The Problem With Pronouns

Here is a story about David and Joann: David ran into Joann at the store. After they talked for a while, he told her that she better finish her shopping, because she’d get in trouble with his roommate if he was late to the party.

Here is a story about David and Jonathan: David ran into Jonathan at the store. After they talked for a while, he told him that he better finish his shopping, because he’d get in trouble with his roommate if he was late to the party.

In the first story, it’s clear who’s doing what. Joann is going to get in trouble with David’s roommate, for instance. In the second story, we have to guess, and there are a bunch of possibilities. If we were careful story tellers, we would make sure to rewrite the second story to avoid these ambiguities.

Here is a story about Chris and Pat, who both avoid gendered pronouns and use “they/them”: Chris ran into Pat at the store. After they talked for a while, they told them that they better finish their shopping, because they’d get in trouble with their roommate if they were late to the party.

Now the story is even more ambiguous. Which pronouns refer to Chris, which to Pat, and which to both of them collectively?

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English’s system of gendered pronouns is biased towards cisgender heterosexual stories: Stories about a man and a woman. Any other combination, and we have to put in extra effort to keep our stories clear.

But we tell stories about two men, or about two women, all the time. Increasingly, some of us tell stories involving two non-binary people that we happen to know. We communicate in this situations. Why should our cishetnormative discussions be simpler than any other story?

Years ago, I constructed parts of an alien language in which the major pronouns were “the current subject” and “the current object.” Using fe/fez for the subject and ge/gez for the object would give us this story: Chris ran into Pat at the store. After they talked for a while, fe told gez that ge better finish ger shopping, because ge’d get in trouble with fer roommate if fe was late to the party.

This was a thought experiment meant to address the inherent problem of English’s pronouns while keeping the clarity. This cishet sexism is shared by related languages, such as French, German, and Spanish, but there are plenty of world languages where there’s no such distinction: The same pronoun is used for everyone.

What intrigued me, though, is that I’m not familiar with any language that uses any other pronoun distinction, such as the one I created, to disambiguate. Mandarin Chinese, for instance, distinguishes gender in writing but not in speech: 他 (he) and 她 (she) are pronounced the same. And while Japanese has a variety of pronouns based on the speaker and the dialect, the standard pronouns for third person don’t differ by the gender of the person being discussed.

Despite this lack of gendered pronouns, though, people communicate just fine in Chinese and Japanese, and in other languages as well.

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The “weak version” of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis says that the parameters of our language shape the parameters of our thoughts: If our language makes a semantic or pragmatic distinction, that distinction is more likely to affect our perspective about the world.

At the same time, distinctions in language come out of the human need to compartmentalize things in our world. We want to distinguish things, and so we give them different names; sometimes we want to group things that are similar, so we give them collective names, like “dog” and “couch” and “birch tree.”

By using gendered pronouns, we are saying that we want to distinguish men and women, more than we want to distinguish any other grouping of people. And by having a lack of a widely accepted gender-free pronoun, we’re saying that our need to distinguish men from women is far more important than our need to sometimes group them together.

That’s a lot to be saying in tiny little words.

In many communities of English-speakers, “they” is becoming increasingly accepted as a generic pronoun for a single person. This usage has been around for centuries, and is widely accepted when we simply don’t know someone’s gender (“The person on the phone, what did they say?”) or are speaking in general (“Every student should bring their textbook to class.”).

But its use either for someone who prefers not to be identified by gender (“Can you give this to Chris? They need it for later.”) or because we just don’t feel the need (“Take this to the clerk at the front desk. They’re waiting for it.”) is still emergent, and its acceptability varies by region and context.

Pronouns aren’t the only place where we reinforce gender perceptions. Strangers call me “sir”; my child’s medical providers call me “dad”; my students call me “Mr.” In the 1970s, there was a push to get rid of words like “mailman” and “fireman,” but we still award Best Actor and Best Actress.

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At this point, you might be thinking: “So what? English groups people by gender, big deal. Even transgender people identify as a man or a woman.”

First of all, not everyone does identify with “man” or “woman.” Many non-binary people reject gender binary identifiers entirely. For my part, I identify as a man more out of habit and the restrictions of my language than anything else. I’d love if I woke up tomorrow speaking a language that doesn’t care about such things.

Beyond that, though, the question can be reversed: Why does it matter so much what gender somebody is? There’s nothing wrong, I suppose, with wanting to mention gender in pronouns if it’s appropriate to a story. But our pronouns don’t mention anything else: We don’t have different pronouns based on race, or hair color, or height, or … absolutely anything else.

Language is a particularly hard habit to break. People who challenge the conventions of language in everyday speech, especially with something as rudimentary as pronouns, can stand out as political rabble-rousers, while people maintaining the status quo go unnoticed.

And, granted, sacrificing clarity in settings that do involve a man and a woman in order to be fair and inclusive is work and breeds resentment.

Again, though, English could survive without gendered pronouns; other languages do fine without them.

Myself, I still speak daily with “he” and “she.” Until I can break that habit myself, I’m not in a position to demand that others do. But my personal goal continues to be, every day, to identify ways in which my gendered language controls my perceptions, and how stepping out of it changes those perceptions.

Originally published on The Good Men Project.

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