|Towards more picturesque speech™
Pronouns and gender
Much ink and no small amount of bile has been spilt on the question of gender inclusivity in language. Some of it, we cautiously venture, speaks to a bit of softness in the command of grammar from those who study grievances.
There is a fashion towards signposting one’s preferred personal pronoun wherever the opportunity arises: business cards, email signoffs, LinkedIn profiles and so on. So, “Otto Büchstein (They/Them)”, for example.
Now the JC has no quarrel with how any of his fellow humans want to identify their own gender — variety being the spice of life, the more concoctions we have between us the better — though one does risk tripping over the conclusion that lies down that road, if you go far enough along it, that there should be no genders; we are all different, all individuals and the very idea of declining nouns in the first place was a ghastly mistake. But with even that aside, there are still a few puzzling aspects about this behaviour.
Firstly there is that slash; that virgule. As with “and/or”, “(she/her)” is an ungainly construction, and it speaks to a certain fussiness unrelated to one’s wish to be clear about one’s gender. Why include nominative and accusative? Are there some for whom gender differs depending on their position in a sentence? Can one be a he when a doer, and a she when a done to? If the goal is to neuter the power structures implicit in our language, this seems an odd way of going about it. And if that is the idea, why stop at subject and object? What about the possessive? Shouldn’t it be “(she/her/hers)”? And, actually, why not include datives, genitives and ablatives? Will we eventually go the whole hog and append “(she/her/her/her/her/hers)”?
Second, for the great majority of the population — the whole “cis-normal” part, at least — there’s already a way of unfussily designating your gender: your title: Mr., Mrs., Ms., Miss, and Master. Of this great mass of hetero-normativity, only academics and medics have a quandary. Even they could fix it, if they cared to, by adding a gendered title to to their honorific, the same way judges do: Mr. Doctor Jung; Mrs. Doctor Freud, and so forth.
Third, this pronoun angst is directed only at third-person singular pronouns. The other five buckets are fine as they are. Yet, when we address someone directly, we don’t use the third person, except to distance ourselves from our own tendentious but firmly-held opinions, as the JC often does. 
The second person pronoun, — “you” for most of the English speaking world, “y’all” for the Americans, “youse” for the kiwis — is perfectly gender-inclusive already. This is the one we use invariably for interpersonal communication: wherever you may be on the gender spectrum, you remain politely, unoppressively, uncontroversially, incontrovertibly, you. I dare say language evolved like this precisely because of the difficulties one would otherwise have making polite conversation with unfamiliar individuals of an apparently, but not definitively, feminine or masculine bearing.
So, the “(he/him)” designation appears to stipulate how one should gender a person when communicating about that person with someone else. I am going to get in trouble for saying this, readers, but that strikes me as rather bossy. Who are you to tell me how to moderate the language I use with someone else? Not to say, a little delusional: aren’t my choices of the pronoun to use when talking about you the least of your concerns? (What if I call you “bossy”? Or a “pronoun bore”?)
The JC dreads to think what people say about (he/him) behind (he/his) back: if the worst they do is to misgender (he/him) then all is well in the world, frankly.
Generally, there is much to admire about pronouns. Lawyers don’t use them often enough: they are more idiomatic and easier on the ear that the lawyer’s usual stand-in “such [insert noun]”. But pronouns tend to commit you to a gender: “he”, or “she”, “him” or “her” — seeing as no-one likes to be referred to as “it”, and “he or she” is an abomination before all right-thinking men. And/or women.
And nor, these days, does that remotely capture the possible universe of alternatives. While the JC has no wish to get offside with any factions in the presently raging gender wars — we have J.K. Rowling and her ingrate actor friends for that — he does not propose to even try to accommodate emerging non-binary formulations.
So, without having the patience to be scientific or methodical about it, I have tried to randomise my “hims” and “hers” where the context does not require otherwise. Being a fellow, when in doubt — which is most of the time — I err in favour of “she” because that makes me think a bit harder about what I’m writing. The challenge with doing that when writing satire, of course, is that it may be mistaken for some kind of political statement: why am I always mocking women? For whatever the opinion of an aging man is worth these days, it isn’t meant to be. In any case I can’t be arsed with xes, hyms, hyrs or whatever else is presently in vogue — and nor a political statement other than one on behalf of the impatient party — and, frankly, I will go to the wall before (deliberately!) using “they” to describe any single individual, natural or corporate.
If this aggrieves you, so be it: you’re welcome to find another resource offering free, satirical observations on the law and practice of derivatives that better suit your preferences. Or you could always bear with it: Was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich stärker, after all.
- The problem with atomising identity groups, to avoid those at the margins being categorised in a way that doesn’t suit them, is that “margins” are a property of any group, however small, until it numbers one. Thus, any philosophy that emphasises marginalised identities will tend to fray at the edges.
- Though this is to switch first for third person, not the second. I hardly need lecture the world on how I should gender myself.
- Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby made this point well in her show Douglas.
- Here, I depart from Lord Justice Waller.