Who Is Who: Pronouns, Gender, and Merging Selves
By Dana LevinAugust 9, 2012
the lake has no saint by Stacey Waite
IN 1850 IN LONDON, by an Act of Parliament, the singular pronoun ‘he’ was finally, legally, crowned. “In all acts,” the Act pronounced, “words importing the masculine gender shall be deemed and taken to include females.” According to the linguist Ann Bodine, the law was introduced “for the shortening of the language used in Acts of Parliament,” and was intended to relieve some of the burden of verbosity demanded by legal precision. Of particular weight, apparently, was the need to write “he or she” when referring to individuals of unknown gender. Perhaps too, having to intone “he or she,” often repetitively, when reading such acts aloud was felt to impede member eloquence; what politico would want to invite bruises to both vanity and persuasion? Thus for motives practical and egotistic, and for patriarchal ones too, “she” was voted off the island.
The Act of 1850 by the male-only Houses of Lords and Commons is but one link in a long chain of attempts to impose androcentric values on the English language. The history of third-person pronoun usage in this regard is both fascinating and absurd. By the late nineteenth century in Britain and America, a prime mix of Victorian kookiness, male privilege, and bourgeoning suffragism colored the terms of assertion and response regarding centuries of putting “him” first: from Thomas Wilson in 1553 berating English language users for setting “the Carte before the horse” by saying “My mother and father are both at home” to Bodine’s 1975 survey of then-contemporary grammar books, where she found in 28 out of 33 cases that “pupils are taught to achieve both elegance of expression and accuracy by referring to women as ‘he’.” For over two centuries, in both the education and publishing spheres, human beings “were to be considered male unless proven otherwise.”
“Who cares!” you might exclaim, or, less generously, “What feminist harangue is about to ensue!” No, my friends — think instead on the words of Loren Cannon, transgender triathlete from Northern California, as quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle on June 3, 2011: “It makes it hard to participate in society when all you want to do is order a Coke and people are so confused about what pronoun to use.”
In 2008 I had the pleasure of judging the Tupelo Press Snowbound Series Chapbook Award. From the start, I could not shake the effects of the ultimate winner, the lake has no saint by Stacey Waite. Comprised mostly of prose poems, the first half of the manuscript was particularly interesting to me, as it chronicled a young girl’s ambivalence about — even refusal of — the fact of the female body:
when praying for gender
then there is my crying in dresses. “since I was a born,” my mother says. my mother walks the line of my crying. the church dress i will not. the pigtails i will not. the long nights praying: please god if you let me wake up and be a boy, i will never say another swear word again.
Titles beginning with “when” and the eschewing of capital letters are signature moves of lake’s 26 poems. These are basic gestures, but together with syntax dominated by long (even run-on) sentences and sentence fragments, they catalyze a peculiar effect: total flow. At first this was a purely visual experience for me: without the bold presence of capital letters, which, to my reading eye, signal start as firmly as periods command stop, it was as if a certain kind of floodgate was missing. The visual presence of punctuation barely registered for me, but for the occasional em-dash, which broke the uniformity of letters streaming across the page. Later, the ear found islands in the flow where the eye could not: in repetitions of negations and refusals — I am not, she could not, they will not, I would not.
The word “not” appears about 60 times and on nearly every page of this 30 page collection. When I first noticed its prevalence I leapt to the homonym. The “nots” were knots; they arose like archipelagos in the prose streams that made up so many of lake’s poems. I thought of quipu — “talking knots” — the long knotted cords used by many indigenous cultures as recording devices. There was a tremendous amount of data knotted up in Waite’s “nots”: subjectivity, identity, selfhood, gender, society, and how it feels to feel tied up.
“Not” is lake’s seed-word, the seed-word for the core psychobiologic state of lake’s speaker: I am not who the body says I am. I am not like my mother “automatic in her automatic body” as she steers me towards the ladies’ room, unbothered by “the stick figure triangle skirt that indicated the path we were to take, the ways we were to interpret our bodies.” I am not who the body says I am: neither the physical body nor the body politic, the body that says, “Because you have a vagina you are bound to this set of conventions, this set of laws”; that says, “Before you can order a Coke, we need to know what to call you — we need to understand what you are.”
