Pronouns and the Purpose of Language

The purpose of language is communication, whatever our other aspirations for it may be. Toward this end, it must be easy to use, flexible and clear.

Once in a while, someone tries to change language for idealistic purposes. A convenient example is feminists’ perennial attempts to change the word “women” to something like “womyn” to separate it, philosophically, from the word “man.” The word spellings are only related, feminists argue, because men are considered the default sex and women are defined in relation to men. We should stop spelling the words to reflect these old biases.

Admirable goal. But efforts like these have always failed. That’s because this isn’t how language works. Language is a tool, not a PR kit. Thus, it changes organically, never by decree. Trying to change it into a vehicle for propaganda, however well-intentioned, takes it further away from what it’s designed to do.  It’s for communicating, not signaling

That’s why dictionaries are descriptive, not prescriptive. And that’s why people on all sides of the political spectrum are misguided when they petition to change dictionary definitions, as when a trans-rights group recently petitioned to expand the definition of “woman,” and then a radical feminist group, in turn, petitioned to further restrict that definition. Neither side should win. The dictionary should reflect common use. It’s a reference.

That brings us to “preferred pronouns.” Though journalists are doing a fine job of using them to signal, no one’s faring as well when trying to use them to communicate.

Let’s start with this fact: “preferred pronouns” are for people who don’t pass. People who do (though I maintain that’s rare) don’t need to tell you their pronouns. In practice, this means that to ask someone to use your pronouns is specifically to ask her to say the opposite of what she means. Then, those listening, if they’re to understand, must interpret what she says in a way that’s unintuitive. Both speaker and listener must work harder, and all this for less, rather than more clarity. That’s our first problem for communication, out of the gate.

But the problem is not just theoretical. Here are some examples of how I’ve watched this particular language prescription fail.

The first is from personal experience. At some point after a stint of light cross-dressing, my ex began to say he was “literally” a woman and that he wanted to be called “she.”

At the same time, he didn’t dress excessively “feminine.” This is something he was proud of. “Women don’t go everywhere dressed to the nines,” he said (this all changed later, but that’s another story). So he wore a lot of things like jeans with a subtle floral pattern, scarves, and high-top tennis shoes. In practice, this meant he looked a man with some flair, not a woman.

One time we met another couple (a man and a woman) at a bar. The three of them arrived before me, and my spouse started a tab. At this particular bar, one opened a tab without providing a credit card. The bartenders just remembered your face. The three of them got their drinks and took a seat in a booth not far from the bar.

When I arrived, the spouse informed me of the tab. So I went to the bar and ordered a drink. Mind you, this was a bar, so it was loud–people talking, TVs playing. At the same time, my party was in a booth nearby, within earshot of the bar–especially if I talked loud, which I had to do to be heard.

“Are you on someone’s tab?” the bartender asked.

“Yes,” I said, and pointed toward my party.

“Whose tab?” the bartender asked.

And here’s where, in order to please my spouse, I needed to point at him and say: “hers.” Remember, he was within earshot.

But if I had done that, the bartender would have assumed that I was talking about the only woman at the table. That’s what “hers” means, for communication purposes–the tab belonging to the woman. Signaling is another story. But signaling doesn’t get the job done, especially when the conversation is loud and fast-paced and casual.

So I had to say something else, and “that person’s” sounds a bit objectifying (as well as unexpected, and thus unclear). How about “I am on the tab belonging to the person in the t-shirt with the mermaid on it?” Too long. The bartender is in a hurry. He wants to know the answer to his question. He does not want to participate in a signaling song-and-dance that helps me hide reality from my insecure partner.

“Her” can be used in an article about a “trans woman,” where there’s plenty of space and time to tweak for clarity. “Her” can’t be used in this way to communicate in practice.

My second example is from personal experience, too. I’ll soon be speaking on a panel at a conference with three other graduates, and we’re coordinating our plans on an email thread, with our professor. Only one male person is involved. Let’s call him Richard. The other students, and the professor, are female.

One young woman on the thread has printed “preferred pronouns” in her email signature. She’s listed “she/her,” “he/him,” and “they/them.” Because she wants all the queer cred. By the way, she’s a thin, pretty young woman with long blonde hair, a helium voice, and delicate skin, who primarily wears dresses. She also has a very feminine name. Let’s call her Alyssa.

If I started to refer to Alyssa as “he” on the thread, do you suppose anyone would know what I was talking about?

If what I said could in any way be applied to Richard, they’d assume I was talking about Richard. If it couldn’t, they’d assume they’d missed something or that I was simply making zero sense. Under no circumstance would people assume I was talking about Alyssa.

In fact, it would be so clearly absurd for me to do so, that they might think I was making fun of Alyssa’s pronoun request.

My third example is from a non-fiction audiobook I recently listened to. The author had interviewed a person named “Julie” who preferred the pronouns “they” and “them.”

Note that before the author can proceed, he must forewarn and explain the use of these pronouns. Simply using them, as though the goal were communication, is not an option. Here’s how the author opened. I’m paraphrasing:

“Julie is an expert in this field. They–Julie prefers the pronouns ‘they’ and ‘them’–have been studying this topic for many years.”

Great for signaling. We can tell the author is probably a liberal and an LGBT ally. But less great for communicating. As you’ll see, we can no longer follow what’s going on with Julie  once we abandon language as communication tool. Check out some of the statements that follow:

“Julie comes from a big Catholic family who lives in a small town, and they always wanted to move to the city.”

The family wants to move to the city, right? “They” is plural, and that’s what a sentence like this has always meant. No, actually Julie wants to move to the city, to get away from her family. The big Catholic family loves the country!

But the author didn’t write that sentence, he wrote this one:

“Julie comes from a big Catholic family who lives in a small town, and Julie always wanted to move to the city.”

Why? Because “they” doesn’t convey the intended meaning. Pronouns haven’t been swapped, here. They’ve been rendered useless.

Then he writes this:

“Julie joined a sorority and Julie started taking Spanish lessons.”

You can see why. Because the sorority, despite containing a plurality of members, is not who took those lessons. And the author can’t signal his allyship to Julie and communicate effectively at the same time.

Twice, now, Julie’s pronoun demands have inhibited the author’s ability to be clear. Rather than figure out how to make “they” work, he’s had to abandon pronouns altogether–an entire part of speech. And he’s writing, so he has time to figure something out. What happens when he’s talking, he’s in a hurry, and the person he’s referring to is named Sharmishtha?

Might as well wrap a hammer in six yards of plush fake fur, on the grounds that we want safer hammers, then ask a construction crew to build a house with it.

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