Stray Thoughts About Pronouns

Note: I’m posting this stray thought as I prepare for this year’s BayCon, the science fiction convention I have been going to in various roles for more years than I can count. This essay was prompted by the article in last week’s interesting links. I don’t want to forget to pick up the convenient ribbons at the info desk for displaying your preferred pronouns (assuming they have them this year as they did before). It’s a step in the right direction, and a declaration of where I want to be going forward.

BayCon 2019 banner

So, pronouns.

I ask that you read the whole post before reacting simply because this is a ponder and takes you through my thought process. At times where I’m headed may seem obvious, and yet it might be the opposite of what you think. I’d love to hear your thoughts at the end because I am not a finished work. No one has written “the end” on my perceptions or positions, especially not me. To do so would be to assume I had access to all the available information, and I’m far from all-knowing. An open mind doesn’t mean I don’t make decisions along the way. It means I decide based on the what I know at the time, aware that new information may show those positions misguided. Life is a growth process and involves much more than just growing older. This is the point behind stray thoughts as they often involve processing new information or old information seen in a new light. How boring life would be if at an arbitrary age we reach the end of this exploration and know all we can ever know.

They’ve become a common, and sometimes contentious, discussion point in these modern times, but don’t mistake awareness with importance. Humans understand our world in part through the labels we assign. The unknown is locked down into clear relationships this way so it becomes known rather than unknowable. The trouble is just as labels help us grasp the complexities of life, they also establish comfortable boxes and make what cannot fit in those boxes strange, alien, and disturbing. Maybe this helped early humans survive because they didn’t automatically assume a plant was edible because other plants were, for example. As our sophistication has grown, however, instead of making bigger boxes, we’ve spent centuries refining those definitions until the smallest variation becomes a cause for alarm.

I turn to the pronoun “they” for an example directly relevant to this ponder.

Are you one of the lucky few who has escaped hearing the argument: “‘They’ cannot be used as a singular pronoun!”? I most certainly have not. It’s been one of the underlying conflicts in my linguist development in part because I started out learning English largely from British teachers. Not only are there written examples of the singular “they” dating to the 1500s or earlier, but it’s actively used in both British and American English.

The split occurs in common language, though. One rarely says, “They made their way to the grocery store,” in the United States when referring to an individual though it’s a correct usage. The singular “they” and “their” exists in American English in formal language where the “solution” to gender inclusiveness (feel free to chuckle here) is an awkward typographical object: “he/she.” “They” is a long established way to state “a person of unknown gender” and covers the whole gender spectrum rather than defaulting to “he.”

So, where “One cannot hold his principles too firmly,” clearly excludes anyone of the female persuasion, “One cannot hold their principles too firmly,” opens the statement to any person with principles. Who talks about principles, though? Either of the above sentences would turn heads if stated on a busy street. Americans just don’t talk that way in casual conversation no matter what part of the country you’re in, or so I’ve observed. And the people who don’t speak to Congress on a regular basis, for example, may never have used formal phrasing.

It’s the last that leads us to the belief “they” is never used in a singular context. Yes, it should be obvious which side of the question I fall on. I found the “his/her” construction awkward, visually disruptive, and longer than the singular “they.” There’s also the layer where the choice becomes a political statement, dividing readers and distracting from the meaning the sentence is trying to convey. Someone saying, “Americans, men and women, are…” would distract rather than referring to Americans (plural) as “they” because everyone knows Americans come in all shapes, sizes, nationalities, and genders.

When I was in college (late 1980s), we were given an assignment to write the next chapter of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, a story which might deserve a re-read from a trans perspective come to think of it. The book begins with a male character going through his life, then waking up one morning as a female character complete with all the gendered culture usually trained from birth. For me, the next logic chapter would be an androgynous character. To present this perspective, I had to create a new set of pronouns. The English language doesn’t offer a commonplace pronoun for people who are neither female nor male as defined in modern society and yet their gender is known.

