Pick Your Pronouns Wisely

BY EFFIE DEANS

They joy of being a civil servant in Scotland has just increased. The Scottish Government is backing proposals to encourage eight thousand of them to take a pronoun pledge. Fortunately, this will not involve abstaining from alcohol as previous pledges once did, nor will it involve polishing wooden furniture. Rather it will merely involve adding a few lines to the end of each email stating their preferred pronouns.

I’m not a civil servant, but I imagine if this takes off, I too will face the task in the next couple of years of asking IT how I can add a little message to each and every email I send. I will then face the challenge of thinking of which pronouns to include in my signature.

I am tempted to go with it/they rather than she/her, but I might try to come up with something really exotic. What about if I said that my pronouns must be ooh/aah? Woe betide anyone who gets them wrong or in the wrong order.

Other possibilities might involve using Polish words such as Żółć and Źdźbło or alternatively I could insist that everyone addresses me with Russian pronouns and uses them correctly in each grammatical case. This would involve everyone having to make their keyboard capable of using Cyrillic and learning sufficient Russian grammar to not get mixed up between ею and ней.

If all eight thousand members of the Scottish civil service took just this sort of creative approach to their pronouns, then no one would know how to refer to anyone and perhaps then the Scottish Government and Leslie Evans might learn a lesson that they would not forget.

The absurdity of the idea of asking people to provide their pronouns at the bottom of their email is that if everyone genuinely did make up their pronouns and insisted that they be used in just that way by everyone else, then the language of pronouns would rapidly collapse.

Pronouns are not subjective. They are not words I make up. Rather they are words that we are taught as we learn a language usually as children. If all the millions of English language speakers used different pronouns and insisted on everyone else using them, we would simply be unable to do so. A personal pronoun is not personal in the sense that we each get to make one up, rather it is part of a common language and its use is determined by rules and customs shared by the language community.

Writing emails is a completely unproblematic activity because it does not usually require that I know anything about the identity of the person I am writing to. The reason for this is that I rarely write to someone using He or She. I use You instead. If I am writing a formal letter to someone and I don’t know whether it is a man or a woman I write “Dear Sir or Madam”. I then use You throughout the letter. There is simply no need to know this person’s preferred pronouns. It is a non-issue.

I only ever use He or She when referring to someone else (rather than to you) either in writing or in conversation. This too is usually completely unproblematic. When I write “Boris Johnson was speaking in the House of Commons and he fell over”, I don’t need to ask him about his preferred pronouns. Rather I make assumptions based on his name and his appearance.

There might be the odd occasion when someone has a first name, I am unfamiliar with when I’m not sure which pronoun to use. There might also be times when I’m not sure whether a baby is a boy or a girl or more rarely if someone is a man or a woman. In these cases, I do my best to avoid embarrassment by not using pronouns at all. It’s usually possible to come up with a sentence which avoids He or She. I might talk about “your baby” or “that person”.

Even with people who describe themselves as transgender, the rules for pronoun use will turn out to be the same as for everyone else in nearly all circumstances. The transgender person might insist that all zer colleagues call zer ze or zer, but no one else will. Everyone else will judge zer based on zer appearance and call her she if she looks like a woman and he if he looks like a man. The preferred pronoun will simply not apply to anyone else, because no one else will have learned it.

So, the only result of the Scottish Government’s encouragement is that a few civil servants will have to learn a few non standard pronouns for people who prefer them, but this will change absolutely nothing outside the office. If I see a transgender person robbing a bank and he looks like a man I will describe him as He to the police whatever his preferred pronouns, because I won’t know them. I will judge by appearance, because this is how we speak. Language is not subjective or a matter or preference. For this reason, asking about preferred pronouns is peculiarly senseless. You are born with your pronouns. It has nothing to do with choice.

The language of pronouns is so easy and straightforward that a normal five-year-old will use the words correctly in nearly every circumstance. If the Scottish Government’s civil service initiative were extended to the whole population (it will be unless this nonsense is stopped) then no one would know how to refer to anyone else without first asking them, which given that we continually use He or She to refer to people we have never met is clearly impossible. A simple linguistic task would be turned into a lifetime of confusion, mistakes and microaggressions if the SNP had its way with everyone having the right to complain if we got their pronouns wrong.

Leslie Evans’s scheme depends on 99.9% of civil servants opting for the He/Him She/Her option. If they didn’t then no one could remember how to refer to colleagues. It’s only if a tiny percentage chose non-standard pronouns that the scheme could be workable.

So don’t object if you are “encouraged” to choose your pronouns. Rather let everyone pick the weirdest most wonderful, unpronounceable pronouns they can possibly make up. Insist that Leslie and Nicola call you Źdźbło and Żółć and get the pronunciation correct and they will soon think better of their encouragement. 

The excellent Effie Deans writes at Lily of St. Leonard’s here.