The problem with writing a blog of random musings is that, over time, a writer is bound to repeat themself.
Here is a little metacognition moment: I woke up this morning with Thor-the-cat butting his head into my hand for a head scratch, and I started ruminating on that idea of the sweet pleasure relationship between human beings and the animals that live with us, how scientists believe the cats and wolves came to live with us because we were a stable food source, and we let them come because they helped us to deal with rodents who ate our own food. How that certainly explains the exchange of energy in a certain way, but how it doesn’t explain the pleasure exchange, how we humans get such pleasure from the feel of fur, and from the sensation of the animal’s pleasure. How my distant cousin David Kline writes in his book Scratching the Woodchuck of encountering a groundhog sleeping in the sun, how he reached out his walking stick to gently touch it, how it leaned into the scratch, how satisfying it was to him. How I saw an online video yesterday of a goose tickling a puppy with its beak: Everyone wants to pet the puppy.
But I am pretty sure I have written that before, and then I started writing it anyway, and I came upon that perfect opportunity to practice the singular “they.” (There’s where the metacognition begins.) So today’s musing is not really about the mutual pleasure cycle between humans and animals, after all, but about the process of shifting their (one’s/our) language to include alien-seeming ideas and structures.
We do it all the time, unconsciously or semi-consciously: pick up new words and phrases and ways of saying things. Teenagers do it at such an alarming pace that sometimes they seem to be speaking another language, and those of us whose synapses are getting hard and calcified find it challenging to keep up, to interpret the cant and the jargon. But we do it too. There’s that but at the beginning of the last sentence. “Never,” my teachers told me, “put a but at the beginning of a sentence.” But I do it all the time now. Too often perhaps. It expresses a sense of the fragmentary thought, how my brain experiments with holding an idea, and then skitters over to its complement or opposite. New words and linguistic patterns have a way of seeping in to enhance and brighten our communication.
The injunction against singular they, however, seems to have a particular staying power. My starting sentence up there feels clunky and awkward to me, not just in the fact that its using a “plural” pronoun to refer to a singular human, but because it actually singularizes the plural: themself. Because I identify as female, it would have been perfectly logical for me to use herself in that sentence. Were I someone who identified as male, however, to use the masculine pronoun in a sentence about a generic human being would have taken on political meaning, a sense of masculine as default.
As a teenager, I took the common practice of identifying every generic human in my writing as the “default” he/him, trying to believe that it meant people of any gender, no matter that I saw a distinctly male person in my mind when I tried to picture the sentence. As my consciousness shifted, I rejected the male default, and began to use he or she for a time, or he/she, or s/he, and there’s a certain satisfaction in that, but it does get clunky in the speaking, especially when you start tossing in the him or her. For a while, I tried the pompous-sounding one, but those sentences can get laborious and babbly and, as I said, pompous.
To return to both the meaning and the revelation of that first sentence, I think that along with writing previously about petting puppies and kittens, I have written about singular they before. Shakespeare did it. According to this Oxford English Dictionary blog entry (click the link), we’ve been doing it since at least the 1300s. They (generic use–I don’t know who I am referring to) discuss the attempts by grammatical structuralists in the 18th century to eliminate the use of singular they. But hey, if it was good enough for Shakespeare, it’s good enough for me, and he occasionally began a sentence with he, and finished off using they for the exact same antecedent. If he’s allowed to be so messy, I’m just going to wade right in.
There is plenty of reason to challenge my discomfort, besides my own feminist consciousness. Sure, I can sprinkle lots of generic she into my writing to startle and inspire, but singular they has become a fight for recognition of identity. As we welcome the blooming sense of personal identity and power that non-binary folx are expressing, it’s important for those of us who identify comfortably (say: privilege) on the binary to let ourselves get a little unsettled in the linguistic world, and then to embrace new forms and structures. Embracing new ways of using pronouns is a way to embrace the people who use them.
That first sentence is awkward in my ear. I am comfortable with singular they in many flowing contexts, but that one up there stopped me. Even Shakespeare didn’t use it so jarringly. But why should I try to rephrase it to make it gentler and more flowing to our ears? Instead, I am going to leave it there, to give us both a chance to begin exploring the possibility of new ways of using singular they. We can handle it. In recent years we’ve absorbed so many new words and ways of putting them together, and we’ve hardly looked up from our screens long enough to ponder the significance of all the changes. We can let themself slip in, too.
One way to make non-binary folx in a room feel more embraced and included is to put our own pronouns on our nametags, so they’re not the only ones with the burden. Another is to start using the pronouns in new and creative, and sometimes jarring (deliciously jarring) ways.
1. Expanding the brain by using words in new ways
2. Soft fur and purring
3. Vs of geese enlivening the sky
4. Getting the work done. I began to see the light at the end of the tunnel
5. So far, I seem to be holding this cold slightly at bay. Lots of zinc, lots of elderberry
May we walk in Beauty! (And good health.)