I include this note from my history to show the question of pronouns is nothing new despite some people’s surprise. You might also have noticed I called out the English language here. If you step outside of Western and English-influenced societies, there are many examples of cultures with additional pronouns, acceptance, and social roles for those who do not conform to the binary gender equation. Going back to my comment at the top, this would be one of those cases where decisions are made based on an incomplete picture that would serve to be reassessed with additional information.

You’d think from the above that when non-binary individuals laid claim to the singular “they” I would have been jumping for joy.

You’d be mistaken.

I do not hold to an unchanging language. I accept the world continues to adapt and the language with it. But I have a blind spot where logic is concerned.

I railed against the gradual acceptance of hopefully to mean “I hope” rather than “full of hope.” This word had a purpose, a meaning already, and blindly slapping another meaning into its list just muddied the communication waters.

I felt the same with the singular “they” because it carries the specific nuance of “person whose gender I am unaware of” with the implication of a binary gender that could become known. There’s also the issue of unclear pronouns, which becomes greater when “they” could refer to either the group or the individual in the previous sentence. Now, awareness on the part of the speaker or writer could avoid unclear pronouns regardless of words used, but I can be stubborn at times.

I respect people’s pronoun choices just because it is important to them, but respect of difference is a far cry from acceptance. I might recognize when someone’s personal space is defined by cultural difference so calm my visible defenses against intrusions, but it doesn’t mean my internal reactions vanish.

In my head, the frustration with co-opting “they” still existed, supported by instances of unclear pronouns in gender inclusive fiction, an area where the will has occasionally preceded the ways. I suspect this will shuffle out at some point until clarity is preserved.

I’m happy with the inclusiveness, to be clear, and exploring non-binary characters is something I’ve been doing in my writing long before the concept became visible to the greater public.

I have a non-binary character in the book I’m editing right now. For shanang, it’s a case of genetic divergence with specific markers obvious to any aware observer. They are a third gender added to the binary equation rather than a better understanding of gender definitions as a range of types along a connected line instead of two dots in isolation. I started out using the singular they, but could not solve the unclear pronoun issue to my satisfaction. Perhaps the solution I’d explored in my take on Orlando intruded too persistently. That’s ultimately the pronouns I used, defined within the text and in the context of an outsider unaware of the cultural and genetic differences.

Then an author I admire shared an essay on the question of pronouns (included in last week’s interesting links with a short commentary as mentioned above).

It made me look at the question of pronouns in a greater context than linguistics or during personal interactions. I’m not saying one article or several encounters with pronouns as part of the conversation has washed away all my confusions or concerns about clarity, but I tend not to trust change in a blink. True change more often comes in a slow build of connections until a picture forms that’s different than the one I previously had but grounded in my personal experiences, things I’ve learned, and people I know. Something can be accepted intellectually, but without the supporting framework, I find it’s fragile and can blow away when faced with circumstances where the older understanding comes in direct conflict with the new.

Hence the ponder, the exploration from several different angles, and absorption of events and experiences I might not have considered in the greater context. I’m not there yet, I’m sure. There will be times I’ll stumble, fail to remember someone’s preference or make a grammatical judgment when one of tolerance is called for. I am no more perfect than all-knowing, but here’s a glimpse into my learning process.

Wherever you find yourself on the spectrum of gender or on this question, I hope you enjoyed sharing in my journey. If you’re willing, tell us a little about your own. Let’s keep the conversation growing and learning on the path to true inclusion.

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2 Responses to Stray Thoughts About Pronouns

  1. Erin says:

    One change I’ve made in my approach is not to use the term “preferred pronouns.” Many people feel that dismisses who they are, like “Oh, she (or he) is correct, but this person prefers they/them, xe/xem, e/em …” Which means I just ask what someone’s pronouns are now.

    • Margaret McGaffey Fisk says:

      Ah. That makes a lot of sense. I used the terminology I’ve been hearing, but linguistics carry so much cultural baggage that the implications are as important as the meaning at times.

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