She, He, Other

 

The English language (and most other languages) reflects a superfluous focus on gender through gender-specific personal pronouns. This is one reason so many people fixate on gender, and are unsure of how to relate to a person whose gender is unknown. Some people go so far as to assign a gender to a person regardless of mixed gender identification or non-gender identification. This obsessive gender-assignment also applies to non-living objects such as vehicles and weather phenomena. Planes, trains, automobiles, and ships are often feminized with the personal pronouns “she,” “her,” and “hers.” Tornadoes, tsunamis, and the like are either feminized or masculinized depending on their assigned anthropomorphizing personal names. Perhaps most nonsensical gender-philic habit is using “he,” “him,” and “his” as default personal pronouns. Part of the solution would be using gender-neutral pronouns

Consider the following scenario-

Pat asks Robin. Robin answers Pat.

Now we have personal pronoun combinations to consider-

She thinks her answer is good.

He thinks his answer is good.

He thinks her answer is good.

She thinks his answer is good.

Assuming the “answer” in the sentences could either belong the the answerer or the answeree:

“She” and “her” could both refer to Pat, or could both refer to Robin. Likewise, “he” and “his” could both refer to Pat, or could both refer to Robin. Or the feminine and masculine pronoun groups could be bisected between Pat and Robin.

Without additional information about Pat and Robin, it is impossible to assign gender-specific pronouns without possibly getting it wrong. And this isn’t even considering Chris, who is intersexed, and Bobbie, who is genderqueer, and Tracy, who is a genderless AI.

So what the heck do we do? If we use gender-neutral pronouns to refer to Pat, Robin, Chris, and Morgan, we eliminate the risk of getting their genders- or lack of genders- wrong. Without context, we still don’t who is doing the asking and who is doing the thinking, but we won’t miss-assign genders. Using gender-neutral language will eliminate gender faux pas.

South Asian hijras.

Why is this so important? People tend to be influenced by their environments, and language is a specific environment of the mind. If an environment you are experiencing and using is supporting faulty gender assignments, you will tend to adapt the faulty assignments as valid within your environment. This linguistic relativity may perpetuate sexism

Obviously, the use of gender-neutral language is not yet widely accepted. People find gender-neutral pronouns clumsy and dismissible because they aren’t taught in enough schools with enough consistency.

So in the meantime, I see nothing wrong with “they” as an all-inclusive personal pronoun, though assigning a plural pronoun to a singular noun may seem awkward at first. I also see nothing wrong with “it” as an all-inclusive personal pronoun, but most people, including transhuman Zinnia Jones, do:

  

 

What is your opinion of gender-neutral language?

 

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4 Comments

  1. I’ve worked in aviation as a technical editor and writer. Most manuals start off with a disclaimer saying something along the lines of, “Hey, we’re going to use HE and HIS throughout this manual, but all you women best not be offended!” (Okay, so the disclaimer’s not THAT bad!)

    I always shoot for gender neutral pronouns. I’ve been known to jump back and forth between her and his/he and she. While that can be a good solution, it’s sometimes interesting to see that gender stereotypes still come up in the writing of people flip-flopping he and she; I often see higher positions given to “him” and lower positions given to “her.”

    I like using “they” as well. I don’t like making assumptions about people. I know some people would accuse me of being politically correct, but it has nothing to do with that and everything to do with being understanding and courteous.

    I think if one has a very limited view of the world and what makes biology tick, they might think going gender neutral is ridiculous. But I’ve had long discussions with gay and transgendered friends about how they identify with themselves and the world around them, so I consider assigning masculine and feminine qualities to a pronoun if I don’t know the person or group I’m writing about.

    It’s funny the things we hang onto when it comes to writing. Some of the critics of using gender-neutral pronouns say it’s clumsy, but they cling to the belief that splitting an infinitive is a grave sin against language, and they will construct a clumsy sentence to avoid splitting an infinitive (or ending a sentence with a preposition).

    Simply out of respect for people, I use gender-neutral pronouns.

    Reply
    • Yeah, those “don’t be offended by the gender-biased language” disclaimers irk me. I know they mean well, but . . gad.

      I believe one of the measures of a good writer is how successfully the writer bends and twists a limited language, and its limiting rules, to make the most sense in the real world. I also believe gender-neutral language will help reduce hate crimes against women and other gender minorities.

      Of course there are very good reasons to use feminine and masculine pronouns and other descriptors within certain contexts. (Gender-blindness is not very useful when describing events of and about gender- biology, sexuality, sociology, et cetera.) I’d just like to see gender removed from places it doesn’t belong. I know it won’t happen tomorrow.

      Reply
  2. I like the gender neutral pronouns that Zinnia presents. I think that gender-neutral language is helpful to define people of whom you don’t know their gender or prefer an androgynous gender identity, such as myself. Although people who know me usually call me he, people who randomly see me on the internet or others I don’t know may refer to me as she, but it doesn’t really bother me. However, I try to look past gender and partially see it segregating and overly defining people, even though it is an inescapable biological factor that we are born with and influences our lives and our personalities and behavior, as well as the behavior of others toward us.
    I am classified as an androgyne personality and can relate to both masculine and feminine personalities, although sometimes I can lean more into a feminine direction sometimes, even though I have qualities that can be referred to as masculine. Rather, I dislike to refer to any quality as masculine or feminine, even though all throughout our lives we are predisposed to do so. This is mainly because of people being so afraid to step outside their gender role and deny themselves of some certain quality they have or partaking in something because it is characterized by the opposite gender role. This is probably due to the fact that I’ve gone through a lot of self hatred and insecurity because of this throughout my entire life.
    I’m actually glad that Zinnia introduced these gender neutral pronouns to me, I’m probably going to end up using them now.

    Note: I’m terrible at articulating my ideas and feelings. :s

    Reply
    • Thank you for your comments. I’m glad to get feedback on my gender-related post from an androgynous person.

      I also don’t agree with assigning “feminine” or “masculine” modifiers to human qualities. This practice feeds into stereotypes and limits freedom, especially in a conservative culture, in my opinion. That is also why I try to avoid using “she” and he,” etc, as much as possible, even though those identifiers are favored for clear communication in English. I predict people will be more accepting of genderless pronouns once genderqueer AI goes mainstream.

      I’m glad you are thinking about trying out gender-neutral pronouns; I imagine it would be tricky at first, with most (if not all) people around you using gender-specific pronouns. One blogger who consistently uses gender-neutral pronouns is Summerspeaker at http://queersingularity.wordpress.com/ I recommend reading the posts to get a feel for the fluidity of gender-neutral language.

      I hope you are at a point of self-love and security in your life now. Many people feel isolated because they don’t know others have the same non-mainstream questions and thoughts on gender as it relates to societal expectations and sexuality. The internet is, of course, a powerful means of uniting and empowering people with similar ideals. Zinnia’s blog and videos are a great example of this uniting force at work.

      Note: I think your comments are well-articulated. 🙂 Thanks for sharing.

      Reply

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