Thursday, May 9, 2013

Pronoun Problems (Asides on Self-Loathing and Gender)

This may not be anywhere approaching a verbally speaking Autistic universal, but I have indeed met many others with this feature, and it is fresh in my mind because of last night.  (This was going to be about one topic but the topic led to other asides, so I added the other topics to the title in parentheses.)

Sometimes, although I think I seem to speak fairly fluently, I call myself “you.”

This is different from the idiomatic use of “you” as in “y’all” or “one” to indicate a belief that I have access to everyone else’s feelings or experience.  It is an accidental usage that happens when I am tired or nervous or upset and it causes me to make statements I do not agree with, straight up.

Last night, on the radio, which turned out to be a lot of fun (but I was shockingly nervous about it) I am pretty sure I said something like this: “You need the right partner [to be able to raise kids].”  This is not something I actually believe, at all, especially since I know that Paula, who was there, is a fabulously successful single mother, just for one example.  What I do know and believe is that I need the right partner, and would not have undertaken to have children prior to meeting my Layenie.  Additionally, the question was about me, not “you,” “y’all,” or “one.”  And so.

When I was younger, the “you” substitution happened more frequently, and more catastrophically.  For example, I regularly used to say, in a fight, right before my exit stage left, some rendition of “you’re crazy.”  This is wrong and ableist; and in addition to that, I said it precisely when I was afraid I was going to “lose it” and must therefore leave the scene to avoid being viewed engaging in “S.I.B.” etc.  I was talking about myself.  Back then, I believed my autism to be a kind of mental illness label because it was in the DSM-III.  Maybe it is or was, but anyway, irrelevant.  To me it was okay for me to be ableist and homophobic about myself, because in my own mind, I was not a person, but an alien, so my respect for persons ethics did not apply.  (This history probably contributes to why I am so enormously upset by dehumanizing language and the like, other than the fact that dehumanizing language and the like is heinous.)  Of course, the listener had no way of knowing I was talking about myself.   For all the world, I had just called her crazy or something equally offensive and mean, despite the fact that I have never otherwise assented to wrong-treatment of people with mental illness labels such as using them as if they were a slur, or anything like that.  It would happen in this one type of case.  

Self-loathing is a horrible thing, was for me, made me think nothing of lashing out in ways I can never agree with when I look at them as my full informed self.  I see other people doing this kind of thing and it is heartbreaking so I try to be understanding but it is not always easy but I have to try since I was such a punk.

If you are reading this, any of you to whom I have done this sort of thing, and I have not yet apologized to you, please know that I am very sorry about it, and I hope you now know how much I regret not having been able to treat you better then.  As a kid I was troubled and looking back I think unkind and sometimes even ghastly, and now I am happy and probably still sort of annoying, but I do work hard at being decent.

In the nineties, when it was all the rage, I was able to take advantage of the fad and do a lot of drilling in “I Language,” which helped a lot with this part of the pronoun problem.  But I began to notice it in other people with autism.  Even in simple declaratives, such as Pat telling me I wanted a hot dog.  Of course I did not want a hot dog, as I am vegetarian, but it was easy and natural for me to understand his language and realize that he was not trying to prognosticate about my state of hunger in any way.

Still there are pronoun problems receptively that have not been drilled out, and I do not know how to drill them out, and I will talk about them here now because people who know me well have encountered this, but not everyone will have done.  Also, it occurs to me, this might be a problem for others, and if so, it might be a problem for schoolchildren and thus have bearing on say reading comprehension tests.

When my friends tell me a story with other people in the story, if there are more than two characters, I may get lost in the pronouns.  The proverbial he-said/she-said story is often literally the best I can follow, and if there’s another he or she in the mix, I might stop you and say, hang on, will you tell me this again using everyone’s name and no pronouns?  This might happen even if the story is simple and obvious.  I do not know why.  It may not help if I know all the people.  It sometimes doesn’t even help if the sentences start with the correct person’s name!  I still can get mixed up, and keep stopping your story with confused questions about like, wait-wait, so Jeannie was driving the semi? Hehe no silly, Jeannie is three years old.  Pronouns are not my friend.

There is a bright side to this.  I will use this platform to talk about the bright side because it can also bring awareness of a thing that is intersectional and not everyone may know about.  Grin. 

Some people do not use the pronouns 'he/him' or 'she/her' to refer to themselves.  For example, they might prefer the singular 'they/their'.  There are also a form of pronoun that goes 'ze/zir' and other neologisms related to this.  These exist because of rejecting binary notions of gender.  However, many times, others do not respect people’s right to choose their own ways to identify themselves, which disrespect is uncool, or, and I think this is less uncool, but something I can help with here, they simply are not aware to ask about it, because not everyone has heard of cutting edge things like rejecting the binary.

When you are like me, and you already know you are going to mess up pronouns all over the place, you have a lot of internal latitude to ask over and over, and also, you don’t really mess up people’s personal pronouns that much because you have a verbal habit of using names whenever possible to avoid them.  Grin.  Bright side.

