Shortcuts – good and bad

This month, Jess Pomfret (@jpomfret) challenges us to write about shortcuts, and I’m going to write about something I used to do back in the late 1980s in French class when I still lived in England.

One of the worst things about French was verb conjugation. If you said “We do something” as opposed to “They do something” or “You do something”, then it’s not enough to just use the word “Nous” for “we”, you need to conjugate the verb (typically to –ons, like “Nous mangeons” for “We eat”). It was annoying to have to think about, and at that stage in my life (feeling a little unenthusiastic about an upcoming move to Australia, and big on shortcuts) I was happy to learn about an alternative.

The alternative was to use “On” instead of “Nous”. A quick internet search shows https://www.thoughtco.com/the-many-meanings-of-the-french-subject-pronoun-on-3572148 and that it’s valid to say “Olivier et moi, on est contents” (Olivier and me, we are happy), where “on” is swapped in for “nous”, and (the important bit) conjugates the same as the singular third person. It’s not “nous sommes contents” (we are happy), it’s “on est contents” (we are happy). I was definitely happy when I worked this out, and (almost as a bonus) my teachers would be a little frustrated. It was part of my mission to try to get an ‘A’ but with unsatisfactory effort – a trait I hope my kids didn’t inherit and which I promise I grew out of. I managed to avoid heaps of conjugation effort, even if I may have done myself a disservice in the process.

The other day I was watching a sci-fi show (maybe Picard) and I got to wondering whether gender-related pronouns would still be a thing, or whether English will evolve them out over the next few hundred years. I remember in C. S. Lewis’ books about Narnia, when asked what kind of creature she is, Lucy replies that she’s a girl. I see that the first chapter of the Bible says “male and female he created them”, and I consider this to imply that God created *them*, and the fact that Adam was male and Eve was female didn’t suggest that they weren’t fully equal. Eve was no less of a person than Adam – Adam was simply male, while Eve was female. I would almost rather Lucy had identified herself as a human, but maybe she was describing herself in comparison to her siblings. One of the girls as opposed to one of the boys.

I say all this because ‘on’ seems very much like a gender-neutral pronoun. It’s even number-neutral and person-neutral. It seems ideal. When we don’t know someone’s gender, we refer to them as ‘they/them’, and only adopt a gender-specific pronoun once we know someone’s gender. If we could stick to my French lesson’s ‘on’ that could work nicely, but even then I feel like using an ambiguous pronoun (another way which ‘on’ is used) is tricky.

Not everyone wants to be referred to by a gender-neutral pronoun. Narnia’s Lucy was proud to be a girl, and plenty of other people are also proud to be their particular gender. Others prefer to be known as ‘they/them’, and I hope they’re proud to identify that way too, but few want to be assumed to be the gender that they’re not, or identified as ‘gender-unknown’ once they’ve been identified. If I refer to a male person as a non-gender pronoun, am I suggesting that they’re not masculine?

To me it must be that person’s choice. At least until society drops gender-specific pronouns completely.

And pronouns should never be used as a weapon.

If I *refuse* to use the correct pronoun for someone, I’m insulting them. No question here. It’s antagonistic. It’s harassment. It’s hate-speech. It’s suggesting that they’re not exhibiting the gender that they’re trying to, and that’s insulting. Sticks and stones hurt far less than names, and this is just as bad.

If it’s done accidentally, then it should be corrected and the person who made the mistake should try harder. I’ve done this. I apologised, and still managed to do it again. But I wasn’t trying to hurt them. They know this, and I’ve talked to them about it. It takes practice, but it’s about the sentiment.

What’s not acceptable is what Jennifer Jones wrote about here. Deliberately referring to a woman as a guy, refusing to be corrected, and making someone feel like there is no one is in their corner is all bad behaviour. No one should have to put up with that. Jenn says she’s not planning to attend any more SQL Saturday events, and I feel like we’ve failed her as a community.

So despite the fact that I used a French-pronoun shortcut to make life easier for myself as a kid, I now think that this is a shortcut to be avoided. I’ll use a gender-neutral pronoun if I don’t know someone’s gender, and will probably continue to make assumptions, but if I’m corrected that someone prefers a different (including gender-neutral) one, I will try to do better.

We should all try to do better.

@rob_farley