02 August 2010

Mrs., Miss, and Ms.; or, being a woman is linguistically annoying

(Our first co-blogged post! Courtney brings the swearing and Adrienne the cute swear euphemisms!)

I didn't even know that the Queen's English Society was a thing. Did you? Apparently, English needs to be pontificated about by self-nominated pompous people. Not too long ago, this QES decided that Ms. (pronounced miz) is "bad English." For a number of stupid reasons, outlined well by Motivated Grammar:
The QES’s complaints are petty, insane, or both. Case in point: they’d like to see Ms. abolished. Why?
  1. It’s an abbreviation, but it has no long form.
  2. It’s “unpronounceable” since it lacks a vowel.
  3. It was created by “certain” women who “suddenly became sensitive about revealing their marital status.”
 Regarding point 1, this is matter of being beholden to word labels. It reminds me of an objection I once received to preposition stranding; “preposition” suggests “in a position before”, and therefore a preposition at the end of a sentence, where it doesn’t precede anything, must be incorrect.

So it goes with abbreviations; if you want to be literal, an abbreviation is an abbreviated form of something. But Ms. doesn’t need to be a literal abbreviation to exist. It does exist, as anyone can plainly see. If it’s not an abbreviation, that doesn’t stop it existing any more than a mannequin not being human stops it existing. 

Ms. isn’t an abbreviation, but rather a blend. It’s a combination of the two words Miss and Mrs., and it happens to inherit the closing period of the abbreviation Mrs., making it superficially resemble an abbreviation. That’s all.

And if we’re doing an abbreviation witch-hunt, what is Mrs. short for? Missus, one might say, but that isn’t really a word of its own as much as a spelling of the pronunciation of Mrs. Etymologically, Mrs. is an abbreviation of mistress, but the meaning of that word has changed sufficiently that you’d be stirring up a good deal of trouble if you called someone’s wife a “mistress”. I would argue that in modern English Mrs. itself is no longer an abbreviation, but a fully independent lexical item, much like Ms. 

Regarding point 2, well, we all manage to pronounce Ms. pretty well for the lack of a vowel supposedly rendering it unpronounceable. How do we do it? Technically speaking, the standard pronunciation of Ms. doesn’t have a vowel. We were told in school that all words need to have vowels, since each syllable has to have a vowel, but that’s not quite right. Some consonants can function as the nucleus of a syllable, just like a vowel. This is more apparent in some non-English languages, such as Berber or Slavic languages. For instance, in Czech or Slovak, you can apparently tell someone to stick their finger through their throat by saying Strč prst skrz krk (audio), a sentence where every word has a nucleic r in lieu of a vowel.

English does this, too, albeit more rarely. We often reduce and down to a syllabic [n] or [ŋ] between words (as in the restaurants Eat ‘n Park or In-N-Out), and word-final [l] and [r] are sometimes syllabic as well (as in bottle [boɾl] or pepper [pepr]). As you might have guessed, [z] is another syllabic consonant, which explains how we are able to pronounce [mz] as a stand-alone word.

Again, I don’t mean to demonize Mrs., but if we’re getting rid of vowel-less words, wouldn’t we have to get rid of it, too? Mrs. lacks a vowel orthographically, and has to trade its r for two [ɪ]s and an extra [z] just to get pronounced (as [mɪzɪz])! Now that’s unpronounceable!
On the first two points, Gabe is right on. Neither of these excuses to abolish Ms. make any damn sense linguistically, and frankly, if you are in a society dedicated to a particular language, you should know better. But that's kind of the point, and one Gabe seems to miss a little bit. He goes on to argue that Ms. "isn’t some recent feminist invention," but merely a convenient solution to etiquette. As if it being a recent feminist invention would mean that the QES was right. Because feminists never have any good ideas, and the older something is the better.

