Those Pesky Pronouns

Those Pesky Pronouns
Terry Odell

PronounsHappy New Year everyone! Wishing you all a year that’s better than its recent predecessors.

Given it’s been a long, long time since I’ve been part of the “typical” workforce, a recent email signature had me scratching my head. Under the senders name was the line (he/him/his). I asked my daughter about this, since she’s more tuned into business communication, and she gave me the Mom, what rock did you just climb out from under look.

Now, I’m not totally oblivious to the change in gender pronouns. Anyone who’s had to fill out a form has seen the choices under ‘gender’ multiply. But I’d never seen it in an email signature. The rationale, I’ve been told, is that if everyone does it, those who are uncomfortable about declaring their pronouns will feel less conspicuous when they do. Am I going to add it to my email signature? I’m not sure. Most of my correspondence isn’t of the formal business variety. And, once you become aware of something you start to see it in many other places. (There’s a name for this. Points if you know what it is.) I did notice the host of a recent Zoom meeting included she/her/hers underneath her name. And I’ve since seen it added to Twitter names.

I’ve been dealing with confusing gender since I was in junior high school. My mom had no idea that girls and boys had different spellings for Terry, and I saw no reason to change. First day of seventh grade, I was assigned to a shop class (exclusive to boys back then). My math teacher called out my name and another one—Robin—and asked us to stand. I wondered what trouble I could have gotten into the first ten minutes of class. We stood, identified ourselves, and she smiled and said, “I just wanted to know if you were girls or boys.” Our English teacher used the Mars/Venus symbols in his roll sheet. Summer before my first year of college, I was invited to pledge a fraternity.

What does this mean for our writing? I’m not sure. Old habits die hard. I’d written the following in the current manuscript:

Ranch work came first, Frank reminded himself, and if there’d been an intruder on the ranch, he needed to find him.

My editor came back and asked if “him” should be “them.” I told her I was following the rules of grammar as I learned them. “An intruder” was singular and would take a singular pronoun.

She came back with “Yes. Either “him” or “them” is fine here. I thought maybe “them” would be better since they aren’t sure if it’s a man or woman. Your call.”

For the record, I’ve left it as “him”—for now. The book won’t be released until February 2nd, so I can waffle back and forth a while longer.

Using “them” or “their” as singular has been acceptable for a long time (Shakespeare and Jane Austen, among others, used them), but I’ve always tried to avoid the construction. It simply sounds “off” to me. I would pause at a sentence like, “Terry did well on their exam; they received an A.”

According to, “their” is defined as:

A form of the possessive case of plural they used as an attributive adjective, before a noun: their home; their rights as citizens; their departure for Rome.

A form of the possessive case of singular they used as an attributive adjective, before a noun:

  1. (used to refer to a generic or unspecified person previously mentioned, about to be mentioned, or present in the immediate context): Someone left their book on the table. A parent should read to their child.
  2. (used to refer to a specific or known person previously mentioned, about to be mentioned, or present in the immediate context): I’m glad my teacher last year had high expectations for their students.
  3. (used to refer to a nonbinary or gender-nonconforming person previously mentioned, about to be mentioned, or present in the immediate context): My cousin Sam is bad at math, but their other grades are good.

A quick trip through the Google Machine revealed even more choices beyond She/Her/Hers, He/Him/His, and They/Them/Theirs. I’d never heard of Xe/Xem/Xyrs, Ze/Hir/Hirs, Ze/Zir/Zirs, or E/Em/Eirs.

What confuses me is why people need all three. If I know someone is a “she” isn’t it automatic that Her and Hers would follow? Or is that to be parallel with the less usual pronouns of Xe, Ze, and E?

But a signature in a business letter isn’t the same as using pronouns in fiction. I had a trans character in Deadly Fun, but nobody realized she wasn’t a woman, so from the point of view of my protagonist, he’d be using she/her/hers when referring to her. The character had left the story by the time Gordon discovered her history, so I never dealt with non-binary pronouns—not that I was aware of them when I wrote that book.

OK, TKZers. Your thoughts? As I said at the beginning of this post, I’ve been going through life with blinders on.

In the Crosshairs by Terry OdellNow available for pre-order. In the Crosshairs, Book 4 in my Triple-D Romantic Suspense series.

Changing Your Life Won’t Make Things Easier
There’s more to ranch life than minding cattle. After his stint as an army Ranger, Frank Wembly loves the peaceful life as a cowboy. Financial advisor Kiera O’Leary sets off to pursue her dream of being a photographer until a car-meets-cow incident forces a shift in plans. Instead, she finds herself in the middle of a mystery, one with potentially deadly consequences.

Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.”

35 thoughts on “Those Pesky Pronouns

  1. Good morning, Terry. I have this topic filed under “Don’t get me started.” The first time that I saw that addition to the signature line I considered adding “King/His Majesty/Master of the Universe” to mine, but I did not and have not. Yet. The year is still young.

