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November 27, 2013

Pronouns were a mistake that we can fix

I think half the questions I ask a certain set of people are of the sort “Wait, which ‘he’?” or “Sheila or Marg?” All pronouns do is introduce ambiguity, error, and irked moods. We’d be better off without them, by which I mean without pronouns.

Worse, in some languages pronouns force us to make decisions about the gender of inanimate objects and even of abstractions. How does that help? Why don’t we also pretend that every object has a race, an eye color, and a favorite fruit? Assigning everything hit points would actually make more sense.

There are two arguments in favor of pronouns. First, some people’s names are long. Might I suggest that if we got rid of pronouns, people would soon start taking shorter names? Or we’d come up with a convention to shorten the names in unambiguous ways. Perhaps “y” would be appended to the first syllable, as in “First Lady Michy said to President Oby, “Bary, I think you ought to meet with ex-Governor Schwarzy,” all without any implied disrespect.

Second, plural pronouns can be useful when the group doesn’t have a known name or an obvious common descriptor. For example, “Two men, a woman, and a cockerspaniel drove up to an off-duty waiter and a former action movie star, and said ‘Hey, why don’t you get in our car?,” which they did.” The ‘they’ in that sentence does some useful work. I will allow it.

First person plural is an interesting challenge. I think I would allow “we” only for an indefinite group, as in the title of this post. Otherwise, instead use the name or descriptor of the group you have in mind. Think about how clarifying it would be to actually have to specify who you’re pretending to speak for?

I will allow the use of the first person singular since it is less ambiguous than using your own name: “Give that to David” isn’t helpful when I’m in a room with David Winer, David Cameron, and Michelangelo’s Statue of David. Second person singular pronouns should not be allowed, however, since there can be ambiguity about whom one is addressing. Second person plural I will allow on the same grounds as third person plural. Plus, by disallowing the second person singular, I have solved the ambiguity caused by using the exact same frigging word for second person singular and plural. What were we thinking?

Y’all are welcome.