I tell you what, personal pronouns are everywhere. In fact I just used two of them in the last sentence. We all recall having to learn the “I, you, he, she, it” thing in school, right?

In the sentence “The boy threw his ball to the girl and she hit her first home run,” two of the pronouns are “his” and “her” and they are anaphors, or words that refer to earlier words.

Notice also how the pronouns in our little baseball scenario match the traditional genders of the nouns to which they refer: “his” with “boy” and “her” with “girl.” Several foreign languages even genderize inanimate objects. For instance, in German “snow” is masculine (“der Schnee”) and in French “earth” (“la terre”) is feminine. Meanwhile other languages are genderless; they don’t genderize inanimate objects and their words don’t distinguish whether a person being talked about is male or female. Those languages include Japanese, Turkish and Armenian.

My point is that lately I’ve been receiving emails informing me of the senders’ personal pronouns. Right there in the heading it says something like “From Jane Smith, they/them/theirs.” Naturally, I had to look into this latest word-related development.

What I was reminded of is that a stagnant language can become an impediment to cultural change. For instance, standard books about writing tell us that we should never pair singular nouns with plural pronouns. In other words, you wouldn’t say “The tight-rope walker sure took their sweet time crossing the Grand Canyon”; you’d say “The tight-rope walker sure took her sweet time (or his sweet time) crossing the Grand Canyon.”

And that’s just the way it is — or at least the way it was.

We are living in a moment when we are pushing the needle of understanding forward a little bit. For instance, more and more we’re hearing “they” and “their” referring to an individual: “They had their (not ‘his’ or ‘her’) blood pressure checked.” Why?

Because some people are asking the question: “What does my gender have to do with anything?” They reason that pronouns don’t reveal what race you are, or religion, or heritage, or income, or hamburger condiment preference, so why is it important that they reveal your gender? Also, in assigning pronouns we make assumptions and stereotype, sometimes falsely, based on appearance and names. The questioning of pronouns is an opportunity to disrupt that bias, and it’s clear that other languages are quite successful without gender-identifying pronouns.

The awareness is being driven by the LGBTQ community, including those who identify as nonbinary (not identifying as either male or female). The term “genderqueer” is often claimed by folks who may identify as both genders, in between genders, or even as neither gender. The desire to expand our vocabulary beyond “he” and “she” to include “they/them/theirs” for an individual and even the increasingly popular “ze/zir/zirs” (or “ze/hir/hirs”) is an effort to think outside the traditional, binary box.

At the same time, such non-binary pronouns — and the practice of disclosing pronouns, like the ones I’m seeing in my emails — normalizes the discussion of gender identity, minimizes assumptions, and creates a more inclusive atmosphere.

Since many organizations, including The Associated Press, are using the gender pronouns specified by an individual, it seems reasonable that we could all find ourselves doing the same in the future.

How do you know what pronoun to use for a person? The best way to find out is to just ask, right? And there’s no need to ask a person what their “preferred pronouns” are, but rather just what their pronouns are, since asking the former implies that using a person’s correct pronoun is optional.

Obviously, our language continues to evolve rapidly. Or maybe it isn’t evolving rapidly enough and we should have gotten rid of pronouns long ago. Perhaps Ulysses S. Grant was way ahead of the curve when he said, ”The fact is I think I am a verb instead of a personal pronoun. A verb is anything that signifies to be; to do; or to suffer. I signify all three.”


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