Wisconsin-Milwaukee LGBT Resource Center 2011

“Per” vs. “their”—It’s time to take a stand

For the last several years I’ve been struggling with the pronoun issue. While I agree that gender neutrality in language can help support gender equality, I’ve decided that I’m not a fan of attempts to eliminate the use of singular pronouns by replacing them with plural pronouns.

Despite reservations, I’ve attempted for many years to make my writing more inclusive by using plural pronouns instead of gendered pronouns in my professional writing. Because the nonprofit that owns me works with schools and colleges, it has been particularly important that all of my writing for and about Lectica and its work is as inclusive as possible. Schools and colleges care a great deal about ensuring that students do not feel shut out because of writing conventions that marginalize or exclude them. Workplaces are not far behind.

I have appreciated the way in which the use of plural pronouns eliminates gender bias. Unfortunately however, I’m often frustrated by the way in which they constrain and complicate communication.

They, them, and their perform a specific function in English. They signal that we are talking about multiple people or things. Singular pronouns signal that we are talking about one person or thing. The existence of both singular and plural pronouns greatly increases the economy and simplicity of writing.

Despite years of attempting to use plural pronouns in place of singular pronouns, I continue to find myself wrangling with sentences that have become unnecessarily tortured because there is no easy way to signal that I’m speaking about one person, rather than multiple people.

I’d probably be willing to continue suffering if there was no alternative to giving up on singular pronouns, but there is a good alternative that’s been around for over 50 years. It’s the person pronouns, which include per, pers, and perself). I prefer the person pronouns over other non-gendered singular pronouns because of their relation to our singular non-gendered noun— person.

It has been reported that John Clark published the person pronouns in a 1972 issue of the Newsletter of the American Anthropological Association. (I couldn’t locate the newsletter.) I heard per used for the first time during a woman’s march in Toronto in the summer of 1972. News of Clark’s article must have traveled fast! Later, in 1976, person pronouns were used instead of gendered pronouns in Marge Piercy’s novel, “Woman on the Edge of Time.” I reread Piercy’s book a few years ago and was astonished by how easily my brain accepted per as a singular pronoun.

Here’s an example of per in action:

“Jan is fond of sharks. Per room is full of shark posters, including many per drew perself. Jan’s brothers prefer elephants. Per doesn’t understand how they can like elephants better than sharks.”

The sentences above are essentially the same ones I’d write if using singular gendered pronouns. Now, notice what happens when I substitute plural pronouns:

“Jan is fond of sharks. Their room is full of shark posters, including many they drew themselves. Jan’s brothers prefer elephants. They don’t understand how they can like elephants better than sharks.”

The sentences in the second example have to be reworked to make it clear who they is. In this case, replacing the first “they” in the 4th sentence with “Jan” would suffice, but starting a third sentence with Jan makes the paragraph read like picture-book text. You might argue that this is a trivial concern, but when using plural pronouns, writers are often forced to rework sentences, avoid pronouns completely, or substitute pronouns with actual names. Reworking sentences takes time, avoiding pronouns places limits on what we are able to express, and the frequent repetition of names tends to make writing more ponderous or tortured than it ought to be.

“Per” is both economical & gender neutral

From my perspective, choosing the person pronouns is a no-brainer. They’re a simple substitution that solves the gender neutrality problem without altering English grammar.

The only limitation of the person pronouns—aside from the inconvenience of adapting to changeis that they are completely gender neutral. Because of this, they may be less politically useful than pronouns that are designed to announce gender preferences.

The bottom line?

I’ve begun to use the person pronouns. I’m using them in place of plural pronouns when I’m looking for a gender-neutral singular pronoun. You’ll see them popping up here and on Lectica’s website.

ViP info | ViP rationale

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Theo Dawson

Theo Dawson

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Award-winning educator, scholar, & consultant, Dr. Theo Dawson, discusses a wide range of topics related to learning and development.