Magazine November 2, 2015, Issue

What Are Your Pronouns?

The latest craze on campus

In 2003, I was moderating a “dinner panel” at the annual conference in Davos. I said that I would ask each participant “to say a few words about himself.” It crossed my mind to add “or herself” — but then I thought, “No, we’re all adults here. This is not Oberlin College. People know about English, and language generally.” I was wrong.

The first person I called on was an anthropology professor, a woman, who said, “To begin with, I am not a ‘himself,’ I am a person.” The woman next to her — her companion — burst into applause. It was vigorous, angry applause, and it was lone applause. The lady clapped for about two seconds. Then the professor continued.

This was a terribly awkward moment, and it taught me something, or confirmed something: Standard English — once-standard English? — is risky business.

“To each his own,” we used to say. We did not mean anything sexual by it. We were not referring to people with male genitalia. We were referring to people. So it was with the word “man.” “What is man, that thou art mindful of him?” “What a piece of work is a man!” How about, “Man overboard!”? Would a woman, drowning, gurgle, “I am not a man!”?

Recently, Donna Braquet, the director of the Pride Center at the University of Tennessee–Knoxville, wrote the following on the university’s website: “With the new semester beginning and an influx of new students on campus, it is important to participate in making our campus welcoming and inclusive for all. One way to do that is to use a student’s chosen name and their correct pronouns.” Obviously, she thinks that “their” goes with “student” — which is very modern.

She had some advice for teachers. “In the first weeks of classes, instead of calling roll, ask everyone to provide their name and pronouns. This ensures you are not singling out transgender or non-binary students.” She also recommended that, at events where name tags are used, pronouns be printed beside names.

What are the optional pronouns, by the way? “There are dozens,” Braquet explained. These include “ze/hir/hirs,” “ze/zir/zirs,” and “xe/xem/xyr.” “These may sound a little funny at first,” said Braquet, “but only because they are new. The she and he pronouns would sound strange too if we had been taught ze when growing up.” Yes, that is true.

After protests from legislators and others in Tennessee, the president of the UT system demanded that Braquet’s instructions or guidelines be removed from the university’s website. He said that they gave the impression that the new way of pronouns was mandatory. Some progressives denounced Tennessee for backwardness. They are hipper elsewhere.

At Harvard, for example, and the University of Vermont, and many other institutions of higher ed. When registering, students may indicate their PGPs, as well as other information. They can also say “no pronouns” or “name only.” So, if your name is Mike, and people refer to your room, they should not say “his room” (or “her room”), they should say “Mike’s room.” No pronouns. Name only.

What are PGPs, you ask? “Preferred gender pronouns.” I’ll let Cornell College, in Mount Vernon, Iowa, elaborate:

A preferred gender pronoun is a consciously chosen set of pronouns that allow a person to accurately represent their gender identity in a way that is comfortable for them. For example, a trans* person may begin using a gender-neutral pronoun prior to transitioning, and a gendered pronoun afterwards, or an agender, bigender or third-gender person may choose to use a neutral or invented pronoun.

Maybe fogeys have said this for millennia, but it’s not merely that I don’t quite understand the culture, I don’t even understand the language. That asterisk after “trans,” incidentally, does not lead to a footnote. That’s the way the word is spelled.

The University of Wisconsin–Madison has some advice about how to break the ice, pronoun-wise. On meeting someone, you can simply say, “What pronouns do you use?” Or you can say, “My name is Tou, and my pronouns are ‘he’ and ‘him.’ What about you?” The university also has a word of caution: “Remember that people may change their pronouns without changing their name, appearance, or gender identity.” You’ve gotta keep up.

And what do you do if you make a mistake? If you use the wrong pronouns in reference to someone? “Most people appreciate a quick apology and correction at the time of the mistake,” says Wisconsin. But “if you only realize the mistake later, a brief apology can help.” You can say, “I’m sorry I used the wrong pronoun earlier. I’ll be more careful next time.”

There is a whiff of the Orwellian about this pronoun business — sometimes a very strong whiff. But some of the pronoun cops try to be patient. They often counsel, “Practice makes perfect.” Wisconsin says, “It can be tough to remember pronouns at first. The best solution is to practice!” A different UW, at Platteville, suggests a specific way of practicing: “We can try swapping out the gender pronouns in our favorite song with a gender-neutral pronoun, ‘they,’ for example, when we’re singing along.”

