I’ve had the wrong pronouns used for me – ‘he/him’ instead of ‘she/her’ – by two people, as far as I know. One of them was an editor at this paper, who I am told used to refer to me as ‘he’ when my pieces passed through the office. In his mind only men were philosophers. The other was Judith Butler. I had written a commentary on one of her books, and she wrote a reply to be published along with it. In the draft of her response, she referred to me by my surname and, once, as ‘he’. Just a few lines later she wrote: ‘It is surely important to refer to others in ways that they ask for. Learning the right pronoun … [is] crucial as we seek to offer and gain recognition.’ I wrote her a meek email – this was, after all, Judith Butler – pointing out the error. She replied not twenty minutes later: ‘Sorry Amia! I always did have trouble with gender.’ Swoon.
I recently told this story to a student for whom I had mistakenly used the wrong pronouns: ‘she/her’ instead of ‘they/them’. They were studying with me for the first time, and the topic was feminism. Perhaps this makes my mistake seem especially egregious, which it was. As a university teacher, I haven’t yet adopted the practice of the ‘pronoun round’: going around a class or tutorial asking for everyone’s preferred pronouns. My reasoning has been that the respectful way to address someone in the third person in their presence is by using their name, as in: ‘Does anyone have an answer to Mary’s excellent question?’ The alternative – ‘Does anyone have an answer to her question?’ – to me sounds rude. (When I was young, referring to my mother as ‘she’ in front of her would always elicit an incredulous ‘SHEEEEE … ?’, releasing waves of shame in my child heart.) I know too that many queer and trans students find the pronoun round unnerving, requiring them to declare what they might prefer not to, or don’t yet know how to. So I am in the habit of referring to my students by their first names and expect, and find, that they do the same with one another.
My downfall came when I wrote a term report for my student in which I used a pronoun that would, typically, match their first name. I was horrified when I then heard another lecturer refer to the student as ‘they’. I wrote to my student to apologise. They accepted my apology and we discussed the ways I might handle these things better in the future. I now plan to start each term by asking my students to email me if they would like to tell me their preferred pronouns or share them with their fellow students. It isn’t a perfect policy, but I hope it will help me avoid further mistakes. What worries me most about what I did is that I may have ruined my student’s experience of reading a glowing report which, even as it referred to them, didn’t really refer to them. What does it feel like to read praise that is supposed to be about you but, in the very words it uses for you, reveals that it isn’t about you, not really, not wholly?
How do you complete the following sentence: ‘Everyone misplaces ____ keys’? There is no way to do so that is both uncontroversially grammatical and generally liked. Most people, even those who as a rule don’t like it, will be pulled towards the singular ‘they’: ‘Everyone misplaces their keys.’ The problem with ‘their’ is that pronouns should agree with their subjects in both gender and number. ‘Their’ is fine on the first count, because ‘everyone’ is genderless, but fails on the second, since ‘everyone’ is grammatically speaking singular, and ‘they’ is plural. ‘His or hers’ is almost universally dismissed by writers and style experts. In 1866 the Leavenworth Times denounced the formulation as ‘disagreeably grammatical’; Strunk and White’s 1979 edition of Elements of Style, the revered American style manual, declared ‘he or she’ ‘boring or silly’. Today ‘he or she’ doesn’t even have the virtue of being grammatical, disagreeably or not, because ‘everyone’ includes non-binary people who identify as neither male nor female.
‘Everyone misplaces one’s keys.’ This is grammatical, because ‘one’ agrees in both gender and number with ‘everyone’. But for centuries ‘one’ has been considered too stuffy by language experts and users alike, especially in the US. The pomposity of ‘one’ is in part an effect of its monotonous pattern of declension: one (subject), one (object), one’s (possessive), oneself (reflexive). This means that one who uses ‘one’ is liable to use one ‘one’ too many, as in: ‘One does one’s best to do one’s homework by oneself.’ The French on, which is grammatically analogous to the English ‘one’ – sexless and singular – but lacks its pretentious overtones and is commonly used, declines variously and thus more pleasingly. Compare: ‘On fait de son mieux pour faire ses devoirs soi-même.’
