not one “Well, bless his heart”?

    FWIW, this old Yankee has been addressing his wife as “hon” for 48 years and change now, almost certainly because that’s how Dad addressed Ma. I wouldn’t use it on anyone else, though, except perhaps a very young relative–though even there I’d more likely use “kidlet,” which was one of Ma’s favorites. And I have often been addressed as “Honey” and “Dear” by waitresses, just about always Of A Certain Age, even now that I’m senior to the merely middle-aged. (Young waitstaff call me “Sir,” except when I’m with my wife, when it’s often “You guys.”)

  15. Re: gender-markedness of “dudes” and “guys”

    Northern Californian here (for the last 40 years or so). In my idiolect, “dudes” and “guys” are definitely not gender-neutral. Nor is “dude” as direct vocative address. However “you guys” does appear to be gender-neutral for me. (I don’t think my idiolect includes “you dudes”.)

    This was brought home to me in a circumstance when the all-female management of a women-only gym I belonged to had posted notices about construction work that would involve the presence of men in the facility and I found myself commenting to the front desk staff, “I really appreciate it that you guys let us know there would be guys around.”

    But if I addressed someone as “dude” as in “Dude, you really shouldn’t do that,” I can’t parse using it to a woman. Not in the sense of using the word “dude” in reference to a person. I might be capable of using “dude” as an interjection without specific personal reference. (“Dude! Look at that sunset!”) I can also use “man” as a non-personal interjection in this sort of context. But I wouldn’t consider either of those usages as being gender-neutral address.

    But the sociolinguistics of language use are endlessly fascinating, and it’s the individual differences that eventually make up semantic change.

  16. You can read the JWC judges list and every year’s short list of novels online. Do so. None of that is secret.

    Are you claiming that the only books the jurors find interesting or well done are those that make the shortlist? That would be kind of unusual.

    You don’t have to stay ignorant.

    And you don’t have to stay classless, but you’re managing it.

  17. Madame Hardy on December 1, 2018 at 11:08 am said:
    Are you as astonished as I am by how rapidly singular “they” is becoming acceptable? I’m all in favor, because I spent decades as a technical writer phrasing around the clunky “he or she”, mostly by recasting in the plural. I’m delighted at the change, and interested to see where it percolates to. Obviously, sticklers gonna stick, no matter how often you cite Austen and other greats. It’s certainly not showing up in AP style any time soon.

    The AP Stylebook has been explicitly promoting singular they since spring 2017: https://blog.ap.org/products-and-services/making-a-case-for-a-singular-they

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  19. I wrote a paper on singular “they” — it’s been common usage throughout modern English (including Early Modern English — I’m talking 13th century here) and in Old English, the plural personal pronouns were also acceptable in singular forms in three out of four cases. It only became frowned upon during the 18th century, when people were writing grammars that attempted to make English more like Latin*. I don’t have my paper or its bibliography handy, but there was one grammar I particularly enjoyed that, right after spending a paragraph explaining that people should not use singular “they,” went on to use singular “they” while explaining something else.

    I am also pleased to see that style guides are getting over it and accepting the common and more elegant usage.

    *Which is also where we get the stupid prohibitions against splitting infinitives and ending sentences with prepositions, neither of which are a problem at all in English as it’s actually used.

  20. That was my read, too, @bill: “Arguments for using they/them as a singular sometimes arise” is not an endorsement.

    However, I was ambiguous. There are two kinds of singular they. “X, who identifies as genderqueer, said they disliked …” is the one the AP is endorsing. “Everybody should bring their umbrella” is the one I was thinking of, and remains in flux. Similarly, “the unknown killer left their glove behind” falls under the “sometimes arise” clause.

  21. Well, for all the folks who came into this thread wondering about the intentions and attitudes underlying “honey” and “too many vowels,” I think Mr. Benford’s petty, cliquish comments have made it explicit where he’s coming from. I’m glad that’s cleared up!

