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Facebook 'gender policy' has grammar in mind

After years of grammatical "themself" limbo, social network decides to request that its members specify whether they're male or female, still letting transgendered individuals opt out.

A blog post from Facebook product manager Naomi Gleit early on Friday announced an update to the site that initially may seem extremely minor: after years of using the grammatically abhorrent reflexive pronoun "themself" to describe actions in members' activity feeds (i.e. "Dwight Schrute tagged themself in the album 'Booze Cruise '08'"), the social network will be using the proper "himself" and "herself" instead.

My initial reaction to the announcement: big deal. Sounds like someone high up at Facebook was guilt-tripped into making the change by a finicky former English teacher.

But in choosing to put out a press release for something so seemingly minor, Facebook's team clearly understands that this is a change to the site that could prove sensitive for some. Members who haven't already will now be asked to specify a gender, for the purpose of refining the wording in News Feed and Mini-Feed stories.

The reason behind the change, besides from placating the grammarphiles of the world, is the fact that many international languages rely much more heavily on gender-related syntax.

"We've gotten feedback from translators and users in other countries that translations wind up being too confusing when people have not specified a sex on their profiles," according to Gleit's post. "People who haven't selected what sex they are frequently get defaulted to the wrong sex entirely in Mini-Feed stories."

The complication, however, may arise from transgendered members of the site who don't identify with traditional gender assignments. That's why, it appears, they will be able to manually opt out of the "himself/herself" classification. It'll take an extra step in the process, but it will still be possible.

"We've received pushback in the past from groups that find the male-female distinction too limiting," Gleit's post explained. "We have a lot of respect for these communities, which is why it will still be possible to remove gender entirely from your account."