Conservative students are proving recalcitrant, naturally. At American University’s freshman orientation, you’re supposed to give your name, hometown, and pronouns. A conservative kid — a member of Young Americans for Freedom — questioned the need to give pronouns. The orientation leader said, “Here at AU, we don’t like to make assumptions about people’s gender.” The YAFer told Campus Reform, “I actually found myself more offended by having to say my ‘pronouns,’ rather than allowing someone to naturally assume that I am obviously a male.”

A student at Boston U, Autumn Breaz McArthur, prefers the pronouns “they” and “them” in reference to herself (or himself or themselves). The campus newspaper follows suit. So you get sentences like, “McArthur said they believe that the lack of education on campus . . .” McArthur is the “they” doing the believing.

Not long ago, I was talking with a colleague about a third person, whom I had never met. My colleague kept saying “they” and “them.” I got confused, so I asked, “Are we talking about one person or more than one?” A little sheepishly, my colleague said, “Just one.” She was not using the third person’s PGPs. She simply found it natural to say “they” or “them.”

My colleague is a young woman who works at a conservative institution. So this is not a matter of ideology but of generational usage.

In February of this year, the New York Times profiled a student at the University of Vermont whose pronouns are “they” and “them.” The Times discussed the student’s mother, whose child grew up as a girl but now considers herself something else. Reflecting on her acceptance of the situation, the mother said, “It’s grown out of the process of really seeing how Rocko has grown as an individual and an adult, seeing how Rocko is their own person, and not a child. This is how they presents themself to new friends and colleagues and employers and students. That group knows Rocko only that way.”

You see how the language can get very tricky: “they presents themself” rather than “they present themselves.”

Words that new-pronoun advocates use over and over are “unsafe” and “invalidated.” The first one is ubiquitous on campuses: Everyone feels “unsafe” and must seek safety, in some padded room or something. But “invalidated” is coming on strong. A Boston Globe writer said, “According to researchers of gender and sexuality, some students who do not identify with the commonplace pronouns like ‘he’ or ‘she’ feel invalidated in social settings.” The writer quoted an official at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst, Genny Beemyn (whose name, possibly, used to be Jenny Beeman). “It feels really invalidating to have people make an assumption about what your gender is simply by looking at you.”

Let me say that people in sexual minorities, or of odd sexual conditions, have been treated badly for centuries. Some remediation is in order, or at least simple toleration and courtesy. But these linguistic contortions are absurd, and so are the hypersensitivities that go with them. Expectations of courtesy are one thing, bald impositions another.

Language evolves, everyone says. That is certainly true. And whenever someone protests or murmurs about a change, people say, “Get with the program, Gramps. It ain’t your world anymore.” I understand this. But I also think that changes driven by ideology are different from natural evolution.

Some of the new-pronoun people cite “Ms.” — which the fogeys once griped about and is now commonplace. A good point. I notice that presidential-debate moderators are addressing Carly Fiorina as “Ms. Fiorina,” which they pronounce either “Miz” or “Miss” (or somewhere in between). In point of fact, there is a Mr. Fiorina — Frank — so Carly, at least in theory, is “Mrs. Fiorina.” But evidently Thatcher will be the last “Mrs.” in politics.

Just the other day, I used the initials “A.D.” when writing about an event in antiquity. I was conscious of doing something slightly subversive — because now you’re supposed to write “C.E.,” for “Common Era.” “A.D.” and “B.C.” imply Christianity, so they must go in favor of “C.E.” and “B.C.E.” They will, but it’s hard to unteach me, when I don’t want to be untaught.

At the beginning of the present school year, the Associated Press quoted a student “who identifies as genderqueer.” (No idea.) She (by the evidence of her picture) said, “By now, we’ve figured out that sexuality is fluid, gender is fluid. I think that we’re at the beginning of it all.” Will “ze,” “xyr,” and the rest catch on, like “Ms.”? Or will they be the hobby of a few, like Esperanto? We will see.

To me, the new pronouns are ugly and soulless, like robot language. I also think that today’s obsession with sex, self, and identity is terribly damaging — to individuals and society. But I suppose my attitude should be laissez-faire: You don’t be a language cop over me, and I won’t be a language cop over you.

To each their own? Xyr own?

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