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  23. @Madame Hardy
    “X, who identifies as genderqueer, said they disliked …” is the one the AP is endorsing.

    I don’t see the AP as “endorsing” such usage. Again, they specifically suggest alternatives instead: “Use the person’s name in place of a pronoun, or otherwise reword the sentence, whenever possible.”

    Despite the desires of some individuals to be referred to as “they”, it is very difficult to write clear semi-formal English (as the AP Style Guide promotes) that includes singular they but also is not ambiguous or awkward or just plain jarring to the average audience of readers of AP-Style-Guided text.

  24. @Madame Hardy–

    “Everybody should bring their umbrellas” is the one I was thinking of, and remains in flux. Similarly, “the unknown killer left their glove behind” falls under the “sometimes arise” clause.

    “Remains in flux” in the sense that native speakers (and writers) of English have been using it routinely since the 13th century, and the relatively recent (starting in the late 18th century) efforts of class-obsessed, Latin-obsessed grammarians to stamp it out have so far been without success.

    The grammarians are wrong on this and their other attempts to force English speakers to pretend we’re speaking Latin.

  25. Dear Bill,

    That is quite a load of…

    Being a living language, English is the ultimate consensus reality. Correct usage is what the collective decides is correct usage, and that is constantly changing. Within my lifetime I’ve seen the serial comma become obligatory instead of something to be avoided. The plural apostrophe-s (e.g., readers’s) has displaced the simpler plural apostrophe (e.g., readers’). The former still jars the heck out of me — probably because the latter was more congruent with spoken English. E.g., we don’t say “readers-ess.”

    Well, okay, maybe Gollum does.

    Do I get to complain about it? No. I am not the arbiter of English, not even SWE. NOBODY is. The three “Bibles” of SWE (which is only one of several lects within written English, vis academese and legalese) — the Chicago Manual, Strunk and White, and AP Style — are guides which don’t agree on everything and are constantly undergoing revision. Primarily because they follow what are acceptable practices in SWE rather than leading. There’s been a steady trend over the past couple of decades towards acceptance by them of the singular-they. It substantially predates individual gender preference identification. Rather, it derives from a movement in the direction of avoiding assumptive generic gender identification.

    So, no, very likely not “just plain jarring” to the average audience, or they wouldn’t be shifting. Jarring to you, perhaps, but you are not the center of the linguistic universe.

    And even if you are, well, you’ll get used to it. Because you don’t really have any choice. You get exactly one vote like every other English user.

    It’s not the least bit difficult to use the singular they in clear semiformal English that is unambiguous. I do it all the time, have for decades. Yes it is possible for it to introduce ambiguity. SWE is not an unambiguous lect, not even close, especially since it lacks important pronoun constructs that other languages have. Have you never observed two people get into an argument because one of them says/writes something along the lines of, “you are likely to…” when they did not mean “you” as a second person singular? When what they should have said for grammatical clarity is, “one is likely to… ?”

    That one bugs the crap out of me. So many pointless fights started over it. I shall have to write a stiff letter of protest to… somebody.

    Pronouns vs. nouns and proper nouns always introduce the potential for ambiguity. Writing clearly is about avoiding that ambiguity. “They” does not make it one bit more difficult, because it is NOT obligatory, just advisable when appropriate.

    If clarity is your most compelling argument, I suggest you start using a different lect — legalese. Its rules of style are specifically designed to minimize ambiguity.

    Good luck getting your hypothetical average audience to want to read it.

    Linguistic drift is a fact of life. It is neither a good thing or a bad thing but it is an unavoidable and unstoppable thing. If you wish to waste your time and energy pissing into the grammatical wind, that is your choice. But don’t have any illusions that you are doing anything more than that. One vote, that’s all you get.

