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We are seeing the revenge of the pronoun. It (I use the word advisedly) has long been abused by practitioners of English, and its time has come. It has sat in the shadow of the noun, created for no other lot than to give the noun rest, some second-string surrogate, forever the bridesmaid and never the bride. “He must increase, but I must decrease,” said the Baptist happily of Jesus. But the pronoun is not happy.
No more. Pronouns are having their day.
For too many years have we put “who” for “whom” and thought it a light thing. We wouldn’t know “thou” from a cow. We confuse “it’s” and “its” and mix subjective and objective with disdain, even thinking it the height of ostentatious erudition to say “I” where “me” should be—as in “Would you deliver the car to Jim and I?” (Fingernails on a blackboard here.)
A Philadelphia bike touring company called Gearing Up has changed its email signature protocol to sandwich between sender’s name and job title a line indicating preferred pronouns. “Lately, with people talking about gender so much, we realized that policy wasn’t quite as clear or accepting as we needed to be,” program director Al Sharrock (whose preferred pronouns are they/them/their) told The Philadelphia Inquirer.
That’s getting out in front of it! For now it’s all voluntary, at least in the States. Canada is not so lucky. Last year they passed Bill C-16 (has a nice Orwellian ring, doesn’t it) that added to its criminal code transgressions against people’s preferred pronouns. Psychology professor Jordan Peterson of the University of Toronto worked in obscurity over theories of philosophy and meaning till he ran afoul of the pronoun. He refuses to surrender his free speech by being forced to call a student some made-up honorific of choice and knows he could be fined for that decision. He says he will not pay the fine, which means he may well go to jail.
Today a biological man may object to being called a man; tomorrow it will be ‘How dare you call me a person! I feel like an orangutan!’
“This is coming your way,” Peterson tells his American interviewer David Rubin, and then shares more previews from the PC north: “In Alberta … the Alberta Teachers Association recently launched their LGBT education material, and they’re trying to teach kids in grades 7 and 12 that there’s no relationship between biology and gender—which is also written into this [C-16] legislation. … They seriously propose that children address each other as comrade.”
Back to the pronoun. How will we know when we mean singular or plural if we have to call people like Al Sharrock “they/them/their”? Or is it quite on purpose, all this fudging of categories until anything means anything? To classify at all is to discriminate, we learned from deconstructionist Jacques Derrida (1930-2004). Today a biological man may object to being called a man; tomorrow it will be “How dare you call me a person! I feel like an orangutan this morning, and that is how you must address me!” (There is a Florida man who identifies as a trans-racial Filipino woman, so this is a thing.)
My Tuesday ESL students will not like this at all. There are enough natural obstacles to language acquisition. They already groan under homonym perversities (now/thou/Frau/bow/bough) and the 29 rules governing the definite article “the.” I thought we were all about foreigners in this country. Where is the consideration for them?
The British language curmudgeon Lynne Truss is an activist for punctuation marks and the necessity for clear communication for a well-functioning society. She compares “Charles the First walked and talked half an hour after his head was cut off” with “Charles the First walked and talked. Half an hour after, his head was cut off.”
So the comma has a champion. But who will rise up to defend the beleaguered pronoun?
And what army of therapists will be needed to treat the general dysphoria caused by ineptness with “ze/zie/xem/hir”? Already the LGBT Resource Center I consulted must field questions like: “What if I make a mistake?” “How do I ask someone what pronouns they use?” Folks will find it safer to retire the pronoun altogether. As in: “I like Joe Slobodsky. Joe Slobodsky is always generous with Joe Slobodsky’s money.”
Retirement will be sweet revenge.