Now I would like to warmly invite other people to share experiences related to pronoun mixups, with self or kids, if any such experiences exist.  I don’t know how usual these problems are.



  1. Very interesting. The problem with using "you" when not directly referring to the person you are talking to is that it's informal so more easy to confuse people. The correct word is "one" but then you sound like the Queen! "One needs to wear one's tiara to State banquets".

    I'm actually quite expert at deciphering mixed hes/shes because of my grandmother. She had a brain tumour and forget everyone's name. During TV programmes she would say "It's him, he was in that thing with her. You know, the one who got divorced. He's got bigger, no not Him, the other one that used to be in the same thing".

    Sometimes, however, one just nods along and pretend that one knows what the heck one's grandmother is talking about! And pray it won't happen to oneself in the future.

    1. One is in love with this comment, not least because one would never have dared to dream that the singularly sparkly word "tiara" would appear on one's blog! Happy dance! xx

  2. When I am anxious, I spout gibberish. Reading this, I realize that some of it is pronoun related. This is a revelation of sorts and it lightens my head to hear it. I never thought to look for patterns in my mashed up anxious patter--but they are there and they are neurological--spoonerisms and malapropisms plus pronoun confusions. Amazing insight! :)

    1. And malapropisms! You are making it a good day! By 'you' I mean you. Grin!!

  3. When you said, last night on the radio, "You need an excellent partner" or whatever your exact wording was, I knew you meant it specific to you and that you were referring to Layenie and that you were saying how wonderful she was, so reading this I was surprised that you hadn't said, "i" because I had inserted the correct pronoun into your sentence upon hearing you, without even realizing it! The other thing is, pronouns are curious and in Buddhism they talk about "no separate self" which is when you become really aware of just how separate we are all trying so desperately to be! Which is kind of funny in a not so funny way. I like feeling connected and my favorite moments are when "you" and "I" are experiencing the same thing together, often silently, which is lovely and special and those are the very best moments in the world! Love this post Ib and I love you!

    1. Wow. I perceived thus the same way ariane did. I "heard" you day "I"

  4. Two things... one "you-substitution" is like calculus! (I'm doing a lot of calculus this term for one of my classes) and secondly, I have a reason for my messing up the "you" vs "I/me" thing. I have a constant stream of "narration" going on inside my head as if I'm narrating a book about my life in first-person, as I'm doing everything. ("I typed quickly, trying to get my thoughts into the comment box...") But sometimes it switches to being an outside narrator, either from 3rd person, or on occasion, the narrator is talking to me, about me. ('she paused in her writing to take a sip of the smoothie she had made, carefully gnawing on the straw and feeling it crinkle")... so quite often, my verbal pronouns get confused.

  5. I tend to mix up I/you/they when I'm talking in abstract or conceptual terms. Not so much when I'm talking in concrete terms. My husband's first language is one in which there are no pronouns and so he still after many years of speaking English will use he and she randomly at times, regardless of the gender of the person he's talking about, especially if the subject and object of a sentence have different genders.

    So pronoun usage in our home can be very entertaining.

    Also, I just moved to an apartment that is across the street from a train station and a train museum. Trains go by all day long! They whistle and rumble by and I swear I'm the only person who happily stands there mesmerized by them while everyone else fumes at the inconvenience of waiting for a 200-car freight train to make its way through the intersection while traffic backs up for miles. I thought you should know this and I'm too lazy to go find somewhere else to tell you about it, so here it is.

  6. I mix up ma'am and sir all the time. I will say "yes sir" to ladies or "yes ma'am" to men. This happens a lot especially when I am nervous. I also don't help my case by not looking at people.

  7. Like you, I notice that my son tends to confound pronouns most when he's tired or upset. For example, at the end of a long day or early in the morning, or during a therapy session, it seems to be the most pronounced. He will also mix-up Mommy and Daddy.

  8. I will often refer to myself as 'you'. I think that I do it mostly when I am trying to explain something to another person (that is, I don't think of myself as 'you' in my head, only when I am speaking out loud)It has caused quite a lot of confusion and strange reactions from people in the past! Because I am aware of it these days, even though I still say you when I mean I, I am quick to correct the error.
    It makes sense to me to say 'you' instead of 'I' when explaining something to someone because I think in pictures and when I am talking about something that I have done I see a picture of myself in my head. But the picture is not of me inside my self but me projected onto a landscape. So then there is the me that is talking and thinking and the separate image of the me that I am talking about. And as you can't really have two 'mes' I think my language centers think of the projected me as a you.
    Make sense?

  9. I don't know if I do this, but I'd be willing to suspect I do, and that it contributes to the problem I have where I give answers that don't make sense and seem dismissive. I never have any memory of what I said, so it's nearly impossible for me to try and go back and analyze to try and figure it out. Definitely happens more when I'm stressed or tired though... Thanks for the insights; definitely worth (metaphorically) chewing on for a while.