    – pax \ Ctein
    [ Please excuse any word-salad. Dragon Dictate in training! ]
    ======================================
    — Ctein’s Online Gallery. http://ctein.com 
    — Digital Restorations. http://photo-repair.com 
    ======================================

  26. @Ctein–I may be a smidge older, but I was never taught anything other than what is now called the “Oxford comma,” and I have never seen anything like “readers’s” outside an undergrad essay. (Though I do sometimes see a possessive apostrophe-s after a singular noun or name that ends in s. I’ll put one there myself it if doesn’t wind up sounding silly.)

    Usage does indeed change, with time and context and cultural geography. Locus still conforms to Charles Brown’s quasi-UK house style. Charles was the only editor for whom I ever needed to put commas and periods outside quotation marks, and the only one who required what the AP Stylebook has permitted since 2013 in the matter of commas. Charles got exactly one vote in the matter of the Locus house style, but it was the deciding one.

    BTW, I’m a big fan of clarity and its sibling, precision, and I don’t think that my copy reads like legalese. Reaching for C&P accounts for the thirty minutes it took me to write this post.

  27. Dear Russell,

    The optional serial comma could be a regional difference. New York school system, 1950’s. But it was firmly drilled into me there to avoid it, and that lesson continued through high school (mid-late 60’s, Silicon Valley).

    Not just me. Teresa Nielsen Hayden, in the first edition of Making Book, talks about only using the serial comma when necessary to avoid confusion (as in, “I would like to thank my parents, Jesus and Mary Magdalene.”). She was surprised when I told her (in the late 90’s) of the change that had taken place when we weren’t looking.

    But, according to the latest Chicago Manual, you are absolutely right about apostrophe-s’s. I just plain got it wrong.

    I figured out how I got there, which came from a lesser case of linguistic drift. The style I was taught– putting only an apostrophe after a word that ends in s, regardless of whether the noun is singular or pural, ordinary or proper– turns out to be the “formerly more common” practice, according to Good Ol’ Chicago. Now there’s a bunch of cases where you do add the “‘s” following an s.

    Apparently my silly brain overgeneralized. And AP and Chicago don’t agree in the specifics.

    Well, it still reads just *wrong* to me, he said stamping his foot petulantly.

    Anyway, thanks for correcting me. Gotta go fix a manuscript now… seriously. Sigh.

    My point about clarity was that the lect ain’t gonna do that for you, unless you write legalese. That’s entirely dependent upon your– ahem, one’s– good writing skills.

    pax / Ctein

  28. Ctein–That serial-comma thing is odd, since I grew up in central New York in the 50s, though I might be overstating when I write that I was taught the Oxford comma–I had almost no formal training in writing in high school or college. I just absorbed what my teachers wrote on my essays, and I don’t recall ever being warned off from the serial comma. (I eventually swotted up the official rules and terminology in grad school, when I had to teach freshman comp from the handbooks and writing guides we used. “Non-restrictive clause”? What’s that?)

    BTW, I recall that there were two, um, schools regarding style/usage/format/etc. in English departments in those now-distant days–Chicago and MLA. I was raised MLA. AP wasn’t a Thing for academic writing. Since then, I’ve been at the mercy of whatever the house style might be. (Thus my continuing struggle with commas, periods, and quotation marks at Locus. My fingers are in charge of punctuation, and I have to go back and adjust.)

  29. Dear Russell,

    Well that’s just… fascinatin’! That blows my regional notion out of the water.

    You’re not the only person of a comparable age who has told me that they were always taught the serial comma was obligatory, but they were all in different parts of the country. Hence my hypothesis.

    I’m going to go with yours — that there were two different “Bibles” for SWE and it depended on which one you were schooled in.

    This has almost as little to do with the topic at hand as the discussion of honorifics in the other Loscon thread. But I don’t care because I’m learning cool stuff (and it’s all about me).

    And, yes, Charlie Brown’s notions of correct usage were, ummm, different. But The Editor is God, and none shall be above them.

    Except for The Publisher

    Thanks for the enlightenment!

    pax / Ctein

  30. @Ctein / @Russell Letson:
    My recollection is that I was taught always to use the serial comma — but I’m no longer sure that’s not just my finicky habits. (I do remember restrictive vs. non-restrictive clauses, but that’s a different matter.) By now I’m no longer sure whether it was Chicago or Strunk&White that was part of my school’s package of texts in 10th? 11th? grade.