Waite’s declaration of “not” is in direct proportion to the not met every day, in a place “where I can not even have breakfast in my own skin.” When the speaker, in male drag, tries to creep back into the family home after sneaking off to her first drag show, she is met by the denying mother, who, “for a moment, covers her eyes as though i had been naked and not her child. ‘what are you doing?’ she wants to know. ‘where could you have gone dressed like that?’”
Pronoun. From the Latin nomen, meaning name, and pro, meaning for, instead of, in place of: in place of name. The I-you-he-she-it-we-they of it.
But pro carries other, more complicated meanings when coupled, as it is here, with name: pro, as in an argument for; in favor of; to project, propagate, move forward from a source place — in this case, a name: a linguistic nail that can keep your essence bound and known by Homo sapiens. “The ‘true’ name of a person,” writes philosopher Martin Buber, “like that of any other object, is far more than a mere denotative designation, for men who think in categories of magic; it is the essence of the person, distilled from his real being, so that he is present in it once again.”
“don’t count on it –” says the speaker of when an imposition of meaning; don’t count on my name telling you anything true about what you cannot see: the contours of my interior psyche, my compass, the self:
naming. kindergarten. i do not like salt water, the class gerbil or writing on the blackboard. i do not like the girls’ line and the boys’ line. i do not like swallowing my gum. i will not tell anyone my middle name. the teacher tells the whole class my middle name.
“it’s ann,” they scream, “we know it’s ann.”
don’t count on it – was what my father used to say to mean no. the trees never mean it. they spit up fire. they sometimes think they can make stars. no one is there to deny them.
Pronoun: an argument for a name. To which Waite says, “the lake/has no saint/after which/to take its name.” Who watches over the trans: the neither/nor, the both/and? If the language cannot name you, how can you be referred to, represented? This is of more than legal and commercial import; it’s of crucial psychospiritual significance. If language, via naming, is meant to “distill (your) real being,” what happens when the language fails you?
Well, hilarity can ensue, for one — but I’ll get to that in a minute. At this point in le voyage de lecture, post-Waite and pre-What, I felt a sense of creeping incredulity: did the language really have no natural way of referring to those of indeterminate gender? Surely uncertain gender moments existed amongst speakers of English? A habitual mix of sloth and impatience sent me to Wikipedia, where I learned, via a quote from Dennis Baron’s Grammar and Gender, that English had once had two gender neutral pronouns, “ou” and “a,” which had died out long before the modern era. If we did not now have “ou” and “a”, we still had “it” — a kind of dummy pronoun that, an alert Wikipedia contributor suggested, wouldn’t satisfy my inquiry because of its “extremely impersonal connotation,” one bordering on offensive where personal referents are concerned. Nobody, it seems, wants to be Cousin It.
Imagine, then, my relief upon finding a “third way” in Ann Bodine’s “Androcentrism in Prescriptive Grammar.” “English,” wrote Bodine, “has always had other linguistic devices for referring to sex-indefinite referents, notably the use of singular they.”
Singular they? Hadn’t it been drummed into us, since elementary school, that “they,” “their,” and “them” can only be used for plural referents? That educational bequest, it turns out, came down to us from eighteenth century grammarians — creatures on the prissy end of Enlightenment-era thinking — who began objecting vociferously to the common use of “they,” “their,” and “them” for singular referents because, Dennis Baron tells us in his article “The Epicene Pronoun: The Word That Failed,” American speech “violated number concord":
Of the following three alternatives, use of the plural in the first was labeled downright wrong, if not worthy of eternal damnation, and pairing of the masculine and feminine in the second was most often rejected as ugly and cumbersome:
Everyone loves their mother.
Everyone loves his or her mother.
Everyone loves his mother.
For discomfited grammarians, only the third alternative served the needs of concord and style, and thus could better lead to the perfection of the language — despite the rather obvious fact that, sexually speaking, their sense of perfection was partial.
