Becoming Neutral

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.

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Becoming Neutral — 10 Comments

  1. I find “Dear Sir or Madam” usually gets the job done when I don’t know the identity of my correspondent. For the 0.0001% of individuals that will find “sir or madam” greatly objectionable, they’re probably not engaged in business anyway.

    Should we, the rest of society, create a pronoun for the purpose of pandering to the -very rare- victims of body identity integrity disorder? It doesn’t help them. Telling mentally ill people that their delusions are real is not a therapeutic approach, to say the least.

    If it doesn’t help, why do it? Note that this is a question, not a dismissal of your proposal.

    • Dear Sir or Madam works fine if you don’t know the identity of your correspondent. It doesn’t work very well if you know the name, but not the gender, of the person. And it isn’t just an issue of letters. I know of lots of women with low voices who get called “Mr.” on the phone (and the same happens to men with high voices). Some people advocate for just using first names, but I would prefer a little formality in business situations. And I really detest the current use of “Dear Nancy Moore” as a way of avoiding the honorific.

      Given that gender is irrelevant in most business transactions, I think a gender-neutral honorific would simplify life for all of us. It works great with “Dr.” and “Professor.” Why not expand it?

      • I think its fine if -you- want to expand it. You can do what you want, you’re a free person.

        Problem arises when you expect -me- to expand it. That is what you propose, a change to the accepted forms of honorifics. I’d rather not, I kind of like things as they are.

        Modern life appears to be passing from a proper tolerance of people who are different to pandering to the mental imbalances of disturbed persons who are vanishingly few. All it takes is one complaint from one bipolar wingnut who forgot their crazy pills this morning, and HR is all up in your business like its your fault. This is a condition that should be fought against tooth and nail, not compensated for with soothingly ambiguous circumlocutions of language.

        If people with non-specific names get all huffy when you make a mistake, you can do what I do: Tell them to go pound salt. They’re -irrational-. You’re not going to get any brownie points by pandering anyway so you may as well give them both barrels.

  2. When I was in high school, and the word Ms. was just coming in to currency, I asked someone in the administration why it wasn’t being used for the female teachers. “Because we don’t have that many young, unmarried women teaching here.” I attempted to point out that the point of Ms. was that it neither referenced marriage status nor age, but to this man’s mind, the only people who would use Ms were those who were young enough to know about it and not married and therefore unable to flaunt a Mrs. before their names.

    Thank heaven that has changed. I do wish there was a gender-neutral word for a person that didn’t sound forced or wrong to my ears (“they,” the preferred pronoun of one of my daughter’s friends, just sounds so…plural ).

  3. I’m so glad that I’m not the only one who finds alternating he/she in paragraphs distracting. I always stop to wonder who on earth we are talking about now. Likewise, I find the use of they/their for a singular person to be distracting. I seem to recall that Jo Clayton had a god of uncertain gender and used something combined. (Shim?) I can’t remember. It has been many years and I’m not sure which book(s) used it. It was somewhat memorable then, but I would prefer it to the alternating him/her or the ‘they/their’ references.

    • Deb Taber used “it” effectively for her neuter characters in Necessary Ill, her excellent novel on both gender and ecological issues published by Aqueduct Press. I made use of “it” for alien characters in The Weave.

      But “it” has too many uses in English for general use. I don’t think most people would like being called it, especially since we also use it for inanimate objects.

      • How does the discomfort in being called ‘it’ compare with being called ‘he’ when one’s a she or ‘she’ when one’s a he or either when one’s neither?

        For me, I think there’s a curious sort of prejudice in people wanting to keep objects objectified and subjects properly pronounly referenced, as though it’s clear what goes in what category (animate/inanimate, for one), when the long history of how we evolved to incorporate wisdom regarding language’s inherent openness to justice shows the instability of our assumptions about exactly that clarity. By this, I mean how it took many long conversations over many generations for people to accept the personhood or status as “one of the people” of slaves or women or children. If we accept history continues in this direction, wouldn’t we have to be cautious now that we’re not mired in what generations later will find obvious: our implicit assumption that we, being people, are very unlike the things we comfortably call ‘it’, things who are not even ‘who’s but are always ‘what’s?

        I mean, many of us now think it’s obvious that slaves, women, and children are people. Some of us are comforable also counting animals, ecosystems, and planets as people—some of us have been doing so for a very long time. And perhaps something is also there when we find it uncomfortable to be an ‘it’ the way our machines are ‘it’s. But what is that discomfort? Why is it so pervasive and so ordinary in a way we don’t challenge, yet we want to challenge the so pervasive and so ordinary habits of using Mrs or the generic he?

        If clarity about the he/she category requires us to think more deeply and more thoughtfully about the things evading our rules—this thinking getting us to the point where we’d like a literal justice in having a mindful and accurate pronoun for them—aren’t we also going to have to go a bit further and rethink our own prejudices about what things are its on the one hand and what things require us to be mindful about feelings, those things we call hes and shes, hirs or zirs, all those?

        Used to be we called some people ‘it’. We learned this was wrong. We instead bring them up, as it were, to where respect is important enough to merit a better, more appropriate pronoun for them. But we quickly ran out of old pronouns, while still holding on to the (implicit?) prejudice that some things are better than other things.

        I mean, if the point of finding better, more appropriate pronouns or titles by experimenting with ‘Ms’ or ‘zir’ or ‘he/she’ is to unwork our prejudices through careful conceptual thoughtfulness expressed in how we use words, then maybe we can work at unworking a different prejudice in thinking a human is better than an inanimate something we casually call ‘it’.

        Provocative idea aside, I know it’s probably hard to accept ‘it’ does its job neutrally referencing admirably well when it comes to people, which is likely why some people opted to move into the more adventurous habit of inventing new pronouns. It’s easier to innovate for all of us than to rehabilitate ourselves.

        It’s interesting, though. We don’t really have this objection to using ‘they’ as gender-neutral plural pronouns, even though many inanimate objects are also called ‘them’ and ‘they’, too. Shared suffering? Shared ignominy? Or something else?

        I’m sorry if this sidetracks from your post.

          • Thank you for that response. I have no idea what the best way is. Too many questions pop up whenever I try to find the way, but ignoring the questions doesn’t make them go away either.

            But I like learning and hearing how others work it out for themselves.