    The style I was taught– putting only an apostrophe after a word that ends in s, regardless of whether the noun is singular or pural, ordinary or proper– turns out to be the “formerly more common” practice, according to Good Ol’ Chicago. A regionalism, perhaps? I’m remembering a traditional English song as “Jones’s Ale” (including music that required 2 syllables — unless singing a melisma, which doesn’t appear anywhere else in that song and IIRC is rare or nonexistent in English folksong); I see that Wikipedia insists on no-following-‘s’, where a UK source spells it as I remember. Not that that’s a guarantee of US usage; The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-hate Relationship Between American and British English describes dictated, observed, and {,mis}believed differences between the two. (Includes some fun quizzes, e.g. “which of these words differ in UK-vs-Us meanings”; also slams Lynne Truss, who I’ve only skimmed.)

  31. @Russell: in English departments in those now-distant days–Chicago and MLA. I was raised MLA. AP wasn’t a Thing for academic writing.

    It still isn’t (AP being Associated Press I assume?).

    MLA (Modern Language Association) is primarily used by literature and composition faculty though some prefer Chicago (which was developed by historians at the University of Chicago) (and has a lot more breadth in terms of different types of sources and how to cite them), and APA is popular in the social sciences and the linguists I know. The one thing MLA and Chicago adherents agree on is hating APA. The sciences no doubt have their own, but there are *MANY MANY* different style guides.

    We’re currently on the 8th edition of MLA which is much simpler than earlier ones (and more focusing on citation patterns than grammar). A number of friends I know loathe it and are clinging to earlier editions.

    I got in trouble at one clerical job for resisting the terribly awful office manual style guide (I had a Master’s in English so I darn well knew better, heh). That’s when I learned: you wanta keep the job, you follow their style guide. (It sucked.)

    And linguists tend to HATE Strunk & White: it’s the “prescriptivist grammarians” vs. “descriptive linguistics” several Filers have already noted. One of my favorite linguistic blogs has discussed their failing many times.

    Oh, and, you (generic you) will have to drag my Oxford comma out of my cold dead hands: I will NEVER give it up! Singular they, however, is v. useful in multiple contexts.

  32. @ctein
    That is quite a load of…

    [initial aside: I assume from context that when you say “That” you are referring to the second part of my post. But I had to read a ways into your post to decide that this was the case. Pronoun-antecedent is hard!]
    A couple of thoughts:

    1. When I was writing above, I was specifically thinking of the case in which a person’s preferred pronoun is “they”, and using “they” to accommodate “them.” These are the cases that are the most ambiguous and awkward, to my ear. [“Did you see Bill’s post on language? They are crazy!” (NB: my preferred pronoun is “he”.)] Other uses, which I’d bet are foremost in mind in your post, are not as jarring. E. B. White himself, who argued strongly against singular they in the initial (1920) Elements of Style, wrote in Charlotte’s Web “But somebody taught you, didn’t they?” I don’t have much problem with similar usage (when the antecedent is ambiguous or indefinite), especially orally, but in formal writing, I would avoid even that.

    2. Your post reads as if you are taking my post to be prescriptivist. It was not, and I am not. I am not saying how things should be, or how you or anyone else should write or speak. I am just describing how I, and how many usage/style guides, think that people react when a plural pronoun is used in a singular context.

    3. I agree that language changes, and it is what it is, not what grammarians say it is. Usage defines meaning and rules. The future may well include singular they-ness in abundance. It is my opinion, however, that, in general, a well-written sentence/paragraph that is structured in such a way as to avoid singular they will be less ambiguous and awkward than a well-written sentence/paragraph that includes singular they (presuming, for the sake of this argument, that such a sentence exists.) It will be clearer, which I hope you would agree should be the goal of any writer. If you believe otherwise, a counter-example would be interesting.