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in the posthumously published Anima Poetae, argued that ‘it’ was the right pronoun for referring to indefinite nouns like ‘everyone’ or ‘the person’, ‘in order to avoid particularising man or woman, or in order to express either sex indifferently’. Thus: ‘Everyone misplaces its keys.’ Uncanniness results, but Coleridge was undeterred, insisting that ‘both the specific intention and general etymon of “Person” in such sentences, fully authorise the use of it and which instead of, he, she, him, her, who, whom.’ (He was not the first on record to promote the virtues of ‘it’. Someone called Molly Dolan wrote to the Ballyshannon Herald in 1843 that ‘“IT” is the onely propper pronoun to be applied to an unknown correspondent – the name being neither fish, flesh, nor fowl.’) Fully authorised by the general etymon or not, few have been taken with the idea of allowing ‘it’ to stand in for humans, at least adult ones. ‘It’ was once commonly used for babies, as in George Eliot’s Silas Marner, in which the baby Eppie is sometimes referred to as ‘it’. More recently, ‘it’ was used on Twitter for a newborn child by an Iraqi doctor who was documenting fatal birth defects caused by the allied forces’ use of depleted uranium during the 2003 invasion. The doctor, who was presumably tweeting in their non-native language, was lambasted by English-speaking Twitter users for ‘dehumanising’ the infant. It apparently didn’t occur to them that they were accusing a doctor of ‘dehumanising’ babies harmed in a war perpetrated by their own countries. They were correct, however, in sensing the power of the pronoun ‘it’ to mock, insult and demean, a use to which it has been put since at least the 16th century. For this reason, ‘it’ is no longer considered apt for babies – or, in the view of people with dogs or cats, for dogs or cats. In 1792 the Scottish philosopher James Anderson noted that ‘it’ indicated ‘a high degree of contempt’, suggesting instead the gender-neutral pronoun ou, then common in Gloucestershire dialect. Kentucky’s 1850 Constitution declared: ‘The right of the owner of a slave to such slave, and its increase, is … as inviolable as the right of the owner of any property whatever.’ In defence of the Kentucky legislature’s choice of pronoun to refer to slaves, the New York Evening Post wrote that ‘the objectors have forgotten to estimate the effect of colour upon gender’ – which is to say, enslaved women and men were neutered by their blackness. And, genderless, they were mere things.
Dennis Baron’s What’s Your Pronoun? is a delightful account of the search for what Baron, a professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois, calls ‘the missing word’: a third person singular, gender-neutral pronoun. Indefinite subjects make the grammatical need for this part of speech most evident. When words and phrases like ‘everyone’ or ‘the student’ are used to refer to a group of people of mixed gender, as in ‘everyone misplaces ____ keys’ or ‘to graduate, the student must pass all of ____ exams’, the only grammatical option is a pronoun that is both singular and sexless. A singular, sexless pronoun is also needed to refer to subjects who have some specific gender that is either unknown or that the speaker doesn’t wish to reveal. An example of the first is: ‘The anonymous witness said ____ had seen a gruesome act.’ An example of the second is: ‘The person, whoever ____ was, had come in so suddenly and with so little noise, that Mr Pickwick had no time to call out, or oppose ____ entrance.’ (Dickens himself insouciantly filled in the blanks: ‘it’, ‘their’.) If ‘he or she’ is too cumbersome, ‘one’ too ridiculous and ‘it’ too contemptuous, there are no strictly grammatical options left.
The absence of the missing word is also evident in the contrast between English and other languages. Old English was, like most Indo-European languages, marked by grammatical gender: each of its nouns was (as with German) either feminine, masculine or neuter, which in turn determined the morphology of agreeing adjectives and pronouns. That feature was largely sloughed off in the transition to Middle English. Some modern English nouns retain what is known as ‘natural’ (as opposed to purely ‘grammatical’) gender, as in ‘horse’ and ‘mare’, ‘actor’ and ‘actress’, or ‘she’ for ships. But English is still resolutely gendered in its third person singular pr0nouns: ‘he’ and ‘she’. Even languages such as French and German that are otherwise much more gendered than English – all their nouns being either masculine or feminine or (in the case of German) neuter – have third person gender-neutral pronouns (on, man) that can serve some, though not all, of the purposes that would be filled by the missing word. In many other languages – including Malay, Finnish, Hungarian, Estonian, Armenian, Bengali, Persian, Ewe and Swahili – the problem of the gender-neutral third person pronoun doesn’t arise, because of the absence or near absence of grammatical gender. In these languages, the same word is used for ‘he’ and ‘she’, and sometimes for ‘it’ as well. In Ojibwe, an indigenous North American language whose nouns are not classified by gender but according to whether they are considered animate or not, the singular third person pronoun wiin is used for both ‘she’ and ‘he’. In Turkish, the equivalent of ‘he’, ‘she’ and ‘it’ is simply o, which seems to me unimprovable.