Experience will tell us the use of “they,” “their,” and “them” to refer to those of unknown gender has always been a common feature of English, especially when spoken aloud. This is exactly why, Bodine explains, two centuries of attempts to teach and legislate it away has largely failed — except, perhaps, in the red-lined realms of English Composition. Who has not “inadvertently” dropped a “their” into murky pronominal waters? Only the grammar nerds amongst us use such occasions for flagrant self-correction, but they needn’t flagellate themselves: they had simply drifted into the stream of common usage, a centuries-old stream sprung from a generous source: when in doubt, include. That seems to be the rather heartening intuition of English speakers when faced, linguistically, with gender indeterminacy.
But our average ancestral grammarian was not generous. He was an ordinary sexist with control issues, if we want to psychoanalyze the amount of energy, outrage and certitude he and his brethren put into the proscription against “he or she” and singular “they.” Bodine traces one of the earliest condemnations of singular “they” to Lindley Murray, American Royalist (Pennsylvania-born, he was exiled to England after the American Revolution) and writer of some note: by the first half of the nineteenth century he was the world’s largest-selling author on topics moral and linguistic (1787 saw “Extracts from the Writings of Divers Eminent Authors, of Different Religious Denominations; and at Various Periods of Time, Representing the Evils and Pernicious Effects of Stage Plays, and Other Vain Amusements”). Back in England, Murray began writing school textbooks, penning 11 in all; in 1795, Murray released his first grammar book which for the purposes of concision we shall call “English Grammar,” in which he offered, to the linguistically concerned, Rule V: “Pronouns must always agree with their antecedents, and the nouns for which they stand, in gender, number and person. […] Of this rule there are many violations” He goes on to present three examples of what he coins “false syntax,” a pernicious appellation that dogs singular “they” constructions to this day. In each example, the offending “they,” “their,” or “them” is replaced with “he,” “his,” or “him.” Example: “Can anyone, on their entrance into the world, be fully secure that they shall not be deceived?” To which emphatic Murray responds, “’on his entrance’, and ‘that he shall.’” The deception question goes unaddressed.
Posed against the stubborn, inviolate nature of “they’s” common usage, the proscription against it begins to seem the wet dream of sadistic linguists. “Later authors,” Bodine tells us, “expanded their sections on the ‘false syntax’ of singular “they” to several pages.”From the eighteenth century on, it would seem that fathers professorial and political wanted neither the singular feminine nor the gender-ambiguous plural to be the default name/essence of English-speaking people; when in doubt, exclude seems to have been their mantra.
Twentieth century feminism has done a very thorough job of calling our attention to the whys and hows of the exclusion of “she”; indeed, Bodine’s 1975 article is a pioneering piece of feminist linguistics. But, especially with Waite’s poems as context, it was the prohibition against “they” that I found so fascinating: perhaps the common use of singular “they” suggested that the language (and hence the mind) had a kind of intuition: that self is multiple.
This isn’t a new idea. The sense of the plural self is ancient; it fills annals of philosophical, psychological and occult thought. Jung’s theory of types and post-modernism’s focus on the socially-constructed self are but two twentieth century examples. Even science can offer us heartbreaking and fascinating case studies, like that of Tatiana and Krista Hogan, four-year-old twins conjoined at the head. The development of a unique neural pathway between their individual brains, what their neurosurgeon calls a “thalamic bridge,” allows for some gasp-inducing moments, as Susan Dominus, in a profile for the The New York Times Magazine, relates: someone tickles Tatiana’s foot, out of sight of Krista, and Krista says, “Now do me!”; Krista drinks juice and Tatiana feels it; one hates the taste of ketchup and tries to scrape it off her tongue, even though the other is the one eating it. The Hogan family “has long suspected that even when one girl’s vision was angled away from the television, she was laughing at the images flashing in front of her sister’s eyes.”
But if the twins could easily share and exchange physical stimuli, developing a sense of self seemed trickier. Dominus witnesses the girls drawing at a table, each with a piece of paper; Krista announces, “I have two pieces of paper,” even though Tatiana is, inevitably, right next to her. When Dominus presses, both girls affirm (in sing-song unison) that Krista indeed has two pieces of paper. “I was surprised by Krista’s certainty,” Dominus writes. “Was Krista using “I” to refer to both her and her sister? Is Tatiana agreeing with her sister’s assessment at a cognitive level or uttering the same word simultaneously for reasons unknown to her?”