    4. If I am wrong, and if singular they is generally appropriate and to be encouraged, why does AP specifically suggest to recast sentences instead of using it? And they aren’t the only one. All the American usage guides in the Wikipedia article on “singular they” suggest generally avoiding its use.

    Do I get to complain about it? No. ??? Of course you do. That’s what the internet was invented for, to complain about things that you can’t change.

    The three “Bibles” of SWE — the Chicago Manual, Strunk and White, and AP Style — are guides which don’t agree on everything But they all agree that singular they is to be avoided when possible.

    There’s been a steady trend over the past couple of decades towards acceptance by [Chicago Manual, S&W, AP] of the singular-they. Per wikipedia, 14th ed. (1993) of Chicago Manual recommended singular they; current 16th ed. (2010) says to avoid it.

    And FWIW, I try to avoid generic “he” for many of the same reasons.

  33. @Bill:

    If pronouns are ambiguous, reword, which may mean using names, or nouns rather than pronouns; an utterly uncontroversial example is that it’s not always clear whether “we” means “I and this one other person,” “I and a larger group, not including you,” or “all three of you, and me.”

    Yes, the sometimes-ambiguity of singular they adds a bit more rewriting–but I’d rather rewrite than be actively wrong (and that absolutely applies here, but not only here). Something like “when I ran into Liam on the T, they offered me a ride home from Lechmere” is only ambiguous if you don’t know that Lechmere is a subway station). Referring to Liam by a pronoun other than “they” would be wrong and (since I know they’re nonbinary) disrespectful. (This is why I like zie/zir and the Spivak pronouns ey/em/eir, but the decision isn’t up to me, in part because my pronouns are she/her. Liam says their pronouns are they/them. so they are)

  34. Dear Bill,

    Okay, we’re in more agreement on a lot of points than I realized. Peace be with you [smile].

    I didn’t find your example jarring at all. Familiarity born of usage gets rid of that.

    I really wouldn’t be citing Wikipedia as a source. They are nobody’s definitive Bible on grammar. Well, not yet.

    As someone who has spent way too much of his career Writing For Editors, the recommendation to try to avoid the need for “they” does not spring from it being unacceptable or ungrammatical, but from myriad flights with old-school editors who, like you, find it off-putting when they run across it. Seeing as the Editor is God, that is not a fight a writer will win nor should wish to engage in too often. The wrath of the Gods and all of that.

    What all the sources are saying is, “Hey, if you can avoid it without tying yourself in verbal knots, that’s the best course. But if you can’t, then the singular “they” is just fine.”

    – pax \ Ctein
    [ Please excuse any word-salad. Dragon Dictate in training! ]
    ======================================
    — Ctein’s Online Gallery. http://ctein.com 
    — Digital Restorations. http://photo-repair.com 
    ======================================

  35. I never encountered the term “serial comma” until quite recently. It was simply normal, proper, usage. There wasn’t a name for the error of omitting it, either.

  36. “[T]he unknown killer left their glove behind” is perhaps best handled by changing “their” to “a”; saying “their glove” is either overly specific, or else is giving the readers new information (the omniscient narrator telling the readers that the glove found at the scene was in fact the property of the unknown killer).

  37. It occurs to me that the place I am most likely to use “they” for a specific individual whose gender I don’t know is if I’m talking about a driver who I didn’t see at all (e.g. if I was on the sidewalk and there was someone between us, or I didn’t notice the car until it drove through a puddle and splashed me) or didn’t get a good enough look at to be at all sure what gender they’re presenting as. That’s not “the unknown driver,” it’s “the driver of that truck” or “the driver of the bus that I missed because the light changed before I reached the stop.”

    “He or she” really doesn’t feel natural there.

  38. @bill:

    It is my opinion, however, that, in general, a well-written sentence/paragraph that is structured in such a way as to avoid singular they will be less ambiguous and awkward than a well-written sentence/paragraph that includes singular they (presuming, for the sake of this argument, that such a sentence exists.)

