Pronouns: Getting Past Bewilderment

Published by Colleen Appel on

When I was a teacher of grammar, I prided myself on my ability to get my students to match pronouns with their antecedents, the nouns that precede the pronouns. I did a victory lap when they moved from “Everyone grabbed their backpacks” to the grammatically correct “Everyone grabbed his backpack.” 

So I expected to be more than a little resistant when my nonbinary friends in this church pushed me to abandon my attachment to proper pronoun usage. 

Are my thoughts jumbling when I try to match the neutral “they” to a friend’s name? You bet! Will you find me mumbling when my fingers fly over the keyboard typing “she” multiple times when my friend uses “they” instead? Absolutely! Have I also thought why is this necessary? Again, yes.

However, there are two things that have moved me past the bewilderment that accompanies change. I will use the pronouns you ask me to use without puzzlement, and this is why.

I was a middle school English teacher. I very deliberately avoided saying “These are the rules of punctuation and grammar” and called them the “conventions” instead, implying that this is the way it is usually done but there are no hard and fast rules. Once, we might have written it differently, said it differently, but changes in language usage are not unusual, and we can most certainly expect more changes in language. I didn’t fully study the reportage saying that gender neutral pronouns have existed previously, but it was a reassuring moment when the article showed up in my news feed. 

I haven’t changed my pronouns, but I did change my name. I grew up with my name being pronounced with a long o, [co-leen]. I was baffled that my name, spelled with two l’s, was pronounced the same way my friend Coleen said her name. When I came to Missouri, I occurred to me that I could ask people to address me with a different pronunciation, in effect, a new name. My supervisor, children’s librarian Virginia Gleason, pressed me on my reasons, but she made the switch. Co-leen becomes Col-leen, Becky becomes Rebecca, Judy becomes Judith. We honor these name changes and in so doing we acknowledge the people who made the request; we hold them dear.

My son’s given first name is Eric. His middle name is Forrest, honoring a farmer we respected. Our thought was to let him grow up as Eric, and he could use the name Forrest when he grew into it as an adult. But my husband and I both regretted our choice and began calling him by his middle name at the age of three months. My mother-in-law was angry and called him Eric for a full two years. I was devastated; I recall feeling the hurt of her refusal to use the name I had chosen for my son. I assume my nonbinary friends feel a similar devastation when their pronoun usage is ignored or demeaned.

And so, I make the stumbling, jumbling effort to use the pronouns my friends use. I try to remember my name tag with my own pronouns, letting my nonbinary friends know they don’t have to do the work of asserting their pronouns. It’s shared work at First UU. I make mistakes and say “Excuse me” and “Thank you” when I am corrected.

My pronouns are “she” and “her.” What are yours?

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