Some Thoughts on Pronouns

About a dozen years back, after I had moved to Texas to keep an eye on my aging father, I signed up for a writers workshop. I had to write a couple of stories for it and travel to get there, so I expected it to give me the kind of energy boost I needed to work on my own stuff around parent care and my day job.

It turned out to be the wrong workshop for that. In the end, it may have done more harm than good. But that’s the chance you take with workshops.

I’ve let go of most of my bad feelings about it, but there was one thing that got said in the workshop that I completely rejected at the time and feel even more strongly about today. I hope that the person who said it has changed the way they think about it, but having heard several other writers in the same general age range make similar comments, it is possible that they are still stuck in this rut.

The thing they said was, “The first question we ask about a baby is ‘Is it a boy or a girl?’”

This was in criticism of a story I wrote in which I named a character Jade and didn’t indicate gender immediately. The instructor said firmly that the gender of the character should be established immediately.

Now it happens that in the story as then written, Jade was male and that became clear. That is, I wasn’t even writing a story in which a character was non-binary or their gender unknown. I just had two people meet and, given the differences in their backgrounds, their genders weren’t immediately obvious to each other.

I bristled at the idea that one must always label the gender of a character. Once I heard that, I decided that the instructor in question had nothing to teach me and gave up listening to them.

(BTW, I am using they/them/their pronouns because the gender of the instructor is not relevant and not important to my experience. I suspect the person in question might resent that, but that’s their problem.)

They/them pronouns have become common usage lately. Non-binary people use them and they are common in situations where the gender of a person is unknown. Using they is an easier shift in language than creating a gender-neutral singular pronoun.

And of course, as has been pointed out many times, use of they in the singular isn’t even new. (I think the rule against singular they is one of those “rules” set out in Strunk and White. I happen to detest Strunk and White, something I’ve said many times. I’ve got an old essay on the subject I’ll share here one of these days.)

But there are some people who take pride in their inability to shift with the language, including some people who write fantasy and science fiction and should know better. We make up words and use other ones differently all the time in SF/F; why not change the way we use pronouns?

A few of these people are the same ones who bleat that “he” can be gender-neutral and that “man” includes all humans.

I knew that was a lie when I first heard it as a teenager and my dislike of that approach was magnified in law school where we were told that “he” in reference to lawyers included us women (who made up 10 percent of the class) because it was gender-neutral. And then we’d read a passage that said “the lawyer he” and “the secretary she.”

Those in the past who used man in phrases like “the common man” or “man’s search for meaning” weren’t really using man as a gender-neutral term. They didn’t consider women to be part of the discourse.

Yes, you can go back and interpret what they said as referring to all humans, because in many cases it does, but don’t assume that those who wrote those things considered women to be real people.

Nothing I’m saying here is new. I’ve been thinking about pronouns for a long time. I used to always end up on the pronoun panels at cons because I found the subject fascinating.

But I was moved to write on the subject because last week I saw a lot of discourse about the negative attitude that Mercedes Lackey, recently named as a SFWA Damon Knight Grand Master, has expressed in the past toward the use of they in the singular. Her opinion drew criticism, with some concern about her attitude toward trans and non-binary persons.

According to this report on File 770, the SFWA Board asked her to clarify her position. She has since posted an apology on Facebook and Twitter (links in the File 770 article) that makes a point of her support of trans and non-binary folks and expresses her regret of not fighting about the pronoun issue with editors. SFWA is open to comments on the issue.

At about the same time I was reading A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers. One of the main characters in that book is non-binary. Their title as a monk is “Sibling” to go along with those who are called “Brother” or “Sister.” It seems a reasonable choice. And, of course, they use they/them/their.

The other main character is a robot. It uses it.

This is a new book, but it’s far from the first thing I’ve read that used such pronouns. And I have noticed any number of established publications using they/them pronouns for non-binary people. New Scientist magazine does, just as an example.

I’m glad Lackey has apologized. It is one thing if you do not want to adjust your ideas of the rules of grammar in your own writing; it is quite another to keep asserting that your way is the only way when things have clearly changed elsewhere.

Also, really, stop pretending that “he” or “man” includes everybody. Even saying “he or she” or “ladies and gentlemen” doesn’t include everybody. It never did and these days it can be insulting.

It’s past time to up our gender game.

Adopting the use of they is far from the last change we’re going to make in the language and none of what’s being said right now is going to be the last word on gender. Pay attention.

And no, you don’t get an exemption on account of age. Getting old doesn’t mean getting stuck in your rut. If you’re still writing or working or dealing with people in the world, you’re not too old to pay attention to the important changes around you.

Trust me on this one.

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