But pretty much all linguistic criticisms, especially ones that want so much to argue that some linguistic device isn't logical or doesn't make sense, are political. A good example of this is something I hear an awful lot, which is the "logical" argument against double negatives. Double negatives, according to this argument, don't make sense, because they cancel each other out. This argument makes zero sense, because when a person says, that don't/doesn't make no sense, everyone knows that they don't mean that sentence positively. Most understand that it's actually a way to emphasize the negative quality of the sentence. That doesn't make sense is less emphatic than that don't/doesn't make no sense. There is no "canceling out" effect. Double negatives used to be a part of mainstream English dialects (Shakespeare used them!), and the only reason they are denigrated so much now is because they are only used in marginalized dialects, like African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and Chicano English. Which means that arguments against double negatives are arguments saying that racially-based marginalized dialects are linguistically inferior. This shit is always, always political.

Which means that the whole point of the QES's argument is to force women to use Mrs. and Miss, and thus place them in a system in which a woman is judged by whether a man has found her worthy enough to grace her with his name. Even when one wants to use Ms. to step outside of this system, some people either won't accept it or habitually "forget." The QES has a quaint notion that creating a title for the unmarried single male makes sense and would answer the confusion and issue surrounding Ms. Gabe is very polite calling this an "inferior solution," but let's take a slightly stronger (oh yes, some of you will read this as bitchier) position. This is straight up a pile of crappola. Men are not judged like women are judged on the status of their romantic entanglements. In an interview, Mrs. matters. A woman's title can impact how she is treated, respected, and hired. Currently, one of the only ways out of this conundrum is for a woman to receive a title that replaces Ms., Miss, or Mrs., like Dr. And how shitty is it that only the privileged get this option. We're lucky. And yet, there is still pressure with the use of Ms. and Dr. to box women back into those societal labels of single or married (worthless or worthy).

I (Adrienne) have had a couple of uncomfortable experiences with titles as a teacher at a university. Frequently students call me Dr., and I explain that I am not a doctor yet and would prefer to be called Ms. I accept Professor because... well I profess, and students sometimes feel more comfortable with this designation. I don't go by my first name because as a fairly informal teacher and a young woman, I am already walking a fine line trying to be comfortable, fun, and me in the classroom while still having authority and respect. More frequently, students call me Mrs. Yes, this is a pet peeve of mine. I'm not married, nor do I want to be married. And my marital status isn't important or any of their business. After picking up quizzes one day in a class a few years ago, I realized that more than half of the students had married me off on their papers. After picking up the papers, I announce that I'm not Mrs. and should be addressed as Ms. In response, a male student leered at me and asked "Does that mean you're single?"... Speechless, my face must have portrayed enough of the anger and disgust I was feeling because he immediately started apologizing. Thank you very much for trying to fit me tightly back into the category as clearly either available to men or not available to men. (And him specifically. Gross.) And thank you for refusing to give me respect or authority because I'm a sexual object.

This is personal. And it is political. And QES and Gabe should recognize that. It impacts our lives. Forcing women to wear Miss and Mrs. is always an attempt to undermine their authority. Female professors, especially young ones without doctorates, feel this acutely. I'm sure lots of other women in many different positions feel this too. Pretending we are living in a non-sexist culture that only has problems with confusion about language and status is damaging.

Feel free to share your Ms./Mrs./Miss/Doctor stories in the comments!


Gayle Force said...

My mother, who is a staunch feminist, will STERNLY correct anyone who refers to her as Mrs. Even though she is married. I have been taught to love Ms. from a very young age, and I still think, when I write out my name with a Ms., it is very pretty. Mrs. is too boxy, and Miss, the s's trip on themselves.

You know what makes no damn sense? Deciding to abolish the one term that can apply to every woman, instead arguing that there should be two terms, forcing all English speakers to then awkwardly and uncomfortably guess and giving them a 50% chance of being wrong every time. And maybe annoying people with their assumptions. Get rid of the shortest, most applicable term? CLEARLY.

Grammar is very political, and it's a really passionate topic for me. Thank you for this post.

Nuclear Rainbow said...

It is so handy that in Dutch we only use 'mevrouw' for addressing a woman. There used to be another term for an unmarried women (mejuffrouw), but that is not used any more.
English does always leave me confused in this though, but I guess that Ms. is not only a political statement, but also the safe way to go if you don't know how the woman wants to be addressed.


