My Process through Pronouns

By October 31, 2012Writing about Writing

Throughout my stay at the UCWbL, I’ve overheard and participated in conversations about which pronoun(s) should be used to indicate singular gender neutrality. To be frank, I’ve caught myself steering away from the topic and hiding behind a computer, pretending to write a tutor log. It can be a sensitive topic. Some people are passionate about their opinion and others, like me, feel conflicted. I wanted to challenge myself to write this blog post to provide a friendly space for discussion and learn from one another: what options we choose and how they may change depending on context and with time. I’ll go first.

I’ll admit: I have used “he” in my writing to indicate both genders. How ironic to use a gendered pronoun to indicate gender neutrality. (Side note: I’m always tempted to end sentences that state obvious irony with an exclamation mark.) I had reasoned that because I didn’t want to be grammatically incorrect and use “they” (this was back when I believed in correctness), or be wordy and use “he or she,” using “he” was a good alternative. Now I know that readers can’t read my mind: all they see is that he did that.

I soon admitted to myself that the female gender identity was absent in my writing. And hey, as a person who identifies as a female, (perhaps hesitantly at times, but this is not the place to discuss the limitations of gender identities), shouldn’t I be attentive and contribute to the representation of women in writing?  Because I didn’t want to make the same mistake twice by only using one gendered pronoun, I tried to use “he” and “she” randomly throughout a piece of writing. But, I became picky about which pronoun is associated with which antecedent. When choosing pronouns to represent a medical doctor, a therapist, and a patient, I wanted to be sensitive to gender stereotypes as well as level of authority associated with each role. In other words, I struggled to be random and assigning a pronoun became time consuming and never felt “right.” So, more recently, I have used “he or she.”

When writing “he or she,” I’m self-conscious about the order. I think: Should she come first? Should he? Should it matter? Then, I come to the conclusion that order doesn’t matter and use “he or she” and “she or he” interchangeably. But, no matter what I do, a gender is first in line to the readers mind or, worse than that, the reader is altogether confused by the frequent, alternating order. Also, isn’t the point of a gender neutral pronoun to indicate gender neutrality in a way that is genderless? In other words, “he or she” is limiting in that it is only inclusive of people identifying themselves as a “he” or a “she.”

When I’m not in the mood to argue with myself about gender pronouns, I make pronouns plural or use the pronoun’s antecedent to avoid “he” and “she.” But, frankly, sometimes the pronoun just has to be singular and using the antecedent many times throughout one piece of writing can get wordy and awkward. Saying “the Chicago mental health professional who changes careers due to inability to find work” in every sentence of one article can look clunky.

Instinctually, I say “they.”  I’ve made the argument that using “they” as a singular genderless pronoun is how many of us talk and since writing tends to change with spoken language, why not encourage that change? And, I think, if gender doesn’t matter, then why bother with the sloppiness of “he” and “she”? Using “they” might be more inclusive of people who don’t identify with a particular gender. But, can “they” be both singular and plural? I’m not sure. In terms of clarity, for instance, can we use “they” to represent both “the class” and “the student” in the same paragraph? In the context of writing papers, I’ve chosen not to use “they” as a singular pronoun because I didn’t know what my professors’ thoughts on this were and didn’t want to take the grade risk, especially when a paper must be “free of errors.” That is not to say that many professors aren’t sensitive to this topic, but I didn’t take the time or have the opportunities to talk about that with my professors.

I have never used the newly created pronouns, such as “ze,” “ne,” or “ey.”To me, they are the unicorns of writing: vaguely discussed and rarely seen or heard. But, I’m hoping that some of you may have more knowledge of and experience with these pronouns than me, so please share. My initial feeling is that using these new pronouns would require the majority of writers and speakers to agree on the same ones. Or, the majority belief that there is freedom in choosing pronoun(s).

Reflecting on my use of various pronouns has led me to consider how far we can extend “genderlessness.” Can we create genderless ads and avoid language like “for him” and “for her”? Also, plenty of languages, such as Spanish and Slovak, conjugate words in a gendered way. How do we even begin to extend this idea to other languages that use gender this way and is it necessary? And, extending these questions to my fellow tutors, how do we address pronouns in tutorials, especially when talking about things like subject-verb agreement? As apparent, I have more questions than answers. I’m hoping that some of you are open to share your thoughts and will feel comfortable sharing experiences in which you’ve struggled to make a decision so that we can provide feedback for one another. I don’t believe that we necessarily need to standardize which pronoun(s) we use to indicate singular gender neutrality, but I do think that if a writing issue feels awkward, “off,” or anything we’d like feedback on, we should talk about it. Let’s start here.

Join the discussion 3 Comments

  • Mia Amélie says:

    Lots of great points, Martina! I really enjoyed hearing about your process. When I worked as a tutor, I would approach any conversations of pronoun usage in much the same way as you did here: by identifying the possibilities and how/where they are used. I would first ask what preferences the writer holds and invite them to consider how the context of their written work might shape their current choice, always reminding them that they can approach a professor with such a question. I have, in fact, asked professors before if my preference (“they”) is appropriate.
    This all said, when I don’t feel able to use “they” as a singular pronoun, the other approach I’ve used in my own writing is to broaden my narrative and examples in order to include a variety of pronouns. That is, I will include a variety of sentences in close proximity which include “they”, “she”, “he”, “one”, etc. to get my point across. Of course, the problem for me here was that, even when I only had two points to make, I started feeling like I should incorporate one more sentence simply to include another pronoun.
    While I agree that incorporating a gender-less singular pronoun to the table would be great, I too have not hopped on to the recently invented variations and have only played with their use in some paper’s observing gender identity.
    I enjoyed that you brought other languages into this, because in other languages, there is not only a difference between singular he/she and plural they, but differences between the singular you and plural you (as well as changes in the verb depending on gender). In french, for example, the feminine verb tense is only used with a group of people if that group is all female, while groups which include all males or some males and females receive the male verb tense by default. Furthermore, there is a different pronoun altogether for when you are addressing a group vs. an individual. Yet, in English, we get by quite fine without a plural you and a separate singular you (ignoring “yous”, “y’all”, and other dialectical differences). Therefore, I don’t see why the same can’t be true for “they”.
    Since you’ve thought about this more, have you noticed any differences in the way you notice or approach these topics in tutorials yet?

  • Hey, I was hoping I could use your image for this zine I’m putting together. Of course you’ll get the credit. email me with an answer please

    • Mark Jacobs says:

      Hi Shea. I don’t think the image belongs to us–the author found it somewhere online. Unfortunately I’m not sure where.