Last week, I wrote about Merriam-Webster choosing “they” as the word of the year for 2019, and then, serendipitously, I received my copy of Dennis Baron’s What’s Your Pronoun?: Beyond He and She the very next day. I knew Dennis had been working on pronouns and gender for, well, forever, and I’d even been able to read a few excerpts from the manuscript in progress. So I was looking forward to being able to hold the book in my hands and dive in. And did I ever! This book is more than worth waiting for: it answers so many questions I’ve had about the debate over the third-person singular pronouns and many others I hadn’t even thought to ask, and it does so with wit and generosity and grace.
Since the push for nonbinary pronoun use has been so much in the news these last few years, many may think of this as a hot “new” issue. Baron demonstrates that this is anything but the truth, that people have been searching for “the missing word” for hundreds of years: he includes an eye-popping sixty-page chronology at the end of the book to prove it, beginning with Robert Baker’s 1770 declaration that “he” is the first gender-neutral pronoun, through the OED’s 1871 blend of “s/he,” to Alfred Speltz’s early 1930s suggestion of “se, sem, serself, semself,” to Coca-Cola’s 2018 Super Bowl ad featuring the line, “There’s a Coke for he… and she… and her… and me… and them.” Singular “they.”
Indeed, it is singular “they” that Baron shows has had the real staying power. After determining that generic “he,” singular “they,” and a new coined term are the “only three serious contenders” in chapter 1 and demonstrating conclusively that generic “he” was never really generic (citing hilarious examples of legislators across the country turning themselves into pretzels trying to argue that generic “he” either included or, more usually, excluded women from exercising certain rights or holding office) in chapter 2, Baron takes readers along on a tour of coined terms proposed to replace generic “he”—and then to a fascinating discussion of the very important role pronouns play in many people’s lives, as he examines the politics and legalities of pronoun use in referring to transgender, non-binary, and gender-nonconforming people.
Then in my favorite chapter (5), Baron declares “the missing word is ‘they’” and explains why he has come to this conclusion. Opening the chapter with a quotation from rhetorician Fred Newton Scott,
The word “they” is being used as a pronoun of the common gender every day by millions of persons who are not particular about their language, and every other day by several thousands who are particular. (185)
Baron tells us that the OED “traces singular they back to 1375, in the medieval romance William and the Werewolf” (the werewolves knew!), citing linguists, philosophers, and famous authors (George Eliot and Jane Austen among them) who agree, even in spite of occasional ambiguity, and ending with an even-handed look at the pros and cons of both new coined pronouns and singular “they.” He comes down, however, on the side of the pros in noting “the worthiness of ‘they’” and concluding that “two things do seem sure: generic ‘he’ is stake-through-the-heart dead, and however you answer the question ‘What’s your pronoun?,’ nobody answers, ‘My pronoun is… “he or she.”’”
May generic “he” rest in peace. And may we all be grateful in this new year for Dennis Baron’s meticulous and insightful research.
Photo Credit: Pixabay Image 1798 by PublicDomainPictures, used under the Pixabay License