Gender-neutral pronouns : Pedantique-Ryter not ranting

Useful, or confusing, or old hat?

3 doors representing options

Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay

Many people now make clear what pronouns they prefer, including gender-neutral ones. How often have you seen “she/her” or “he/him” or “they/them” after an email signature? (Perhaps some are even suggesting “it/it” though I have not noticed any of those.)

The reasons for choosing one option over another are purely for the person concerned and need not be disclosed to anyone else. Nor should anyone else have a say in the person’s choice.
Not even grammar pedants.

So, for once, this is not a rant. More of an exploration.

Regular use of gender-neutral pronouns feels recent. But is it?
And even if it is a new departure, does it matter? After all, some people find it useful.
Surely if person A does not wish to be referred to as either “he” or “she”, that is their choice?

I’m sure you are paying careful attention to what I’ve written here. So you noted what I did in that last sentence, did you not?

I used “their choice”.

Was I right?
Or was I wrong?

Please decide before you read on…

What does the Oxford English Dictionary say?

Don’t rely on me here. Let’s ask the OED. Their usage records go back centuries. Wikipedia also has an article but it is very very long.

Using “their” for the singular, as I did in that earlier paragraph, actually has a venerable history. Since at least 1375, according to the OED. Not a recent innovation, then.

The OED’s history section has a neat little article on the history of singular they. Worth a read—unlike Wikipedia’s, it’s not long—but here’s an extract that you might enjoy:

In 1794, a contributor to the New Bedford Medley mansplains to three women that the singular they they used in an earlier essay in the newspaper was grammatically incorrect and does no “honor to themselves, or the female sex in general.” To which they honourably reply that they used singular they on purpose because “we wished to conceal the gender,” and they challenge their critic to invent a new pronoun if their politically-charged use of singular they upsets him so much.

Did the mansplaining contributor feel chastened or did the response confirm him in his arrogance and misogyny? The OED does not tell us. But, given the date, I doubt much new thinking took place in his big manly brain. What do you think?

That extract proves that singular they was clearly being used in the 18th century and used with purpose. Those three women knew what they wanted to achieve and wrote accordingly. I’d say the same is true of modern people who deliberately choose to be referred to as they/them. Which, as I said earlier, is their right.

Gender-neutral pronouns : not a problem in English?

So we could refer to everyone as they/them and it wouldn’t matter.
Or would it?

Well… It depends. Doesn’t it always?

As an illustration, I got one of the gels in the hive to write a story to show how problems can arise when the writer is not being careful. Joanna drew the short straw. (In fact, I collared her before she reached the office door. The other gels were quicker on their feet.)

Let me share Joanna’s story with you…

Once upon a time, there were three friends, called Chris, Alex and Frankie. They’d known each other for ever—well, since primary school, anyway—and now, years later, they were sharing a house at university. They weren’t all studying the same subject, though. One was studying languages, one medicine, one philosophy. 

One Friday, over coffee and chocolate biscuits, they were talking about the finer points of language, including the use of gender-neutral pronouns which they preferred over gendered ones like he/she. They always insisted on being called “they/them” which their friends tried to adhere to. Sometimes it was a bit difficult, and the wrong words came out. They had devised an answer, though. If anyone addressed them by a gendered pronoun, they pretended they hadn’t heard. Mostly it worked.

“That’s the answer,” they said, getting up to fetch their coat. “Let’s all go to the pub, shall we?”

woman against background of questionmarksQuestion: who is holding forth in Joanna’s paragraph 2? One or more people?

I’d judge that it’s impossible to say from that paragraph alone.

There’s a hint in the last paragraph (“their coat” rather than “their coats”) that only one of the three might be speaking. But which one? No idea. Equally, two or three different people could have come up with the opinions in paragraph 2, even if only one later fetched a coat.

And they all have unisex names which doesn’t help, either. If “they” were changed to “he” or “she”, we still wouldn’t know who was pontificating.

Why is this a problem? Surely Chris, Alex and Frankie are entitled to ask to be addressed as “they”?

Of course, they are, but that’s not the problem here. It’s rather different.

Being understood matters, especially to your readers

word "clarity" with spectaclesIn a story, it’s the author’s duty not to confuse the reader. And in Joanna’s story, we are all confused. (The gel’s writing is usually rather better than this. She did write this badly at my express request, I promise you.)

Confusing readers by using gender-neutral language seems to be something that [some] younger authors do increasingly. Gender-neutral is fine; confusing readers is not.
woman tearing hairPlease don’t do it.
A confused reader will ditch your book. What’s more, the confused reader will warn all their friends against reading your book.
By all means, use gender-neutral pronouns but not to the extent in Joanna’s example.

Wouldn’t it have been clearer if paragraph 2 had said: “…chocolate biscuits, Frankie, the philosophy student, was talking…”? That one change would make the text clearer if Frankie is the only speaker. It would make it even less confusing to change “They always insisted…” to “Frankie always insisted…” Not much to ask, is it? It doesn’t offend against the chosen they/them pronouns. And it can stop a lot of hair-tearing for the poor readers.

Woman overwhelmed by mouth-coloured letters

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

It reminds me of a related problem I came across in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. Mantel had decided that her novel would almost invariably refer to Thomas Cromwell as “he” rather than by name. I remember reaching the bottom of a page of dialogue and action and realising that I had no idea which of the many speaking/acting characters was Cromwell.

I was totally confused. The characters were all male, all labelled “he”.

I read the page again. And I was none the wiser at the end of the second read.

Booker prize, yes. (Though not for Wolf Hall.)
Clarity, no.

You will not be surprised to learn that I did not read either of Mantel’s later books on Cromwell. Even pedants can have blood pressure problems.

And you thought English had problems with this?

