A few weeks ago, we talked about how gendering words were often unintentionally harmful to the equality of the sexes. We suggested that by differentiating jobs by the sex of the practitioner, it linguistically implied that there was a difference between a man or a woman doing the same task. This differentiation unintentionally leads to men and women doing the same job being judged by different standards. A prime example of this is actors and actresses, with both male and female actors doing the same job but being judged separately and differently. Today, we are going to go further and examine the convention of pronouns such as he/she, him/her or his/hers, etc. We aim to look at the assumptions that underpin the use of these words and look to see if they, like gendered titles, are harmful to the equal treatment of men and women in our societies.
What are Pronouns?
According to Grammarly, a pronoun is ‘a small subcategory of nouns. Distinguishable from other nouns by their ability to be substituted for other nouns’. A pronoun’s function is to act as a shorthand method for referring to a subject once the predicate has been identified in the conversation. Thus, pronouns provide no new information but simply identify a previously identified individual/subject. Without pronouns, we would be forced to identify the subject again each time we mentioned it. For instance, instead of saying, “I saw Jim at the park yesterday. He was kicking a football, and he slipped over and hit his head”. We would be forced to say, “I saw Jim at the park yesterday. Jim was kicking a football, and Jim slipped over and hit Jim’s head”.
Now, I don’t know about you, but to me, the second sentence is far clunkier and harder to read. It might be arguable that pronouns are merely a literary convenience, but nevertheless, they fulfil a useful function in the English language, making communication quicker, clearer and smoother. Thus, there can be no serious question of abandoning the use of pronouns altogether. But rather, the debate must be limited to whether pronouns should be gendered or not.
The Singular ‘They’
To answer this question, we must first answer what gendering pronouns does compared to using the neutral pronoun they. Essentially, using the pronouns he, she, etc., provides the listener or reader with greater clarity by reducing the possible subject of conversation to one half of humanity, while the singular ‘they’ has traditionally been used when the sex of the subject is not known. This aids us in the primary purpose of communication, which is, of course, to be understood.
The usefulness of this convention is not clear in simple conversation when we are talking about a single person. For instance, the phrase: “Tammy was running late again. Her boss was going to kill her, she thought as she ran her hands through her auburn hair”, is probably just as clear if it read, “Tammy was running late again. Their boss was going to kill them, they thought as they ran their hands through their auburn hair”. As Tammy is the only subject in both sentences, you can still understand who is being referred to. In a more complex sentence involving more than one person, particularly of different sexes, it becomes more complicated.
Take, for instance, the following lines from War and Peace. “He recalled his mother’s last letter. ‘What would she feel,’ he wondered, ‘if she saw me here now, on this field, with a cannon aimed at me?’” Now, compare it with the same lines using singular they: “They recalled their mother’s last letter. ‘What would they feel,’ they wondered, ‘if they saw me here now, on this field, with a cannon aimed at me?’” Compared to the first lines, the second ones are much less clear, with the reader or listener being at greater risk of losing track of who is feeling or saying what.
Differentiating Men and Women
Of course, this might be a small price to pay if it could be demonstrated that the division of humanity into men and women was detrimental. Or at least created a separation between otherwise similar people. However, unlike with the differentiation of job titles by the sex of the individual, it is not clear that differentiating people linguistically by their sex in this manner is actually harmful.
It is unarguable that there are many differences between the males and females of any species. As we discussed in this article, these differences manifest themselves in the mental, physical and emotional spheres of the human experience and lead to statistically significant differences in work and life preferences, differences in problem-solving approaches and the stereotypical personality differences often associated between the sexes. Yet, despite these differences, the evidence suggests that men and women seem to be fundamentally as capable as each other.
Taken together, the differences and capacitive similarities between men and women argue against the homogenisation of pronouns. Men and women are different from each other in ways other than simply their reproductive systems. To pretend otherwise is simply wishful thinking; using shorthand terms (pronouns) to identify an individual after formal identification aids us in communicating and should not carry with it a value judgement on the individual. Essentially, when we say, “Susan is having fun writing her book”, or “Brian is struggling to write his book”, we communicate nothing more than that Brian being male or Susan being a female are writing books with varying success.
It is worth noting that identifying the sex of the individual in this passive way is different from saying something like, “Susan is a celebrated female author of women’s literature”, or “Brian is a struggling male author of women’s literature”. Unlike in the previous examples where Susan and Brian are described as writing a book, in this example, Susan and Brian’s sex is emphasised by the use of a noun. The difference is fundamental to the English language; pronouns do not generally tell us anything we don’t know already, while nouns are informative.
Therefore, when we say Brian is writing his book, it can be assumed that we know already (or should already know) that Brian is a male and that it is not particularly relevant except for ease of identification. However, when we say that Brian is a struggling male author of women’s literature, we suggest that his sex is pertinent to his lack of success. This is perhaps a more explicit explanation for why gendering job titles can be so harmful. When we say actor or actress, we effectively say male thespian and female thespian. Thus, we imply that the sex of the practitioner is relevant to their job performance when it is not.
This lack of new informational content in pronouns remains the same even in the case of those individuals who use gender-neutral pronouns such as they, sie, ey, ve, etc. Such is the case with some individuals who believe themselves to be neither male nor female or feel that they are a different sex from their biological sex. In these rare cases, even if they do not explicitly explain the rationale for their preference, by the act of requesting that friends and colleagues use these pronouns, they communicate implicitly that they do not identify themselves as male or female, etc.
In conclusion, the use of gendered pronouns, in our view, is not detrimental to the equal treatment of men and women. Unlike gendered occupational or honorary titles, using gendered pronouns communicates nothing that has not been communicated already by identifying the subject of conversation. Thus, in our assessment, it is reasonable to continue to use the normal gendered pronouns in normal conversation and in normal writing when the sex of the individual being discussed is known and to use singular ‘they’ when their sex is unknown. Of course, if your friend asks you to use a less traditional pronoun, then fill your boots.
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