    And you’re welcome to it — but IME restructuring to eliminate a singular they is awkward more often than not.

  39. There are enough examples on this thread demonstrating that the non-gendered-ness of “dude” is in question, but I’ll add one. My roller derby league this past season determined some concrete changes in how we’ll talk to each other going forward to better “walk the talk” on gender inclusiveness and expansiveness. This included switching to non-gendered terms of group address. Among the terms we agreed to deprecated and replace were “dudes” and “guys”. (And “ladies” for that matter.) Even among our hundred-and-some-odd membership, there was disagreement over whether these terms had become gender neutral, so it was deemed safest and most courteous to just use something else.

    Mostly I’m hearing league members use “friends” as a term of group address. I’ve gotten in the habit enough to start using it reflexively in the wider world. Like, while navigating a tight crowd, “Hi, friends, can I just squeeze by here? Thanks.” But I’m aware this may come across as presumptive, since some might find it too intimate to hear from a stranger, so I’m trying to be more conscious about my use of it.

    And I’d like to be a second voice in the thread supporting JJ’s supposition that there are women in the South who do not enjoy being called “honey” by strangers, especially by strange men who appear to be slipping some plausibly deniable condescension into the conversation, but say nothing and simply grit our teeth and get on with our day. That describes me most days, really. Also when people of all regions call me “young lady” and then tell me I’m supposed to take it as a compliment.

    JJ’s not mind-reading to suppose this (although I would have thought the first post supporting the supposition would have been enough to prevent accusations of mind-reading, but oh well). It’s a reasonable supposition extrapolating from how people with limited spoons deal with microaggressions. And yes, some of us damn well do experience “honey” from a man as a microaggression. Yes, even in the South. The South is large and contains multitudes; no one man gets to declare himself The Explainer of it to the rest of us; and the experience of a man in the South will almost certainly fail to universalize to the experience of a woman in the South, too.

  40. As a dude who has lived all of his life in the South, I fully endorse Nicole’s read of how the word “honey” functions in my experience.

    I will admit to having had something of a stunted upbringing when it comes to associating with non-male people, but I would never presume to call anyone “honey” unless (1) we were romantically involved and it was a term of endearment, (2) it was part of an obviously exaggerated and playful exchange of banter, or (3) perhaps, as a theoretical case, if I were addressing a female child – probably to whom I was related – for whom I either held significant familial affection or needed to address right away but did not know her name. Since I can’t think of anyone in the third category and know there is nobody in the first, that only leaves the second – meaning I don’t use the word at all unless I’m talking about the delicious nectar created by bees. This is perhaps ironic, in that my grandfather was known in some circles as “Honey Humberd” – a nickname which derived from his beekeeping.

    On the flip side, I am rarely called “honey.” I don’t recall ever being called such by a straight man, and most commonly it has happened either in a female-adult-to-any-child dynamic (“honey, put that down”) or from a woman in a service role (waitress, etc.).

    As for “guys,” I frequently see and use that to refer to groups which include men, whether or not they also include women. Mixed-gender groups can be “guys,” a group of men can be “guys,” but I’d default to “ladies” for a group of women. Intellectually, I pair “guys” with “gals” as equivalents, but I personally opt for “ladies” as a minor bump in status/respect. I suppose “dudes” would work as a rough equivalent for “guys” in this paragraph, but I wouldn’t call a lone woman “dude” except – again – as some form of banter.

    Or, perhaps, if I were at a convention and she was cosplaying a character from The Big Lebowski, in which case I would probably also comment about the rug really tying the room together. But then, that falls under “banter.” 😉

  41. During my time in California, I noticed the term ‘guys’ being used frequently to address a mixed-gendered group. Keen to assimilate, and a big fan of Californian culture, I picked it up quickly. More recently I read somewhere that some people (rightly) don’t like that usage, and I’ve found, in English English, ‘folks’ works great instead: ‘excuse me folks, coming through’.

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