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.

An abbreviated history of the seat belt:

  • 1922 – Barney Oldfield installs the first three-point restraining harness in his Indy 500 car.
  • 1959: Nils Bohlin invents the three-point seat belt/shoulder harness for Volvo. To encourage automobile safety Volvo gives the design away free to all automobile manufacturers.
  • 1968: Lyndon Johnson signs mandate that all new cars must be equipped with the three-point safety harness into law.
  • 1973: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) mandates new cars must have a seatbelt interlock mechanism installed, preventing cars from starting unless the seat belt is engaged.
  • 1974: Congress repeals the mandatory seat belt interlock law.
  • 1984: New York State passes law requiring all drivers to wear their seat belts. Between then and now all states except Hew Hampshire have passed similar laws, extended beyond drivers to all passengers.
  • 2000: Nils Bohlin dies. Volvo estimates his invention had saved in excess of 1 million lives.
  • 2021: Some drivers still refuse to wear seat belts because “You can’t make me.” Many Americans refuse to receive COVID-19 vaccinations for the same reason.

Imagine you’re enough of a libertarian to oppose the “nanny state” on principle whether it is nannying about seatbelts or vaccinations.

Also imagine you accept the by-now-overwhelming evidence that the major COVID-19 vaccines are, like seatbelts, safe and effective.

Further imagine you accept that wearing seatbelts mitigates the harm from car crashes, making them less lethal or crippling, just as COVID-19 vaccinations reduce the morbidity and lethality of an infection. But unlike seatbelts, which don’t reduce the odds of being in an accident, vaccines do reduce the odds of becoming infected.

Next: Read or review Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience and use it to justify the proposition that even though using seatbelts can save you from death and severe injury, the political point you’ll make is worth the risk. With some ingenuity you can probably manage this, as when you refuse to wear a seatbelt you only endanger yourself … assuming, of course, you have no family that needs you alive and healthy.

Now try to justify the parallel proposition about vaccines.

With FDA approval of the Pfizer vaccine for general use, we can expect an increasing number of employers mandating vaccination, following the advice given here a few weeks ago (admittedly, most of them didn’t know I’d given it, but I’ll take credit for it anyway). And with the current surge we can also anticipate a return to mask plus social-distancing mandates.

“You can’t make me!” isn’t much of a moral proposition. It isn’t what you’d call thoughtful. “Childish” seems like the more appropriate adjective.

Bob’s last word: In Horsefeathers, Groucho sang:

Your proposition may be good

But let’s have one thing understood:

Whatever it is, I’m against it

And even when you’ve changed it or condensed it

I’m against it.

For those who miss the point, the song is supposed to be satire.

Bob’s sales pitch: just published another essay from yours truly. I think you’ll like it. But you’ll never know if you don’t read it. You’ll find it here, in “The three IT processes CIOs need most.”