Some people are advocating the honorific Mx. (pronounced “mix”) to replace both Mr. and Ms. (and, of course, Mrs. and Miss). I think this is a wonderful idea.
If nothing else, it would save people embarrassment when they want to be formal but are not sure whether to say Mr. or Ms. Some years back, when I ran a nonprofit, I sent a thank you note to a donor and used the wrong honorific. For the life of me, I can’t remember whether I said Ms. to a man or Mr. to a woman, but the first name in question was Lee.
I got back a note from the person expressing their extreme displeasure that I didn’t know the gender of a long-time donor – which I didn’t, having never met the person and being the new executive director. I’m sure I was supposed to call the person immediately and apologize abjectly, but I was too embarrassed to do so and so cost my organization this donor’s continued support.
Mx. would have solved that problem nicely, though only if it were to become commonplace to use it in all cases – including when you do know the person’s gender. After all, there are circumstances – like thank you letters to donors who are going to use that letter for their tax records – where a little formality is not amiss.
Of course, for this honorific to truly work, it would need to be used in all cases, not just for those who insisted upon it, who would probably be people whose idea of their own gender is fluid. That is, it’s an appropriate term for all of us and would take gender out of discussions where it is irrelevant.
I am somewhat surprised to note that I learned of this term in The New York Times, and that it’s been around since 1977, though not in the columns of the Times, which didn’t even get around to using Ms. until well after that.
Usually I’m way ahead of the Times on these things. I’ve been using Ms. since long before most forms dropped the Mrs. and Miss from their options. And I haven’t noticed the Times doing anything to encourage the use of gender neutral pronouns.
In fact, as far as I can tell, the Times still refuses to use they and their in the singular, despite the fact that most scholars of language use will tell you that there is no particularly good reason why they shouldn’t be used in that way. After all, there are times when you need to refer to a single person but have no idea what that person’s gender might be.
He or she is clumsy. Alternating he and she – common in legal articles these days – is a little distracting (I keep watching to see if the author is going to screw it up). And just using he on the grounds that it is universal – the rule I was taught as a kid – is laughable. He is always read as male.
Besides he was never used universally when it was intended to designate one individual from a group commonly considered female. If an article was about secretaries or nurses, you can bet the pronouns used where she and her.
On a visit to Oberlin College last year, I discovered that students now ask others their pronoun preference as a matter of course. Madeleine Robins says this is common at her daughter’s college as well.
But while that’s a great way of acknowledging that gender identity and appearance do not always mesh, it doesn’t solve the problem of writing about or discussing those whose gender is unknown or even unknowable. I write science fiction. I like the idea of unknowable gender.
Just as English needs a gender-neutral honorific like Mx., it needs gender-neutral singular pronouns. Many have been suggested, but none have yet caught on.
But perhaps if we adopt a neutral honorific, the pronouns will follow. As for all of you who are thinking Mx., much less gender-neutral pronouns, will never happen, remember: that’s what everyone said about Ms.