HomeBusiness Ethics

Pronounal progress?

Like Tweet Pin it Share Share Email

La plume de ma tante est sur la table.

This popular phrase from my high school French class, combined with last week’s excursion into the land of pronouns, leads to a number of questions.

Starting with this: What’s the point of having pronouns in the first place?

Answer: Take the short paragraph, John Smith has blond hair. He also has blue eyes.

It tells you the person named “John Smith” has blond hair and blue eyes. It also tells you I’ve either inferred John is male because in my experience most people named “John” are male, or else that John has told me he’s male.

Pronouns, like acronyms, make writing and speech less repetitive and more compact. Were I to write about robotic planetary exploration, I might explain that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) landed the Curiosity rover on Mars to help us understand that planet better. NASA should be proud of what it has accomplished.

If I did, you’d understand what NASA refers to. Had I spelled it out in the second mention my writing would have been unnecessarily clumsy and bumpy.

What you wouldn’t understand was whether I was saying NASA should be proud of its accomplishments or Curiosity’s.

I violated the first rule of pronoun usage – that the antecedent must be clear.

We use pronouns to make our writing and speaking more compact and graceful. Their purpose is not to demean or categorize anyone – an accusation a number of correspondents shared with me in response to last week’s commentary.

I disagree with this view. Gender-specific pronouns don’t demean, because intent defines the crime. Unlike the pejorative and belittling terms used by bigots to refer to various racial and ethnic groups, not to mention some of the repulsive terms used by the rabidly insecure to refer to women, pronouns weren’t coined to derogate or to bolster one group’s need to feel superior to other groups.

There is a difference between outcome and purpose.

Pronouns, whether gender-specific or gender-neutral, exist to provide a less bulky way to refer to someone or something who (or that) has already been clearly identified. Our cultural traditions being what they are, we used to think gender agreement – “he” vs “she” vs “it” helped clarify the antecedent.

Clearly, that’s no longer the case. But those who advocate re-thinking how we choose third-person pronouns aren’t doing themselves any favors when some of the proposed pronouns lack clear definitions, or, in some cases, any definition at all.

Again, the first rule of pronoun use is making sure the antecedent is clear.

Gender-neutral expression is easily accomplished. Just accept the singular “they.”

The gender-aware pronoun landscape is complicated, and made more so by having no nouns, newly coined or otherwise, for the new pronouns to refer to.

As I understand it, a person’s gender refers to a combination of personal traits – at a minimum their anatomy, genetics, hormonal physiology, psychology, and maybe sexuality. Each of these might be male, female, neither, or both.

We need, that is, between 16 and 20 nouns if we’re going to sensibly identify a person’s gender. We have, by my count, four (male, female, hermaphrodite, asexual), making pronouns based on just one or two personal traits ambiguous.

Because of this unsolvable ambiguity, my opinion continues to be that, when communicating, erring on the side of gender-ignorance (“they” for all third-person usages other than “it”) is a logical and inoffensive interim solution.

When dealing with interpersonal relationships, on the other hand, personal preference, even to the extent of someone choosing a syllable at random, ought to guide our pronounal choices as a matter of evolving good manners.

Bob’s last word: Getting back to my aunt’s pen, reforming French to avoid gender-insensitivity is even more complicated than English.

Should the French insist on defaulting my aunt to a grammatically defined gender of female because the noun “la tante” is female?

Or should her personal gender assignment govern the decision, making “mon tante” the right phrasing should my aunt consider themself to be male?

An estimated 75% of all languages have gendered nouns and face the conundrum of what to do when a noun’s definitional gender (“la tante”) and personal gender (“mon tante”) conflict.

Our English-language challenges seem, in comparison, downright benign.

Bob’s sales pitch: Projects push change into an organization. That’s what Bare Bones Project Management is for. But organizational change calls for pulling even more than pushing.

That’s why I wrote Bare Bones Change Management. It complements project management with proven techniques for pulling change through the organization.

Comments (12)

  • It is always a joy to read your columns. I know that it is more than 20 years ago that I first began to see, read and share your comments with others in my circle. The range of your writing is also impressive and clearly demonstrates that you should be called a “renaissance man.” While your earlier columns helped me understand the world of IT, other columns were useful in understanding principles of management and leadership. I am also enjoying your exploration of the world of grammar. Thank you for making it such a pleasure to open the mail that contains IS Survivor!