    Have a terrific New Year, Terry!

  2. Good morning, Terry. And Happy New Year.

    My thoughts on the signature line and the pronouns are similar to Joe’s and Harvey’s, so I won’t stir the pot (although, sometimes stirring keeps the pot from boiling.)

    I agree: “But a signature in a business letter isn’t the same as using pronouns in fiction.” So, I’ll stay away from the former and comment on the latter.

    On the definition of “their”: I agree with #1. (generic or unspecified person). I disagree with #2. (specific known person). If it was “my” teacher, then I know if it was “his students” or “her students.” #3 I will refrain from commenting on, and go crawl back under my rock.

    Thanks for stirring the pot, poking the bear, waking a sleeping dog, or whatever. You got us awake and ready to write.

    Have a great day!

    • Good morning, Steve, and thanks for your thoughts.
      As the author, given you’re probably aware of your characters’ gender preferences, you can write their pronouns accordingly. It’s getting trickier in real life, though.
      To quote JSB: Carpe Typem.

  3. Thanks for tackling this thorny subject, Terry.

    As a reader, I’m confused when I see a singular subject followed by a plural pronoun.

    As a mystery/thriller writer, I like using “them” b/c the unknown perp can be male, female, non-binary, more than one person, etc. and that helps hide the true identity until the Big Reveal.

    As a nonfiction writer, I always strive for clarity so ambiguous pronouns throw me for a loop.

    I can’t even fathom what parents of multiple children do if each child is referred to as “they.”

    “Who broke that window?”
    “They did.”

  4. I *wish* someone would explain what constitutes a Xe, Ze, or E. Do you know? I crawled out from under a similar rock, Terry. On Twitter I see she/her all the time, but I didn’t know we’re all supposed to do it to make others feel more comfortable. Ah, well. Live and learn. And no, I won’t be adding it to my sig. line.

    • Here’s what Google says:
      Ze – pronounced “zee” –and its variations: zir, zem, and zeir, are gender-neutral pronouns that can be used to refer to people who are non-binary, genderfluid, genderqueer, trans, and/or don’t identify with the gender binary. Other variations and tenses of these pronouns include zyrself and zirself.
      I assume the same would go for the others.

        • Call me a troglodyte but I would speculate that all that stuff will be as obsolete and irrelevant in twenty years as the DeSoto Fluid Drive transmission and leisure suits. Anything written using that collection will leave readers of a future time will see it for the distraction it is. It’s going to get very stale very quickly. Who makes this stuff up, anyway?

      • Wow. I had no idea. Thank you! If we include a gender-neutral or nonbinary (etc) character, I think it would be important to use the correct pronoun. We wouldn’t want to disrespect or harm anyone. Since I know nothing about that world, I doubt I’ll have the need for new pronouns in my fiction, but it’s helpful to know.

        • I’ve had a couple of gay characters, and one trans. I asked a trans person for advice for that, but since the character was visibly a woman, that’s how my protagonist thought of “her” and she was off the page before he discovered she’d transitioned. The character’s mother introduced her a “my daughter.”
          Beyond that, I’m not likely to venture. “Write what you know” comes to mind.

  5. I have a friend since my early teens whose name is Billie. Our first day in high school, we were both assigned to the same P.E. class. We were puzzled, but both went. I stayed. She didn’t.

    I use the them/their pronouns when I don’t know the gender of the person, or there are multiple people involved in the action. For me, it just seems easier and feels right. With the changing demographics, the pronoun of choice beneath the name seems proactive, but I haven’t seen it yet. I think if I’d seen it before reading this article, I would have likely been slightly annoyed before I thought about it. Then I’d likely have just mentally shrugged and thought ‘Whatever’.

    • Yeah, I had boy’s PE, too, but since the class schedule just said “Gym” I would have automatically gone to the girls’ building. My assigned guide for the first days was confused about the shop class, so she took me to the Guidance Office and they straightened things out. There were no gender boxes of any kind back in the day.

  6. “Them” started out as a neutral gender term so we aren’t so sexist in applying the male gender to everyone unknown so I’ve used that for years in my social and nonfiction writing. I’ve never used it in fiction. The newer none binary stuff I tend to ignore unless it’s a very specific situation. Being woke is sooooo exhausting.

    • Agreed. In correspondence, if I wasn’t sure, I’d just use the first name. Most of my traditional day job was in the classroom, and I never ran into issues with the girls and boys in my junior high school classes. “Ms.” was just beginning to make itself known.

  7. I’m with Joe — each person should create his or her (their?) own unique identifier to the signature line.

    I’ve used “they/them/their” in singular form a few times when it seemed to be called for, but it’s awkward. In the example you gave from your manuscript, Terry, I would probably stumble over the sentence if you changed it to “them.”