Have you thought about how gender-neutral pronouns would work in a gendered language like French? France, of course, has the académie française which aims to defend the purity of the French language, so it is perhaps not surprising that the advent of gender-neutral pronouns—singular iel/yel/ielle and plural iels/yels/ielles—created something of a storm.

The inciting incident was when the Petit Robert dictionary included iel/iels in its online version in 2021.

Ministers and members of the assemblée nationale took to pen and keyboard to protest. President Macron’s wife, Brigitte, joined in, too.

One of the protests called iel-users “les militants d’une cause qui n’a rien de Français”. Strong words.

Some social media responses were supportive, but quite a few of them suggested that the protesters should have better things to do. Other responses gleefully pointed out grammatical mistakes in the protests. (I can sympathise with that.) Yet others pointed out that using “Woke” and “wokisme” could be construed as an offence against the French they were trying to defend.perfectionist scissors the lawn

The fundamental problem here, as I am sure you will have realised, is the role and purpose of a dictionary. Is it prescriptive, to tell people what language is acceptable? Or is it descriptive, to record developing language?

dictionary open at the word "dictionary"

Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

The MD of the Petit Robert was unequivocally in the second camp, reminding readers that the dictionary’s mission was to observe and record the evolving French language in all its diversity.

The opponents of gender-neutral language might assume that I, as a fellow pedant, would supprt them. But in this case, I don’t.
Language evolves. If it does not, it dies.
(And, on that basis, you might say that I should accept words like bloviation. No, I do not. There have to be limits…)

Joanna’s plea to include a joke

One French response to the gender-neutral pedants made Joanna laugh her socks off and she insisted I include it here. Since she had helped out with the story above, I graciously agreed. I take no responsibility for what follows, though. Joanna wrote it all.

Thank you for reading
I Pedantique-Ryter
Dame Isadora Pedantique-Ryter

Joanna’s Joke?

The joke was this report form [click to enlarge] which the Twitter poster (@gashna64) asked injured persons to kindly fill out when whining about the internet. Note the snowflake logo, top right:

Translation notes:

  • pleurnicheur or pleurnicheuse is a cry-baby or whiner;
  • blessé or blessée means injured (not blessed). It’s one of those faux amis;
  • Ministère de la Fragilité means Ministry not Minister;
  • mouchoirs are handkerchieves.
  • If you choose the third option among the reasons for being a cry-baby, you are required to indicate the site of the injury on the body outlines.
  • The scale of cry-baby injury runs from 1-10, from an itchy buttock to bloody death throes.
  • For those whose eyes aren’t up to it, the small print at the very bottom of the form says, in rough translation (with apologies for the vulgarity but it’s in the French): “insert the completed form in an unstamped envelope and stick it up your arse.”

11 thoughts on “Gender-neutral pronouns : Pedantique-Ryter not ranting

  1. Lesley2cats

    A very considered response to a thorny problem, dear Dame Isadora. After a recent discussion with Libertá hive members on the subject I mentioned this to my daughter Phillipa, who pointed out how we all use “they” as a gender neutral pronoun and have done for years. An example from one of my own detective novels: “The murderer must have known the house. They were able to get out without being seen.” She was right. And so, of course, are you.

  2. Sarah Mallory

    What a great post. And quite reassuring, in this fast changing world. So thank you. Yes, we all use gender neutral pronouns without thinking about it but you are quite right, Lady I, to point out the dangers of any author confusing the reader.

    1. Dame Isadora Post author

      Thank you, Sarah dear. May I point out, though, that you have elevated me to the status of “Lady” which is incorrect. I am not [yet] a member of the House of Lords nor am I married to a knight or peer. For which I am grateful, I may add.

  3. Liz Fielding

    Such an interesting post on the historical background of the gender neutral pronoun. Having recently read a book in which only gender-neutral pronouns were used — and not only finding it tedious but being thoroughly confused on a number of occasions — I am firmly on the side of the reader. Use them by all means, but if I notice it to the point of annoyance, to the point where I won’t pick up another book by that writer, it has failed in its first duty — to communicate.

    1. Dame Isadora Post author

      Absolutely true, Liz dear. And when we have a private moment together, you may tell me the name of the author of that recent book. So that I may avoid them.

  4. Elizabeth Rolls

    I have NEVER been more glad that I paid attention in French classes at school! I am crying with laughter down here.

    1. Dame Isadora Post author

      Welcome again, Elizabeth. I presume that it is Joanna’s joke which is making you laugh [sigh]. Some gels never grow up…

  5. Sophie

    I’ve read a couple of novels in the science fiction genre where the author has created one or more gender-free pronouns in the singular and plural to indicate a third gender and/or sexual attraction potential. In one case it was perfectly clear and consistently used and I adjusted to it pretty quickly. In the other not. I gave up a third of the way through.

    So I looked at a classic of the genre – the wonderful Ursula le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness. On this alien world the inhabitants are gender neutral most of the time but become sexualised at intervals during which they may experience either male or female hormones. At different times, therefore, they may become either mother or father. To retain a consistent male or female gender, however, is regarded as an aberration.

    The story is told by the Ambassador from [our] Earth. He is male and uses the male pronoun naturally for all the characters he describes. (He is treated with slightly queasy respect by the ultra sophisticated ruling class; the less educated, hyper traditional and the hillbillies just think of him as a degenerate.)

    1. Dame Isadora Post author

      It is indeed a famous novel. However, Le Guin has avoided the pitfalls of gender-neutral pronouns by using an always-male narrator which is a clever move and allows her to avoid confusing the reader. It’s a pity that other authors do not find similarly effective solutions. It’s clear from your first paragraph that it’s possible to do so. One wonders what editors are doing? Or perhaps your confusing SF novel was self-published without a professional editor? (On that topic, Joanna was talking sound sense [for once] in her recent post,)


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