What’s Your Pronoun? Beyond He & She

Dennis Baron (Liveright, imprint of WW Norton, 2020), 304pp (hardcover)
ISBN 978 1 63 149604 2

Reviewed by Hannah McCall

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In What’s Your Pronoun?, Dennis Baron, a professor emeritus of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois, explores the need and options for a gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun. There is one very obvious candidate and, as may be expected, a good chunk of the book is dedicated to its defence. The text is accessible but detailed and thorough – Baron’s expertise is obvious and reassuring. Such a comprehensive survey does run the risk of being slightly dry, but the author generally avoids that trap and proves to be an engaging and entertaining guide.

The book begins with the idea that, in English, there is a word missing: a singular pronoun that includes both (or all) genders. There are many possible solutions – including generic he, his or her, and even it – and a good overview is given. The second chapter is where Baron really starts to delve deeply. In ‘The Politics of He’, the author drives home the political nature of pronouns. Generic he has been an accomplice to the denial of women’s rights for many years, and it is a sobering illustration of the power and consequences of language and language choices. It is no wonder that use of generic he has declined and is essentially dead in modern writing.

What comes next is a chapter that is lighter in tone, where Baron charts the many attempts to coin a new word that will serve to fill the gap, all to little widespread success. It’s an interesting and informative section, and would likely be useful for editors who find they are asked to advise on options for gender-neutral or non-binary pronouns. Also of use will be the chapter named ‘Queering the Pronoun’, which details the increasing demand for non-binary pronouns and sensitivity around them.

It is clear that there is one self-evident solution to the ‘lack’ of a gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun, and that same word is leading the way as a popular non-binary pronoun too. It’s they. And What’s Your Pronoun? is, in many ways, a manifesto in support of singular they. This is where the book really comes into its own – the chapter ‘The Missing Word Is They’ systematically demolishes the arguments against singular they, using an abundance of evidence and logic. Any editors who find themselves having to defend singular they will be glad to have this book as back-up.

The lengthy (nearly 60 pages) chronology of pronouns at the end of the book is perhaps a step too far for the casual reader – and much of the key information has been incorporated elsewhere in the text – but may be helpful if a specific pronoun has piqued the reader’s interest. An index was not included in the reviewed advance reading copy but the contents page indicates that there will be one.

Is this an essential book for editors? Probably not. But editors should be aware of the importance and significance of gender-neutral and non-binary pronouns, and this is an excellent resource for gaining and enhancing knowledge and understanding.

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