declining virtue

I support inclusive language that recognizes and respects a person’s individual gender identity. People have enough troubles making their ways through this world. The very least anyone can do is to refer to fellow human beings by their preferred names and pronouns. And focusing on pronouns is good-intentioned. To quote from the Wikipedia article on declension, the one situation where gender is still clearly part of the English language is in the pronouns for the third[-]person singular.

However, I don’t understand one particular form of virtue signaling that I have encountered at work.  When some people introduce themselves at meetings, they say:

My name is <so-and-so>. Preferred pronouns: she, her, hers

or in email signatures, they write:

Pronouns: he, him, his

Pronouns: she/her/hers

At first glance, this provides more information than any native English speaker would need. Just state your pronoun as she or he; we can figure out the rest. Any information beyond the nominative case is not merely a waste of time, it presupposes the audience does not know the grammar of the English language as well as the speaker. As a brown person, throughout my life I have experienced assumptions about how well I know my first language, so I find this style of virtue signaling rather insulting.

(Just between you and I, the great irony is that someone who introduces themselves with preferred pronouns often misuses grammar, as in the beginning of this sentence.)

However, a short list of three grammatical forms actually provides less information than a native English speaker would need: consider the four elements necessary to express {they, them, their, theirs}. If someone prefers less commonly known pronouns, such as ze, that person also needs to provide more than three grammatical forms, because there are different ways that ze could decline. In contrast, a person who provides only three pronouns is broadcasting their ignorance of grammar, their assumption about the audience’s ignorance of grammar, and/or the privilege of being associated with a common gender identity.

Listing only three pronouns reveals privileged assumptions about how grammar operates — namely, that everyone else’s pronoun grammar should operate the same way as one’s own. Consider the following table, also from the Wikipedia article on declension:

  Masculine Feminine Neuter
(non-person)
Neuter
(person)
Subjective he she it they
Objective him her it them
Dependent possessive his her its their
Independent possessive his hers its theirs

 

To make patterns more obvious:

  Masculine Feminine Neuter
(non-person)
Neuter
(person)
Subjective A A A A
Objective B B A B
Dependent possessive C B B C
Independent possessive C C B D

Someone who states she, her, hers is imposing the ABBC pronoun declension structure and is privileging that feminine structure over others. Someone who states he, him, his is implicitly assuming and imposing the ABCC declension structure.

I could wish English did not distinguish gender, as in my father’s Visayan language, although this did cause him to switch between he and she within the same conversation, which may have been disconcerting to his medical patients. I have heard pronouns in some Chinese languages also lack gender. Perhaps gender distinctions will eventually disappear from English. Languages do tend to simplify, like the dual disappearing after Homeric Greek or, just between you and I, the objective case.

But no one can wish away the history of the English language. The problem with any set of pronouns that decline ABCC, ABBC, AABB, or ABCD is that they incline towards existing gender roles. A truly revolutionary pronoun, in order to break out of traditional gender roles, must decline differently from these patterns.

In the meantime, what should we do about preferred pronouns? Someone may claim the perfect is the enemy of the good, stating that they were doing the best to their understanding when listing only three pronouns. That was then, before this essay. This is now. And now someone who wishes to support inclusive language that respects gender identity has several viable options:

0: State no pronouns, yet support those who do through useful actions. These could include the propagation of systems that encourage others to express their pronouns, active listening to those who confront challenges with expressing their gender identities, and other advocacy.

1: State one pronoun, for the sake of brevity and to display more explicit support of those with less common pronouns. Understand that less common pronouns may have different case declension patterns.

4: State four pronouns, for the sake of comprehensiveness.

I currently exercise option 0. The challenge is that I can be perceived to be ignorant of gender issues or to be declining virtue signaling. On the contrary, I do believe in the power and significance of inclusive language. To that end, we need to be more careful about the declension of pronouns, both in the expression of our own preferred pronouns and in the construction of new vocabularies that recognize the constraints of existing grammar.

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