Monday, January 4, 2021

The “it” Pronoun

The pronoun wars show no sign of abating.  How to replace the use of “him” and “his” to refer to people who are not male or whose gender is unknown?  For a while I used “him and her” or “his and hers”, but it is much too clunky, especially if repeated over the course of several sentences.  Then I switched to alternating genders, first using her/hers and then when the next opportunity arose him/his and so on.  But this is unsatisfactory as well, since it doesn’t distinguish clearly between instances where you know the gender (and can use the appropriate pronoun) and those where you don’t and are just throwing one out there.  Finally I gravitated to they/theirs, despite the deep belief, inculcated through decades of indoctrination, that it is a crime to mixed up singular and plural forms.

None of these is satisfactory, yet it is important to de-gender our language.  We shouldn’t default to a locution that places one gender ahead of another, and we should even go further and not impose a gender binary either.  All of that should be expunged.  Where to go from here?

I have a proposal, and this is “it”.  Very broadly, it/its has been used to designate things that are non- or insufficiently human instead of the him/her/his/hers complex, which is mostly reserved for our own species.  So-called higher animals whose sex is known, like your pet dog or cat, could be graced with him/his or her/hers, but if you don’t have this knowledge, or if the creature is considered lower, it merits only an it/its in common with inanimate objects.  A fish, for instance, is an it.  If you see a bird at some distance and are unable to sex it, it is an it.

Drawing the line in this way is objectionable.  I have been reading a bit of popular writing on animal cognition (Frans de Waal, Jennifer Ackerman), and it’s clear that referring to such organisms in a way that lumps them together with rocks compared to higher beings like us misrepresents them.

But what if we used it/its for everything and everyone?  A rock would be an it, yes, but also a bird and even a human.  Complete and universal itification.  In one swoop it would do away with illegitimate gendering and the Descartes-ish denigration of nonhuman beings.  The only drawback would be the erasure of a linguistic distinction between animate and inanimate referents, but the current use of it/its violates this anyway.  Yes, we would be uncomfortable referring to each other itishly, but any de-gendered linguistic change takes getting used to.

What do you think?  Are we ready for “it”?


The Sophist said...

Since it's for third-person singular, what about "one" ? As in

He/She/One goes to the store. One's bike is red. Send oneself a message.

The only awkward case is when it's an object. As in "send the letter to him". "send the letter to one" ? doesn't really work. Sigh.

I still don't see what's wrong with "they/them/themself/themselves". said...

The problem with "one" is that it is too impersonal. Its usual usage is to refer to an abstract person, "One might like nice weather" meaning anybody in general, not one specific person precisely.

Yes, it is inconsistent, but it seems that "they" is increasingly used both verbally and in writing. Yes, it can refer to a generalized group or person, but it is also regularly used to refer to a singular specific individual.

And "it" is almost inhuman, really quite awful. A thing, not a living entity. Yuck. Stick with "they."

Anonymous said...

Agree with Barkley: they > it. Though in having learned only a little German, would vote to get rid of der (masculine) and die (feminine) and just have any items referred to as das (neutral gender) to make it easier!

Jerry Brown said...

'It' is no good. I keep remembering 'Silence of the Lambs' where the creep called his? victims 'it'. If you have to write that way, 'they' is not perfect but at least it is human.

Kaleberg said...

They used to refer to babies as it, but that's no longer common. My only objection to a more neutral pronoun is that they should carve out an exception for cryptographers with their canonical Alice and Bob. Using gender to keep track of whose public or private key is being used to send a message from who to whom is really convenient. That and bath towels.

Calgacus said...

Finally I gravitated to they/theirs, despite the deep belief, inculcated through decades of indoctrination, that it is a crime to mixed up singular and plural forms.

Methinks thou hast been perpetrating this crime for a long time. Off thou goest to Quaker Grammar Penitentiary!