The first English grammars were written towards the end of the 16th century. Before this, ‘grammar’ meant Latin grammar, and the new English grammars were modelled on their Latin predecessors (some English grammars were even, one might think self-defeatingly, written in Latin). William Lily’s Latin grammar, taught by royal decree in every English school for three hundred years, explained that in phrases like Rex et Regina beati, ‘the blessed King and Queen’, the adjective beati is plural (agreeing in number with Rex et Regina) and masculine (agreeing in gender with Rex), because ‘the masculine gender is more worthy than the feminine, and the feminine more worthy than the neuter.’ (In fact, adjectival agreement with groups of mixed-gender nouns is more complicated than this, for reasons my Latin consultant tells me I shouldn’t bother to go into.) Early English grammarians applied Lily’s ‘worthiness doctrine’ to the question of how to achieve appropriate agreement between personal pronouns and indefinites. The first to do so was Ann Fisher in her New Grammar, a widely used textbook originally published in 1745. ‘The Masculine Person answers to the general Name,’ Fisher explained, ‘which comprehends both Male and Female; as Any Person who knows what he says.’ Simply put, the correct answer is: ‘Everyone misplaces his keys.’
Baron mistakenly gives the name of Fisher’s book as New English Grammar, which was in fact the title of a work by the enterprising John Kirkby, who almost certainly plagiarised Fisher’s book for his own. It was Kirkby rather than Fisher who was long given the dubious honour of being the first grammarian to claim that indefinite nouns are referred to with the pronoun ‘he’. The true origin of the rule in Fisher is far more interesting, and puzzling: Fisher was a staunch proponent of women’s equality. (In addition to the title of Fisher’s book, Baron has a few more factual wobbles. He says that English grammars did not appear until the 17th century, when the first, William Bullokar’s Pamphlet for Grammar, was published in 1586; he misdates a British voting act; and he misnames – but admittedly does not misgender – both a 19th-century judge and Silas Marner’s adopted daughter.)
Whatever its origins, the case for the generic ‘he’ has never been persuasive. First, it is ungrammatical on its face: ‘he’ is masculine and so, by the rules of agreement, should not be used to refer to indefinites. (Somehow this has not kept grammarians up at night as much as the singular ‘they’, which violates the same rule of agreement; as Baron says, ‘violating a little grammatical rule was no great price to pay in order to keep the masculine pronoun at the top of the gender hierarchy.’) Second, the generic ‘he’ is a tool of patriarchy. While an indefinite like ‘everyone’ includes people of any gender, even when accompanied by the undeniably masculine ‘he’, other indefinites – like ‘the student’ or ‘the lawyer’ – are more tricky. Take a regulation that stipulates: ‘A lawyer must pass the Bar exam before he can practise law.’ Does this imply that only men can be lawyers? This is what the Maryland Supreme Court decided in 1886, thereby excluding women from the Bar. Cases like this, which became increasingly common in the 19th century as women campaigned for their legal and political equality, exposed the lie of the generic ‘he’, or at least that it was only ever selectively applied. In the UK, the 1867 Reform Act extended the franchise beyond property-owning men with the words: ‘Every Man shall … be entitled to be registered as a Voter.’ Seventeen years earlier, in 1850, Parliament had passed the Interpretation Act, which said that, for the purposes of the law, ‘Words importing the Masculine Gender shall be deemed and taken to include Females.’ Taken together, these two Acts appeared to guarantee some British women the right to vote. Conveniently, they did not. Disraeli, then chancellor of the Exchequer, explained that the Interpretation Act specified that masculine words were generic ‘unless the contrary as to Gender … is expressly provided’, which Disraeli reassured Parliament was the case with the Reform Act.
In fact, the Reform Act said no such thing, never specifying that ‘man’ excluded ‘woman’. Nevertheless, the exclusionary reading of ‘man’ soon became standard. In Chorlton v. Lings (1868), Justice William Bovill ruled against a Manchester woman who had joined and then been struck off the electoral register, saying that it ‘would be ridiculous to support that the word [“man”] was used in any other sense than as designating the male sex’. Chorlton became official doctrine, making clear to suffragists that the vote could only be won by a law that explicitly enfranchised women – not by appealing to the supposedly generic ‘he’. In 1870, the MP Jacob Bright, supported by his sister and other Manchester suffragists, introduced a bill that would amend the 1867 voting law by adding the words of the 1850 Interpretation Act directly to it. An editorial in the Times inveighed against Bright’s bill, not only for its attempt to enfranchise women, but also for the new care that men would have to exercise over their language:
The fact that the exclusion of the sex from political life has hitherto been secured by the simple use of the masculine pronoun, without any special legislation, illustrates how absolutely inconceivable and unnatural the idea of Women’s Suffrage has hitherto seemed. If it were ever to be realised, we should have to revolutionise the commonest modes of thought and expression; to guard our most familiar language, to watch our pronouns, and to check our most constant assumptions.
Bright’s bill was convincingly rejected on multiple occasions. Men were relieved that they didn’t have to ‘watch their pronouns’, at least for a while longer.
