Robin Dembroff is an Assistant Professor at Yale University. They received their PhD from Princeton University after completing their MA at the University of Notre Dame. Robin’s research focuses on feminist philosophy and metaphysics, with a particular emphasis on the social construction of gender and sexual orientation.
Daniel Wodak is an Assistant Professor at Virginia Tech. They received their PhD from Princeton University. Daniel’s research focuses on metaethics and philosophy of law, with a particular emphasis on moral and social norms.
The Problem with Pronouns
Robin Dembroff and Daniel Wodak
Some languages—Hungarian, Finnish, Malay, Armenian, Bengali, Yoruba—have no gender-specific pronouns or grammatical gender. We think that English speakers should adopt the long-term goal of making English like these languages: we should stop using pronouns like he and she, and adopt gender-neutral pronouns like they or ze for everyone.
We acknowledge that this is a controversial and provocative thesis, but we think it is one worth talking about. For this reason, while we discuss some of the reasons supporting it, we hope this piece will foster critical discussion.
Consider a familiar scenario. You’re a professor. You have a fresh batch of undergraduates this semester. You start the first class by asking students to introduce themselves, including their names and preferred pronouns.
We think there’s something wrong with asking this question. To see why, suppose that you have a genderqueer student: i.e., a student who does not exclusively identify as a man or woman, and so falls outside of the traditional gender binary. That this student is genderqueer might not be publicly known or evident from their gender performance. What should the student do? They could answer honestly: they prefer they. To do this, though, would disclose their gender identity. It is not part of the semantic meaning of the singular they that it refers to a genderqueer person (by contrast, he presupposes that the referent is a man; ditto for she and women). But given the background assumption that he is for men and she is for women, using they for someone often pragmatically implicates that they do not identify as a man or a woman.
There is nothing wrong with someone disclosing that they are genderqueer. But there is something wrong with forcing someone to disclose this information. Your student should get to choose whether and when they disclose their gender identity to others; you should not force them to disclose this information to strangers, partly out of respect for their autonomy, and partly to protect them from serious risks of stigmatization and discrimination. (Some might object that gender-specific pronouns are used to mark so-called ‘biological gender’, rather than gender identity. If true, that wouldn’t justify your conduct. As Talia Bettcher has compellingly argued, people also shouldn’t be forced to publically disclose their sexed anatomy.)
At this point, you might think that you did not force your student to disclose this information, since they could have said she (or he, or whatever gender-specific pronoun would raise fewer questions given their gender performance). True. But to do so would be to lie about their gender identity. And there are many legitimate reasons why your student might not want to lie. They might care about their integrity. Or, since stigmatized gender minorities are already often treated as delusional or deceitful, they might worry that if they are later ‘outed’ their past use of pronouns will fuel such bigotry.
So, in effect, your student is forced to either disclose private information or deceive others: a seemingly innocuous question left them with no good option.
There’s nothing special about the context of the classroom. By using gender-specific pronouns in general we frequently force others to either disclose or deceive others about their gender identities. In fact, we force them to disclose or deceive others about their sexual orientations too: if you use she to refer to a gay man’s romantic partner, you force that man to either correct you (disclosing that they’re gay) or tacitly affirm your assertion and thereby deceive others. That’s wrong too.
Worse yet, because gender-specific pronouns presuppose information about gender identity, you may well violate people’s privacy in a wide range of contexts without recognizing it. Describing a job candidate as she, or their romantic partner as he, discloses information about gender identity or sexual orientation in contexts where such information should not be considered.
These problems are made inevitable by our system of gender-specific pronouns, as such pronouns are very difficult to avoid without conspicuous circumlocutions. We think this is a good reason to adopt the long-term goal of abandoning that system and adopting gender-neutral pronouns like they for everyone.
