Until recently I had not paid attention to how often we use binary gendered pronouns, but, of course, they are nearly ubiquitous, and I am now more sensitive to their use. I might be asked, “What is Amelia doing?” My response, if I am being diligent in the way I ought to refer to the NBP (the nonbinary progeny), might be, “AJ is working for a neat nonprofit.” If the conversation continues, however, the conversation sounds stilted if I remain as diligent in respecting AJ as a nonbinary person. “AJ each day helps collect the flowers. AJ is responsible for managing the volunteers. AJ makes sure the bouquets are correctly delivered.”
If you are explaining someone’s work, your conversation would be dotted with binary gendered pronouns. “He balances the books.” “Her boss really seems to value her.” “He often gets aggravated by his job, but he is good at it.” While using gendered male pronouns after indefinite nouns and pronouns may seem technically noninclusive, but are grammatically inclusive, our binary gendered pronouns exclude much of humanity.
I don’t have pronouns to use for my child (and referring to the adult, accomplished AJ with “child” seems demeaning). Perhaps worse, years of conditioning often has me using “her” or “she” when I refer to AJ, and each time I hear such a gendered term leave my mouth, I feel is if I committed a small act of betrayal.
But if I could train myself to eschew the gendered pronouns, what would I say instead? I could just keep repeating “AJ” or replace it with nouns like “the child” or “the offspring” or “the descendant” or, after explaining it, “the NBP,” but all these formulation in ordinary conversation would sound from silly, to pretentious, to nonsensical.
Some nonbinary people state the desire to be referred, pronoun-wise, as they, them, and theirs. That doesn’t work. Not only does it jar on the ear, it often is unclear. “AJ was passing a store with friends. They went in, and they bought a bag of carrots.” If “they” could refer to AJ, did all of them go into the store? Did all of them buy the vegetables? Or was it only AJ? If AJ wanted third-person collective pronouns to refer to AJ, I would try to do it, I guess, but the NBP has indicated that it is not a successful solution, and I agree.
Some other languages offer possibilities with problems of their own. On a trip to Thailand, a guide told me that the Thai language has pronouns for those who are not one of the binary genders. That would be better than what English has, but it is still a limited solution. It is often not apparent that a person is nonbinary. Should a correction be made every time the wrong-gendered pronoun is used for that person? Won’t that stilt conversations and writings?
Chinese offers another path. The spouse worked for decades with a man from mainland China, and he told her that he had trouble with English gendered pronouns because Chinese uses a universal pronoun. She had forgotten the pronoun, so she chatted with our always pleasant and smiling mailman, who is ethnic Chinese. He told her that the universal Chinese pronoun is “ta” as in “tada” and said that it covers he/she/it and him/her/it.
I am little surprised that there is one pronoun for both the objective and subjective cases. It seems as if this would lead to confusion. Last week Evan Osnos, New Yorker reporter and author of the National-Book-Award-winning The Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China (a marvelous book. Go read it.), told me that the universal pronoun did not cause problems in Chinese because that language was about context, and in context ta was almost always clear.
I am not sure that would hold for the English language. Imagine: “Both my son and daughter want the panda, but I bought it for ta.” Of course, with this simple formulation, the ambiguity could be avoided by replacing “ta” with the favored child’s name, but most often we would say “his” or “hers.” My guess is that sometimes the lack of the subjective/objective distinction with a universal pronoun would lead to problems in English. But what problem is there if there were one pronoun for he/she and another for him/hers, say, for example, ta and tans? Wouldn’t the meaning almost always be clear? “AJ ( or a more gendered moniker such as Amelia, Herman, Waldemar, Heidi) works for the Teddy Bear Restoration Company. Ta is good at tans job.”
Is our language really enriched by having gendered pronouns? Or do gendered pronouns make us instinctively think in unnecessarily gendered terms. “Jones has been CEO for a year. She is excellent.” This construct makes us think of the officer as a woman, which only distracts from the message to be conveyed—the person is good at the job.
Perhaps someone could create a new set of pronouns so that the language does not act as if the nonbinaries don’t exist, but so far I haven’t seen anything emerging. I am left in a quandary, but I should be joined in my predicament by all those who value the more precise use of our language.
How do we get better pronouns?