What’s up with all these pronouns?

Inclusivity requires pronoun acceptance and flexibility by all

Gender. The word itself often brings confusion, questions of how it should be defined and how much it should matter. Western culture has taken an extremely simplistic approach: male or female, masculine or feminine. But it’s becoming more and more widely recognized that gender exists far beyond and outside of these restrictions.

An important distinction to make is that between gender and sex. Sex refers to the biological differences: external or internal sex organs, two X chromosomes or an X and a Y. Of course, many people have characteristics not in-line with these definitions, and have sexual or reproductive anatomy not in-line with the typical definitions of male and female (generally referred to as intersex). Definitions of sex remain fairly consistent throughout the world.

Gender, however, refers to the socially constructed roles, attributes, and ideas that a society considers appropriate for men or women. Definitions of gender can vary depending on culture. Many societies have genders that don’t fit into the Western male/female dichotomy, such as Hijras in South Asia, who identify as feminine but were born with typically male sex characteristics, or Native American Two-Spirits.
With expansions of gender beyond male or female, expansions of language are also necessary. As a language, English strictly follows the gender binary, giving only two options for singular personal pronouns: he or she.

One easy solution to this is to adopt “them” as a gender-neutral singular personal pronoun, and many linguistic authorities have done that.That usage may not be what St. Paul Academy and Summit School English teachers tell students to do, but it’s necessary. “If you aren’t sure what a person’s preferred pronouns are, use they or them,” junior Sabrina Brown said. “You shouldn’t assume what someone’s gender is,” she added.

Some still refuse to use “them” for anything but plurals. Additionally, not everyone identifies the same way, so “them” isn’t always the best option.

So while a trans man may use the typically male pronouns he/him/his, a non-binary person may use pronouns less commonly known: xe/xem/xyr or ey/em/eir. While these may not be familiar to everyone, a growing number of people and organizations have taken to asking for people’s preferred pronouns.

The practice has become the norm on many college campuses, for health care providers such as Planned Parenthood, and in personal interactions.

Use of these pronouns has been met with plenty of outrage and refusal to use “made-up words.” But these words are hardly made up—many of them have legitimate etymological roots. Sweden has even officially added another pronoun to their language, the neutral hen to go with the masculine han and feminine hon. Additionally, gender-neutral singular pronouns are hardly a recent invention­. Middle English had the gender non-specific pronouns a and ou, and there’s evidence that Shakespeare even used them.

On the note of making up words, Shakespeare is a good example. He made up thousands, and even though he was the first to use them, people today don’t complain about words like elbow or radiance being “made up.”

All words need to come from somewhere, and necessary words such as gender non-specific pronouns have as much a right to exist as any other word.