The selective reading of ‘man’ and ‘he’ as generics meant that the law could impose the same burdens on women as on men – taxation, fines, incarceration – without also giving women the same benefits, most obviously the vote. In 1867, the same year Disraeli explained that ‘man’ did not include ‘woman’ for the purposes of voting, a Portsmouth court decided that a woman tavern owner could be prosecuted for harbouring a prostitute, because ‘he’ in the relevant law also meant ‘she’. In the US the pattern was similar. The US’s 1871 Dictionary Act, like the UK’s Interpretation Act, said that for the purposes of federal law ‘he’ was generic, unless context made it clear that it wasn’t. As in the UK, American suffragists in the 19th century unsuccessfully argued that this, together with the Constitution, entailed that women had the right to vote. In an 1873 speech, Susan B. Anthony confronted male legislators with their inconsistency:
It is urged, the use of the masculine pronouns he, his and him, in all the constitutions and laws, is proof that only men were meant to be included in their provisions. If you insist on this version of the letter of the law, we shall insist that you be consistent, and accept the other horn of the dilemma, which would compel you to exempt women from taxation for the support of the government, and from penalties for the violation of laws.
Or, as Anthony put it on another occasion: ‘If a wife commits murder let the husband be hung for it.’
The 19th-century suffragist movement made the generic ‘he’ decisively less popular, among both proponents of women’s rights, who saw that ‘he’ was never truly generic, and their opponents, who became wary that the issue could be leveraged for feminist ends. The pronoun took a further beating in the 1970s with the rise of the women’s liberation movement in the US, UK and other English-speaking countries. Nonetheless, Strunk and White’s Elements of Style continued to advise the generic ‘he’ in its 1979 edition, commenting that the pronoun ‘has lost all suggestion of maleness … it is never incorrect,’ though by the 1999 edition it conceded that many writers find it ‘limiting or offensive’. Feminists of the 1970s began using the generic ‘she’ – ‘Everyone misplaces her keys’ – and in 1974, Dr Spock announced that he would switch from generic ‘he’ to ‘she’ in future editions of Dr Spock’s Baby and Child Care. Ruth Bader Ginsburg sometimes alternates generic ‘she’ and ‘he’ in her Supreme Court opinions. The generic ‘she’ is also oddly popular with analytic philosophers (‘Imagine a person is faced with the choice between pushing a fat man in front of a trolley or allowing five people to die. What should she do?’), I suppose as a way of atoning for – or covering up – the discipline’s domination by men. But the generic ‘she’ has never enjoyed the popularity of the generic ‘he’, because it is so obviously (not just implicitly) political. In the 1979 Elements of Style, Strunk and White suggested: ‘Try it and see what happens.’
The demise of the generic ‘he’, together with the slow increase in the presence of women in public life, made the search for the missing word a matter of surprising cultural and political significance in the mid-19th and early 20th centuries. In 1878 the Atlantic Monthly called the search for the missing word ‘desperate, urgent, imperative’. In 1894, after three women were elected to the Colorado House of Representatives (the first women to be elected to any state legislature), the Rocky Mountain News declared that it was incumbent on the legislature to coin a gender-neutral pronoun, and that, in doing so, it would ‘cover itself with glory’. (Suggestions from readers included shee and hesher/hiser/himer.) In 1920 the Daily Gazette lamented: ‘Surely great big men who can invent such fine words as “radioactinium” and “spectroheliograph” should be able to devise a little useful pronoun.’
While the singular ‘they’ had supporters, it was generally agreed that only a new word would do. The result was a period of extraordinary linguistic inventiveness. Of the nearly two hundred gender-neutral and non-binary English pronouns listed in the appendix of What’s Your Pronoun?, half were coined (or in the case of those drawn from English dialects, like the Gloucestershire ou, already in use) before 1930. While some of the coiners were social reformers and language experts, many were middle-class people not otherwise involved in activism: lawyers, professors, journalists, newspaper editors, botanists, composers, poets, doctors, fiction writers, insurance salesmen, agriculturists, church groups, educators, army officers, priests, economists and, in one case, ‘a Maryland lady sojourning in New Haven’.
