When Gender-Denying Pronouns are Absolutely Soul-Crushing

by Rebecca Einstein Schorr on 12 July 2017 @ 9:52 pm

Credit: IvelinRadkov

I love language. And I pride myself on maintaining a certain level of grammatical rigor as far as its rule are concerned. Subject-noun agreement. Proper use of the apostrophe. Clear understanding of the difference between a dash and a hyphen. Every word, every punctuation mark, every diacritic – each in its proper place. Linguistic constructs provide order to a potentially chaotic world.

Except.

The world is changing. It has allowed for individuals to self-define. Gender. Sexuality. And in asserting that agency, we each have the freedom to express our pronoun preference.

In the past, when writing an essay or a sermon, I might say something like, “each person has the ability to choose for himself or herself.” When I try to write that sentence now, however, something nags at me. Not everyone fits into one of those two categories. Conscious of those who prefer “they/them,” I am loathe loath to use such exclusionary binary language.

How, then, am I to reconcile my desire to maintain grammatical order with my commitment to see each person as being created b’tzelem Elohim — that Divine Likeness embedded deep within each one of us? As pendatic as I am, I would never want my rather dogmatic use of grammar to alienate anyone. To inadvertanly devalue them. So, as all language does, I too must change.

I might stumble. I might falter in my attempts to honour each person while forcing my own rigidity to soften. And yet, by constantly reaching towards the Holy One, I will learn to fashion my language in such a way as to celebrate every soul.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Stephen Einstein 12 July 2017 @ 10:06 pm at 10:06 pm

I share the very same struggle and am reaching a similar conclusion. Ultimately, theology must trump grammar. (I refuse to stop using this verb when it is the most precise choice.)

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2 Elisa Koppel 12 July 2017 @ 10:18 pm at 10:18 pm

Likewise, I have struggled with this. I’ve been trying to use they/them/their as a generic pronoun for a year or so now, and it’s still hard. It doesn’t flow, but I’m working on it. In my more grammar-nerd moments, I think of ways that people are complex, and really we’re all “they” at some level–different personalities, yetzer ha-tov and yetzer ha-ra, different roles, etc.

And yes, I do create midrash in my head around grammatical concepts. I’m thinking that you (and most readers of your blog) will agree that it’s totally normal to do so. 🙂

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3 Scott Snyder 13 July 2017 @ 9:19 am at 9:19 am

It’s the curse of internet grammar pedants like us that when we write about how careful we are with our grammar, we will make a grammar error. Check the difference between “loathe” and “loath.” 🙂

In other news, I agree entirely about the difficulty of reconciling dueling impulses for grammatical precision and linguistic inclusion. The noun/pronoun disagreement doesn’t trouble me as much as the pronoun/verb disagreement, and I often end up writing in circles to avoid it. Thanks for writing about the issue with sensitivity and for bringing some new insight.

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4 Rebecca Einstein Schorr 13 July 2017 @ 2:30 pm at 2:30 pm

Oh! Thank you so much for catching that misuse. I enjoyed learning something new today.

Thanks for reading and for taking the time to comment.

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5 Karyl Ketchum 15 July 2017 @ 12:23 pm at 12:23 pm

Over the years there has been an increasing number of students showing up in my classes that identify as non-binary. Switching to gender-neutral pronouns is difficult, though I’ve been trying now for a long time. You are correct: its soul-crushing for them when we misrepresent these individuals. I wish I could better control my mind on this. . . (and many other things too!). Thank you for such a thought-full post!

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