Poker, Wikipedia, and the Singular They

Back in October, NPR’s Hidden Brain podcast covered the story of professional poker player Annie Duke, the only woman to compete in the World Series of Poker: Tournament of Champions in 2004.

It’s a fascinating story about her own impostor syndrome, feeling like she didn’t belong at that table, but also how she used gender stereotypes to work in her favor and eventually win the competition.

I love everything about this story. Once you’ve listened to it, I recommend watching the final moments of the game on YouTube.

For another perspective, Wil Wheaton pointed me to Annie Duke’s talk on The Moth, a gripping retelling in her own words of that tournament. It was the first time she’d ever played on television, and the first time anyone could see her hand.

While listening to the NPR story, I went looking for a refresher on the rules of Texas hold ’em, and ended up on this Wikipedia page for betting in Poker.

Immediately, I was struck by the language, which was dominated by male pronouns:

When it is a player’s turn to act, the first verbal declaration or action he takes binds him to his choice of action; this rule prevents a player from changing his action after seeing how other players react to his initial, verbal action.

If he declines to raise, he is said to “check his option.”

If a player borrows money to raise, he forfeits the right to go all-in later in that same hand — if he is re-raised, he ”must” borrow money to call, or fold.

And so on, for over 12,000 words. It felt like it was borrowed from another time, cribbed from a thrift shop poker book from the 1970s.

Because it was Wikipedia, I felt like I could do something about it. So I spent some time making the biggest edit I’ve ever made on Wikipedia: changing every male pronoun to gender-neutral language, sometimes rephrasing as “the player,” but often using the singular they. I tried to be careful about readability, making sure to only use it in cases where it couldn’t be confused with a plural group.

So “a player may fold by surrendering his cards” became “a player may fold by surrendering their cards.”

In the end, it took longer than I’d like to admit — over 160 changes in one big commit.

I saved it, tweeted about it, and promptly forgot about it.

Yesterday, I remembered the change and popped over to Wikipedia to see if it survived.

Unsurprisingly, every change was reverted less than a week later. The user left a reason: “‘they’ is a plural term and inappropriate for an encyclopedia article.”

As it turns out, Wikipedia has its own guidelines about gender-neutral language. The Manual of Style recommends, “Use gender-neutral language where this can be done with clarity and precision. For example, avoid the generic he.”

A Wikipedia essay expands on the guideline, “There is no Wikipedia consensus either for or against the singular they… Although it is widely used in informal writing and speech, its acceptability in formal writing is disputed.”

Fortunately, that’s changing.

The singular “they” is one of the most hotly-debated subjects in exciting world of grammar. Last month, Dennis Baron declared it the “word of the year.”

Just last week, the Washington Post style manual became the latest to accept the pronoun. Bill Walsh, The Post’s copy editor, explains their decision:

There was one change, though, that I knew would cause controversy. For many years, I’ve been rooting for — but stopping short of employing — what is known as the singular they as the only sensible solution to English’s lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun. (Everyone has their own opinion about this.) He once filled that role, but a male default hasn’t been palatable for decades. Using she in a sort of linguistic affirmative action strikes me as patronizing. Alternating he and she is silly, as are he/she, (s)he and attempts at made-up pronouns. The only thing standing in the way of they has been the appearance of incorrectness — the lack of acceptance among educated readers.

What finally pushed me from acceptance to action on gender-neutral pronouns was the increasing visibility of gender-neutral people. The Post has run at least one profile of a person who identifies as neither male nor female and specifically requests they and the like instead of he or she. Trans and genderqueer awareness will raise difficult questions down the road, with some people requesting newly invented or even individually made-up pronouns. The New York Times, which unlike The Post routinely uses the honorifics Mr., Mrs., Miss and Ms., recently used the gender-neutral Mx. at one subject’s request. But simply allowing they for a gender-nonconforming person is a no-brainer. And once we’ve done that, why not allow it for the most awkward of those he or she situations that have troubled us for so many years?

Grammar manuals and copy editors may be slow to adapt to how the rest of the world uses language, but the increasing popularity of “they” reflects an increasingly gender-inclusive culture.

In the meantime, Wikipedia leaves the singular “they” in limbo, neither endorsed nor banned. Most of the arguments seem to boil down to some variation of “it looks ugly.”

But what’s uglier: a mismatch of number or a mismatch of gender? One is mildly irritating, maybe slightly confusing. The other is often insulting and alienating.

Language evolves, and there’s little prescriptivists can do to change it.

Eventually, they’ll have to suck it up, accept the cards on the table, and fold.

Though they’ll inevitably make a lot of noise in the process.