I’m back from a crazy month of writing 1667 words each day. The NaNoWriMo journey is over for another year, but the story is only half-written. Looks like I’ve got plenty more words to write in that book. It’s been fun. And exhausting. And now it’s over.
As promised, I’ll talk about pronouns this week. I’m specifically limiting this to English. Other languages have different problems and different solutions (try finding a gender-neutral pronoun in French for example).
One of the most annoying problems that gender-nonconforming and non-binary-gender people face in everyday life is the simple fact that it is nearly impossible for them to even exist in spoken and written language. If someone is not “he” and also not “she”, the entirely valid question is what pronouns do you use?
It’s a question without a satisfactory solution just at the moment.
As society starts to adjust to a reality in which a person’s gender may not be obvious from a two-second glance, it will need to adopt some new pronouns to address such people. Right at the beginning, I will mention that it is never, ever, alright to call a human being “it”. In English, we have three main third-person pronouns: he, she and it. The first two refer to people with obvious gender, the third has no gender, but “it” refers to objects, to things and not to people. People are not things and it is dehumanising to call anybody “it”. Just don’t do it.
I’ll also point out that, if you need to address a person by a pronoun and you don’t know which to use, it is OK to ask. If you have asked, you are then bound by decency to respect the person’s reply, even if they tell you that they prefer a pronoun that you have never heard of before. It can sound a little weird, but you’ll get over it, I’m sure.
Did you see what I did in that paragraph? I used a gender-neutral pronoun and you never even noticed it. The singular “they” has been around for centuries and, in certain places, is a completely natural part of the language. In other places, it can feel a bit like you’re referring to a single person in the plural. My only advice is “get over it”, because respecting the person you are talking about is only decent.
In addition to “they”, there are many other pronouns that have been manufactured to cover non-binary and ambiguous situations. Like most manufactured words, they can sound a little odd when you first hear them. Over time, the language will evolve and a winner will emerge. For now, the selection is quite dizzying…
nonbinary.org lists 80 sets of pronouns; Wikipedia lists 15. As I said, when in doubt, it is more polite to ask than to assume.
Whilst thinking about this, an additional complication came to mind and that is ambiguity (it’s over there, in a box).
If I know that the person I am talking about prefers the gender-neutral Spivak pronouns, I can refer to them by saying E’s over there. Before I know Eir gender, however, I am faced with the ambiguous situation. I could simply use Spivak in this case as well, but that ends up conflating an unknown gender with an explicitly non-binary gender, and may well imply that I’m only referring to Em as E until E makes Eir mind up, as if E doesn’t know Eir own gender.
So we end up even deeper in the doodoo because English is pants.
We need more pronouns, clearly. For now, I’m going to state merely four options, but there are probably more unless we just abandon gendered pronouns completely and revert to a non-offensive version of “it” for all people.
Explicitly feminine: she, her, hers.
Explicitly masculine: he, him, his.
Explicitly non-binary: you’re better off asking
Explicitly unknown: there are no English pronouns covering this remarkably common situation.
Having written all this, I find myself reaching the inevitable conclusion that it would be simpler just to settle on a single set of pronouns for all people that refer to “a person” in the same way that “it” refers to “an object”.
UPDATE: It seems that the BBC was thinking the same thoughts I was: Beyond ‘he’ and ‘she’: The rise of non-binary pronouns