English’s Pronoun Problem Is Centuries’ Old


Beyond He & She
By Dennis Baron

“Pronouns are suddenly sexy,” Dennis Baron declares at the start of “What’s Your Pronoun?” For “pronouns,” read one specific pronoun, or rather its long-lamented absence in English: the third-person singular gender-neutral pronoun. And for “sexy,” read thorny. Pronouns now come up in lawsuits, school regulations and company codes of conduct. Colleges ask students to provide their preferred pronouns; online dating sites offer pronoun options. “It used to be nerdy to discuss parts of speech outside of grammar class,” Baron, a professor emeritus of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois, writes. “Now it’s cool.”

After this slightly forced attempt at with-itness, “What’s Your Pronoun?” settles down into a scrupulous and absorbing survey. Its great virtue is to show that these issues are nothing new: Gender-neutral pronouns like “ze,” “thon” and “heer” have been circulating since the mid-19th century; others as far back as 1375.

Almost no one now defends the use of a generic “he” — but what to replace it with? Baron is surely right that no one cares for “his or her”: too unwieldy. As for the pronouns historically proposed to replace “he” or “she,” they failed to gain traction because “they look strange on the page.”

Coiners of new pronouns might usefully counter that they want these words to look strange, so as to draw attention to the social construction of gender or the patriarchal roots of traditional pronouns. Fair enough, but the point about pronouns is that they replace nouns, and thus trade the specific for the generic — so they will probably catch on only when they are inconspicuous. In writing, a pronoun that draws attention to itself stops the reader’s eye and checks their pace at the wrong point in a sentence.

For Baron the solution is clear, and I used it (hopefully unobtrusively) in that last sentence: the singular “they.” He provides ample textual evidence, from Shakespeare on, that this is a perfectly respectable option — and so unconscious that even those who condemn it invoke it without noticing.

For the still unpersuaded, he points out that singular “they” is older than singular “you.” Only in the 1600s did singular “you” start pushing out “thou” and “thee.” Having the same pronoun for both singular and plural forms makes for potential ambiguity. So colloquial plural forms have sprung up, such as “y’all,” common in the American South, or the more recent “you guys” — an oddly gendered locution at a time when the generic “he” is becoming extinct. Still, we get by. No one considers ditching the singular “you.”

For Baron, the benefit of singular “they” is that it is often used by those in search of a nonbinary or gender-neutral pronoun, as well as those who give such issues little thought. While many language mavens are coming around reluctantly to singular “they” — in December Merriam-Webster anointed “they” its “word of the year” — this newspaper is among those publications still holding out against it. The paper’s defense is convention. I admit that the nonbinary use of “they” to refer to a specific person — “Alex likes their burger with mustard” — still sounds jangly to my ears. I will get used to it. Language, as Baron eloquently shows, works as a dynamic democracy, not as rule by experts. The sticklers may not like “they” (singular) but they (plural) will eventually have to bow to the inevitable.

Baron’s book layers on rather too many examples of historical usage, including a 60-page “chronology of gender-neutral and nonbinary pronouns” at the end. This scholarly assiduousness, though, also makes him the ideal pilot through these contentious political-linguistic waters. If you want to know why more people are asking “what’s your pronoun?” then you (singular or plural) should read this book.


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