“It was as if even they seemed confused by how to think of themselves, with the right language perhaps eluding them at this stage of development, under these unusual circumstances ? or maybe not existing at all,” Dominus continues. Then she quotes Todd Feinberg, professor of psychiatry and neurology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine: “It’s like they are one and two people at the same time.” What pronoun, Dominus asks, captures that?
If the Hogan twins, because of their conjoined nature, offer us an example of an externalized one-in-two self, then figures like athlete Loren Cannon and the speaker in the lake has no saint offer us two in one, an internal dichotomy: I am not who the body says I am. There is no second body available to Cannon or Waite’s speaker with which to express an internal conviction of gender; radical physical steps must be taken (hormones, surgery) to move internal self-conception and external body-fact into complete alignment. It would seem, for Cannon and lake’s speaker at least, that the desire is for a single aligned self. Embodiment, apparently, is meant to be a singular if permeable affair.
The single body ? the norm of physical individuality ? creates our linguistic norms where pronouns are concerned, however inadequate they may be to expressing what Buber terms the “real being.” Perhaps this is why my experiment in using singular “they” when referring to Waite in conversation so utterly failed as natural speech. Singular “they” sounds quite natural and easy to the ear in cases of the ungendered general; but once you have a specific person to whom to refer it feels very strange to refer to that individual as “they.” It can also feel strange to refer to them as ne, thon, hi, le, ip, hse, ze, or numerous other proffered remedies to the wound of the Missing Word.
The Missing Word! It would seem as though many Victorian grammar hounds were on the hunt for it like Hollywood Nazis for the Lost Ark — Indiana Jones and the Epicene Pronoun! For that’s what they sought: an epicene, or bisexual pronoun, a linguistic gem of power from a logoshangri-la.
Before offering up their entirely rational and doomed solutions to the problem (“A principal should so conduct his’er school that all pupils are engaged in something that is profitable to him’er”), opinionators on the topic usually first expressed outrage that they had been forced into such straits: “My only comfort (is) the fact that I am not alone in my misery. How often do I see a fellow-mortal pause in the middle of a sentence, groping blindly for the missing word.” The common feeling seemed to be that an inclusive gender pronoun should have just naturally evolved from the language, “according to established theories”: it should have “grown on our speech, as tails grew off the monkeys.” But the language had not obliged. So, with that peculiar gusto for improvement that afflicted the age, nineteenth century word-formers set to work.
Dennis Baron tells us in “The Epicene Pronoun: The Word That Failed” that the most well-known neologism in the “craze for a new pronoun” was “thon:” a blend of “that one” coined in 1884 by Charles Crozat Converse, a lawyer and prolific writers of hymns. It “provoked a flurry of word creation matched only by the adherents and opponents of the women’s movement in the 1970’s,” Baron writes. A chap named Edgar Alfred Stevens objected to “thon” on the grounds that it too closely resembled “thou” — though in principle he agreed that an epicene pronoun was “absolutely necessary to the perfection of our language” (and added that having one would also be convenient). One Emma Carleton lamented that “our language should so long have suffered for a simple pronoun” and offered up “ip”: “It has a short, sharp distinctive sound which will prevent its being confounded with any other word…If any man or woman has aught to urge against the eligibility of this word to the vacant office in question, let ip now speak or forever hold ips peace.”
Thus our sample Victorians. Perhaps their irritation with English’s pronominal lacks was pricked by the knowledge that other languages had gender neutral pronouns: Standard Bengali, Estonian, Hungarian, and other Uralic languages, Nahuatl (indigenous language of Central Mexico), Indonesian and Mandarin amongst the crew. “The Finnish language does not support gender-specific pronouns,” states Wiki, as if the pronoun issue were up for UN debate. “The Japanese [also] avoid using pronouns when they can be determined by context, and often use a person’s name where English would use a pronoun,” which to me seemed entirely the right, polite solution.
