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”?