Hello, my name is Eyan, my pronouns are He/Him, and I use Mx. as a formal address when necessary (instead of Mr. or similar, and one day, I will be Dr. instead). I am openly transgender and switched to masculine pronouns nearly 3.5 years ago when I came out socially and told everyone who knew me I was a man. For nearly 4 years, I have had near-constant conversations about pronoun use, making assumptions regarding which pronouns to choose and the viability of singular they as a grammatical inclusion.
Pronoun discussions are becoming more prevalent in schools, workplaces and friend groups, as they should. Creating an inclusive and safe world for each other where we are conscious of how language has been historically wielded as a weapon should be the goal of all people. Language is a living construct, which is part of what makes it ever-changing. English as a language has had three distinct eras: Old English, Middle English and Modern English.
I give this contextual background because I believe it is important. The arguments leveled against me and my community regarding pronoun use have ranged from aggressive to uninformed, but the vast majority come from well-intentioned (I choose to believe) people: “But that’s not grammatically correct.”
Enter Dennis Baron, professor emeritus of English and Linguistics at The University of Illinois, a Guggenheim Fellow and a frequent collaborator and commentator on language issues from NPR, CNN, The Washington Post and others. This is a man who has spent his academic and professional career studying English as a language and a literary movement. He is, quite literally, one of the foremost experts of English grammar alive today. In fact, he published an academic article from 1987 titled The Epicene Pronoun: The Word that Failed that covers many of the same arguments present today, over 30 years later, and refutes them just as easily. He notes immediately in this essay that until the 18th century, which would have been the 1700s (and three hundred years ago), the use of the singular “they/them/theirs” was prevalent, and only began to be refuted as ungrammatical in the middle of the century. He ends his article with a glossary of singular pronouns found in literature, noting what years they appeared. What’s Your Pronoun is Baron’s most recent publication, and his fifth book.
The story of how we got from he and she to zie and hir and singular they. Like trigger warnings and gender-neutral bathrooms, pronouns are suddenly sparking debate, prompting new policies in schools, workplaces and even prisons, about what pronouns to use. Colleges ask students to declare their pronouns; corporate conferences print nametags with space for people to add their pronouns; email signatures sport pronouns along with names and titles. Far more than a byproduct of campus politics or culture wars, gender-neutral pronouns are, in fact, nothing new. Renowned linguist Dennis Baron puts them in historical context, demonstrating that Shakespeare used singular they; that women evoked the generic use of he to assert the right to vote (while those opposed to women’s rights invoked the same word to assert that he did not include she), and that self-appointed language experts have been coining new gender pronouns, not just hir and zie but hundreds more, like thon, ip and em, for centuries. Based on Baron’s own empirical research, What’s Your Pronoun? tells the untold story of gender-neutral and nonbinary pronouns.
I hesitate to attach a formal rating to this book, as I would a novel or biography, simply because I want to recommend the book as important and accessible without my personal regard for style etc., negatively impacting. I think the importance of this book, especially now in Pride month, cannot be overstated.
I’d like to share my favorite moments: Baron opens chapter two with a quote from an 1873 issue of The Times. It references the use of “he” or “one” as a placeholder pronoun, an attempt made at the time. He says now, in 2022, that pronouns are still political, and using a “masculine” as an attempt at the generic is rooted in years of systemic inequality. After the 1970’s feminism waves resulted in decreased use of the masculine he as a generic pronoun, we don’t see it so frequently today. Other words cause similar debates, however. At least once a month, I have a conversation with someone explaining why the word dude is not gender-neutral, for example.
Baron gives a detailed discussion not only of the grammatical trends and changes through the years but the social contexts that allowed for those changes to be made. He examines social movements, like the rise of feminism, Supreme Court cases and years of media and literary responses to the pronoun discussion. In using the history of legal proceedings, including the way amendments have been crafted to the US Constitution, Baron illustrates systemic inequality. One example, in brief, refers to the Suffragette movements of the 20th century. Before women had the legal right to vote in the USA, the masculine coded pronouns of the Constitution were used as a means to keep women from gaining that legal right. Because the pronouns used in the original Constitution are only “he,” some men who felt women should not be allowed to vote used that language as a means to support their erroneous opinions.
