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Review: What's Your Pronoun? by Dennis Baron

book review Oct 31, 2023

What's Your Prounoun? is a comprehensive overview of the history of gender-neutral pronouns and the search for the perfect way to address non-binary and gender-expressive folks. The reader is taken on a cultural exploration of pronouns throughout history and why we continue to debate their usage.


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Baron discusses how, for 200 years, the English language has been missing a way to address these folks that everyone can agree on (p.22).


"English has no pronoun that refers to "either a man or a woman," no word to use when gender is unknown, or irrelevant, or when it needs to be hidden. The language has a complete set of masculines: he, his, him. And feminines: she, her, hers. It even has a pair of neuters: it and its. And the plurals they, their, them, which refer to any and all genders, including things that have no gender. But there's no singular third-person gender-neutral pronoun. None. Which seems strange, because there are so many times when we need one" (p. 22).


Baron goes on to illustrate the issue with using the generic he and why it is problematic. He gives many examples of how even though he is argued to be generic, sometimes it includes both men and women and other times he means "only men."


As a result of moving away from generic he, linguists needed new words that would not specify gender. This allowed documents to avoid the awkward use of he or she or his or hers grouped together. Over the next almost 100 years, 250 gender-neutral and non-binary pronouns would be coined, though not many would be adopted into the lexicon.


"These coined, gender-neutral pronouns failed because not enough people adopted them. Some of these pronouns never reached a wide audience. Others looked too strange on the page, sounded too foreign to the ear, or proved too difficult to decode or pronounce" (p. 111).


The book then documents how, as early as the seventeenth century, medical texts and philosophers were using singular they (p.119), and was used as far back as 1300 by writers such as Lord Chesterfield, Henry Fielding, John Ruskin, Walter Bagehot, Langston Hughes, Jane Austen, Virginia Wolfe, and Charles Dickens (p.155).


"If famous writers use singular they, that means ordinary people must be using it too: to put it in modern, nontechnical terms, singular they has been part of our normal linguistic landscape since, like, forever" (p.155).


Baron argues that the missing word is singular they, a word we already know and use, even if grammar sticklers disagree with it.


At 245 pages, What's Your Pronoun? is a relatively quick read, as the last section of the book (p. 185-245) is a Chronology of Gender-Nuetral and Nonbinary Pronouns. This section contains every pronoun "suggested, coined, or condemned from 1765 to the present" (p.185). It's an excellent book for anyone who likes to geek out over grammar and the history of word usage. Additionally, it's a good read for anyone looking to learn more about pronoun usage or how to support members of the LGBTQ+ community.



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