A Simple Grammatical Philippic (or, How I Wasn’t Ivan Coyote’d Into Submission)

Grammar Books

Grammar Books

I recently had the unexpected displeasure of being declared “Not a friend to the LGBTQIA Community.” The reason I’d been downgraded: my objection to the increasingly common use of the plural pronouns they/them/their when referring to individual trans, genderqueer, and gender non-conforming (as well as pronoun non-conforming) people.

I’m a writer. I strive for clarity. I recognize that some feel mislabeled by traditional gender-normative pronouns (he/she). While effort has been made to introduce gender-neutral pronouns (ey/em/eir, ze/hir/hir), none have achieved critical mass. Adding confusion, it is now considered good manners to allow people to choose their preferred pronouns. (I already struggle to remember names; it seems Sisyphean to add preferred pronouns, with the associated requirement to diagram sentences on the fly.)

We’ll adjust in time. Personally, I like ze and hir. I DON’T like using plural pronouns for singular applications. “Katie is going on vacation with their family.” This sentence lacks clarity, even if Katie likes it. A friend asked me, “Is your discomfort with an occasional ambiguous sentence worth another person feeling unheard, devalued and disrespected?”

It is absolutely not my intention to make someone feel unheard, devalued and disrespected. On the other hand, if that person has chosen grammatically incorrect pronouns as the test by which my disrespect is perceived and measured, “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate,” with apologies to Strother Martin. (Which reminds me that Steve Martin once said he wanted to be referred to as the “All-Being Master of Time, Space and Dimension.” That didn’t go over, either.)

I wondered how other writers have been dealing with the pronoun issue. I came across Ivan E. Coyote, “An award-winning author of eight collections of short stories, one novel, three CD’s, four short films and a renowned performer.” Ivan’s pronoun preference is they/them/their. Ivan’s website makes use of these, and I mean no disrespect when I say they have the unintended effect of de-personalizing; Ivan comes across as a collective, not an individual. And clarity is a problem.

“While in Ottawa, Coyote taught a third year fiction class, and three memoir-writing classes for senior citizens. It was while teaching seniors that Ivan realized their true calling.” Also, in the description for a book: “In this collection of short stories Ivan takes readers on an intimate journey: from a year spent in eastern Canada, to their return to the west coast, and the travels in-between.”

I’m going to keep writing for clarity. And I am committed to the ideal that we all deserve respect. My former friends, can we come up with a better plan than this free-for-all “decide for yourself” system? (For the record, “All-Being Master of Time, Space and Dimension” just doesn’t flow. As for clarity…)