Recently a student congratulated me on my email signature. In light of that exchange, I thought it appropriate to share the following "unsatisfactory meditation" on personal pronouns.
He, him, his. These are my pronouns. Or at least, they are the ones I've answered to all my life.
It's become a custom, recently, to let other people know your pronouns by way of introduction. You might see them in an email signature. Sometimes people label them as "gender pronouns" or "preferred pronouns" or simply "pronouns." Or they might just be sitting there next to the person's name. You can now specify your pronouns in your Zoom profile, and on certain social media sites.
This might seem odd or unnecessary the first time you see it, but in practice it's actually very helpful. If you've ever experienced confusion over what pronoun to use with a new acquaintance, well, it can be embarrassing for all parties involved.
And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Calling somebody by the wrong pronoun can be downright harmful. It can even be a form of disrespect, harassment and abuse.
For some of us, this has never been an issue. Some of us are more or less unambiguously located in one gender or another — whether we want to be or not — and we rarely give it a second thought. No one ever questions our pronouns, not even ourselves. This has been my personal experience.
But it's a great big world out there, and a great spectrum of humanity. There are plenty of people for whom gender is more nuanced, or complicated, or subtle. These folks may experience discrimination or persecution in a society that has codified every aspect of life into rigid binary codes.
Hopefully, that is changing, but we all need to do our part to make that change real.
New norms, new possibilities
It's a good thing, then, to let people know your pronouns. It's a good new norm to establish as we work to build a more just and humane society. It's in this spirit that I'm opting to add my pronouns to my email signature. It's a little thing, but in some ways it represents something big: the erosion of certain forms of gender privilege, which run deep.
So: He, him, his. These are my pronouns.
Or are they?
You'll notice I don't call them my "preferred" pronouns. They don't represent a preference on my part. Honestly, for most of my life, it never occurred to me that I had a choice in the matter. These are simply the labels I've received and, for the most part, accepted uncritically.
This whole issue awakens heretofore unconsidered possibilities for me. Could I actually use some other pronoun? Could I mount a re-branding campaign and get all my friends, family, and coworkers to refer to me differently, to re-categorize where they locate my identity in their heads?
The most obvious alternative to he him his would seem to be she her hers. Sounds kind of cool. If you want to refer to me this way, I won't mind. However, I would feel exceedingly flaky, trying to change my he to she. I don't have any particular impetus to justify such a shift. I don't have any desire to change my actual gender at this point in my life. I imagine there are probably men out there who prefer the feminine pronoun and use it, despite presenting as cis-het male (like me) but I've never met one.
If I had my druthers, I'd rather have a gender-neutral pronoun. After all, why should my gender be at the forefront of my linguistic reference? It's not the most important aspect of my being in the world.
Unfortunately, the gender neutral pronouns of English — it and its — sound rather dehumanizing to me. I don't particularly want to be perceived as an inanimate object.
This raises a question. What if I met someone who preferred to be addressed as it? I suppose I'd oblige, but I fear it might be difficult.
Of course, we could invent new pronouns, and some have. I have a rather distant acquaintance who prefers the coinage ze. However, I've never met zir in real life. I can't say how I'd manage, but I'd certainly do my best, out of respect for the person, but also because I do see that we have a real need for a gender-neutral pronoun in our language.
People have been trying to fill that need for more than 200 years. Ze is just the latest in a long string of such proposals. Will it stick? Maybe, but the last two centuries are littered with previous attempts. Linguistic scholar Dennis Baron calls these "words that failed." (See also Baron's recent book, What's Your Pronoun?)
One option that seems to be gaining ground is the singular they. While ze is embraced by the online genderqueer community, singular they is being used by a wide swath of people. I'll bet you've used it yourself. I know I have. For example, at the office: "Whoever just used the microwave needs to clean up their mess!"
At first, my inner grammarian was dismayed by such usage. But now I'm rooting for singular they as the best chance we have in English for a widespread gender neutral pronoun.
I've learned the word they has been used this way for centuries, in situations where the specific identity (and gender) of the person is simply not known. What's new is the idea of using singular they for a specific person as a matter of choice. For example: "Casey really needs to clean up their mess in the microwave."
To be honest, I kind of wish we could all just use gender-neutral pronouns for everyone. It would be so much simpler.
You can call me they if you want some practice, but I won't insist on it. Again, I simply don't have any particular impetus to justify the effort such a shift would entail.
For my email signature, I'm sticking with he him his for now — but I don't have to like it!
Thank you for bearing with me through this extended and unsatisfactory meditation on pronouns, lightly adapted from my 2018 column on Mid-City Messenger. Since that time, the pronoun phenomenon has exploded at a pace John McWhorter calls "exhilarating."
Hopefully by now you've seen the value of specifying your pronouns. Let me go one step further and ask you to consider doing so as a matter of course, with every class you teach, as you introduce yourself to your students. You can put them in your syllabus. You can put them in your Zoom profile. And of course, you can put them in your email signature.
Post-script: mypronouns.org is a handy resource if you want to learn more.