In the July 1864 issue of The Ladies’ Repository, a writer going by the name ‘Philologus’ recommends ve/vis/vim for its ability to secure ‘precision, perspicuity and brevity’ in communication, as was only appropriate for ‘this age of improvement’. In 1868 the popular language columnist Richard White rejected a reader’s suggestion of en, from French (surprisingly not the more apt on), the virtues of which the reader had illustrated with the sentence ‘If a person wishes to sleep, en mustn’t eat cheese for supper.’ White, who favoured the generic ‘he’, replied that if his female readers wanted to ‘free the language of the oppression of the sex’ they should simply write: ‘If one wishes to sleep, one mustn’t eat cheese for supper.’ A letter to the Boston Recorder, also in 1868, suggests han/hans/han/hanself, unwittingly invoking the Finnish third person gender-neutral pronoun. A second reader followed up to complain that ‘the English would never accept it; they are plagued enough already with their h’s.’ The reader proposed un, again from French. Um was first suggested in 1869 in Connecticut, and rediscovered periodically thereafter, in 1878, 1879, 1884 and 1910 – its charm being that it is a common, but so far grammatically useless, part of spoken English. Thon was proposed in 1884 by a lawyer and well known composer of hymns, who explained that it was a blend of ‘that’ and ‘one’. Three different dictionaries began including thon, the first of them in 1897, and H.L. Mencken gave it a mention in the 1921 edition of The American Language. Critics complained that it was too similar to thou, which only Quakers were still using since its near disappearance in the 17th century, when the honorific plural ‘you’ became the standard second person pronoun. The mellifluous ita (it + a) was suggested by a reader of the Cincinnati Enquirer in 1877, to which the editors replied: ‘Very few persons have thoughts too tremendous to express in the English language. Such as have are at liberty to invent a language of their own – or make signs.’
The Enquirer editors were conveniently forgetting that all languages, and all the words in them, are invented. Where existing signs will not do, and new purposes must be served, new words are brought into being. Nineteenth and early 20th-century users of the English language were sensitive to its capacity to adapt and refresh and grow. Other pronoun proposals from before 1930 include: e, es, em (1841); ne, nis, nim (c.1850); hiser (c.1850); thon, thons (1858); hizer, hesh, himer (1871); le (1871); hesh, het, shet (1872); se, sis, sim (1874); se, sis, sin (1881); who, whose (1883); hisern (1883); hi, hes, hem (1884); that’n, they’uns (1884); unus, talis, it (1884); hyser, hymer (1884); twen, twens, twem (1884); twon, twons, twom (1884); hersh, herm (1884); hisern, hisen (1884); ip, ips (1884); hae, haes/hais, haim (1884); tha, thare, them (1885); zyhe, zyhe’s, zyhem (1885); ho, hus, hum (1886); his-her, him-her (1886); id, ids (1887); ir, iro, im (1888); te, tes, tim (1888); ze, zis, zim (1888); de, der, dem (1888); ons (1889); ith, iths (1890); hor, hors, horself (1890); zie (1890); ha, har (1891); shee (1894); hesher, hiser, himer (1894); sit, sis, sim (1895); hoo (1895); ta, tas, tan (1896); mun (1901); hier (1910); hisen, hern (1912); heor, hisor, himor (1912); hie, hiez, hie (1914); hesh, shis, shim (1919); vey (1920); hir (1920); su (1921); ha, hez, hem (1927); oo (1929); lu, lua (1929); and ot (1929). That’s about one new pronoun a year for nearly ninety years.
When the search for the missing word began again in the 1970s, thanks to the rise of feminism’s second wave and the LGBT movement, linguistic innovators returned, often unknowingly, to words created by earlier generations. Ne, le, han, hiser, hir, hesh, hes, se and ey were rediscovered as solutions to the missing word, and zie, hir, e and ve have been repurposed for use by non-binary people. E, first coined in 1841, was rediscovered several times in the 20th century. In 1978, a school board in Florida formally adopted e, together with the accusative form ir. The board offered the following dialogue to show teachers how to use the pronoun, apparently unaware that it was encouraging them to speak in a Dorset accent:
QUESTION: Why did e miss ir bus?
ANSWER: E was afraid to go home.
QUESTION: Who was e with?
ANSWER: E was by ir self.
The majestic thon, which made a big splash when it was announced in 1884, was revived by the American composer and social activist Caldwell Titcomb, who campaigned for its use through the 1970s. By 1980, Baron writes, thon ‘pretty much went dark’, overtaken by more favoured non-binary pronouns like xe (late 1970s), as well as by the ‘inexorable forward march of singular they’. In 2017 a survey of nearly ten thousand English speakers who identify as trans, genderqueer or non-binary found a lone person who preferred thon.
