On Pronouns by Neil Plakcy
Neil Plakcy writes a series of golden retriever mysteries inspired by his own goldens, Samwise, Brody and Griffin. He stops by Shelf Pleasure with a rant on pronouns all word nerds can probably relate to.
I’m reading a book right now that I’m enjoying a great deal (Out! The Shamwell Tales, Book 2, by the very talented JL Merrow) but when I came to this bit I was momentarily stopped: “Lex was nineteen but a bit more mature than your average teenager. Well, they’d had a lot to deal with growing up. Still did.”
Oops, I thought. Copy editor missed that one. But very quickly I realized that Merrow was using the pronouns “they” and “their” to avoid assigning a gender to Lex. Or was it more than that? A casual way of indicating that Lex is a non-cisgender individual—and what does it matter to the reader what plumbing Lex has?
There seem to be two things going on here—one, a careful presentation of an intriguing character. Lex has a “boyfriend,” but that doesn’t mean anything. This boyfriend could be attracted to Lex no matter what is under the covers, so to speak. That’s fascinating to me, because I’m always intrigued by non-cisgender people. I love their courage in being exactly who they are.
The second thing, though, is even more interesting to me, as a writer and word nerd. They, them and their are third person plural pronouns. So unless Lex is actually a pair of conjoined twins, that usage grates on me. Why doesn’t English have a non-gender specific pronoun for use on human beings – given that it doesn’t, or at least shouldn’t, be applied to humans?
The following quote comes from an article in the Visual Thesaurus, ”Hunting the Elusive First ‘Ms.,’ ” attributed to Ben Zimmer:
The earliest known proposal for the modern revival of “Ms.” as a title appeared in The Republican of Springfield, Massachusetts on November 10, 1901:
There is a void in the English language which, with some diffidence, we undertake to fill. Every one has been put in an embarrassing position by ignorance of the status of some woman. To call a maiden Mrs. is only a shade worse than to insult a matron with the inferior title Miss. Yet it is not always easy to know the facts…
Now, clearly, what is needed is a more comprehensive term which does homage to the sex without expressing any views as to their domestic situation, and what could be simpler or more logical than the retention of what the two doubtful terms have in common. The abbreviation “Ms.” is simple, it is easy to write, and the person concerned can translate it properly according to circumstances.
The Gender-Neutral Pronoun blog suggests a number of different possibilities including Ne/nem/nir/nirs/nemself, ranking that combination highest of the others because it is least likely to be connected easily to the gender-specific ones.
The performance artist Justian Vivian Bond prefers the honorific “Mx” in place of Mr. or Ms., and the pronoun v and vself. I’ve also seen “ze” and “zir,” among others.
So who’s going to lead the charge here? I’d love a group like the MLA (Modern Language Association) to come up with a style manual, like the one we use in academia. Or perhaps there’s a 21st century Melvil Dewey out there in the stacks of some library who can come up with a clever classification system?
Until then, I guess, we word nerds will still cringe at the use of they, them and their.
Neil has written and edited many other books; details can be found at his website. Neil, his partner, Brody and Griffin live in South Florida, where Neil is writing and the dogs are undoubtedly getting into mischief. Neil’s latest novella, “For the Love of Dog,” is included in the 13-book collection, Happy Homicides 2: Crimes of the Heart, available for pre-order now and releasing on February 14, 2016.
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