Talky Tuesday: Respecting pronouns

Apparently, some people get their panties in a twist over the mere concept that people can have pronouns that are different than what you, personally, think they should be. Maybe it’s a childhood friend you grew up with who has now announced that they’re transgender, or a celebrity who was famous as their assigned-at-birth sex before confirming their actual gender.

Hell, maybe it’s even someone you’ve never met, but in your opinion the pronouns they’re asking for don’t fit your perception of them.

Well, here’s how to respect those pronouns. If someone tells you what their pronouns are, you thank them and then use those pronouns. End of story. Sure, you might slip up now and again at first, but if you catch yourself doing that, just say, “Oops, sorry,” and make the correction.

It’s really actually pretty easy, and just requires a bit of empathy and respect. And you know what? Despite knowing a lot of transgender individuals now, I rarely ever run across anything beyond he/him/his, she/her/hers, or they/them/theirs.

Even though I’ll see official dropdown lists on some forms that include all kinds of things that didn’t exist previously, I really don’t see people gravitating to those. Hey, all of us like the familiar, and he, she, and they have been with us forever.

Side note: “They” has been used in English as a singular pronoun since the 14th century, so anyone trying to argue that it’s plural is just plain wrong, and you can tell them that. It’s really the closest to a neutral pronoun that English has.

But… now that we’ve simplified how to respect people’s chosen pronouns, let me get to that other part, where people abuse the hell out of pronouns on a daily basis. They really aren’t all that complicated, especially in English where we don’t decline the hell out of everything, and yet the wrong ones get used in the wrong place all the time.

Here are a few examples of pronoun abuse:

Me and him went to the store today.

His philosophy totally changed myself.

Do you know whom is knocking on the door?

The kitten licks it’s paws.

They gave awards to she and I.

And so on.  Also, as I mentioned, pronouns aren’t all that complicated in English. We have subject pronouns, which indicate who’s performing the action in a sentence. We also have object pronouns, which tell us who’s on the receiving end of that action. Finally, we have possessive pronouns, which tell us when somebody owns or has something else.

Right off the bat, English is simplified because there is no difference between direct and indirect pronouns. In other languages, it does make a difference whether someone is doing something directly to you or doing something to another object to give it to you.

For example, in English, whether you hit a ball to someone or hit them with the ball directly, the pronouns are the same: “Hit the ball to him!” “Hit him with the ball!” In Spanish, it’s not the same in the cases of “you” (singular familiar) and “he,” in which case the pronouns change from ti to te and le to lo. And it can get more complicated in other languages.

But let’s look at what’s happening wrong in each of the examples above.

WRONG: Me and him went to the store today

The short reason it’s wrong: these are object pronouns when they should be subject pronouns. The two people in the sentence are the actors, so they are the ones going to the store. If you used a pronoun for “store,” then it would be the object pronoun.

I quick way to spot the error is to drop one of the pronouns and see if you sound like Tarzan. Clearly, “Me went to the store” and “him went to the store” are just wrong. Also remember, when ordering pronouns in groups, the speaker always comes last, so the correct sentence is, “He and I went to the store today.”

WRONG: His philosophy totally changed myself

I actually heard someone say this in an interview and wanted to punch my phone. The problem? The “-self” pronouns are reflexive. They’re what happen when you are both the subject and object pronoun. Think of Nelson’s famous “stop hitting yourself” from The Simpsons.

By definition, someone else cannot affect a change on yourself, only on themselves. (Also note the plural construction of the singular themselves there.) There are two correct versions here. One is the simple direct object verb: “His philosophy totally changed me,” and a reflexive cause and effect version: “His philosophy made me totally change myself.”

WRONG: Do you know whom is knocking at the door?

I like to think of this one as a mistake of pretense — as in when someone wants to show off that they know the pronoun “whom,” but then also instantly proceeds to demonstrate that they have no idea how it works. “Whom” is another object pronoun, and usually follows a preposition: To whom, from whom, for whom, with whom, etc.

There’s a quick rule of thumb to see if you’ve got “whom” right. Replace it with “him” in the sentence. It’s easy to remember because they both end in “m.” So: “Do you know him is knocking on the door?” is clearly wrong, and the correct word is “who.”

WRONG: The kitten licks it’s paws

Now we come to the possessive pronouns, which really trip people up, because they don’t work like other possessives. In most cases, you add an apostrophe, with rules depending on whether the possessor is singular or plural or whether the word ends in S or X — although there’s some disagreement on the former.

So, singular: Jon’s article. Maria’s car. Plural: The Peoples’ Choice. Trick plurals: The men’s group, the children’s choir, the women’s union. The Joneses’ house.

As for the names ending in S rule, there are two schools of thought on that. One is that classical names always get just an apostrophe, and not an apostrophe S. So Jesus’ parable, Socrates’ method. But there’s a split on modern names. Some people insist that these names only get an apostrophe, and that’s it.

Others, though, for ease of pronunciation, say that these words should get the full apostrophe-S.

So you have Cass’ bar vs. Cass’s bar, or James’ theatre vs. James’s theatre. Clearly, the latter look a lot like how they are pronounced. But these are all nouns. Let’s get back to the pronouns.

Basically, none of them have apostrophes because they don’t need them: My book, your shoe, his wallet, her degree, our house, your (pl.) cars. The one that trips people up is “its,” because of that pesky S — but it’s not needed in possessives. Correct example from above: The kitten licks its paws.

The way to remember this one is that in the word “it’s” the apostrophe represents the missing “I” in the contraction “it is.” So when you see “it’s” in a sentence, read it out as “it is,” and if it makes no sense, then you want “its.” “The kitten licks it is paws.” Nope.

Finally, don’t confuse the possessive pronouns with the adjectives of possession. “My book” is pronoun and object. “That book is mine” is a noun and adjective. Although do note that, technically, in English, mine (and thine) were used as the sort of equivalent of “a” and “an” when it involved coming before vowels.

You’ll see it all the time in Shakespeare: “Be still my heart, yet weep, mine eyes.” (Made up line.) And it’s quite prominent in an old American song, The Battle Hymn of the Republic in the line, “Mine eyes have seen the glory…”

It’s really fallen out of fashion, but it was there for the same reason that we don’t like to say “a elephant.” It’s just clunky.

WRONG: They gave awards to she and I

This is sort of a reversal of the “me and him went to the store” problem. In this case, the subject pronouns have been used as objects, and you can spot it the same way: Drop one pronoun. Also note that, unlike the object version where the speaker comes last, with subject pronouns, the speaker comes first, so the correct sentence would be, “They gave awards to me and her.” Yeah, why it works like that, I have no idea, but just trust me. “To her and me,” just like “I and he went,” would totally grate on a native speaker’s ear.

So: The moral of the story is that pronouns are things to be respected and treated with care. Our language has taught us to use them properly lest we sound less than educated. Don’t forget to let the people around you now educate you on how to use theirs properly, and then do it, lest you continue to sound less than educated.

That’s right. A lesson in grammar and gender of the non-grammatical sort — and remember this: Every grammar rule I just explained to you will be a metric fuckton harder to remember than how to get people’s pronouns right.

You’re welcome.

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