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A Polite Suggestion for Dropping They/Them as Pronouns

A Polite Suggestion for Dropping They/Them as Pronouns

Photo by Polina Tankilevitch for Pexels

This writer says there's a better alternative.

Many years ago, I read Marge Piercy’s book, Woman on the Edge of Time. When I first read it, I was particularly taken by one aspect of the future society she envisioned. In this society, one singular noun and one pronoun are used for everyone: people are all referred to using the gender-neutral “person” and “per.” It was an idea I really liked because it recognized that, regardless of our gender or sexual orientation/preference, we are all people, and it was easy since everyone was person, not he or she; and everyone’s pronoun was per. It was not until the LGBTQ+ community started using they and them, that I started to think about it more and felt increasingly that we really need gender-neutral personal pronouns that can be used by everyone.

Piercy’s use of person and per recognizes that we do not all neatly fit into one of two rigidly defined gender categories. Defining us that way reinforces very limiting sex-role stereotypes and all the power and control issues that accompany those stereotypes. Using person and per puts personhood before gender and enables us to focus on what it means to be a human being and to grow as people regardless of gender identification. Why should we, individually or societally or legally, treat each other as anything other than people?

While there are many reasons that much of the LGBTQ+ community has embraced the use of they/them, there are at least as many challenges that many people express in using what is traditional considered plural to identify a singular individual. While many younger people find the grammar issue irrelevant, some people, particularly older, more traditional folks, express that it seems confusing and affected, and are, therefore, quick to dismiss it, which seems to work counter to the intent and to separate people further. Using “per” provides a way to make formal grammar more concise, precise, accurate, and inclusive.

I am not suggesting the use of per as a simple replacement for they/them. What I am suggesting is that we use the gender-neutral per for everyone, regardless of gender identification/preference — for traditional cisgender people as well as those who identify as in the wide range of trans, bisexual, nonbinary, asexual, etc. It can be used by everyone for everyone and it does not matter what your gender identification might be or whether you do or do not view gender as a spectrum, or how you feel about non-binary/non-conforming people. It recognizes that we are all people first.

Since the use of "person" in place of “she” or “he” tends to feel awkward, it would be easy to use per" for the first person pronoun, and it fits with English’s traditional grammatical construct. We use "it" as both a noun and a pronoun, so why not "per"? It's my hope that putting this idea out there more widely might engender discussion about our use of language and its impacts. It works in so many ways:

-It's easy. Since it applies to everyone, it removes the need to care or guess or ask.

-It's clear. Many people find using what has been grammatically plural as a singular to be confusing and imprecise (are we talking about one person or a group of people?) as well as grammatically challenging.

-It helps move all of us away from stereotypes, discrimination, and value judgments.

-It's universal, so something we can all embrace.

-It helps level the playing field by promoting the concept of equality of all people.

Frances G. Welson is a freelance writer.

Views expressed in The Advocate’s opinion articles are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent the views of The Advocate or our parent company, equalpride.

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Frances G. Welson