Dear Gender Neutral Persons,
I would like to be your friend and ally. On the philosophy that friends tell friends about stuff in their teeth, I would like to talk to you. This is not about poppy seeds or kale. It’s about the pronouns.
Last month, I read the fascinating article in the New York Times about how the University of Vermont has officially implemented a system whereby students are allowed to specify what (non)gendered pronouns they wish to use; their preferred pronouns will be recorded in a database that can be accessed by their professors, who will then theoretically be able to address them appropriately. University officials are also distributing a pocket reference card to show the correct declension patterns of eight personal pronouns, including the traditional, gendered English standards (think “he” and “she”) along with some other standard English words in non-standard usage (think “they” as a singular) along with a few more recent coinages. (Fancy an “ey,” sie,” “per,” “ve,”or “zie” as a first person singular nominative pronoun, anyone?):
While distributing this card might be an effective way for gender-neutral persons to befriend Esperantists and other idealistic applied linguists who invent declension patterns for fun, I believe it is likely to have the opposite effect on the average Anglophone. If you start turning every conversation into a Mad Lib where you get to choose all the pronouns, people will begin to regard you with the same contempt or indifference that they once reserved for their high school English teachers. I know. I am a high school English teacher. Correcting my students’ usage errors does not typically make them like me. Changing the rules on them really does not make them like me. So all I’m saying is: are you sure you want to wage this battle on the field of prescriptive grammar? With made up words?
I understand the power of language, and I sympathize with the desire–indeed, the need–to have a personal pronoun that accurately reflects who you are. I remember the joy I felt when I learned that in Icelandic they have a word for the color of my greyish eyes, which employees of motor vehicle departments in three different US states have categorized, variously, as blue, green, and hazel, none of which seems accurate. If we all spoke Icelandic, we could simply agree that my eyes are moleit (once defined for me as “kind of like the ocean”). Moleit would more accurately reflect the truth, and everyone would be more satisfied. I know gender is an even more critical component of personal identity than eye color, and personal pronouns come up way more often than eye color in conversation, and so I sympathize with the profound need you must feel.
Dammit, yes, we need a gender-neutral singular pronoun, and we don’t technically have one In English. But people have a hard enough time correctly using the pronouns we’ve got already, so it seems like a tactical error to think you can make up five more that people will gamely accept and attempt to master. Zie ain’t gonna happen.
Can I suggest that advocating for widespread acceptance of “they” as a singular pronoun seems like the most practical way to fill the need? Descriptive grammarians will be quick to point out that we often use it this way already anyway (eg. “Does everyone have their book?”), and some respected style manuals now even acknowledge this usage for reasons having little to do with gender politics. (It helps you evade the morass of “Does everyone have his or her book,” while incidentally helping you avoid seeming patriarchal if you say “his” or stridently feminist if you say “her,” when all you really want to know is if every person has got a damn book.)
A few hillbillies excepted, most native English speakers instinctively know how to decline “they,” even if they have no idea what the word “decline” means in this context. That said, we’ll have to develop some standards for conjugating verbs with “they” singular. In the aforementioned Times article, the mother of one of the students being profiled is quoted as saying: “This is how they presents [emphasis mine] themself to new friends and colleagues and employers and students.” This sounds vaguely hillbilly to me. “This is how they present themself” sounds better to my ear, even if it violates some other grammatical rule about verb conjugation when there’s a singular subject. We’re tearing a few pages out of the rule-book here, anyway. Why not tear out as many as we need to until we arrive at some usages that roll off the tongue? Widespread usage, without a second thought, should of course be the goal. This will happen when average speakers feel comfortable using these terms, without worrying if they’ll sound like an ignoramus or an asshole each time they open their mouth.
Just to be clear, my gender neutral friends: I long for the day when everyone can have a pronoun of their own. Just, please, let it not be zirs.