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the quandary of pronouns in an evolving world

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“Morality and grammar are related. Human beings live by the word…Correct usage is not 'right,' or incorrectness 'wrong,' morally. Correctness isn't a moral issue but a social and political one...” Ursula K. Le Guin

A friend of mine was auditioning actors in Chicago, and noticed that on the resumes, the actors’ gender pronouns were clearly stated: she/her/hers; they/them/theirs; he/him/his. This was new to him. Throughout the day, he was corrected by actors and colleagues when he would inadvertently use the wrong pronoun in conversation. He was quite frustrated by the whole thing, not because he didn’t support the individuals’ right to choose how they were addressed, but because it was change. And logistics. He wondered about a whole new rehearsal environment he would have to accommodate, changes in the program that were ready to print, and… and… and…
It is change.
We recently received a note from a loving parent who wrote so clearly on this topic that we asked their permission to include this:

It's really complicated. My youngest goes by non-binary or gender neutral and it's a huge education for me, after 25 years of calling them "daughter" and "she", but they are patient with me and I know how seen they feel when I remember. It's a whole new world. I'm a writer, editor, and proofreader as well, so I understand the struggle. Words matter so much, but culture is changing and wonderful, dear people matter so much more. ~ J.

Her words grew my heart. When you ask, we change Brian's stories to reflect different pronoun genders or points of view. And my struggle with the shift in pronoun usage is not theoretical, but practical. I spent years diagramming sentences on chalkboards, grant writing, and adjusting article drafts to align with professional editors' requirements for publication. I've come to appreciate language: the rhythmic dance between polysyllabic words and monosyllables, the use of metaphor to get closer to an idea, the way words taste in the mouth when you speak them and the way they evoke images out of air when read. 

And yet... I can still be sensitive to a larger awareness so that my writing invites rather than unintentionally excludes. 
It is change. 

It reminds me of something I read by Robin Wall Kimmerer, as she examined the relationship we have with Nature, through language:

“English is a noun-based language, somehow appropriate to a culture so obsessed with things. Only 30 percent of English words are verbs, but in Potawatomi that proportion is 70 percent… European languages often assign gender to nouns, but Potawatomi does not divide the world into masculine and feminine. Nouns and verbs both are animate and inanimate… depending on whether what you are speaking of is alive…

Dr. Kimmerer gives an example of the word "bay." In English, this is a noun. In the Potawatomi Nation, it is a verb –

“ be a bay” – as if the body of water is living and may choose another form…" 

I read this and it was an invitation to (re)learn a language I think I know. This ancient way asks that my language more accurately reflect my relationship to something I care about. 

As we move forward alongside one another, our language wants to reflect our hearts.

Whether it's speaking with authenticity, holding one another accountable for half-truths, or a willingness to adapt our current language for a new world... we can work together on this so the process is respectful and the intent one of radical inclusivity.

It is change. We can love language and tradition, and 

always in motion,

p.s. while we’re on the topic of grammar, we’ve been asked about why we say “towards a life you love” rather than “toward a life you love”… In the UK and Australia, towards is preferred while in the States and Canada, it’s toward. Whether it’s the books we read, all the years of Shakespeare, or all the travel we've done, towards feels more familiar to Brian and me. That's about it. 
It could also be that Brian is fast and loose with words and rules of grammar – it’s why you’ll note he’s never worked with an editor… check any of his books… nope, no editor… he's his own cowboy wordsmith!

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  • Thank you/I never looked at it(the subject) this way…..

    Mary Jo Karch on
  • Bravo! The only constant in life is change and this direction makes total sense:) Thank you…..Ardyth Shapiro:)

    Ardy on
  • Thank you for this! As a mom if gender neutral/non-binary kids, it’s been a real learning experience to re-learn new names and pronouns for them and their friends. As an English teacher, it’s also been an adjustment to remember to call a singular person by the pronouns “they and them.” I now ask my students at the beginning of the year to please tell me how to pronounce their names/preferred nicknames and what pronouns they prefer. I share my pronunciation (my last name is tricky) and pronouns (she/her) so that they know we’re all in this together. From a grammatical and logical point of view, I find it helpful to look at pronoun preference as a parallel to proper nouns for names. While there may be only one “right” way to spell “student,” all student’s proper names are spelled correctly, whatever that spelling may be. So Kristy/Kristie/Christy/Cristy etc. are all personal proper noun preferences. Similarly, your pronouns can be personal and “proper” for you even though they may not be what we learned when we were diagraming sentences in “grammar school” decades ago. It’s a work in progress, but I’ve tried to teach my kids (and students) never to put things before people and their feelings. This goes for words of wisdom as well.

    Kristy on
  • Thank you for this reflection. I am both an English teacher and a pastor and the need to understand pronoun usage exists in both worlds. Some friends of mine think this is all “too much” and who cares anyway? The need to be seen as who we truly are is universal. It isn’t them and us.

    Mary Williams on
  • Thank you. This was well said and very timely!

    Barb Reeves on

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