On my website, I have made it so that whenever someone uses any form of the pronoun
he in a post or comment, it appears with a mark of scrutiny. Observe: She, he, her, him, hers, his, herself, himself.
I also avoid using those pronouns myself, and use the gender-neutral pronoun
ze instead. I've listed the forms of
ze, as I use it, in the table below:
|As subject||As object||Possessive|
Because to say
he is to explicitly declare a gender for another person, and that level of explicitness should be matched by how visible the word is in the sentence.
he are structural components of the language, it's very difficult to avoid using them if you're not willing to modify the language itself. And because they're so hard to avoid, they actively divide all humans into two classes: The
she-humans and the
That division is called
the gender binary. I don't like it.
If you include the gender binary in every sentence you write, speak, or think, then it becomes part of what you think about when you think about any person. You start judging people based on their apparent gender, rather than on whatever is actually relevant to the discussion. Obviously, that's a pretty silly idea. And given our world's huge amount of public and private discrimination against humans who don't fall neatly into the gender binary (hi!), and against humans who fit neatly but fall on the
she side, it's not just a pretty silly idea – it's a totally terrible idea.
Consider this: Have you ever felt uncomfortable because you didn't know what gender another person was? Now, have you ever felt uncomfortable because you didn't know what another person's favorite color was? If you answered
No, then welcome to the wonderful world of thinking that gender is a uniquely essential quality of a person!1 Our social norms say that you're supposed to judge other people based on their genders, and so a lot of people get uncomfortable when they can't do what they're
supposed to. The whole system of judgment sneaks into your head by starting with the benign-seeming judgement of whether you're supposed to use the
she pronouns or the
But that turns out to not be such a benign judgement at all. When you do it, you're helping society judge whether whoever you're talking about is a
she-human, or a
he-human, or someone who doesn't really fit in the little boxes they're supposed to fit in. And when I say
society, I mean the kid sitting in the front of your class who's going to bully the doesn't-really-fit kid when you're not looking (or maybe when you are). I mean your male friend who doesn't think they're being sexist, but who always talks over their female friends in conversations. I mean the person who lives down the street, who seems pretty nice, who tried to rape and murder another person last week, just because the other person didn't fit our standards of
he.2 Obviously, when a person commits rape or murder, they bear the sole responsibility. But that person thought it was okay because people like you said,
I care so little about those people that I won't even change the way I talk to stop excluding them.
So what do we do about it?
I don't expect you to stop using those pronouns entirely, any more than I expect you to magically solve all the world's problems at once. What you can do is to notice when you do it, and be aware of how that affects the way you're communicating.
Now, if only we had a way to do that automatically get your attention whenever you let one of those words pass without comment...? OH RIGHT.
If you're more ambitious, you can start cutting back on your use of these gendered pronouns, and start using gender-neutral pronouns. There are a variety of options for this. One is to use the singular
they; if you look back over this post, you'll see that I used the singular
they a lot. In most cases, it's unobtrusive and it gets the job done. Some people say it's grammatically incorrect, but those people are wrong.
"They" doesn't always work, though – one of the advantages of
he is that they're two separate words, so they can, given the right genders of people, refer to two different people unambiguously. Getting rid of them already loses that advantage – it means that even if you have a female person and a male person, you still have to use the same pronoun for both of them – and it only gets worse if you also have to use the same pronoun for a group of people as for the individuals. So, it helps to have a pronoun that is third-person, explicitly singular, and doesn't assign a gender. English didn't have any of those for a while, but now it has lots of them. If you've read this website much, you've probably noticed that I use one of them in particular:
Since the structure of
ze is so similar to the existing pronouns, I have had an easy time adding it to my vocabulary. And it has another nice advantage over
they: When people argue that I shouldn't use it, it's easy to engage in the real conversation about gender, while with
they, it often gets bogged down as a conversation about grammar.
The other most common gender-neutral pronouns are the Spivak set: ey, em, eir, eirs, emself. I personally don't like this set, because I feel like I'm mumbling when I say them out loud, not to mention that
em both have other meanings, or at least are pronounced the same as words that do. But it's a set I've seen used in a bunch of places, so I thought it would be prudent to mention it here. It also bears mentioning that there are a bunch of different variants of
ze, from ze/hir/hir/hirs/hirself to zhe/zhim/zher/zhers/zhimself; I picked the set I use simply because it feels the most natural to me.
That concludes my thoughts for now. Since this is the reference post for everywhere that
he are scrutinized, I may update it from time to time.
- This is also a great analogy because lots of people just assume you have a favorite color, but not everyone naturally has one! back
- Well, usually it's not just because they didn't fit in the gender binary. Usually it's also because they were a person of color, and/or mentally disabled, and/or homeless, and/or... well, you get the idea. back