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Beyond Grammar: Pesky pronouns – they

A man I know has his knickers in a twist over pronouns. He is concerned that people will be fined for using the wrong pronoun, and his nephew goes so far as to say that “political correctness,” as exemplified in a discussion about pronouns, is a “cancer on society.” It’s all balled up with freedom of speech, religion, politics, family, patriotism, the lot.

Another man I know has placed an automatic addendum at the end of all his emails, “My pronouns are he, his, and him.” He has a transgendered daughter, and is sensitive to the issue. That would drive the man in the first paragraph crazy, and his nephew would lay an egg.

So let’s take a look at they.

The pronoun you is used in both the singular and plural. If I say “You are going,” it is not clear whether one person is going, or a group of people is going. We manage that fine (and the evolution of you would make for fine reading).

They has also been used for centuries in both the singular and plural. One source opines that the singular they has been in use for 600 years, and this usage is stoutly defended by linguist Steven Pinker and a host of other scholars. Bill Walsh, a copy editor on The Washington Post explained that the singular they is “the only sensible solution to English’s lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun.” It is used in situations where gender is irrelevant or unknown: “Everyone wants their cat to succeed,” or “Someone came through the door, but I don’t know who they were.” If you watch and listen, you’ll hear they used in the singular all the time. The new usage is also gender-neutral and third-person, but the object under discussion is different; no Americans alive today have lived in a world where publicly declared gender was not binary.

Most European languages assign gender to objects as well as people; table is feminine in French, Italian, and Spanish, but masculine in German. The Romance languages, have gendered theys; English does not. In English, a group of women is they, and so is a group of men. German and modern Greek have gender-neutral pronouns. This analysis only covers a fraction of the languages that exist in the world. There is no universally correct way to manage pronouns.

The they that is irking the man in the first paragraph is the one that refers to the character Taylor on the television series Billions. Taylor is a person of indeterminate gender, and is referred to as they or them as in the sentence, “They are here with us today, and without them we would not have been successful.” This does not come trippingly to the tongue. In our culture, gender has always been an indispensable identifier, and ignoring it feels strange in the gut. The question “Is it a girl or a boy?” is being rendered moot. The singular they, as used when referring to Taylor, asks us to live in a genderless world. This challenges our religious, moral, sexual, familial, and legislative traditions, and it’s going take time for the linguistic ramifications of this new cultural vision to play out.

I have read of indigenous tribal societies where certain individuals have a unique status as inter-gender, or cross-gender. I don’t know the details of this phenomenon, but can say that western literature has no classic protagonists who are not gendered (if you can think of an example, please speak up). There are charming cross-dressers in Shakespeare, but they are only kidding, and eventually a clear gender identity is revealed.

For the two men in paragraph one, life without gender is going a step too far. They feel coerced, stuck, and under attack. Their beliefs and experience cannot access genderless expression.

New York city has attempted to deal with the issue by passing a law which, under certain strict circumstances, can result in a fine being imposed on a person who refuses to use the pronoun of choice, which might be they, or Ze, Zie, Sie, hirs, zers, zirs/zes, ey, ve, tey, e—the list would be longer if all forms of each pronoun were included. The spirit of the law, as I understand it, is that if a person decides to change or modify their gender identity, that decision must be acknowledged linguistically. I am disappointed that New York is so quickly turning to legislation to resolve this issue. Nobody knows how quickly, if ever, the man in paragraph one will adapt to a genderless world, and what innovations he might contribute to the linguistic adaptation to it.

Big cultural changes are afoot, and they are jarring to everyone. They are mirrored in changes in language use. A few years ago the term “gay marriage” had virtually no meaning because it didn’t exist. Fifty years ago the word “gay” didn’t mean “homosexual,” it meant “merry.” In my lifetime, ‘Miss” and “Mrs.” became the ambiguous “Ms.” That took me off guard, but I adjusted. I also thought that the ban on smoking in the workplace would never work because how would habitual smokers survive eight or nine hours without a cigarette?

Patience, forbearance, understanding, forgiveness, and careful consideration are required as we sort it all out. The man in paragraph two never expected to be raising a transgendered girl, and is dealing with it deftly. I am still mulling over the gender significance of the fact that Taylor, on Billions, had intimate relations with a man. Gender has been disambiguated from sexual preference, so not only do I not know how Taylor is configured physically, and whether that configuration is surgically, medically, or naturally created, but I also don’t know what Taylor’s gender identity is. They is/are not asexual, that’s all the viewer knows

As Voltaire wrote, when the world around him became too contradictory, illusory, and dangerous, On doit cultiver son jardin, translated in Bernstein’s operetta Candide, roughly, as Make our garden grow. I will try to be kind to traditionally gendered, transgendered, ungendered, mid-gendered, and otherwise gendered people, fluid and otherwise, and will also try to be kind to those who look at it all and say, “What the hell is happening?” The world is no less or more confusing and challenging than it was in Voltaire’s day, and we still have to try to make it bloom. Major changes in language use are reliable signals that something deep is going on.