Titles and Pronouns

I am not a linguist, nor an expert on gender. I'm just trying to muddle my way through this confusing world the same as anyone else.

The English language is adaptable. We'll happily bodge words together to make new ones, verb our nouns, and grammar-flex to the point of breaking. It's a fun language!

English is (mostly) genderless. The French have le chat and la table - because cats are boys and tables are girls, apparently. In Portuguese, the boys are "os meninos" but the girls are "as meninas".

Humans have pronouns (for example: he, she, they are common - but many others are available). For lots of people, it's reasonably obvious from context what their pronouns are. Calling someone by the wrong pronoun can be a bit offensive. The offence ranges from a minor social faux-pas all the way up to harassment.

Imagine that instead of being referred to by your correct pronoun, someone called you "it". That's not very nice, and rather dehumanising.

English society has become a lot less formal over time. It used to be the case that you would be introduced to someone by their title. "This is Mr Smith, the bank manager." Nowadays it is "Hey! I'm Dave, the bank manager". Whether the casualisation on social intercourse is a good thing is a subject for another blog post.

The advantage of the old way was that you often (but not always) got to know someone's pronouns from their title. Mr = he/him, Mrs = she/her.

But titles aren't always useful.

Sometimes, they "leak" personal information. Mrs vs Miss - tells someone if you're married or not. Hence the push by second wave feminism to use the term "Ms" to denote female, without revealing social status.

A gender-neutral version is "Mx". Which is widely accepted by UK institutions and doesn't "leak" gender. I often use Mx when I don't think an organisation needs to know my gender or marital status - but I still use he/him as pronouns.

Some other formal titles don't convey gender. English doesn't have Doctor / Doctoress, for example. Some gendered terms are obscure to most people - Editor / Editrix.

(The German language gets round this by addressing female doctors as "Frau Doktor".)

So even if we returned to a more formal way of speaking to people, it wouldn't necessarily get us to use the right pronouns.

Given that we want to avoid being rude, and understanding that misgendering someone can be a source of distress, what stops us introducing people with their pronouns?

I think part of the problem is that pronouns can feel awkward. There's no simple way to introduce someone and their pronouns in spoken English. It's easy to say "This is Ms Smith" - but I can't think of a convenient way to say out loud "This is Jane (she/her)". I suppose I could say "This is Jane, she uses female pronouns" - but it doesn't trip off the tongue.

Similarly, when I say "I'm Terence. He/Him." it doesn't feel very natural. That's not a great argument against doing something. And I dare say it will get more common in time.

Not everyone feels comfortable declaring their pronouns. For some, it feels unnecessary (ah! to have such privilege) and for others it starts a conversation they may not want to have. Some people are flexible about how others addresses them.

Language changes are difficult. As we grow older, we lose neuroplasticity. It can be hard to accept that the word "gay" no longer means "carefree", or that "wicked" isn't the epitome of cool.

This isn't to excuse people for failing to adapt - but I think it helps explain why it is hard for them to change.

In text, I wondered about using Emoji as a signifier.

But the general consensus was that they didn't correlate strongly enough, and are somewhat obscure.

I'm happy putting "he/him" in my Twitter bio - and anywhere else that needs it. But the grumpy old codger in me wishes there was a more elegant way to do it.

I don't have a conclusion to this blog post. The world moves on, and it's up to us to keep pace with it. Sometimes it takes a while to catch up. I hope I'm doing the right thing, and I trust my friends to gently nudge me if I'm not.

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11 thoughts on “Titles and Pronouns”

  1. Neil says:

    Humans have pronouns (he, she, they).

    Although not all humans use one of those three words as their pronouns, which can make the landscape harder to navigate by doing anything other than listening to what people ask to be called, and behaving accordingly.

  2. I met once (very briefly) a fellow who preferred the pronoun "it". I couldn't do it. I felt like I imagine the Asian students who go to the US and are told they're allowed to call their professors by their first names feel -- even having been given permission, it still feels so rude that I can't stomach doing it.

    Similarly, I've third-person personed a few folk (just referred to them by their name, instead of pronouns) where I thought I'd likely slip up and mispronoun unless I defaulted to a safer option (no pronouns). In one case I think the pronoun was "zhe" but I couldn't remember perfectly and didn't want to offend by picking the wrong one. You can see this in the Wikipedia article for "Caitlyn Jenner", where it's "Jenner" all over the place, avoiding "he" or "she" when talking about the past.

  3. I'm a bit thick about some stuff, so I'm just going to keep using "[name]", "[name]'s", "they", "their" and "theirs" as much as possible.

    As the English language has provided for as long as I can remember.

    I don't have an ideological view on pronouns, I just can't keep up.

  4. Excellent post Terence! Perhaps all we need to fix the awkwardness of stating pronouns in an introduction is time and a dash of normalisation?

    "Hi, I'm Samathy, she/her" doesn't feel that awkward to me nowadays.

    Minor point: Some people do genuinely use it/it's as pronouns.

  5. I should note that stating your pronouns when you introduce yourself or others requires an amount of confidence.

    Normalisation of it would quell the worry that the person(s) you're talking too are one of those people who actively dislike the idea of stating pronouns.

  6. The students I teach each summer, at the Politecnico di Milano, and the administrative staff there, insist on referring to as "Professor", even though I have no post-graduate qualification.

  7. says:

    The pronouns described here are not used to address people, they are used to talk about people. For me that is what makes the pronoun dance so awkward.

    "When you inevitably write your book about my life, please call me he/him."

    My pronoun when you address me is 'you'.

    But as you say, for now there's no elegant solution to the problem, and I'm not exactly full of ideas...

  8. Foster says:

    Thought provoking and poignant post. Thank you!

    The pronoun revelation fascinates me. Decades ago, I began replacing most instances of “he” with they/their. “They” seemed to flow better than saying, “she/he,” and reduced how often folx looked at me confused.

    It was also a way to conscientiously tone down the inordinate amount of masculine in the majority of writing and speech.

  9. Gyula says:

    Well, introducing someone is easy: You can say "She is Jane." It is much nicer than referring to a person as "this" anyway. I do not have a good idea for the other situations though.


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