Some time back, I wrote a post on pronouns. It’s time I say more about pronouns.
We’ll start with a disclaimer: I’m a straight white guy who’s never had to worry about finding pronouns that fit me outside of “he” and “his.” I’m aware that my experience isn’t going to be anyone else’s experience, and because of that, my views are shaped by a distance from this issue. What I’m presenting here is intended to be practical, not critical, and ultimately helpful.
This discussion is going to stall quite hard if we entrench ourselves in fixed positions that gender has to be one thing or another, that it cannot be fluid or variable, or that it’s a decision only pertaining to parts that dangle versus parts that don’t.
There exist people who do not identify or feel as though such positions represent them accurately, and while they may be different from you in that regard, in no way are they “wrong” or “sinful” or ____ (fill in the blank with dogma du jour) for feeling as they do. This is already a tough enough issue for people, let’s not complicate it with the idea that there’s shame to dole out unless they conform to belief systems they don’t agree with.
I have yet to meet anyone who disagrees with the notion that all people like to be treated with respect. One of the ways to show respect is by addressing a person in a manner they deserve (a doctor or by rank and title for instance) or that they prefer (call me John, not Mr. Adamus).
Using preferred pronouns conveys that preference.
Before we talk about non-binary pronouns, we all know what a pronoun’s technical job is, right? Use a pronoun in place of a noun or noun phrase. They’re differentiated by subtype, so you have different kinds of pronouns to use in different situations. Use an interrogative in a question; use a possessive in relation to an object owned or claimed.
Gendered pronouns convey a set of expectations and assumed facts when used. When “he”,”his”, “she”, “hers” show up in text, you get a set of ideas in mind as to what you can expect when picturing the person/item identified that way.
But there are people who don’t feel he/his||she/hers best identifies them. And it’s okay that they feel this way, as language is meant to drift and evolve and grow to include new concepts. Yes, I know, it’s not a “new” concept, since loads of other languages and cultures have included non-binary pronouns for some time. But, it’s new in our modern syntax to most, and humans are due a base level of respect and courtesy, the least we can do while discussing groups of people is get some words correct. So let’s get our list started.
You can use “they” when talking about a single being. Here’s an example:
“What did the defendant do next?”
“They went to the car.”
There’s only one defendant, but they is used to describe them. The important bit here is that even though it’s one person, you still follow all the rules for they, as you would if they were a plural. Go with “they are” NOT “they is.”
Likewise, any modification to they, gets treated like all the other times you’d use they – them, themselves, etc. The only difference is that a singular they refers to one person, even though we also use that word when we talk groups of people.
Ze (also written as Zhe, Zhie, Cie, Sie) and Zir (also written as Zher, Hir, Zir, Mer)
This nonbinary pronoun sees a lot of use in technical or instructional publications. The first set (Ze – Sie) are the personal pronouns, so use them as you would he or she. The second set (Zir – Mer) are the possessive, so use them as you his or hers.
When you want to get reflexive, as you would with himself or herself, just add self to any of the possessive pronouns, as in Zirself. No, you don’t need to hyphenate it, just treat it like any other word.
A note about pronunciation: I’ve heard it as “-ee” as though it rhymes with “we” and I’ve heard it “-ay” as though it rhymes with “day.” I’m calling it user’s choice.
Jee, Jeir, and Jem
This pronoun sees usage when discussing mutable genders, where there’s a great deal of fluidity. The specific words act as both personal and possessive pronouns, so use the same one for either he or his, she or hers. As with so many other elements of writing, be consistent with your choice. And again, to form the reflexive, add “-self”.
Pronunciation is again user’s choice, ranging from “-ee” (“we”) to “-ay” (“day”); “jeer” (as in jeer, like a taunt), and as in “gem” like diamonds or the girl with the Holograms.
I find this one interesting, because it looks like Ze (and is pronounced similarly), follows the personal and possessive rules of Jee (meaning you just use the word, with no change to it), but goes tags on -self when it gets reflexive, as in Xeself. It’s a very popular hybrid. It’s also the one I see most often used casually. It’s also the one I default to along with singular they when I don’t know what else to use.
