Monday, April 20, 2020

Review: What's Your Pronoun?: Beyond He and She

What's Your Pronoun?: Beyond He and She What's Your Pronoun?: Beyond He and She by Dennis Baron
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What’s Your Pronoun is the story of the role of pronouns own grammar and society. Using the right pronoun can be challenging and is important. At the very least using the wrong pronoun can mislead or or offend. But simply if all you see to do is to apply rules to avoid offense, you’ll likely fail more often than you’d like. Baron’s book gives you the tools to go deeper and understand the evolution or pronoun usage in the English Language, so that you can better understand why pronouns are important, and also that the debate has been long running,.

As an occasional writer, who is also a bit of a grammar geek, I’ve often lamented that there is not good neutral third person singular pronoun; I’d like to have a third person form that is well understood, not awkward to read, which doesn’t imply the gender of a person. From Baron’s book I learned that this has been an issue since at least the 1780s (according to the written record he found -- perhaps longer). The grammar geek in me also appreciated Baron explaining concepts in the context of language ( “gender” means “kind,” having nothing direct to do with gender identification) and the differences in how grammarians and linguists view issues like these.

The implications of pronouns extend beyond being imprecise or offensive to interpretation of laws. “He” was sometimes taken to be generic, but also used to say “just men” -- for example: “a law saying that he shall be punished who...”, the same logic, when applied to voting rights for women, didn’t stick. and other, larger, social issues, (for example, the difference between “gender neutral” and “non-binary” usage). Placing the discussion in the context of history and the present day, Baron explores the approaches people have tried in order to achieve some sort of “third person singular” without assuming a gender.

In the end, it seems that “they” has a long track record of being the neutral pronoun of choice for English speakers, much as “you” migrated from being plural to plural and singular. I hope that my saying that doesn't lead you to believe that you don’t need to read the book. The journey the book takes you on is educational and also entertaining. I recommend it to anyone who is curious about how language evolves and relates to society, or just if you are curious about how pronouns are, and could be used.

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