But it’s not the only reason to adopt that goal. Return to the start of your seminar. Say your student discloses their gender identity by answering ‘they’. There’s something further that’s problematic here. Men can answer ‘he’ and thereby disclose their specific gender identity. Women can answer ‘she’ and thereby disclose their specific gender identity. But ‘they’ does not disclose a specific gender identity. ‘Genderqueer’ is just an umbrella term for a large list of specific non-binary gender identities.
Why is that problematic? Having specific pronouns for two majority gender groups and a third catchall for a large list of minority gender groups is inegalitarian. It is like reserving marriage for a majority sexuality and a legally similar but less esteemed relationship status for folks with any other sexuality.
You might think the solution to this is to add more specific pronouns: one for each gender identity. But proliferating pronouns is infeasible. Pronouns, like prepositions, are ‘closed class’ words. It’s hard to learn a new pronoun. Learning thirty odd new pronouns is far harder still. And we don’t just need you to do this. For these pronouns to be accepted and understood, we need the whole linguistic community to do so too. Moreover, we think that even if this change were feasible, it would be too risky. Think how often you use gender-specific pronouns for strangers (like your students). How often would you make mistakes, and thereby misgender others, if you had to track 30-something gender pronouns?
Note that both of these concerns are easily addressed by ceasing to use he and she for anyone. Using they (or another pronoun, like ze) for everyone is egalitarian, feasible, and does not risk misgendering anyone because they is gender-neutral.
That’s a brief sketch of our positive case for adopting our long-term goal. Now let’s shift to playing defense.
A common worry for this proposal is that it seems at first glance to overlook the significance of gender-specific pronouns for transgender persons. For a transgender woman, for example, it may be incredibly important to be referred to as she, because she acknowledges that person’s gender identity, and using any other pronoun – even a gender neutral one – would deny that identity.
We agree. In any circumstances where using a gender-neutral pronoun misrepresents someone’s gender identity, we think the considerations in favor of using a gender-neutral pronoun clearly are outweighed. This follows from one of the central reasons for only using gender-neutral pronouns: to avoid communicating false information about individual’s gender identities. Using gender-specific pronouns to refer to genderqueer persons or closeted transgender persons is likely to misgender them. But it’s also undeniable that, in many current contexts, refusing to use she to refer to a trans woman almost certainly communicates a rejection of that person’s identity.
That said, one of these types of misgendering is easier to fix than the other. While gender-neutral pronouns can misgender in practice, they do not semantically convey misinformation about gender identities: the very definition of a gender-neutral pronoun is one that does not presuppose information about the subject’s gender identity. The problem, then, is not with the pronouns themselves, but with the fact that we have created an expectation that all women will be called she, and all men will be called he. Only within the context of this expectation can gender-neutral pronouns in effect misgender trans persons. The best way to get rid of this expectation is by pursuing a long-term goal of eschewing gender-specific pronouns. Plausibly, a trans woman wants to be called she because of the continued practice of using she for cisgender women; it is a preference to be treated like all other women. If we abandoned the practice of using she for cisgender women, this preference for she may well disappear.
Even someone sympathetic with what we’ve said so far might object that using they to refer to an individual is grammatically incorrect and potentially confusing. But this objection is hogwash (or as Justice Scalia would say, ‘pure applesauce’). English already contains a gender-neutral pronoun that is used both in the plural and the singular: you. In response, language has regionally adapted so as to mark when the term is intended as plural (e.g., y’all, youse, you guys). Why expect different in the case of they?
More importantly, though, this objection is premised on the idea that the moral duty to not misgender is secondary to grammatical duties. The term ‘grammar Nazi’ has never made so much sense: a moral should clearly defeats any grammatical should. Even if using they slightly complicates communication, it is preferable to further maligning minority gender groups. And anyway, someone truly worried about the corruption of grammar could advocate for adopting a new gender-neutral pronoun rather than expanding our use of they.
Philosophers have been relentless in pointing out that we often act using only words. Reliance upon gender-specific pronouns creates situations where we (often unknowingly) unnecessarily misgender and marginalize others. Maybe it’s time to find different words.