The Journal of Applied Impossibility
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January 12th, 2022
One of my problems with the current fad of “specifying one’s pronouns” is that it simply does not use language correctly. Phrases such as “my pronouns” or “I use XYZ pronouns” don’t mean what folks seem to think those phrases mean. First, pronouns are part of a language, and as such, do not belong to you or anyone else. They are not like a name. This is part of
why pronouns are a different part of speech from ordinary nouns and proper nouns (only the latter of which can be said properly to ‘belong’ to a person). You don’t own pronouns the way you own a name. In fact, anyone who has been “called a name” will realize that one does not have control (perhaps only influence) over the name one is called.
Next, consider the phrase “I use XYZ pronouns.” Strictly speaking this is not false for any fluent speaker of English and the standard three genders of our language. I do not use “wormself” -- nor do I recognize it as a “real” pronoun. By contrast, I do use and recognize “he” and “him.” But I also use “she” and “it” and “they” from time to time. Witness: “My mother was once an English teacher. She insisted that I learn standard, formal English. English can be a tricky language, but it is also lovely. I also speak and read German to some extent. They are similar languages in many ways.” To use a pronoun is to be in the habit of speaking, reading, writing, and understanding it. I thus use all of the pronouns.
“Well,” says my hypothetical interlocutor, “you may use all of those pronouns when speaking. But which pronouns do you use to refer to yourself?” To which my answer is of course, “First person pronouns! I refer to myself as ‘I’ or ‘me’ and my pronouns are mine!”
“Ha ha! Don’t be a smartass. Which pronouns should I use to refer to you?” To which my response is, “Second person pronouns! I want you to say ‘you’ when addressing me, please.”
This grammar lesson is a bit pedantic, and I’m sorry for that. Except that if we’re going to be in the business of policing language, I reserve the right to also lawyer it. Let us therefore say what we mean -- not what the language police want it to mean, but what it actually means. I use all the standard English pronouns, and when referring to myself, I prefer the first person ones, and as for you, I want the second person pronouns. The real question under our lawyerly consideration is of course which third person pronouns do I want others to use. And my stance here is simply that I have no way of knowing because most of the time I won’t be there to monitor the situation as people are talking about me. I hope that people are not rude when speaking of me, but I suspect that how they speak of me will depend a great deal on what they think of me. I cannot legislate others’ respect for me. I can only earn it. And attempts to acquire it by force are the surest guarantee that whatever I receive, it will not be respect.
At issue is not the pronouns I use, but the pronouns I expect you to use. And this is the nerve of the issue. What we’re arguing over is something completely in the hands of others. How someone refers to me is up to the person doing the referring. “That jackass” might be perfectly clear in some contexts. But when I’m in the barn that might be ambiguous, so it might be better to refer to me as “the one in the hat.” I’m going to negotiate the circumstances as best I can, but the attempt to legislate it won’t work.
The “pronoun debate” is about whether and to what extent I can control your speech -- specifically your speech about me. But here is an impertinent question: If I can dictate the pronouns you will use to describe me, why can I not also dictate other parts of speech? Why may I not also tell you “my” adjectives, adverbs, and verbs? I prefer to be described as “tall” “charming” “brilliant” and “handsome.” And I prefer verbs that flatter me as powerful and admirable.
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