September 22, 2014

Commentary | February 24, 2014
Conjugating inclusion
‘They’ will overcome the gender-binary

In her poem recently published in The New Yorker, Canadian poet Anne Carson explains the origins of the titular “Pronoun Envy”:

is a phrase
coined by Cal Watkins
of the Harvard Linguistics Department
in November 1971

to disparage certain concerns
of the female students
of Harvard Divinity School.

In a world
where God is “He”

and everyone else
“mankind,”

what chance
do we have for
a bit of attention?
seemed to be their question.

This question has not yet been answered – although ‘hu-’ has been added to ‘mankind,’ the English language continues to have difficulty paying attention to everyone. By now, proponents of grammatical equality not only advocate for equality between male and female pronouns, but also seek representation for people who do not identify with either side of this linguistic gender binary.

For instance, in the following sentence, gender is irrelevant: “If somebody wants to bicycle in winter, [pronoun] should be very careful.” Other sentence structures can mention specific people who do not identify with either traditional gender: “[X] bought winter tires, so that [pronoun] could bike through the snow.” Both these sentences illustrate cases where using the s/he dichotomy is inappropriate.

In response to the problem, some have tried to develop a new pronoun, with minimal success. ‘Ey,’ ‘Ne,’ ‘Ve,’ ‘V,’ ‘Xe,’ and ‘Ze’ all have their own champions (who tend to also be the creators of the new word), but this multiplicity defeats the purpose of a pronoun, which is by nature generic. The Gender Neutral Pronoun Project offers gender-neutralized excerpts of Alice in Wonderland on its blog, using different pronouns to demonstrate how each one works within a text. However, due to the rarity of their usage, these deliberately fabricated pronouns often feel somewhat contrived.

‘They’ is more commonly used to ensure gender neutrality since it is already an established pronoun. Some object to this use of ‘they’ as a singular pronoun for grammatical reasons, arguing that it leads to awkward and incorrectly constructed sentences such as “[X] unlocked their bicycle.” In this sentence there is a disagreement in number; the subject is singular while the pronoun is seemingly plural. Though this may be a little awkward, it is much less awkward (not to mention less hurtful and ignorant) than a disagreement in gender would be. What’s more, the hypothetical confusion caused by the former disagreement is nothing that context and common sense can’t remedy.

Though it may be considered inelegant, using ‘they’ as a generic, neutral pronoun has a long history. Even Shakespeare employed it, in lines such as: ‘God send every one their heart’s desire!’ (Much Ado About Nothing, Act III, Scene 4). Shakespeare is also notorious for having introduced countless words that are now indispensable: accuse, bedroom, critic; the list goes on. This serves to remind us that language is not static, that it is meant to change, especially as what it is used to express changes.

The widespread adoption of a gender neutral third pronoun is fair and logical because of the legitimacy it offers to the struggles of people who cannot find themselves within the confines of the current linguistic binary, and for the way it allows discussion of people without the mention of a specific gender. Still, the success of such a pronoun depends on standardization, and I personally find that ‘they’ seems to have the best chance. Facebook’s recent development of customizable gender, and the option to use ‘they’ as a singular pronoun shows that popular awareness is growing. In this case, where social media leads, we should follow.


Magdalene Klassen is a U0 Arts student. To contact Magdalene, email commentary@mcgilldaily.com.

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