Supporting Flexible Pronouns

Posted: 2021-05-15

One of our driving values is for the stories here to be inclusive, so that all Detectives can find something to enjoy. One of the early features we included was the ability for authors to use the Detective's name in the story. That worked well and was a neat customization feature.

Once authors started to use the feature, we realized that names weren't enough. We needed to allow authors to use the Detective's pronouns, too. After all, you can't refer to the Detective by name all the time. Now and then you have to use a pronoun to make the story sound more natural. But which pronouns to use?

Obviously we needed to allow people buying a mystery to tell us the Detective's pronouns. We initially mocked up a he/she/they model, and that's where we got into the issues. It turns out there are a lot of different types of pronouns. There are five types that are what we normally think of when we talk about pronouns for people.

Subject pronouns are the "He said"/"She said"/"They said" sort of usage. They're used to indicate who's doing an action.

Object pronouns are the "The football hit him"/"The football hit her"/"The football hit them" usage. They indicate who the action is happening to.

Then we have possessive adjectives. This is "His arm"/"Her arm"/"Their arm", and shows who the arm belongs to.

Complicating things is then we have possessive pronouns. "The arm is his"/"The arm is hers"/"The arm is theirs" are all examples of posessive pronouns.

Then reflexive pronouns are the "himself"/"herself"/"themself" type of pronouns.

Our goal was to support all of these, plus any custom set of pronouns a Detective felt like being called, in a general way so that authors could write stories that used the Detetive's pronouns without too much additional work.

We settled on a shortcode for authors to use [they] when they wanted to use the author's subject pronoun, with similar shortcodes for the other types of pronouns. We picked they as our shortcode because it was the only one of the standard three types of pronouns that didn't have any duplicates. For example, the male possessive adjective and possessive pronoun are the same.

Then we ran across cases where stories didn't sound quite right. We'd get sentences like "[they] walks toward the house" translated into "They walks toward the house". It sounds fine as "She walks toward the house", but in English a singular they sounds odd. So we added in some features to allow the right verb tense to be generated based on the pronoun.

Once we'd worked through all that, it was pretty easy to allow a buyer to specify any custom pronouns for Detectives. We have presets for the standard three, but if your Detective wants to use another set, you can type those in and we'll use them.

We're sure we haven't gotten it 100% right, but we think we've struck a balance between supporting the pronouns a Detective wants to use, and not complicating authors' lives too much.