The Politics of Pronouns

After I left school, I did what writers of my generation were taught: I used the masculine “he” as the neutral pronoun. For example: “When a brewer makes a saison, he must take care in his choice of yeasts.” I am now 51, but even as I was being taught this rule in the 1980s, everyone acknowledged it had political salience. This represented progress. Earlier generations didn’t question this choice—or didn’t do it publicly. But while we recognized that this was inelegant and tended to vest men with more authority than they deserved, we threw up our hands because English lacks a neutral pronoun. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

It always bothered me, though, and pretty soon I had decided to alternate masculine and feminine in my writing. This seemed like an equitable compromise. Because gender is smack dab in the center of the culture wars right now, a fringe group felt it was an activist stance anyway. Acknowledging the issue, to people very happy with the old status quo, was itself political. They were right, of course. Everything’s political. When we make any choice on the pronouns we use, we become political actors.

After a few comments by, shall we call them masculinists?, I spent a short time using only the feminine pronoun as the neutral. (“When a brewer makes a saison, she must take care in her choice of yeasts.”) I figured, if everything’s political, why not take an active role rather than a passive one? The beer world remains so overwhelmingly masculine in part because we are unused to seeing women’s faces. It seemed a lightly confrontational way to subvert our normal tendency to see everything beer as male.

Of course, all of these are binary choices—male or female. But not everyone sees themselves in these choices. When I did a reader survey last year, one percent of you self-identified as neither male nor female. As a result, I began using the plural as the neutral pronoun. I was surprised this didn’t spark discussion as the switch to the feminine pronoun did—but not a single reader mentioned it. I thought at least some of the grammar pedants would find it distasteful to insert a non-agreeing plural into a sentence otherwise structured around the singular. And the results are weird: “When a brewer makes a saison, they must take care in their choice of yeasts.” I still want to edit that.

For the most part I tried to make agreements match up to avoid dissonance, and would have started that sentence “When brewers make a…” But it wasn’t always possible to completely avoid clashing plurals and singulars. As we transition away from singular pronouns, this feels awkward, but English is a collection of broken rules and asterisks, and few people will even think about this in a few decades. We’re already moving there now, and I’m betting that to younger people the “they/their” construction already sounds totally normal. That doesn’t mean this won’t be another front in the culture wars, though it seems to be a slightly less controversial back door around the whole thing than using she/her was.

From my perspective, the plural is the most inclusive use, because everyone can see themselves in those sentences. (See, still a bit awkward to my ear.) But it’s still a political choice. People of all genders can see themselves in this construction. But there are people who want an orderly masculine-default language, and they’ll feel like this is in-your-face pandering to nonbinary activists. Folks who don’t even like the idea of nonbinary genders will not feel included. That’s all right. If you think I’m being political in my use of grammar to accommodate the social views of my readers, you’re exactly right. This post is a mild acknowledgement that I’m aware of all these issues, and I’ve made my choice.

I do wish we’d see more women in beer, so I’ll leave you with a photo of 10 Barrel’s Whitney Burnside brewing (courtesy of Portland Business Journal).

10-barrel-brewing-whitney-burnside-brews-2016-monitering-the-mash-temperatures 800.jpg
Jeff Alworth5 Comments