A modest proposal

I’ve been under the weather again and devoid of great thoughts about writing other than yeah, sure would be nice to sit up and do some. So in lieu of exciting new stuff, I’m going to repeat a recent proposal from my personal blog. Hey, it’s about language. Writers use language. It’s relevant.

Recently I came across an opinion column in the New York Times whose author, whom I’ll refer to as F.M. because I don’t want to give F.M. extra attention, complained bitterly about the oppression of traditional English-language third-person gendered pronouns. Yes. Referring to someone as “he” or “she” isn’t just a feature of the way our language developed; it would never happen if, in F.M.’s words, “we were not all so irredeemably obsessed by the particulars of the parts dangling between our fellow humans’ legs, nor the ridiculous expectations signified by those parts about how we should act and speak and dress and feel.”


Does F.M. believe that Hungarians, who use “ö” for third person singular without specifying gender, are less obsessed by certain body parts than are Americans? Listen, I’ve known a lot of Hungarians, and most of them took a healthy interest in those body parts and what they could do with them.

What about speakers of Swahili, which typically uses “yeye” for third person singular? I promise you that a culture which encases women in black bags has some seriously ridiculous expectations for gender-appropriate behavior.

Then there’s Hindi (vah), Finnish (hän), Igbo (ya)… Need I continue?

If the grammar of English and related languages is so oppressive, maybe F.M. could learn Hungarian, Swahili, Hindi, Finnish, Igbo, or one of the many other languages that doesn’t have the he/she distinction. Sure, there might be a smaller audience in each of these languages for silly opinion pieces, but surely that’s a tiny price to pay for freedom from these horrible gender expectations!

But nooo, F.M. wants us to change standard English usage and make “they” the standard third person singular pronoun. F.M. isn’t going to change a damn thing; rather, the rest of us must all change our language to conform to F.M.’s sensibilities!

Fortunately, English already has a non-gender-specific third person pronoun: “it”. And yes, “it” is used to refer to living beings when we don’t know or care about the gender.

“If your dog keeps barking, would you please take it inside?”

“Watch out for that baby, it’s about to throw itself out of the cradle!”

“Darling, there’s a possum sitting in the trash can and snarling at me; would you please persuade it to go somewhere else?”

I will be happy to refer to F.M. as “it” from now on, and I hope it is properly appreciative of my decision to respect its feelings.

(Image: Whoisjohngalt [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D


  1. I was once chided for using “it” to refer to a human, until the other party saw the individual in question. The fusser agreed that in this case, “it” was not inappropriate. (Short version, androgynous clothing and hair, and extreme body mods.)

    1. There’s a story here somewhere… extreme body mods conceal rise in industrial accidents.

      Or: we’ve already sold all the useful body parts; we put this together from leftovers. As you might expect, it has functional defects.

  2. From what I remember, Old or Middle English had a gender neutral pronoun– hit. I think I could use hit. 😉

  3. > a possum sitting in the trash can and snarling at me;

    Tip the can over or drop something in so it can climb out, then back off ten feet or so to get outside their threat zone. Or if you’re in a hurry just pick the poor guy up by the scruff and set him down on the ground. There are no authenticated cases of a Virginia Opossum biting a human, but when you look at that mouthful of teeth you always wonder if all the opossums got the word…

    Opossums diverged from the rest of the mammalian family tree a long while back; at first glance most people think “rat”, and then they think “alien”, in the “kill-it-with-fire!” sort of way; others flip into “OMFG they’re so *cute!” mode.

    – TRX “it’s not off-topic if you brought it up first!”

  4. One of my lefty friends posted yesterday about how the Merriam Webster web site had just added “they” as an ungendered pronoun.

    I pointed out that according to my 1974 Merriam-Webster Pocket Dictionary “they” was listed as a pronoun describing, “those persons under discussion. People”

    So it’s been a pronoun without gender association for at least 45 years. Big flippin’ deal if it’s specifically listed as “ungendered” now.

  5. “I’ve been under the weather again and devoid of great thoughts about writing other than yeah, sure would be nice to sit up and do some.”

    That’s going around. I’ve got some of that myself. My get-up-and-go got up and went sometime last week. But its wearing off now, so I’m slowly getting to the stuff that can’t wait. Like the grass didn’t stop growing, ferinstance. 😦

    Regarding the pronoun thing. I’m (unsurprisingly) against it. If there is some human being in front of me demanding “they” or “zir” or whatever, I’ll try not to be rude. Because being rude in somebody’s face like that is A) rude and B) unsafe. Never start shit if you don’t already know how its going to turn out.

    As this is science fiction, I have once written an “it” character, an Elder of a very old empire of machine intelligences. The character hadn’t picked a gender, because machines don’t have gender unless they want to. Later it decided to be a human female, and she is currently deliriously happy playing house with her AI boyfriend.

    The machine aliens also do relationships, marriage and procreation weird, because they don’t have biology the way we do. Had some fun doing that, I think it turned out pretty cool.

      1. They don’t even have machinery unless they’re doing something in the physical world. They’re software, they run on servers. Their processes run simultaneously on physical hardware located in multiple star systems.

        How does an old something like that look after a young one? Carefully, it turns out. They’re fun to write.

  6. The adage that the only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.

    The first use of singular “they” occurs in the 1300s. Furthermore, people have used singular “you” without fussing over it.

    This comes down to 18th Century and modern grammarians forgetting that singular you was a plural pronoun that had become singular as well.

    So, I find the discourse around singular “they” well intentioned, but ill informed.

  7. But women were never numerate before the Obama administration made it possible, so we need extensive speech policing to get the first actual non-male graduates with degrees in mathematics.

  8. Speaking of pronouns… When I was a student in college in the 1990s (I was a late-bloomer), my college started pushing a “writing across the curriculum” program. Which meant if you were writing a paper for a non-English class, you were still expected to use proper grammar. (That seemed weird to me, because I already thought I was supposed to always use proper grammar for any class!) Anyway, I had a computer science professor who didn’t seem to grasp the proper use of “writing across the curriculum.” He wanted us to turn in reports that were written “in the third person,” but he specifically forbade us to use “he, she or it”! Seriously, what the heck!?

    So, I wrote one paper about Bill Gates being (at that time) the richest man in the world. I wanted to write “Bill Gates is the richest man in the world. He is also the head of Microsoft,…” etc. But since I couldn’t use “he,” I instead wrote “Gates” again. And again, and again, and again…. I must have used “Gates” instead of “he” about 50 times on a single page. I did that deliberately, just to protest the professors weird dictate. But the professor loved that kind of writing! So, naturally, I went out of my way to write other papers that way. I even used a thesaurus to see what uncommon words I could substitute for common words. But no matter how weird I wrote a paper, the professor loved it.

    I guess the moral of this story is give the audience what it wants!?

    That all being said, I will *refuse* to refer to someone with a biologically-incorrect pronoun. I will tell people such as, “No, you’re not a woman, you are a man who is confused, and possibly mentally ill.” If folks go along with the game, they mentally-ill folks will make even more bizarre demands. They are like spoiled two or three-year old brats who are used to always getting their way and never having to hear someone else tell them “no”! I also tell folks that you can call a cat a dog, but it is still a cat, and is definitely NOT a dog!


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