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Personal Pronouns

On 27 June 2024, John McWhorter used his column at The New York Times to talk about the modern debate over pronouns in the context of gender fluidity and/or ambiguity. Writing as a linguist, he opined that

I am very much in favor of the new prevalence of gender-neutral pronominal usage. As conceptions of gender become more fluid, we need a pronoun that allows for more possibility.

He also expressed his doubts on claims that accepting the use of gender-fluid pronouns was, somehow, a root cause or prime mover to accepting other gender-fluidity-related things like “…gender-affirming surgery, gender-neutral bathrooms and trans women on women’s sports teams.”  As he noted,

But this idea — that pronouns can encourage people to become trans — reflects a grave misunderstanding of how language works.

I don’t disagree with him on the latter pronouncement.  It seems, as well, to me that the causality probably goes the other way.

I do, however, disagree with him on the pronouns — or, at least, on the current practice of insisting on pronouns (plural) vs. pronoun (singular).  I sent this to him to tell him why.

 

27 June 2024

I would have no problem with a general purpose gender-neutral pronoun that applied to people (i.e., not “it”) rather than to things (i.e., “it”).

My problem with the current use of “personal pronouns” is that they are — personal.

Under the old system, one had a pretty good shot at getting it right based purely on what was physically observable.  There was a rule:

Someone looks male, it is “he”

Someone looks female, it is “she”

Yes, in the rare instance one could not actually tell whether someone they wanted to address or identify was male or female and that could be embarrassing.  But that was, as I said, rare.  For the most part, the rule worked and it was easy.  More: it was automatic.

No, it didn’t necessarily reflect that person’s unobservable and evolving internal self-image.  I’m sorry.  You are a stranger to me.  I do my best…

But, now, I am supposed to intuit (in the worst cases) and remember (in all cases) how you personally and idiosyncratically chose to conceive of and identify yourself today.

To hell with that!  I can barely remember names unless I’ve heard them 20 times; I am not going to remember your personalized pronoun unless I’ve heard it at least as many times — and probably more times because I was brought up in an era and in a society in which the selection of pronouns was reflex.  Old habits — and mine are pretty old, indeed — really are hard to break.

What I want is a return to the old notion of impersonal pronouns.

I don’t actually care what they are — as long as they follow a reliable and observable rule I can equally make into habit…

 

© Copyright 2024, Augustus P. Lowell

 

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