Wiki reminded me that in Persian “he,” “she,” and “it” are expressed by the gender neutral pronoun “u” — as translator Coleman Barks relates in his introduction to Open Secret: Versions of Rumi:
In Rumi’s poetry there is always the mystery of the pronouns. Who is this you he addresses? Shams? Saladin Zarkub? Husam? The inner, angelic counterpart? The divine Beloved? A God-Person alloyed of the longing of lover for beloved? The Friend? All of the above? Pronouns dissolve within the pressure of Rumi’s recognition of his true identity.”
During the day I was singing with you.
At night we slept in the same bed.
I wasn’t conscious day or night.
I thought I knew who I was,
but I was you.
— Quatrain 1242
Replace “you” with the original “u” and we find something uncanny being accessed: the “you” could be a lover, male or female; it could be an aspect of the self; it could be God. It is all; it is “u”. “No pronoun can speak the reality Rumi experiences,” Barks declares — it’s a fascinating echo of Dominus’s reaction to the Hogan twins. (It also feels strangely akin, if more mystic and less antic, to John Ashbery's "My Erotic Double," which ends: “Thank you. You are a very pleasant person. / Thank you. You are too.”) But here we leave the physical and enter metaphysics. Barks tells us that Rumi’s true identity rests in “a larger, elastic, cross-pollinating dance of Selves,” a specific kind of individuality, characterized by fluctuations not in surface but in essence.
How lucky for Rumi, the thirteenth-century mystic and poet, that he had a language that had a word! “U”s multivalent properties mirror the many-in-one, All-is-One, God-experience the Sufis sought. Perhaps the existence of the pronoun itself prepped the mind for such mystic revelation.
My delves of thought by now seemed incontrovertible after my feints at research: to come into individuality is to come into gender, where the English-speaking mind is concerned. So what means does the poetic multi-self have to describe, express, its subjective experience? Pseudonyms, heteronyms, personae, all the ventriloquizing literary arts; point of view and tonal shifts: these are tools for speakers and speaking. But the sentence too has a voice:
i will not be the kind of boy who can not bear the memory of her body
And there it is, the moment in Waite’s book that first brought my scan of it to a halt — the moment that would later send me on the hunt for all things pronominal. I slowed into a deeper read, arrested by a trick of syntax.
“i will not be the kind of boy who can not bear the memory of her body” — the vehicle is conventional: subject-verb-object, a subordinate clause. It seems pedestrian phrasing, but for the lower-case “i” and the fact that the phrase is actually embedded in a run-on sentence that comprises the entire second half of the poem. What made it arresting was the subject pronoun in relation to the pronoun in the subordinate clause: I, being a kind of boy…well, we expect such a person to want to bear the memory of his body, but that’s not what Waite offers — instead, we get the feminine “her,” which makes this “kind of boy” startling indeed.
Why did I automatically assume the “her” referred back to the i/boy? After multiple reads, my certainty of reference began to teeter; the run-on sentence was getting away from me. when saying but i was not the kind of boy either begins with a hypothetical boy and girlfriend: “but i was not the kind of boy either //who would tread the water of answering back, the boy who takes his young girlfriend to the hayloft to kiss her among the smell of feed and shit; i would not take her there among the feed and shit because i was not the kind of boy either who keeps for himself.” Statements hinge on “would,” an auxiliary verb that, according to the entry on modal verbs at EnglishClub.com, “expresses the conditional mood.” It also expresses (with suggestive ellipses) “desire, polite requests and questions, opinion or hope, wish and regret…” Indeed, the ‘i’ in Waite’s poem is brimming with such impulses and feelings, all hinging on the condition of “would”: if i was (a boy), i would (not)…
But then we get a shift to the definitive/declarative: “this is the woman who cannot carry her body, she swallows the bindings of books, this bandaging.” Not once, in initial manuscript reads, did I assume this referred back to the girlfriend at the poem’s start. Maybe this was because of the snap into the present tense, the way “this is” felt like a finger-point directive away from the hypothetical, conditional “would.” Once I got a copy of the printed book, I saw how "the bindings of books, this bandaging" echoed lake’s book cover with its image of bound breasts, which led me associatively to all the stories of breast binding — 1920s flappers, intrepid girls masquerading as boys at war, at sea — that emblemized attempts at gender change. True, poems preceding when saying but i was not the kind of boy either featured an I as a young girl, confused and ambivalent about gender, male and female. Yet, I was never completely confirmed in my reading of "the woman" and who the poem intended her to be ? too many pronouns and time frames and mental states carried by the stream of prose. The more I slid back and forth on the slide rule of who-is-who, the more I wondered if that was precisely the point.
