Can We Start Killing Gender-Specific Pronouns?

All Genders Matter

I come at the gender-pronoun question from the opposite perspective of most people — but especially social conservatives. Ever since I started writing, I have hated gender-specific pronouns. But for a long time, I resisted the use of the plurals “they” and “them.”

For some time, I was very fond of “it.” It says a lot about me that I thought “him” and “her” could easily be replaced with “it.” My friends thought I was crazy. But why? I don’t mind being referred to as “it.” If all humans were referred to as “it,” there would be no stigma. Yes, I am weird. But after a few years, I realized this fact about myself and gave up on the idea.[1]

Back at the start of 2016, I gave up on solving the gender neuter problem in what I considered an appropriate way. I accepted the plurals as the best option. But to be clear: the issue remained contentious.

And then transgender issues made it to the mainstream of discussion.

Transgender “They” and “Them”

I noticed that a lot of transgender people — especially non-binary people — used “they” and “them” as pronouns. For me, this has been like manna raining down from the heaven where all grammar inadequacies and contradictions are solved. “Yes!” I said to myself. “Let us all act as non-binary people! Let’s destroy gender-specific pronouns for good!”

Let’s start the party!

Transgender People Are Not a Monolith

But there is a problem. There are a lot of transgender people who identify with the opposite gender as their sex.[2] And many of these people would like society to acknowledge their gender just as most cis people do.

We can’t dismiss this desire. Sure, in a perfect world, there would be no need. “We are all individuals!” But I fear we are a good deal further from that world than most liberals would like to think.

What’s more, it doesn’t really matter. There are plenty of pretend alpha males who live in terror of their true selves ever being made public.[3] Who am I to say that they aren’t deserving of society’s reinforcement of their identities? I’m not going to misgender someone even if they take pride in misgendering others.

Toward Gender Neutrality in Grammar

My concern is about grammar and finding language that is accurate. So there’s never a problem saying, “Annette Hanshaw came to sing, and she was great.” But I would like to move toward a language that didn’t include gender — where the standard was, “Annette Hanshaw came to sing, and they were great.”[4]

As a result, I think those who feel comfortable should forsake gendered pronouns. So please: use “they” and “them” for me. But don’t do it because my gender is indeterminate or fluid. I reside very comfortably in the male gender category. This is an opportunity to simplify the language. And I’m always keen on that.[5]

[1] Given the way that many treat transgender people, I can well imagine some awful people using “it” in an effort to dehumanize those in the transgender community. So there is another reason not to use “it.”

[2] I understand that sex is a complicated subject. Forgive me for simplifying there.

[3] I don’t mean to imply anything specific here. However, it has long been my contention that bisexuality among men is far more common than normally believed.

[4] If we ever reach the point where the plural pronouns are default, I might want to discuss getting rid of the plural verb. “Annette Hanshaw came to sing, and they was great.” For now, it sounds odd and grammar needs to change slowly.

[5] Note there are cases where having gender is helpful. For example, when writing about a man and a woman, you can use gendered pronouns throughout without having to use names or descriptions for clarity. But this is a very small advantage that does not begin to compare to the advantages of gender-neutral language. What’s more, even the most barely competent writer can easily solve any problems that come up because of a lack of gendered pronouns.

Trans Solidarity Rally and March 55401 by Ted Eytan licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

12 thoughts on “Can We Start Killing Gender-Specific Pronouns?

    • Well… I like it more than what it was a response to. But yes: I really do like simplicity. It’s funny that Orwell lampooned the idea of a grammar that would allow certain thoughts unthinkable. Yet Orwell was well aware that simplifying language allowed us to see reality more clearly. Language is often used — especially by the powerful — to obscure what’s really going on. But truly, my concern is more personal and practical: there’s just too much to remember in English!

  1. All changes in language resulting from changing social norms sound/read odd at first. I’m old enough to remember when the suffix “man” was being debated (as in fireman, postman, etc.) Oh, the wailing and gnashing of teeth by conservatives about “political correctness!” Limbaugh types used “postperson” as an example of how stupid thoughtful language is.

    They were right — “postperson” is stupid — which is why we say “postal worker” or “postal employee” instead, and it works just fine. “Firefighter” sounds perfectly natural now. We can even do it in crime! “Assassin” instead of “hitman.”

    Point being, English speakers/users will eventually iron this out, and we’ll wonder why anybody cared — except from a literary standpoint, which is important.

    What I’m personally for is making derogatory nouns nongengered. The English are ahead of us on this; calling somebody “a right c**t” is totally understood to be gender-neutral. Whereas we still save that word for women, along with “bitch” (which when applied to men has an unfortunate prison-rape connotation).

