Review by Ronnie K. Stephens
The question of inclusivity in the English language offers a long and often cumbersome history, one that has become increasingly politicized in American society. Dennis Baron addresses one of the most immediate and controversial elements of the debate in What’s Your Pronoun?: Beyond He and She. Baron couples thorough, well-documented research with accessible prose, creating a book that is equally appealing to grammarians and common readers alike.
Baron highlights the necessity to address both high-minded semantic purists and laypersons in his introduction, pointing out that “‘What’s your pronoun?’ is an invitation to declare, to honor, or to reject, not just a pronoun, but a gender identity. And it’s a question about a part of speech. Repeat: A question about a part of speech.” This brief paragraph outlines Baron’s approach to the question.
The lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun in English has been debated for centuries, and much of the debate has been held outside the political sphere. Still, Baron would be remiss to ignore how polarizing and politicized the debate has become over the past one hundred years. He accepts the dual responsibilities of addressing the linguistic history of this debate and deconstructing the societal implications of a nonbinary third-person singular pronoun. He understands that the most immediate interest in his research stems from “the recent focus on gender inclusivity, nonbinary gender, and gender nonconformity,” rather than popular interest in the base functionality of gender-neutral pronouns.
Split into five sections, What’s Your Pronoun? first provides a brief history of “the missing word,” incorporating numerous sources to illustrate the rich history surrounding the lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun. The author then unpacks the use of the generic he and its connection to women’s suffrage. The third section offers a chronology of proposed pronouns, while the fourth section tracks the queering of pronouns in modern society. Baron makes a direct argument in favor of the singular they in the final section. Following the last section is an appendix of sorts that offers a timeline of pronoun usage for readers.
This final section, “The Missing Word is They,” contrasts the relatively objective tone of the first four sections with a direct argument in favor of they. “It turns out that the missing word isn’t missing after all,” Baron writes. “It’s a singular they, and it’s been filling in the blank in sentences like ‘Everyone forgets their passwords’ for centuries.” Baron leans on the historical precedent of the singular they, which he tracks to the late fourteenth century, to defend his assertion. Even here, though, Baron reminds readers that pronouns are a personal choice and that ignoring someone’s pronoun preferences is discriminatory.
Perhaps surprisingly, What’s Your Pronoun? simultaneously reads like a heavily researched dissertation, filled with jargon and supporting evidence, and a narrative history. Some readers may find the syntactical discussions dry, but they offer important context around the varying debates of pronoun usage, and Baron is self-aware enough to balance these technical passages with entertaining quips and engaging anecdotes.
Also of note is the sensitivity with which the author approaches the topic altogether. He stresses the importance of respecting a person’s pronouns and directly acknowledges that language is routinely used to oppress, and even to erase, marginalized voices. Baron speaks to the problematic policies and language stemming from our current administration, particularly as they relate to gender non-conforming and transgender identities.
This willingness to look directly into the camera, to speak plainly and with conviction, is what makes What’s Your Pronoun? such a vital text. It’s difficult to imagine a conversation about pronouns that would not benefit from Baron’s research. This may be one of the most important books of the year.
Dennis Baron teaches English and Linguistics at the University of Chicago Urbana-Champaign. He is the author of eight books, including Grammar and Gender, and a Guggenheim Fellow.