In March 2019, Indiana became the sixth state to offer a non-binary option on driver’s licenses. The Bureau of Motor Vehicles added this option in recognition of the nearly 8,000 residents that don’t identify as male or female.
The following post was originally published on August 28, 2018:
A couple of days ago, for the first time since fourth grade or so, I was involved in a meaningful discussion about pronouns.
Some friends and I were considering the merits of using plural pronouns—they, them, their, etc.—to refer to individual people, for the purpose of removing gender from the language. Doing so results in constructions such as:
- “Terry’s coming to dinner, and they’re bringing a blancmange.”
- “Pat fell down and broke their femur.”
- “Avery loves baseball so much that it’s fun to go to the game with them.”
All of these hit my ear with a thud. They seemed wrong. According to the language I’ve been paid to manipulate for decades, they are wrong. They remove some clarity; after all, Terry, Pat, and Avery could be male or female—
—or something a little less binary. If we accept the idea that gender is not necessarily an either/or proposition but exists on a spectrum, there certainly should be an impact on the language we speak and write.
In other words, instead of merely adding some uncertainty, using non-binary pronouns may actually remove bias.
As my friend Marti Steussy pointed out, maybe using plural pronouns for individual people isn’t so weird. There’s already a pronoun that signifies both individuals and groups: you. And none of our first-person or second-person pronouns are gender specific: I and me and you, etc., apply to everyone. Is it really that much of a stretch to apply the same conventions to third-person pronouns?
No. It’s not.
Language has to reflect the world we live in, and the world changes over time. I read Richard II a couple of weeks ago, and, even beyond the iambic pentameter, it could be rough sledding at times. Go back another couple of hundred years to The Canterbury Tales, and English was a different language.
And it’s not uncommon to consciously alter the language to correct sexism. In the latter part of the 20th century, we decided it was sexist that women’s honorifics had to signify their marital status, and so we adopted the neutral Ms. (which was actually in use as early as the 17th century). The term hasn’t eliminated Miss and Mrs., but it has become a standard—in my mind, the standard—form of address.
So what to do about he and she? They is already gender neutral. Should we accept it as singular, too?
Or maybe we already have a gender-neutral third-person pronoun: it. Which would make the first example above, “Terry’s coming to dinner, and it’s bringing a blancmange.” Does that work? Or is using it in reference to a person insulting?
Or…should we just try to eliminate those pronouns altogether? We could say/write, “Terry’s coming to dinner and is bringing a blancmange.” Writers have written around this kind of problem for years. For example, I often turn a singular noun into a plural noun to get around using a pronoun; I change “A firefighter has to be aware of his surroundings” to “Firefighters have to be aware of their surroundings.”
Or maybe we need brand-new gender-neutral pronouns. I’m open to that.
You should be, too. The language is going to change, whether you like it or not. Embrace it. Save your disdain for people who want to get rid of the Oxford comma. That’s still a battle worth fighting.
Photo by tedeytan (https://www.flickr.com/photos/taedc/26574995414/) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.