  • It is at least endemic, perhaps even pandemic by now, among writers to choose to use vague pronouns in their books. They might know who they are really referring to , but it can take pages at times for us to figure out who/what they are talking about.

    Example: novel Villa America, which is an incredibly dull boring slice of life with no point and no plot and supposedly artsycraftsy because it is historical built on real people. After one section break It started off with ‘He yada yada’. and continued with 12 more references to someone called ‘he’ for the next 3 pages before finally there was a clue who the writer was writing about. And way too many books start things with He/she/they and never tell us who until a half page later.

    As to pronouns themselves, they should be used correctly realizing that there are crazy people out there in the world that need to be ignored lest they allow us to help them destroy civilisation. Writing is meant to communicate clearly not pacify some deranged person’s self image.

    The Bible had it right (Torah too). There are exactly two sexes and God made them male and female no matter how many woke loonies on the left think otherwise.

  • Regarding the French conundrum: the heck with “mon tante”, what if it is a very masculine table??

  • Bob, it is refreshing to have clear commentary in this day and age. You always deliver. Will you run for President? I don’t care what party you affiliate with. I just want someone who thinks as clearly as you to lead more than just us IT people.

  • Reuters has an interesting article/graphic about gendered words.


    BTW, if your “aunt” identifies as a male, then they are “oncle.”

    Always enjoy and learn from your columns.

  • We are all created by God to be inherently equal. However, not all ideas are equal.

    Transgenderism and its attempt to change language and appropriate pronouns that existed for centuries as its own is a prime example of an absurd idea that Western society has allowed to run rampant by claiming all should be accepted in the name of “tolerance” – funny how that tolerance does not flow the other way e.g. if you disagree.

    So you wrote a blog on the topic and then had to write another blog to explain more about the first one because some cry babies threw their toys out of the cot. Why? This idea of pronouns is a slippery slope and by continuing to indulge it is like throwing oil on the slope. Trans people do not own language and should not be forcing anyone else to partake in their delusion.

    Hundreds of years from now, should anyone dig up our bones, we will be classified as male or female, not this was a male in a female’s body. Just the same way as no one would be able to tell whether the person was white, black, mixed-race, etc. We are all just humans, some with good ideas that advance society and others, like the push for trans pronouns, that seek to tear it down.

    • It appears your thought process about pronouns disrespects centuries of established rules about pronoun use. In your comment you referred to me as “you,” not “thou.” In an earlier dispute about pronouns it appears the “informalists” won their battle against the forces of stilted formalisms.

      Thought processes evolve. Language evolves. Those who say they know what God did and wants disagree with what their predecessors said about what God did and wants: theology and religiosity evolve.

      And by the way, should anyone dig up our bones in future centuries, some of the bones they’ll dig up will be anatomically male but genetically female (XX), and vice versa (XY). And so, a question: Do you define gender based on genetics or anatomy?

      Second-to-last point: tolerance isn’t an absolute, and speaking out against intolerance isn’t hypocrisy.

      Last point: In the 1960s, people like you complained that using “Ms.” as an honorific would inevitably tear down society.

      And yet, somehow society survived.

  • I read an article in the January Wired magazine that did exactly what you are advocating. It was a slog for me to wade through. As I think about it, it was because “They, Their, Them” as used in the article refered to an individual and I kept expecting the antecedent to be more than one person. It did not serve to make the article any more graceful or fluid to my mind. Perhaps in order to preserve singular and plural pronouns the verb tense should be changed to “They is” rather than they are (or is that what you were implying by saying “they singular”. I understand that singular and plural pronouns are already somewhat confused (the royal “we” [as when the head of state is including the entire state], and “you” singular vs. “you” plural [which just means me regardless if someone is speaking just to me or several of us]), but using “they” all the time means the loss of any identification of the number people identified.

    Rather than make speaking / writing more ambiguous, you may want to suggest a new made-up word for he/she/it in order to preserve some ability to maintain clarity between singular and plural while retaining gender neutrality.

  • We need “only” 16 to 20 nouns? You already seem to be woefully behind the times. Just yesterday I read an article describing how Tinder has “more than 30” options for gender selection! (Some are short phrases.)


Comments are closed.