The Grammarphobia Blog

Sexual identity, reflexively speaking

Q: I heard this on the radio: “The candidate now identifies as a transsexual male.” In an age when people can change their sexual identity, it seems the verb “identify” has lost its sexuality by dropping the reflexive pronouns “himself” and “herself.” This may be politically correct, but is it grammatical?

A: Only recently have people begun using “identify as” to mean “think of oneself as.” A cursory search suggests the usage has been around for only a decade or two.

If a sentence like “John identifies as male” sounds odd to some ears, perhaps that’s because it seems to combine other usages that are more familiar: “John identifies (or identifies himself) with males” and “John identifies himself as male.”

When we find “as” with the verb “identify,” we expect to find a reflexive pronoun in between: “John identifies himself as ….”

It’s true, as you note, that “John identifies as … ” is a handy construction for journalists who write about transsexuals. The writer can omit a sex-related pronoun (“himself” or “herself”).

But the phrase “identify as” has become extremely common lately in other kinds of writing about how people perceive themselves—religiously, politically, racially, and so on.

Here are a few examples that cropped up in the news in the last couple of months.

“More Young Americans Identify as Mixed Race” (a headline in the New York Times).

“In 2010, 31% of Americans identified as Democrats,” while at the same time “the percentage identifying as independents increased to 38%” (from a Gallup news release).

“More than half of Hispanics identify as conservative, poll finds” (a headline in the Dallas Morning News).

“Just 250 of the school’s 5,000 students identify as Jewish” (from an article in the Jewish Chronicle).

Writers (or perhaps copy editors) who dislike “identify as” without a reflexive pronoun as an object often use “self-identify as” instead.

Here’s a recent example from the Times: “His current research reveals that the fastest-growing group along the sexuality continuum are men who self-identify as ‘mostly straight’ as opposed to labels like ‘straight,’ ‘gay’ or ‘bisexual.’ ”

This longer usage (“self-identify as”) is much more common in Google than the shorter one, by a rate of about five to one. So in the media at least, people mulling over their identities are more likely to “self-identify as” than to “identify as.”

You ask whether “identify as” is grammatical. Perhaps a more useful question would be whether this is a natural and logical extension of ways in which “identify” has been used up until now.

The verb “identify,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, entered English in the early 1600s, when it meant “to regard or treat as identical.” It was originally used with an object—that is, transitively.

“Identify” is still used in its original sense. Here’s an OED citation from William James’s Pragmatism (1907): “One misunderstanding of pragmatism is to identify it with positivistic tough-mindedness.”

In the 1700s, the OED says, the verb came to be used in a newer sense: “to model oneself on, now esp. unconsciously; to feel oneself to be, or to become, closely associated with or part of.” And again, the verb was transitive.

Here’s a recent citation: “Cleopatra deliberately identified herself with Isis, and called herself the New Isis” (from Michael and Veronica Haag’s The Rough Guide to the Da Vinci Code, 2004).

But in the last half-century, the verb in this sense has also been used without an object—that is, intransitively. In this case, says the OED, the object is “unspecified or implied by the context.” Here are a few citations.

1959: “An engaging series of attempts and failures to ‘identify,’ as cricket-master at a prep school, or as a journalist on a go-getting daily” (from The Listener, a former BBC publication).

1968: “Finally Tina came on and tore the joint up. She signified, the women identified and the men just drooled” (from a review in Blues Unlimited, a British music magazine).

2008: “Up to your ears in debt? Broke? Here I can really identify. I grew up broke” (from Howard J. Ruff’s How to Prosper During the Coming Bad Years).

Notice how the use of the verb has expanded over the years.

It’s important to know that only recently has the intransitive “identify with” (as in “He identifies with Italians”) become acceptable to lexicographers. What’s left out is the object (“himself”). 

For many years, critics of that usage were bothered by the fact that “identify” was used without an object in the form of a reflexive pronoun.

But today, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), “this use of identify with without the reflexive has become standard.”

The dictionary says 82 percent of its Usage Panel accepts the sentence “I find it hard to identify with any of his characters.”

In our opinion it’s a very short grammatical jump from sentences like “He identifies with Italians” and “When he’s with Italians, he can identify” to one like “He identifies as Italian.”

Language changes, and we can identify with that.

Check out our books about the English language