Baron’s choice for the missing word is the singular ‘they’, which is also the most popular pronoun among non-binary and genderqueer people: in the 2017 survey, 80 per cent of respondents said they wanted to be referred to as ‘they’. More inventive proposals, from hae to zie, have failed to secure broad and lasting uptake. This is because, Baron says, these coinages ‘look strange on the page; it isn’t always clear how to pronounce them; and they have to be explained.’ By contrast, the singular ‘they’ has been in use for more than six hundred years. The OED cites its first recorded use in 1375, in the romance William and the Werewolf: ‘Hastely hiȝed eche … þei neyȝþed so neiȝh … þere william & his worþi lef were liand i-fere’ – translated from the Middle English as ‘Each man hurried … till they drew near … where William and his darling were lying together.’ In 1896 the Springfield Republican declared that ‘at least two men out of three and four women out of five use “they” already, with sublime contempt for rule’ – establishing both the commonness of the singular ‘they’ and that women are 13 percentage points more ungrammatical than men. In 1885 the editors of the Atlanta Constitution came out in favour of the singular ‘they’, prompting the Chicago Times to accuse them of Southern ignorance. (In reply, the Constitution ridiculed the Times for its dismissal of thar, a Southern pronunciation of ‘their’, ‘which has been in the English dialect since Chaucer was a baby’.) Today, the singular ‘they’ is more popular than ever in colloquial English, and has prompted grammarians, some more grudgingly than others, to conclude that the missing word has been with us all along. Earlier this year, the American Dialect Society chose the singular ‘they’ as its word of the decade. It shows up in plenty of respectable places. Ursula Le Guin – who also experimented with e/es/en in her feminist science fiction – called the prohibition on the singular ‘they’ a ‘fake rule’ enforced by ‘grammar bullies’. So far, I have used ‘they’ and its cognates (‘them’, ‘their’, ‘themselves’) six times in this piece to refer to indefinite nouns or subjects of uncertain gender. I will risk the wrath of the grammar gods another ten times before I finish.
Some complain that embracing the singular ‘they’ means losing the ability to distinguish easily between the third person singular and plural. I am not entirely unsympathetic. In general, my instinct is to think that linguistic innovation should, all else being equal, expand rather than contract our expressive capacities. But in the case of the third person pronoun, all else is not equal: the purposes, both grammatical and political, to which the singular ‘they’ can be put surely outweigh the cost. Such a trade-off would hardly be unprecedented. Most English speakers haven’t distinguished between the second person singular and plural since the 17th century, when the plural ‘you’ absorbed the singular ‘thou’. This occasionally causes confusion, but we muddle on perfectly well. If we are going to get het up about linguistic losses, shouldn’t we be more worried about near extinct words like skirr (to move or fly rapidly with a whirring sound) and erose (possessing an edge irregularly incised, as if bitten by an animal), both of which Microsoft Word tells me, with its angry red squiggle, are already dead?
The search for a gender-neutral pronoun, from the mid-19th century to the middle of the 20th, was not in the main driven, at least not explicitly, by the need to be able to refer to those who exist beyond the gender binary. Instead, it was motivated by the desire to find grammatical and non-sexist ways of completing sentences with indefinites like ‘everyone’, and to be able to refer to particular people whose sex is unknown, or whose sex the speaker wants to keep ambiguous. In these cases, the lack of a singular gender-neutral pronoun compels us – insofar as we want to avoid the ungrammatical ‘they’, the contemptuous ‘it’, the despised ‘he or she’, and the pompous ‘one’ – to say something with a false implication (‘Everyone loses his keys’), or of uncertain truth value (‘The anonymous witness said he had seen a gruesome act’), or that says more than one wants to say (‘The person, whoever she was, had come in so suddenly and with so little noise, that Mr Pickwick had no time to call out, or oppose her entrance’). In other words, the hunt for the missing word was, up until the 1970s, largely driven by a wish to avoid falsifying or unwanted disclosure. By contrast, the contemporary embrace of gender-neutral pronouns by trans and non-binary people is usually framed as an issue of disclosure desired: a matter of finding a word with which to reflect a gender identity that exists beyond, or across, the male/female binary.
Indeed, calling pronouns like thon, zie and hir ‘gender-neutral’ is itself problematic. As Baron points out, it ‘downplays their uses as non-binary’, while calling them ‘non-binary’ ‘masks their 19th-century origins as a means of including both men and women, with no apparent thought at the time, for anyone who didn’t fit neatly into those two categories’. Our metasemantic uncertainty – what to call the part of speech we are looking for? – in turn reflects an ambiguity in the purpose to be served by the missing word. Is it for the purpose of revealing an identity that lies beyond gender, or to deflect the demand for any such revelation?
As Baron himself notes, there were significant exceptions to his claim that most historical pronoun-hunters were uninterested in finding words for people who are neither simply female or male. Seventeenth-century medical texts used the singular ‘they’ to refer to hermaphrodites, contradicting Jordan Peterson’s claim that historically the singular ‘they’ has only been used in sentences with indefinites, and not to refer to people who exist beyond the sex binary. (Peterson became famous in 2016 for arguing that a Canadian law that added gender expression or identity to the human rights code violated his right to free speech, since it would compel him, he claimed, to refer to his university students by their preferred pronouns. ‘I don’t like these made up words, ze and zir, and that sort of thing,’ he said in one interview.) Virginia Woolf’s use of ‘they’ and ‘their’ to mark Orlando’s transformation from man to woman – ‘Orlando remained precisely as he had been. The change of sex, though it altered their future, did nothing whatever to alter their identity … her memory … went back through all the events of her past life’ – is another counterexample to Peterson’s claim, though perhaps he wouldn’t consider Woolf an authority on language or on sex.
