WHERE ANGELS FEAR TO TREAD …

I was enjoying reading some light fiction this afternoon. Enjoying it, that is, until I came to a section in which a non-binary character was introduced.

A non-binary character or person is one who does not identify as specifically male or female, or may alternate between gender identities.

The problem here is pronouns. English, traditionally, divides humans into “he” or “she,” “him” or “her.” As society has become more aware and accepting of people who do not fit comfortably into a single category, there has been a movement to introduce new pronouns — to add them to the traditional he, she, him, her, his, and hers.

Well, I have no problem with that. There are languages that traditionally use a single pronoun for male and female and whatever might lie between, such as the u of Persian, which, in romantic poetry, enabled a male to speak of love with another male without specifying gender — so one might also interpret it as a male in love with a female, and the reverse. And Chinese traditionally has ta, which similarly is gender neutral, and whether it refers to a male or female is made clear by context.

Now personally, I find separate male and female pronouns very useful — but a gender-neutral pronoun could also be useful in many situations — and not just in referring to those with a non-binary self identification.

So why was I made so unhappy in the middle of my light reading when a non-binary character appeared on the page? Well, again, it is a matter of pronouns. When I read that a person is wearing a “white faux-fur hat that’s almost like a crown on top of their head,” my intellect instinctively rebels. And it does so because of the use of a plural pronoun for a singular person. — “on top of their head.” The book goes on to describe “giving them a kiss on the cheek” — but the person given the kiss is singular, not plural — not a them. Them, in English, is a plural pronoun.

The narrative continues by describing a character’s admiration for the brooch (unfortunately incorrectly spelled as “broach,” but that is another matter) worn by the non-binary person. And the person wearing the brooch “moves their fingers over the pin.” Well, no — the person does not. If “their” fingers are moving over the pin, common sense requires more than one person moving “their fingers over the pin.”

My objection to the use of “they,” “them” and “their” for a non-binary person is simply that it is a very impractical, awkward and ill-considered solution to the question of how a non-binary person should be respectfully addressed. And it is impractical simply because of the confusion created by using clearly plural pronouns (“them” / “their”) to refer to a singular person. To be really blunt, such a very poor solution is no genuine solution at all. There is no need to twist clear English into obscure English simply to satisfy a need that can easily be otherwise satisfied with introduction of non-confusing, gender-neutral singular pronouns.

Now again, I have no problem at all with adding such new gender-neutral personal and possessive pronouns to the English language for use with non-binary people who might prefer such a usage. But those pronouns should not be plural when a singular pronoun is required. They may be simply neutral — somewhat like “it” and “its” — but of course no one wishes to be or should be addressed as “it,” — so the need is simply for new pronouns added to the language that are respectful and non-gender specific — like Persian u and Chinese ta — and certainly not a confusing use of the standard plural English pronouns “they” and “them” and “theirs” for a singular subject.

Against the common sense solution, I have read an argument that using a plural pronoun for the singular is an old usage in English:

This isn’t new – the saying ‘Everybody loves their own mother’ has been used since around late 1300. Both Jane Austen and Geoffrey Chaucer – who died in 1400 – used pronouns that way.

That, of course, is a misunderstanding of the usage. When someone says (as they still may) “Everybody loves their own mother,” Everybody — in spite of its singular appearance — is understood in a plural sense as meaning “all people.” That is why the plural pronoun is often used in such cases, and why there is no confusion in understanding what is meant. But to commonly refer to a single person as “they,” and to use such convoluted sentences as “John kissed them on the cheek” when only one person is being kissed, is simply self-indulgent, ill-considered and willful distortion of clarity in the English language. There is no reason for using a very bad and impractical solution when a good and clear solution is so easily at hand.

4 thoughts on “WHERE ANGELS FEAR TO TREAD …

  1. Jean

    I strongly agree with your dislike of the use of the plural for a single person. It seems clumsy and, for me, interrupts the flow of the narrative. Just as bad is the use of s/he, especially once the person is the object of the sentence. The common sense solution, however, doesn’t seem likely to be adopted.
    Another problem I have is with the rise of the use of “husband” and “wife’ in a same sex marriage. Unless one has inside information on a relationship, it seems inevitable that one will make an incorrect assumption at some point and use the wrong word. I would make a plea for the use of “spouse”, as being both gender neutral and applying to a married couple.
    I’m not holding my breath …

  2. Since no pronoun has yet to be adopted, officially, then what gender-neutral pronoun do you use in your writings, David, when you write about non-binary people in poems, etc?

    REPLY:
    I have not had occasion to write about non-binary people up to now. I think I have only encountered one such person in recent months — and I would not have known were it not for the “preferred pronoun” listed in the email sent me. I suspect their (plural intended) presence will be more noticed now that society has become more aware of the whole matter of gender identity and gender fluidity.

    David

  3. Ian Eilliamson

    “There is no reason for using a very bad and impractical solution when a good and clear solution is so easily at hand.”..

    May I ask you, David to elaborate what solution you have ‘at hand’?

    I have a deep admiration for your writings and for the respect you accord the English language.

    Ian

  4. It’s quite common to use ‘they’ and ‘their’ in the singular when we don’t know what gender a person is. E,g, ‘Someone’s been in here and they didn’t put their cup away.’ We do it all the time and never even think about it. Doing the same in cases of gender diversity isn’t such a big jump.

    REPLY:
    Obviously I disagree. The example you used is, as you say, for a person not just of unknown gender, but unknown. It is generally quite a different situation, for example, when speaking of a known person.

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