Recently, I’ve seen a lot of people talk about pronouns on Twitter, perhaps because of Elon Musk tweeting that his pronouns are “Prosecute/Fauci.” Due to my involvement in left-wing organizations, I have been following the pronoun discourse since the late 2000s and so I wanted to lay out some thoughts on it based on how I saw it unfold over the years.
For starters, it’s helpful to restate the basic problem with personal pronouns in the English language. In the below table, I have the singular and plural pronouns for first, second, and third persons.
|Third Person||He or She||They|
When looking at the table, two problems stand out.
- The second person pronoun is the same for singular and plural.
- The singular third person pronoun is gendered.
The first problem causes frustrating ambiguities and has spawned a variety of colloquial solutions like “y’all.”
The second problem makes it impossible to refer to someone whose gender is unknown or uncertain. These days, this is typically treated as a problem related to gender queerness. But it is actually a problem even outside of the context of gender queerness as you can’t always determine what someone’s gender or sex is based on how they look or sound and sometimes you need to make reference to a hypothetical person whose gender or sex is irrelevant.
Nonetheless, as gender queerness and transgender identity became a more salient issue on the left, the linguistic problems caused by the gendered singular third person pronoun took on a certain urgency. Solving them was not just a matter of clearing up the language but also a matter of social justice and inclusion.
In the mid-2000s, the left organizations and discursive communities that I was involved in attempted to fix this problem by replacing “he” and “she” with a new non-gendered pronoun that could be used to refer to anyone. The one I remember seeing the most was “ze.”
At the time, this seemed like a very sensible solution to me. The other five pronouns — I, we, you, you, they — are not gendered and therefore never run into the problems that the singular third person pronoun does.
For one reason or another, the strategy of getting people to use a new non-gendered pronoun as the default pronoun did not catch on in the United States. Interestingly, it did catch on in Sweden where the newly-coined “hen” pronoun entered into widespread use.
In the 2010s, a new solution to the problem emerged. Rather than fully gender-neutralizing the singular third person pronoun, activists began saying that pronouns should be personalized based on each individual’s self-identity and that each person’s preferred pronoun should be communicated to everyone they interact with in the same way that people communicate their names to everyone they interact with. Although some people have insisted on exotic pronouns for themselves, for the most part, everyone has settled on “he,” “she,” or “they” used singularly rather than plurally.
Personally, I find the failed gender-neutralization solution to be far more elegant than the more successful pronoun-personalization solution. Gender-neutralization gives you a pronoun you can use for anyone and does not require you to constantly announce your pronouns or solicit pronouns from other people. It also brings the third person singular pronoun into harmony with the other five personal pronouns, all of which are gender-neutral and non-personalized.
But language is not policy. We don’t legislate or vote on whether or how to solve problems in the way the English language has emerged. Language is reformed through social processes and pronoun-personalization simply won out. That’s how things go sometimes.