A good deal of energy was also spent from the 19th century onwards on the merits of a non-binary pronoun for the Judeo-Christian God, who at least in theory, if rarely in church practice, is meant to be neither male nor female. In 1776 the 18-year-old Quaker Jemima Wilkinson came down with a mysterious fever; on recovering, Wilkinson claimed to have died and been reborn as the genderless divine spirit. Wilkinson took on the name Public Universal Friend, and some of Wilkinson’s followers referred to Wilkinson with the name ‘the Friend’ rather than using a gendered pronoun. (Other followers apparently referred to the Friend as ‘he’ as a sign of respect; Wilkinson’s detractors naturally took great delight in using ‘she’, another long tradition.) The practice of repeating a name to avoid using pronouns did not end with Wilkinson. The 2017 survey of trans, non-binary and genderqueer people found that 10.7 per cent of respondents preferred their names to be used in the place of pronouns.
There was a significant shift in the late 20th century, when non-binary people searched with a new collective energy for words to accord with their identities, and as trans women and men began to insist on the use of pronouns that agreed with their felt sense of gender. But the shift was not, as so many contemporary reactionaries like to think, towards the ‘politicising’ of pronouns. English pronouns are in their nature political. Their usage has historically been governed, and is in some ways governed still, by norms that are produced by hierarchies of power: the informal ‘thou’ for the social inferior, ‘it’ for the enslaved black person, the generic ‘he’ for all of humanity. Thanks to the linguistic and social reformers of the past, it is now generally accepted that these once ubiquitous pronoun practices were both symptoms of, and conducive to, injustice. Trans and non-binary people want it to be recognised that the same thing is true of contemporary pronoun practices. Trans women and men, who often use ‘she’ and ‘he’, argue that the traditional view – that all and only those whose bodies were sexed at birth as ‘female’ are to be referred to as ‘she’, and mutatis mutandis for ‘he’ – both speaks of and reinforces an unjust hierarchy that places ‘real’ (i.e. cis) women and men above trans ‘fakers’. In turn, this hierarchy makes trans people subject to what the philosopher Talia Mae Bettcher calls ‘reality enforcement’: humiliating exposures of their ‘true’ natal sex in words (forced ‘outings’) or deeds (strip searches, rape). Meanwhile, those who use non-binary pronouns like zie or ‘they’ argue that the forced choice between ‘he’ and ‘she’ encodes the exclusionary assumption that all persons are either simply male or female. In making these arguments, trans and non-binary people join a long tradition, not of politicising language, but of revealing language to have been political all along.
The resurgence of the ‘pronoun debate’ in the last twenty years has made cultural conservatives very unhappy, just as it did in previous centuries. They complain that they are being made – by changing social norms, and sometimes new institutional and legal regulations – to ‘guard our most familiar language’, as the Times lamented in 1873, ‘to watch our pronouns, and to check our most constant assumptions’. Jordan Peterson says that the expectation that he use his students’ preferred pronouns makes him complicit with a ‘political ideology’ he doesn’t share. He isn’t entirely wrong. To use ‘they’ for a particular person is to participate in an ideological system in which it is presumed that gender is not exhausted by the categories of female and male. But to insist that a non-binary person designated female at birth be called ‘she’, or that a woman must be called either ‘Miss’ or ‘Mrs’, or that a black person is ‘it’, is also to be complicit with a certain ideology. Cultural conservatives aren’t trying to protect language from politics; they are simply sanguine about the politics that language already has.
Conservatives often say that the way words should be used is settled by their definitions. Thus an adult person who was born with ‘female’ biology is a woman, however they might identify, because of what ‘woman’ means, and anyone who thinks otherwise is being deliberately obtuse. Similarly, they might say, just because I don’t like the idea of being in my mid-thirties, I don’t get to say that ‘being in her mid-thirties’ cannot be truly predicated of me. I may ‘identify’ as a twentysomething as much as I like, but that doesn’t make it true to say ‘I am not in my mid-thirties.’
