Dog Eared

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Dennis Baron's "What's Your Pronoun? Beyond He & She" is a Timely Winner

Just a month ago, I was in New Orleans for the American Dialect Society meeting. Along with naming the Word of the Year, we named the Word of the Decade — (my) pronoun and singular they, respectively. I remember turning to Peter Sokolowski — editor-at-large of Merriam-Webster and trumpeter-at-large of the world — and saying, "This is great news for Dennis Baron!"

Darn right. But while What's Your Pronoun? Beyond He & She certainly is a timely book, Baron — professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign — isn't some newbie jumping on the pronoun bandwagon. He's been studying English's search for a non-gendered singular pronoun for forty years, and this book is the culmination of that research. Thanks to the prominence of pronouns and the depth of Baron's work, this is probably going to be the language book of the year.

Baron begins by saying, "Pronouns are suddenly sexy," but his book shows they've always been significant. In exhaustive (but not exhausting) detail, Baron lies out the key elements of English's "missing word" dilemma: the lack of a gender-neutral singular pronoun, the problems with he, the coined alternatives, and the sleeping giant they, which has prevailed in our time.

Like a hard-boiled detective, Barron lays out all the potential solution's to English's "missing word," explain how and why each has failed, plus the issues with each potential solution. For example, few words have caused as much trouble — grammatically, socially, politically, and even criminally — as he. As Baron writes, "Grammarians have told us for centuries that he also means "she," but does generic he mean that woman can vote?" Any legal aspect of women, whether they're running for office or accused of a crime, can become a grammatical quagmire depending on whether he is interpreted as meaning folks or fellas. Baron, here and throughout, weaves incidents and evidence into a multifaceted quilt of language history.

Pronouns are supposed to be the boring words, and mostly look the part. Much of this book is focused on innocent-appearing he, she, and they, and Baron uncovers plenty about each. But it's hard not to be drawn to the wild lexical mutations: the highlight of this book is the collection of coined words. Baron provides a 65-page list, with documentation, of "words that failed." These coined singular pronouns are losers of the lexical Darwinian race, but they’re part of the fossil record that led to the acceptance of singular they. Baron surely hadn't collected every attempt at a singular, gender-neutral pronoun coined in English, but he's collected hundreds of examples, and they make this book the best trip to the lexicographical museum ever.

Aside from the brief success of a few terms such as heer, hir, thon, and ze, coined pronouns have been a bust, despite their creativity. Baron's lays out the reasons why these coinages tend to flop:

These coined, gender-neutral pronouns failed because not enough people adopted them. Some of these pronouns never reached a wide audience. Others looked too strange on the page, sounded too foreign to the ear, or proved too difficult to decode or pronounce.

But no matter the success of any single coinage, there's a bigger point: "word coiners keep cranking them out," as Baron puts it. Since the late 18th century, creating a nonbinary English pronoun has been a consistent pastime that's reached a climax, or at least a turning point, with the success of they. The volume of potential solutions speaks to the perniciousness of the gap.

Baron's style is extremely readable and smooth. He isn't a showy writer who wants you to know how clever he is. Barron instead shows how clever he is by writing clearly and powerfully about the history of this gap and the attempts to fill it. He does have a dry sense of humor that emerges at times. For example, when describing the history of singular they, Baron writes, "…to put it in modern, nontechnical terms, singular they has been part of our normal linguistic landscape since, like, forever." And he is often dryly humorous when discussing prophets of grammatical doom, who have often haunted singular they: "Depending on who's complaining, singular they is anything from a minor sin to evidence of complete illiteracy, moral decay, even the end of civilization as we know it."

Fortunately for all of us, singular they is tough and resilient. Turns out it's used by people on all sides of the languages wars and gender wars. As Baron writes:

Singular they is a word that comes close to being one-size-fits-all, used by supporters of gender equity and nonbinary rights as well as those who oppose such rights. It's used as well by people who theoretically oppose singular they on grammatical grounds—or even constitutional ones—but who use it when they're not paying attention, just because singular they has been good, idiomatic English for seven hundred years.

Whether you're a committed word nerd or just pronoun-curious and wondering why everyone is talking about a part of speech, this book is a must-buy. Thoroughness and relevance have seldom been wed so happily: from hizer to thon, Baron proves himself the Indiana Jones of failed pronouns and the linguist laureate of the most important lexical issue of the day.

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Mark Peters is a language columnist, lexicographer, and humorist who has written for Esquire, The Funny Times, New Scientist, Psychology Today, Salon, and Slate. He contributes to OUPblog and writes the Best Joke Ever column for McSweeney's. You can read Mark's own jokes on Twitter, such as, "I play by my own rules, which is probably why no one comes to my board game parties anymore." Click here to read more articles by Mark Peters.