MsLaurie said...

I used to work for the Australian Government, and when answering letters from the public we were instructed that where the name indicated 'female', and they had not indicated a preferred title, [or indicated in their letter that they were a) married, and b) elderl] we should ALWAYS use Ms. As of several years ago, it is the official 'feminine default'.

I'm married, and took my husband's surname, but insist on Ms. If he doesn't need to reveal his marital status via title, neither do I!

LeeboZeebo said...

I don't know that my wife has ever dealt with any title issues aside from the constant assumption from everyone that she has taken my name and the shock and dubiousness we are met with when people find out she hasn't - mild annoyance with her for not sticking with tradition and a loss of respect for me because I guess I didn't stress the importance of it, as though my masculinity is somehow tied into forcing a new name on my wife.

But, this article did remind me of an interesting cultural difference I encountered a while back. I was engaged to be married at the same time as one of the graduate assistants in my office. She's Pakistani, and we were comparing marriage traditions of our cultures one afternoon, and she pointed out that I wasn't wearing any kind of a ring. "Why doesn't your fiancee mark you?" she asked me. It was an interesting question that immediately brought to my mind yet another of the double standards most people don't even think about on a daily basis, or just accept at face value. My wife walked around with a ring that to most people simply means "owned." I had nothing, which kind of implied "owner."

We bought my wedding ring online that afternoon, but to this day I now feel weird about the entire "rings" concept.

fizzysister said...

Great post! I too stumbled across the QES recently, and was horrified. Their approach to language seems to (intentionally?) further marginalise already marginalised groups of people. Their pontifications on the use of the word 'gender' and on 'political correctness' are particularly offensive. It's frustrating that Gabe's response to them also ends up framing the Ms issue as a matter of etiquette rather than politics.

I used Ms for several years until I got my doctorate a year or so ago. I initially relished being able to use a gender-neutral, marital-status-independent honourific, without having to argue about it (I have a piece of paper to prove I'm a Dr, never had one to prove I was Ms). However, I'm becoming less keen precisely because it's not available to everyone and it somehow confers a kind of social superiority with which I am quite uncomfortable. Also, it just allows me to neatly side-step the issue, whereas I'd rather engage with people and explain why I'm not Miss and will never be Mrs.

PS. Hi! I've been reading your excellent blog for a while but this is my first comment.

Adrienne said...

Interesting and excellent responses. Thanks for thoughts and insights. And welcome fizzysister! Glad to see you commenting.

R.B. said...

I would bet that the main people arguing about the abolition of 'Ms.' are people unlabeled by marital status, i.e., dudez.

Kara said...

I've no stories to share, for I've generally avoided being called by any title at all, even when I was married.

I'm really pleased to see this post though. I remember, when I first read that Motivated Grammar article, my thought was, "They failed to address the fact that women are often judged based on their marital status, when using either 'Miss' or 'Mrs."

And Adrienne, I really feel for you on the experience with the student. I can't number how many times I wore my wedding ring, even after I was divorced, because I was tired of having guys look at me like a piece of tasty beef.

Orange said...

Another married Ms. here.

My household's charitable donations are made in my name alone because there's no "Mr. and Ms." option in the title pull-down menu in only donation forms.

My son's fourth-grade English homework once included a worksheet demanding that he expand "Mrs." They were taught—seriously! in liberal Chicago! in 2010!—that it's an abbreviation for "mistress." I told him, of course, that that was bullshit, that "missus" is a better fit, and that nobody expands the damn abbreviation anymore anyway.

Michael said...

The QES are the fustiest of fusty ol' fuddy-duddies and are totally not officially in charge of British (or any other kind of) English. They are self-appointed numptied with a very false sense of massive superiority. They should be ignored with extreme prejudice apart from instances like this where they should be called out and castigated for the misogynistic morons they are.

Courtney said...

Thanks Mike! I edited the post for accuracy.

Treehouse said...

I'm a housewife, so I get this all the time. I prefer Ms because it helps me keep my autonomy. I may clean but I'm not a vacuum- that's how I explain it to most people.

Great read- thanks!