Some Thoughts on Personal Pronouns
2019 April 9
How Pronouns Work in English
Pronouns replace a noun in a sentence. Part of the reason this is useful in English is because the language necessitates a subject in each sentence (with the single exception of the implied you in imperatives), so pronouns save us time we might otherwise spend repeating a single person's name over and over. The ability to omit obvious subjects, as is done in e.g., Japanese, would help us cut down on the need for pronouns in the first place.
Regardless, we use pronouns a lot in English, partially out of convenience, partially out of habit. In English, pronouns come in five forms: subject pronouns, object pronouns, possessive determiners (which act as adjectives, rather than nouns), possessive pronouns (which act as nouns), and reflexive pronouns (-self). Our personal pronouns identify certain properties of the person or people they identify, namely the number (limited to singularity or plurality), gender (sometimes), and perspective (relative to the speaker and audience).
In our current form of English, we have the following common personal pronouns:
(Other pronouns like who/whom/whose have been omitted.)
* English used to differentiate between singular (thou) and plural (ye) in the second person. It actually still does with e.g., y'all.
** generally used for lifeless things, or things categorically not ascribed gender by the speaker
*** primarily thought of as plural... to be explored here
The Quest for a Gender-Neutral Singular Third-Person Pronoun
We've had a lot of discourse lately about how to refer to people whose wish to be identified with neutral pronouns.
Option 0: Deny the existence of non-binary identities and refuse to use anything other than he and she
Obviously this is the wrong answer.
Option 1: it
English already has a gender-neutral singular third-person pronoun set: it/it/its/its/itself. The problem with this for a lot of people is that the word "it" is often dehumanizing when used to describe humans. (This could go into another discussion about the implicit necessity of gender as a piece of the human experience, but that's not what I want to focus on here.) We refer to things we don't acknowledge to have personhood as "it", and when we refer to non-human animals with gendered pronouns, rather than "it", we tend to be ascribing some personhood to that creature (e.g., we tend to gender pets but not wild animals).
I actually have a lot of thoughts on the pronoun "it", but I think now is not the time to write about them.
Option 2: they
This seems to be the dominant answer, at least for now. We have a precedent in English already of using they/them/their/theirs/themself when speaking about a singular person of an unknown gender. It's not too much of a leap to extend this to parties of a known gender who are not already represented by other pronouns. While some people don't like it ("They is a plural pronoun!"), we're normalizing it more and more. Plus, we already use "you" as singular and plural indiscriminately, and while this causes some confusion sometimes, we somehow manage. Using "they" for non-binary people follows several precedents.
Option 3: Neopronouns
While some people don't like "they" because they don't think people should have the option to use neutral pronouns, others think "they" is insufficient because it has a strong association with its plural use. We should have a separate singular pronoun, they argue. So we have many new pronoun sets some people use.
Perhaps the most common one is ze/hir/hir/hirs/hirself. "Ze" is like "he" or "she" but replacing the beginning - the part that changes the gender of the word. Likewise, "hir" (pronounced like "here", not like "her") resembles a cross between "him" and "her" (or "his" and "her").
Some people think "hir" looks too much like it should be pronounced "her", and they opt for "zir" instead.
Another proposal is "person" as a subject pronoun, which can be shortened to "perse" (pronounced like "purse"). This pronoun set, perse/per/per/pers/perself, somewhat resembles words that already exist in English and reinforce the personhood of the person (arguably unlike "it").
The main problem with neopronouns is that they don't have a lot of consensus. There are a ton of proposed neopronouns, and getting English-speaking society as a whole to even agree to start using a single set is a long and difficult struggle. If each person uses a different set of neopronouns, it hardly seems like pronouns are worth using at all; just use each person's name. Otherwise, each person's pronouns become like an additional name.
Now, I want to clarify, I'm not against neopronouns. I used ze/zir for a while, and I think there would be benefits to having better pronoun options. Sweden adopted the neutral singular pronoun hen (between han and hon). Why can't we do something similar?
I also don't think having the language for each person to identify themself is a bad thing. I just feel like the purpose of pronouns is to add convenience to life, and at some point we lose that convenience. I also have other thoughts on this, which I will mention later.
Option 4: Just use people's names.
This is a perfectly fine option. Sometimes it feels awkward, though, if people exclusively use names for gender non-binary people, and use pronouns for everyone else. Personally, I'm fine with this, and I've known people who were uncomfortable with personal pronouns altogether and wished to only be known by name.
Option 5: Restructure
Personally, I don't actually like any of these options...
I think it's unnecessary for us to differentiate between the masculine and feminine with third-person pronouns at all. (Of course, I also want to do away with singular and plural grammar for the most part, so what do I know?) I obviously (as a non-binary individual) support people challenging the assumptions of the gender binary, and I think we should all have the option to develop complex and multifaceted identities that accurately reflect us.
But I don't see why referencing a person's gender in their pronouns is a necessary function of language, especially in a society that purports some level of equality between genders and which is not cleanly split between discrete categories.
When we use someone's pronouns, we don't reference their race, age, sexuality, level of education, hometown, religion, dietary restrictions, or any other attributes or preferences which might be important components of their identity. Why should we immediately need to know someone's gender in order to refer to them?
I don't expect to do away with singular and plural grammar in English. We've had it too long, and it's so deeply ingrained into our entire noun/verb structure. But I don't see why we can't do away with "he" and "she" as pronouns and just call everyone the same thing, regardless of gender.
Now, I do see some value in having a singular gender-neutral third-person pronoun (or perhaps many) in the sense that using them validates the experiences and identities of non-binary people. But I don't think that grammar needs to do that. It should accommodate and accurately describe people (lest ye try to twist my words and make this about how I don't think people should get to choose their pronouns), but in that identifying a person's gender is not a necessary function of personal pronouns, I don't think we need different pronouns for non-binary people, as long as the pronouns we do use don't mislabel them.
I'll also say, I don't necessarily care what that pronoun is, but I don't see why we need more than one. Just don't factor gender into pronouns in the first place.
There are several possible ways to address the problems with English as it is with regard to gender and personal pronouns. I personally think we should do away with gendered pronouns altogether. They seem antiquated and unnecessary.
That said, I don't expect this point of view to become the dominant one. We like what we're used to, and we're very used to gender being a part of our pronouns. So long as we have gendered personal pronouns, use the ones people have selected for themselves. Trust them to know best.
So long as we (English-speakers) are still using gendered pronouns, I personally don't really care which gender-neutral (singular, I suppose) pronouns you use for me when referring to me in the third person. (I don't much care for "it" to refer to people, so don't call me that.) I default to they/them, but if you have a set of neutral neopronouns you really like, you're welcome to use those. Or you can just use my name.
Also, obviously the opinions stated here are not representative of anyone else. I do not speak for the transgender or non-binary communities at large.