WHAT'S YOUR PRONOUN? by Dennis Baron


Beyond He and She
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A thorough history of pronoun debates.

Guggenheim fellow Baron (Emeritus, English and Linguistics/Univ. of Illinois; A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution, 2009, etc.) examines what seems like a contemporary question with a historical lens. In this primer, he reveals a centurieslong search for a singular gender-neutral pronoun in English, dispelling persistent myths that such a quest is a recent effort or the product of politically correct motivations. The author traces the discussion of the search further than skeptics may expect, adding a full chronology, dating back to the 1790s, that tracks invented alternates. In addition to extensive notes on the editors, educators, writers, and others who have added their opinions and alternatives to the effort, Baron also archives insights on the popular and common uses of a singular “they.” Like the plural and singular form of “you,” “they” is a word people have used consistently for centuries, even by those who dispute the choice for grammatical imprecision. In chronicling this ongoing argument over accuracy, intent, and meaning, Baron demonstrates the long-standing efforts to seek, identify, and create alternates for the oft-maligned phrase “he or she.” Arranged thematically, some chapters overlap in content, but overall, they offer helpful, nuanced considerations about the power and politics of attempts to control how language evolves. Whether based on authorial intent or individual identity, Baron’s catalog of the missing singular form also offers detailed proof that inventing, discovering, or seeking gender-neutral pronouns is not a new endeavor. The author’s playful tone imbues the text with friendly sensitivity, and readers will appreciate his decades of research and meticulous attention to documents and sources. The result is a book that reflects the transformational capacity of language.

A lively book for language lovers, those confused about uses of they/them, and anyone curious about writing while gendered.

Pub Date: Jan. 21st, 2020
ISBN: 978-1-63149-604-2
Page count: 272pp
Publisher: Liveright/Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15th, 2019