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Bewildering Stories

Challenge 878 Response


A Pronoun Away” appears in issue 878.

The essay “A Pronoun Away” does not consider super-distinctive pronouns, such as ones that identify various types of sexual orientation or preference. Why might it not do so? What different super-distinctions might pronouns make?

The article and Challenge have provoked vigorous discussion. We’ll try to summarize it.

In terms of literature, one of our highly esteemed authors, Michael E. Lloyd, recalls a problem he faced in the first novel of his Observation trilogy: Observation One: Singing of Promises.

Bien fait, Don !!

And on your editorial: imagine the challenges I had in concealing the true nature of the Domans from Toni and from the readers until late in Observation One! How much harder still that would be in any translation into most European languages! You say: “The simplest option may consist in avoiding distinctions that some consider less obvious than they used to be.” Sure; except when that's not an option!!!

[Don W.] For the record, links to all five of Michael E. Lloyd’s novels accessible at Bewildering Stories can be found in the Bewildering Press collection at the bottom of our home page.

Point taken, Mike! Different languages make different distinctions. As we know, English personal pronouns make a distinction only in the third person singular, namely between non-persons (“it”) and persons (“he” and “she”). And the distinction in persons amounts to conventional, broad-brush stereotypes: “he” = male; “she” = female.

French, on the other hand, doesn’t distinguish between persons and non-persons. Il may refer to a male person or to a grammatically masculine common noun, or it may even be an impersonal pronoun. Elle may refer to a female person or the feminine name of a non-person. A typical example: une sentinelle is a feminine noun regardless whether the sentinel is male or female or even — perhaps in science fiction — a robot.

And size definitely does not matter. A giraffe is une girafe and a mouse is une souris; both nouns are feminine even though both species have both males and females.

Another reader points out that some writers sign their e-mails with “he/him” or “she/her” or “they/them.” The object is to provide a third-person pronoun to use when talking about that person.

What’s the point? Well, a movement is afoot to emphasize that a person’s sexual identity or orientation or preference is no cause for discrimination any more than conventional racial or other social identifications.

Three main solutions have been proposed:

  1. Invent third-person singular pronouns that refer to the “LGBTQ” spectrum. But that’s only where it starts; innumerable sexual categories exist. How could anyone remember all those pronouns, let alone understand what they all mean? And why stop at sex? In Bill Kowaleski’s novel Creative Destruction, some of the space aliens identify by occupation, e.g. “Sociologist-Andrew” and “Salesman-Drake.”

  2. Let each invididual invent a pronoun for personal reference. But what’s the point? It amounts merely to encrypting the person’s name.

  3. Invent a third-person singular pronoun that does not distinguish between male and female. Turkish — among, probably, other languages — already has one: o. Unless and until it or something like it is borrowed into English, we’ll just have to do without.

Bewildering Stories has authors who identify as bisexual or transgender. Some of them request “they/them.” But that raises a problem, especially in our welcome messages to new contributors: “they is” is not — or at least not yet — possible in either the written or spoken language. Very well, we’ll simply do without a third-person personal pronoun, as a courtesy. And it’s impolite, anyway, to refer in the third person to someone who is in present company.

At Bewildering Stories, we say prominently that both people and literary characters are identified by what and who they are; they are characterized by what they do. That’s why we can’t have special issues devoted to such themes as “writers of color.” What color? And how do we know? We don’t take a census. And why stop there? The aforementioned space aliens show that the categories are endless.

Authors’ accidental qualities do not enter into our considerations. We’ll continue as usual to critique and accept stories, poems and essays on the basis of their literary quality.

Copyright © 2020 by Don Webb

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