The Muted Joy of Pronouns

I first learned about the pronoun problem decades ago from two sources of experience. One was feminism. The other was textbook writing.  The first problem was the word man, as in Darwin’s The Descent of Man. Jefferson’s “all men are created equal.” As a female, am I in or out?  With Darwin, I’m pretty sure he meant humans, but with Jefferson, I am not at all sure that he didn’t mean property-owning white free men.

Back in the day, say a millennium or so ago , a man in the emerging English language meant a human being.  A male man was a wer-man (as in werewolf and warlock), and a female human being was a wo-man..  Well, you can see where that went.  The folks with the Y chromosome co-opted the generic term. So I have become very careful about using the word man or men in my writing, limiting use to only the ones with the Y chromosomes. Just think, if we went back to using werman and woman, the term man could become gender neutral!

Other gendered terms have evolved.  Stewardesses and their male counterparts became flight attendants.  Chairmen became chairs. Actors and actresses pretty much became actors generically, as in one who acts, except for the still gendered academy awards. And the suffix -ette is a belittling term that is slowly going out of use. Remember the people with two X chromosomes who fought for the right to vote? They were suffragists, not suffragettes. I do accept the term dinette for a small version of dining room furniture and kitchenette for a very small kitchen, because they are non-gendered, nonhuman, and helpful descriptions.

As a female human being who is comfortable with my gender identity and a feminist, I have no problem being called she, her, female, woman. But I recognize that is not true of everyone, especially those who experience their gender as nonbinary, fluid, or transgendered. Unless people display their preferred pronouns on their name tags,  if they happen to be wearing a name tag , I have no way of knowing whether my use of gendered third person singular pronouns is offending someone.  That’s especially true with the second challenge as a writer.

As a textbook writer, I received help from my publisher in using a variety of techniques.  Alternate the use of he and she, her and him.  Use the word “one” instead of he or she.  Since economists are fond of illustrating principles or concepts with stories, give the characters names, perhaps gender-fluid ones like Sidney or Sandy or Terry. Use the plural—people, citizens, buyers, sellers, workers, or voters, so that the word “they” is its historical self, referring to more than one person of unidentified gender. Or more than one rock, building, or book.

Having said that, I am annoyed at being asked what my pronouns are. I am tempted to answer I, me, and mine. What about you (your, yours)?  Furthermore, I am offended as a lover of words and language and particularly our complex English language by the insistence that we replace the first person singular (he, him, she, her) with the plural (they, them, their). I channel my English teachers from many decades ago, putting a red mark on my paper for abuse of the English language. The language belongs to all of us, and while I am open to options, I reserve the right to find this change annoying, or unacceptable.

The choice of the third person plural to replace the third person singular shows a singular lack of imagination. What about hes (she putting he first for the nominative case) and herm (blending her and him) for the direct object? (Herm is particularly apt since a person or animal who has the secondary sexual characteristics of both genders is called a hermaphrodite, combining Hermes and Aphrodite.) What about going to another language to find a word—maybe ilelle combining he and she in French? Or Es, a gender-neutral pronoun from German?

What are your pronouns? And what would be your choice for a gender -neutral replacement for he/she, her/him, and his/hers?