This is partly right. Language is a public system of meaning. No individual can unilaterally decide what a word means, or whether any given word, according to standard usage, truly describes them. And yet the definitions of words – as any lexicographer will tell you – depend on patterns of actual human usage, which can and do shift over time. While no single individual can, by fiat, change the meaning of a word, groups of individuals, by changing patterns of usage, can. In turn, the question of what words currently mean – and what is true as a matter of definition – is not the only or even the most interesting question. There is also the question of which words should exist, and to whom or what they should apply. Consider ‘barren’. When predicated of a woman, it means infertile, sterile or childless. As Adrienne Rich pointed out in Of Woman Born (1976), there is in English no equivalent word for describing infertile, sterile or childless men. If you say a man is ‘barren’ it will be taken metaphorically, to mean he is soulless or desolate, not that he is a biological failure. Should women who are infertile, sterile or childless accede to being called ‘barren’, since it is true as a matter of definition? Or should they protest, as Rich did, that this meaning of ‘barren’ encodes and perpetuates a worldview according to which it is women’s particular purpose to be mothers?
What words mean and which words exist is not up to any single person. But it is up to us, collectively. When an individual refuses the application of a word that applies, by the rules of public language, to them, or when an individual applies to themselves a word not yet in the public lexicon, they are making a move that they hope others will take up – and that will, in turn, change how they are seen and treated by others. Words can change the world. This is a truth that conservatives, who love to make fun of linguistic innovators as if they were divorced from reality, privately recognise and fear. (It is also a truth in which too much hope can be invested by progressives. If everyone starts going by ‘they’, will patriarchy disappear?) The battle over gender-neutral and now non-binary pronouns has always been a battle over which world we want: the one that already exists, or the one that might.
Aside from the matter of ideology, there are fundamental questions of kindness and decency. In her memoir Gender Outlaw (1994), the trans artist and theorist Kate Bornstein describes being accidentally referred to as ‘he’ by an acquaintance:
The world slowed down, like it does in the movies when someone is getting shot and the filmmaker wants you to feel every bullet enter your body. The words echoed in my ears over and over and over. Attached to that simple pronoun was the word failure, quickly followed by the word freak. All the joy sucked out of my life in that instant, and every moment I’d ever fucked up crashed down on my head.
How would any of us – trans or not, binary or non – feel if others, convinced that they knew the truth of who we really were, insisted on referring to us using words that, so far as we were concerned, didn’t apply to us? If you think you would not feel like a failure or a freak, could it be because you can’t imagine being so wildly misnamed by the world?
People use non-standard pronouns, or use pronouns in non-standard ways, for various reasons: to accord with their sense of themselves, to make their passage through the world less painful, to prefigure and hasten the arrival of a world in which divisions of sex no longer matter. So too we can choose to respect people’s pronouns for many reasons. We can do it because we buy into the idea that there is no simple sex or gender binary, or because we want a world in which the binary, whether it exists or not, is stripped of its cultural weight. But we can also respect people’s pronouns simply because we want to be kind, because we too know what it is to feel like a failure and a freak, because when we talk about someone, we want them to feel that it is them we are speaking of, really and wholly.
My own third person pronouns often feel wrong to me, even when they are, in the ordinary sense, right. There is a small part of me that bridles every time I hear myself referred to as ‘she’, and not because some other pronoun – ‘he’ or ‘they’ or even the lovely ita – would sit better. This is not the feeling of ‘failure’ that Bornstein describes: it is nothing as strong or urgent as that, and doesn’t call for a revision in our common language. And yet, when I am referred to as ‘she’, something in me sticks. I am being spoken about in the third person, from a position of evaluation and judgment, as an object of study, a fungible thing to be weighed, compared, categorised. ‘You’, even when spoken in anger or frustration, does not carry with it this reduction of person to thing. As Martin Buber noted in 1923 – in the book translated into English as I and Thou, but whose German title (Ich und Du) is better and more mundanely translated as I and You – the second person address does not propose to contain me: ‘you’ admits that I am larger than anything that is predicated of me. That’s why we bristle at statements that begin: ‘You are just …’ ‘You’ is never ‘just’ anything.
In the piece of writing in which she accidentally misgendered me, Judith Butler insists on the importance of referring to people in the ways they ask, including by their correct pronouns. But she goes on:
At the same time, none of us are captured by the categories by which we gain recognition. I am that name you give me, but I am also something else that cannot quite be named. The relation to the unnameable is perhaps a way of maintaining a relation to the other that exceeds any and all capture. That means that something about the other can be indexed by language, but not controlled or possessed, and that freedom, conceived as infinity, is crucial to any ethical relation.
This is surely right. Ethics requires that we embrace a practice of naming that makes people’s passage through the world more bearable. But ethics is not exhausted by such a practice. A true ethical relation requires that we see the other, just as we see ourselves, as ultimately beyond names and categories: not because (as liberals like to say) we are ‘all human’ or ‘all persons’, but because each of us exists, finally, beyond the reach of mere words. We all know this instinctively in our own case: that feeling of exceeding, bursting beyond, all the words that can be truly applied to us. What does it take for us to recognise that this is true, too, of everyone else: of him and her, of them, of you?
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