Those Pesky Pronouns
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 Dictionary.com, “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:
- (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.
- (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.
- (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.
Now 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.”