Words matter. The language we use every day shapes the way we see our world. We talk about the strength of our coffee in the morning, or the F-150 that cut us off in traffic. We share our opinions on the most recent college basketball game or describe the Pad Thai we had for dinner.
As a writer, I often thought that I controlled my words more than most people—that everything I tapped out on my keyboard blinked into existence to do exactly what I wanted. Little did I realize that the nouns and verbs, pronouns and participles I use tell a different story about me.
I didn't expect a pronoun to change the way I look at half of the human race.
But first, a little background.
In the publishing world, writers of all stripes wrangle over singular, gender-non-specific pronouns. The English language grew up with Saxon and Germanic parents. For centuries, the singular pronoun “he” represented both a male-singular and female-singular when referring to a non-specific person. “He” could be neuter.
But with the advent of modern gender-inclusivity, Western English speakers grew more and more uncomfortable with the gender-neutral “he.” Women, the argument goes, cannot relate to “he,” even though it’s the way English has done neuter pronouns for over a millennium.
For the longest time, outside pressure to adopt the three-word pronoun “he or she” drove me crazy. I’m very hesitant in general to abandon millennia of grammatical precedent for purely political reasons. And besides—the phrase “he or she” just makes writing awkward.
I don’t like the alternatives, either. I loathe the grammatically awkward solutions (substituting “she” for “he”) or grammatically incorrect solutions (“they”) that aim at conquering the gender-inclusive pronoun problem.
So I dug into the recesses of my mind for a solution that married eloquence with deference. After a while, I discovered something.
Just by thinking about gender-inclusive language, I started wanting to honor women in my writing.
In the past I let my words run without a thought to what they actually said. Underneath the ink or pixels, deep in the heart of the letter strokes, my words said more about me than I could imagine.
If I’m honest, my thoughts followed similar suit—not necessarily toward women, but toward anyone that I didn’t fully understand. I’d slam a category on them, one ubiquitous in reach but utterly incapable of capturing the soul of any single, individual human being.
I found myself setting up others as an enemy with my words and with my thoughts—often justifying the animosity with the rules of language that govern the generic classifications of human diversity.
But thanks to the pronoun problem, every time I’d hit a snag—a pesky sentence that demanded a singular, non-gender-specific pronoun, I stopped and thought about it.
“What does it look like for a man to be the subject of this sentence? What about a woman? Who am I really talking about here? What are they like?”
I rolled the questions around in my mind like a Werther’s butterscotch, and I began to realize that I cared deeply about honoring women in my writing. I’m beginning to understand empathy through language—to bend my mind around the obstacles of gender or culture and see from the other side.
Don’t get me wrong—I still hate the gender-neutral-pronoun-problem. I don’t think there’s a pretty solution. But I appreciate the lesson that a pronoun teaches me—a lesson in empathy. A lesson in compassion and consideration. A lesson in careful thought.
I’m not there yet, but I’m learning—learning the honor of “she.”