I think now, after months of mulling it over, that it was the unshakeable internalization of grammar — the same internalization that made it impossible to refer to Stacey Waite as “they,” that spelled doom for neologists trying to replace the Missing Word — that made me so initially sure “her body” belonged to the i/boy. “Who” — the hinge in the middle of the phrase, that links self-conception to memory, boy to body — is a relative pronoun: it links the subordinate clause to a word in the main clause, in this case “boy.” From a grammatical perspective, it would have been hard for me to not read “her body” as belonging to the “boy,” run-on sentence or not. Syntax — the arrangement of words in a sentence, the arrangement of rules in a system — is exactly how the mind linguistically organizes its self-expression. This is lake’s genius (and Ashbery’s, too, though he uses it to very different effect): to take innocuous syntactical phrasing and change the players mid-sentence — to get around English’s pronominal either/or by creating a syntactical both/and.
This is by no means a cause for unmitigated psychic relief, where lake’s speaker is concerned: the both/and in an either/or world can suffer isolation and misapprehension, even danger. “i will not be the kind of boy who can not bear the memory of her body” is both arresting and heart-breaking to me because of the movement it enacts: we start with a male self-identity, a male “I”; the pronoun shifts to the feminine with the possessive objectified moment. To follow the syntax of the phrase is to start from inside the male-gendered psyche and then, suddenly, to see the irrefutable female fact; to start within the interior mind, and then look down at the body.
lake’s approach to syntax is usually at odds with what critic James Wood calls grammatical realism, where “the real is made to fall into approved units and packets.” But the grammatical “real” doesn’t quite speak to the reality of transgender experience. “there’s no way to tell really. what we will need. what body will come forward as if to say hear me i am not asking for anything.” At lake’s midpoint, Waite’s concerns shift from childhood and adolescent gender struggle to the vicissitudes of adult love. What body will come forward to the beloved? What occasions will call forth which self? Is this a question just for the trans community, or do all of us harbor a plurality, conditioned by societal norms to let only one I set sail?
In the total flow of syntax, lake’s speaker finds respite from the tyranny of “real” identity. Total flow: it’s why “i” remains uncapitalized, why sentences run on, why pronouns, and the selves they represent, shift and merge. In one of the last poems in the book, Waite addresses a beloved, saying: “there are moments, though, we forget our identity. we are laughing over gin and the story of your volkswagen floor…” I always read that “we” as a single presence — the s/he of lake’s speaker ? and that “forget” as a grace.
In musing back on The Case of the Missing Word, I like to think our worried Victorians were not driven by an offended sense of perfection as by a disturbed feeling of gap — a sense that there was a missing link in the chain that facilitates one singular body calling out to another (no matter how many selves each may harbor inside). The struggle for the referent is the struggle to connect: a name, even a pronoun, functions as a request to enter a portal; to call it is to ring the bell of a door. Where does the door lead? One could argue that the whole human concern —mating and trading, witchcraft and statecraft — is founded upon name exchange: a name can offer family, homeland, belief system, control; we like to think it offers essence. “Knock, knock,” the old joke goes; “Who’s there?” we ask. In terms of human relations, it’s really the only thing we want to know.
Dana Levin is the author of In the Surgical Theatre, Wedding Day, and Sky Burial, which was noted for 2011 year-end honors by The New Yorker, the San Francisco Chronicle, Library Journal, and Coldfront Magazine. A recipient of fellowships from the Rona Jaffe, Whiting and Guggenheim Foundations, Levin chairs the Creative Writing and Literature Department at Santa Fe University of Art and Design.
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