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Scientific American: Let’s Use Genderless Pronouns

"The universal singular they is inclusive of people"

Page from 'First Grammar Book for Children', with an explanation of the functions of pronouns.
Culture Club / Contributor / Getty Images
 

Scientific American has proposed the rather unscientific idea of calling people by "genderless" pronouns like "they" and "them."

 

In an article written last week, the publication highlighted a new virtual assistant named "Q" that has been assigned no gender, which should serve as a guideline for how people should now refer to each other from here on out.

"Whereas Siri, Alexa and most other electronic helpers speak in conspicuously feminine tones, Q has been engineered to create a gender-neutral effect," says the article. "As a result, users can benefit from all the useful information and guidance available to us today, without reinforcing the old-fashioned idea that the role of eager helpmate is necessarily played by a woman."

The article goes on to note the many cultural shifts already happening that will eventually pave the way to everyone referring to another as a "they," a "them," or an "it." United Airlines recently announced, for instance, a new booking option that will permit people to say Mx in place of Mr. or Mrs. Professional settings have also begun business meetings in which people introduce themselves by stating their preferred pronouns. LGBTQ leaders and feminists have also put forward the idea of stating preferred pronouns on email signatures.

However, while Scientific American appreciates these gestures of "gender inclusion," the publication feels it does not go far enough because they "leave intact the presumption that gender identity is relevant in all social interactions," which the publication claims creates a problem, most especially for women. Scientific American cites several studies to underline its point, such as women with feminine names on their resumes being less likely to earn a job. Their solution: "them" and "they."

 

"The universal singular they is inclusive of people who identify as male, female or nonbinary (e.g., “Drew is in my class; they are a great student”). It avoids the problem of misgendering by not using pronouns to gender people in the first place," the article said. "Plus, it reduces the salience of gender in everyday interactions, which is likely to be a good thing for women."

In response to those who would dismiss the proposition as "pie-in-the-sky thinking," the article dares to argue that the change in pronouns could be the same revolution as the word Ms. in the 1960's. The problem with that analogy, however, is that Ms. was an outflow of the French terms "Madame" and "Mademoiselle" — a woman and a girl. It was not so much a revolution as an adoption of what already existed.

 

The Scientific American article does not even address how this will be socially enforced, which may be through the shame and hectoring of more traditionally-minded people as backward-thinking bigots who wish to oppress women. In fact, by characterizing the use of traditional pronouns as oppressive, Scientific American has already laid the groundwork for that social reality, which has already arrived in some quarters.

Twitter, for instance, recently updated its "hateful conduct policy" to include "misgendering or deadnaming of transgender individuals." Also, the website IMDB was recently heckled by LGBT activists for allowing trans actors birth names to be included in their bios.

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