    Free our cusswords! Any rich person who complains about not getting five-star treatment is a bitch, regardless of gender. I make sure and call people assholes equally (we all have them), and if someone is acting stronger than jerk, “being a total dick” is always appropriate.

    • “which is why we say “postal worker” or “postal employee” instead, and it works just fine”

      Uhh… but it doesn’t you know. Not at all. “Postman” means the person who delivers the mail. “Postal worker” or “postal employee” are generic and non-descriptive. “Postperson” sounds like some science fictional evolved mutant and so we now have no approved word for that function (so we keep on saying “Postman” if we have any sense). Language isn’t always something that can be bent to suit a particular agenda, and that’s a good thing.

      • Well, we’ll have to agree to disagree on “postal worker” sounding wrong (or “firefighter,” “police officer”, etc), but I do find the word “postperson” ridiculous.

        Sci-fi mutant is a very good interpretation. The first one that came to my mind was an overly cautious funeral home director. “Now that James is a postperson” instead of “dead.”

      • @James Fillmore
        I didn’t say that “postal worker” sounds wrong. In fact, that term was in use well before the PC language police came along. But it describes someone who works for the Post Office in any capacity, whereas “Postman/Mailman” describes someone who personally delivers mail to your house, along with all the historical and emotional associations evoked by that role. “Firefighter/Fireman” on the other hand, are equivalent. In fact you could argue that “firefighter” is a functional improvement, as “fireman” can also refer to other roles such as the stoker on a locomotive.

        Eliminating a word that describes a specific job is one more small impoverishment of our rich magpie of a language, and for no reasonable purpose as far as I’m concerned (I’m still irate over “niggardly”, a wonderfully evocative word now proscribed on the grounds that a person’s ignorance of language might cause them hurt feelings).

        • The problem with “niggardly” isn’t political correctness run amok — it’s that the word is a synonym for “cheap and untrustworthy” which relies solely on its meaning by implying black people epitomize those traits. It’s similar to saying that when buying a used car or whatever you “Jewed him down to $10,000.”

          If we care at all about the words we use — and it sounds like you do — we should try our best to avoid words that have no basis beyond horrific ethnic stereotypes.

          A simple question to ask when choosing a word is “would you say it to a supervisor whose very humanity that word insults?” If not, don’t use it, ever.

          Incidentally, I have used a variation of the N-word to a black supervisor when describing a situation that was outside work, he agreed with me about the situation and asked me to never use that word again. So I never have.

          Gave me a shining recommendation for my next job, too, very forgiving man. Of course, my being his most reliable employee didn’t hurt — but that didn’t matter when he gave me a recommendation for a job 1500 miles away.

          • James – What are you even talking about? “Niggardly” has nothing whatsoever to do with “negro”. Completely different etymology. A “niggard” is someone who is grudging and petty about giving or spending. Maybe you could insult a Jew with that description, but a black? Wrong stereotype. In fact though, it really brings to mind someone who looks Northern European, since the root and common usage are both Nordic.

            And of course this is PC run amok – more than one hapless sap has actually lost their job over this completely innocent piece of verbiage. There was a local instance in DC while I was living there a few years back. Prior to that it had never occurred to me that that particular word might be used to gin up outrage. You really have to be stretching to go after partial homonyms.

            I was wrong about “postman” being essential though. There’s “mail carrier”, though that doesn’t have quite the same ambience to my ear.

            • My 1943 Webster’s Dictionary says you’re correct about the word’s derivation & meaning (it also has really awful words elsewhere like “octaroon”), so I’m sure you’re correct.

              Stiil, I’m not using to use it, too much potential for confusion. And not using it doesn’t harm me in the slightest — I have a much harder time giving up “cheap-ass motherf****r” when I’m around the elderly, because I love that phrase! I avoid it anyway, better not to shock The Olds.

        • The “PC language police” did not come along. People have been pushing language in various ways since it first appeared.

          And the word “niggardly” is not proscribed. You’re talking nonsense to push this idea that we are under assault from the PC police and the SJWs. Are there idiots in the world? Sure. Is it a big problem? Not when it comes to language.

      • > Language isn’t always something that can be bent to suit a particular agenda, and that’s a good thing.

        I think this is wrong. Language is always bent to suit a particular agenda. It’s just a question of who has the power.

    • I think the reason conservatives get so worked up about this stuff is that they have very little to talk about. And this is why when non-conservatives pander to these complaints, they are doing great harm. They are allowing minor issues to become big so that we spend far more time discussing them than really important issues. The truth is, I almost never hear people calling for more inclusive language. What I hear are conservatives complaining about people calling for more inclusive language.

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