Pronouns were political during the fight for suffrage, and they remain political today, though the focus of the debate has expanded from women’s rights to encompass the rights of LGBTQ persons, particularly those who identity as trans, nonbinary, or gender-nonconforming, including their right to designate a pronoun.
Including their right to designate a pronoun is what sticks with me here. Lacking a concise word to describe an identity does not mean that identity does not or had not exist[ed]. Expanding beyond this idea, Baron uses the remainder of this chapter to discuss the differences between gender-inclusive pronouns and nonbinary pronouns. This is more a difference of context than anything else, as a gender-neutral pronoun can be used by a nonbinary person, but a nonbinary person does not have to use a pronoun otherwise considered gender-neutral.
Another common response to fluctuating definitions and words in vogue: “that’s not a real word”/”not in the dictionary” or similar. Baron’s response to this:
Critics of word coinage typically argue that in order to succeed, words must arise naturally and spread across a speech community. But for a word to arise naturally, first someone has to create it, and other people have to find it useful enough to repeat it. (page 111)
One of the greatest things about a community of my peers has to be the way we can share language with each other. We pick up and put down pronouns, names, definitions, until something resonates with our own identity. This exploration—seen by those outside the community as an indication that we don’t truly know ourselves—can often lead to a deeper understanding of our individual identities. Having that space to explore is vital to a developing sense of self. Pronouns, for many of us, do not necessarily indicate an exact identity, rather, they serve as an indication for how we might interact with our community. For example, I primarily use he/him pronouns, because socially this indicates I am along the male spectrum. There are places I am comfortable with they/them, though, because my relationship to my male gender is unique, and I want to be able to indicate that in spaces where there is more than the binary present. This isn’t entirely universal, many transgender people relate their pronouns to their exact identity, as many cisgender people do.
Another group, Trans Student Educational Resources (TSER) takes a more radical position: “There are no “male/female” or “man/woman” pronouns. All pronouns can be used for any gender and are gender neutral. We also do not use “preferred pronouns” due to people generally not having a pronoun “preference” but simply having “pronouns.” Using “preferred: can accidentally insinuate that using the correct pronouns for someone is optional.” (Page 138)
An excellent inclusion from a group with the authority to make such a claim, and reflective of my understanding surrounding pronouns as an identifier. As he continues, Baron highlights aspects from the recent Trump administration policies that harmed trans communities, and how far free speech goes to cover both a person with a non-confirmative pronoun and a person who rejects pronouns beyond the binary. Sometimes a pronoun makes someone uncomfortable. I have a friend whose main pronoun is they, and they have been told more than once by complete strangers that “free speech” indicates those strangers do not have to use they when speaking to or about my friend. When a workplace, school or government passes a law or ordinance to protect trans and nonbinary people by requiring the respectful use of language to reflect an individual’s pronouns, there is often push back from organizations who view this as an attack on their rights, rather than what it is: an attempt to give equity to those who have historically lacked it.
More to the point, official directives about pronouns don’t aim to silence speech. Instead, their goal is to validate the words of those whose voices have been consistently silenced. Official support for nonbinary pronouns reinforces the need to maintain respectful, neutral interactions on the job, in the classroom, in the marketplace and in other public situations where regulation is traditionally seen as appropriate—no different from rules against the use of racial, ethnic or religious slurs, swearing or harassment in such situations. (page 145)
Dennis Baron ends his book with a detailed chronology, beginning with the year 1770 and ending in 2019—when I assume Baron wrote the book, despite its publication in 2020. Things have also shifted in the two years since publication, which is fitting with Baron’s repeated observations of the fluid and dynamic nature of the English language. I think his work is vital to the pronoun conversation and can help fill in the gaps where a lack of knowledge creates discomfort.
It’s awkward to make a mistake and be corrected, having been on both sides of that situation, I can confidently assure you, it will be ok. Transgender people are not immediately and inherently angry or aggressive, we just want to move towards a world where we don’t make assumptions about what words to use for someone we don’t know.
If you enjoyed this discussion, please check out the book. It can be found on the 3rd floor in the nonfiction section under 425.55 BAR, or if our copy is checked out, there are plenty available in our consortium that can be requested quickly: What’s Your Pronoun? Beyond He & She.
I also recommend Word by Word: The Secret Lives of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper for a look at how dictionaries decide what words to include and how to define them.