    • Thanks, Kay. It’ll be interesting to see how these pronouns play out in fiction. I confess I haven’t read many non-binary books, so I don’t know how their authors handle it. I have enough trouble with using ‘their’ or ‘them’ as singular.

  8. Good post, Terry! I guess I’m more familiar with this, having worked for local government where it was emphasized, as well as coming out of science fiction writing and fandom, where it’s been also emphasized for some time. Moreover, I took a course on gender and linguistics at Portland State when I was finishing my history degree in 1987.

    A point of discussion during that class was on how to remove gender bias in written language. “He or she” instead of the default male pronoun “He”, or using “Her” on occasion instead, or, yes, using “they.” I was one of those advocating for “they” in written language, since it was less clunky than “he or she 🙂

    You’re right, the use of preferred pronouns in sig lines is to make others feel comfortable in using their own. My oldest friend’s adult child identifies as non-binary, so I’ve had to train myself to use “they” rather than she, and be okay with using child even though it sounds more juvenile to my ear than daughter. I want to acknowledge their identity.

    Thanks for another thought-provoking post! Happy New Year!

    • Thanks, Dale for your explanations and experience. Back in the dark ages, when I was in high school, the trend was to use “person” for titles such as congress person. Our teacher said “What’s wrong with congresswoman? It’s simply proper grammar.” Things were less complicated, although not necessarily better. I remember when flight attendants were stewardesses. Frankly, I get bothered when someone says “male nurse.” Gender shouldn’t come into the picture there at all, and with so many other options now, I definitely think “nurse” should be enough. When one of my kids was about 3, and we were in the ER, the nurse who was checking her out made a point of telling her that he wasn’t a doctor, but he was a nurse. Start training ’em young.

  9. Welcome to the 21st century. For my late teen, twenty year old children, knowing someone’s pronouns is totally normal. So is using the right pronoun. My social signature is he/him. I haven’t added it to my work signature but I see it more and more. If you are not writing historical fiction it is time to get with the program.

    Actually my children try to avoid pronouns altogether.

    Let me quickly add deadnaming. DO NOT DEAD NAME. Lisa should be called Lisa and use her correct pronouns even if she was Dave before two years ago.

    • Thanks for that, Alan. I’m still being dragged into the 21st century, and as a recluse, I’m not exposed to much, as you can see by today’s post. My grandson is approaching his mid-teens; my kids are far older, and our conversations don’t usually require use of newer pronouns.

      • Your grandson probably follows the practice without even realizing it. Much like I use a word introduced when I was in middle school. It took a while, and people hated it, but Ms. caught on.

  10. Good post and comments, Terry.

    I feel like I’m being drug kicking and screaming into some alternate reality most of the time these days.

    I’d like to return to simpler times, but I fear that’s not going to happen anytime soon. So I’ll just try to understand what I can and let the stuff I can’t slide on by.

    And BTW, I am most definitely her/she, and will never be anything else. 🙂

  11. Not to be rude or crude, but this sounds like the biggest example of First World Problems, in my little corner of the world. On the other hand, the waves are rising high and it won’t be long before they reach our shores. What with globalization and all that. But, hey, all we can do is observe and learn, if not conform.

  12. You can spell Terry any way you like; it’s your name, innit? You can spell it ‘Joe Btfsplk,’ if you want. Troglodyte J will stick with he/she/it, though I won’t rule out a character who is a bit loosey-goosey about gender, if necessary. But I won’t include one such without a reason well beyond, “Oh, golly, it would be so nifty to have a doubly-trans or omnisexual or poodle-preferring character to show how very with-it I am.” If one wants to do so, well, bully for them.

    Which brings me to the more serious issue: Is “one” a pronoun? Or not? Should one add an apostrophe to its possessive form? Or not? I contend that one’s a pronoun, e.g., “If one minds ones own business, one can avoid unnecessary drama.” What think ye?

    • I leave things like that to my editor, but here’s what the Cambridge dictionary has to say:

      One and one’s
      Grammar > Nouns, pronouns and determiners > Pronouns > One and one’s from English Grammar Today

      As a personal pronoun (both subject and object), one can be used to refer to ‘people in general’. We often use one in making generalisations, especially in more formal styles. However, if one is used too much, it can make the speaker sound too formal. One takes a third person singular verb:

      One never knows, does one?

      One should not use mobile phones when driving.

      Holidays are supposed to allow one to forget about work.

      You and they are also used in a similar way. However, one and you include the speaker in the generalisation:

      [a durian is a kind of fruit]

      Does one eat durian in Malaysia? (includes the speaker, who is there or has an interest in going there; more formal)

      Do you eat durian in Malaysia? (less formal)

      Do they eat durian in Malaysia? (refers to others)

      One’s is a possessive determiner:

      One’s health is much more important than having lots of money.

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