Have you noticed that many pronouns use an -e as their vowel sound, the same way “he” and “she” did? Do you think that’s a way to bridge the linguistic gap, or is that a point of ancestry? That just occurred to me as I was typing.
Ve is another hybrid, taking the possessive as Ver and the reflexive as Verself. There’s also a use for Vis and Visself, but in that variation there is controversy. You’re only one letter removed from the he and she pronouns, and many people avoid using Ve for this reason – it’s not distinct enough to be “proper.” I don’t know if it’s proper or not. I don’t think it’s worth running people out of town on a rail for not being “distinct enough.” I also don’t see Ve getting used all that much. So, grain of salt all around.
Michael Spivak is a mathematician and physics lecturer who developed what are known as Spivak pronouns. They were quite popular on MOOs about twenty years ago (a MOO is a text MMO, they were a lot of fun), then they lost popularity as other pronoun types got used, but they’re returning to favor now because they’re easier to navigate than Tantajl, anti-Carlton, and Mackay. (Those are three other sets of pronouns, and there’s a huge grammar/social politics rabbit hole you can fall into, so google them if you’re interested).
Spivak pronouns are more phonic than most. The singular is ey, used for he or she, pronounced as -ay. The plural is em, used for them, and pronounced -em, and the reflexive is emself. The possessive is eir, used as in their, and pronounced as in -air.
The Spivaks are easy because they’re the vowel sounds we’re already used to, just now applied as pronouns.
This one comes to me from Twitter, so shoutout to Jess Wesley and s.e smith for bringing this to my attention. Ou traces its roots to Old English, though I must credit s.e. smith for being far more voluminous and prepared on this issue than I’m doing justice here. For greater detail check this out.
Ou is used as is (just ou) in place of he, she, his, hers, or theirs. Ouself is used reflexively. It’s pronounced as in “ooh”, like “Ooh, there’s a dollar in my coat pocket.”
Everyone good so far? Let’s dig deeper then.
Many of us grew up and were taught that there’s just two pronouns, maybe three if you throw in singular they. And there’s a space for debate as to whether or not that’s “wrong” or whether we were all collectively raised “wrong.” I suppose that debate centers around whether or not we should feel guilt or shame for not being aware of an issue. There’s a great deal of hyperbole that gets tossed around with concepts of erasure or silencing, and I’m trying to parse the inflammatory from the practical, often without much success. This is contentious issue for some.
The point I’m trying to make is that in communicating with other people, mistakes are going to occur. You may address someone as he, but they prefer she. Or Xe. Or they. Or They. Or whatever.
It’s not the end of the world. You make a mistake, you get corrected, you try not to make the mistake again. It’s not cause to castigate or derail whatever communication you’re already having. It isn’t all that dissimilar from finding out you’re going to talk to a person named Terry and expect them to be one way only to find that they’re not. It doesn’t change any quality about Terry, Terry is still Terry, it’s just your expectation that’s been altered. Hopefully you’ve not built your whole life on this expectation that mistaking one Terry will irrevocably throw your life into chaos, but I think you see my point.
Yes, you will find people who all lathered up about your error and they’ll want to express their displeasure passionately. That’s on them. Own your mistake, sure, but no one deserves a browbeating for misspeaking when that’s easily corrected.
Yes, there are people who will intentionally screw it up. That’s on them. There’s a word we use for those kinds of people who maliciously rankle, incite needless anger, and tout an agenda of volatility: they’re assholes. No pronoun necessary, because assholes are not constrained by gender.
In this era of professional victimization, grandiose entitlement, and divisive invective, pronouns need not be a battlefield. They are heralds for people, banners under which people draw comfort and identity, but they are not the Molotov cocktails signalling the rising of the masses against the palace gates. For many years our language used one set of words to the exclusion of others, and now we have the opportunity to have multiple words available.
Never is someone an “it.” We can do better than be pejorative. We can do better than objectifying a human. People decide how they wish to be spoken to, and we have to respect that. Using a new word isn’t all that difficult, even if you have to stick into your Microsoft Word dictionary because you’re tired of the damned red squiggle.
Be respectful. Be good to each other. Let’s create good stuff.
See you next week.