Mind your language!!

The UX of communication


In the last few days a small controversy brewed in social and the news media. This was related to a prominent cab company CEO getting offended when an AI chatbot referred to him in the third person using a singular pronoun. The said person took offence and decided that this was a western plot which was “imposing a political ideology on Indian users that’s unsafe, sinister.” Their words; not mine (you see what I did there ).

In my opinion a lack of understanding of the English language, and a desire to stir the pot for other (not very altruistic) reasons, was likely the reason for making this storm in a teacup. For this particular individual, they do not likely subscribe or agree to the idea of gender diversity (in the sense of beyond a dual gender) and that is their choice.

The singular “they” in user experience design

The use of the singular ‘they, them” has been used in the English language for centuries. Starting from the Middle English terms including thee and thou, the pronoun has been used by defining authors of the language including Geoffrey Chaucer (The Canterbury Tales) and William Shakespeare (A Comedy of Errors, Hamlet) and my mother’s favourite - Jane Austen who used it in Mansfield Park centuries later. “I would have everybody marry if they could do it properly,” Austen wrote in her 1814 novel.

The use of the singular they had a simple practical usage; it allowed the writer to frame sentences when the gender of an individual was not known or was not important to the scope of the sentence.

I was taught this simple rule of English grammar in school in the late eighties, and it was reinforced in one of my university subjects - “Designing Human Computer Interaction”. The key was to allow all users to feel that a computer experience was designed for them by not offering any jarring language that would take them out of the experience.

Where it was impossible for a designer to know what a person’s demographics (gender, race, age, etc.) were, it was critical to use language which allowed a correct representation.

It was a similar principle which was applied when you were building dashboards or similar representations with multiples. You tried to use language which would fulfill most, if not all use cases.

Any system which is designed to give programmatic answers / answers based on business logic will follow this principle. I’m going to use representative text here to illustrate this.

Suppose a website which brings togethers like minded speakers asked a prospective member to chose their interests and provide limited information about themselves, without mandating the selection of a gender. They website may chose to prepare the profile for the individual like this.

Aarya Sharma is a student of economics at Delhi university since 2023. They were born in 1992 in Kanpur and they moved to Delhi with their family in 1998. They have completed their schooling from the prestigious Delhi Public School. They are a prolific painter and enjoy archery as a hobby.

There is nothing wrong with the paragraph above. It gives you a brief introduction to Aarya Sharma, except the gender. It does not take away from the person’s achievements or their reality. It continues to be in the third person and it reads well.

An alternative rendition could be

Aarya Sharma is a student of economics at Delhi university since 2023. She was born in 1992 in Kanpur and she moved to Delhi with their family in 1998. She has completed her schooling from the prestigious Delhi Public School. She is a prolific painter and enjoys archery as a hobby.

Both paragraphs read correctly, but now I want to present this to you from a programmers perspective. If a programmer was to code the first block to appear in a web page they could likely bind the content like this

Aarya Sharma is a ______ at ______ since ____. They were born in ____ in _____ and they _____. They have completed their schooling ______. They are _____ and enjoy ____.

Now if we were coding this with a gender selection block

Aarya Sharma is a ______ at _______ since ______. {She | He} was born in _______ and {she | he} _______. {She | He} has completed {her | his} schooling from _____. {She | He} is a prolific painter and enjoys archery as a hobby.

Every position where the pronoun has to be inserted has to have a logical check inserted. One of the basic principles of coding is less code is cleaner code. It’s a simplistic example but I hope it gets the point across.

From a user experience perspective, the initial text paragraph is not only correct, it helps in reducing code from the system.

Why inclusive language matters

Moving beyond the desires of the programmers to have to write less logic, inclusive language serves critical purposes.

“They” as a singular pronoun is the most powerful qualifier available when drafting legislation & laws which are neutral and serve all people. Changing gendered pronouns he & she and man and woman in critical laws like domestic violence to the neutral ‘they’ and ‘spouse’ or ‘partner’ helps write stronger, balanced laws. It let’s lady justice be truly blind.

Even as people adapt and understand the concepts of gender identity and fluidity in their own time (which is their right) language helps in bringing that understanding and ensuring that adaptability is key. There are many different gender neutral pronouns which are being proposed into the language in today’s world - ze, hir, hirs, e, em, en, co, com, cor. As the world adapts and chooses between these gender-neutral pronouns and neo-pronouns, the simple they /them /theirs meets a wide variety of needs.

Languages adapt and grow to develop the needs of civilisation. It’s critical to keep personal biases and nuances out of mind when reading something. Sometimes taking it at face value is the best option.