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The Day of the Pronouns

Scene 1: ‘Let me introduce Daniel Filibuster, our chief of international relations.’

‘Hi. Call me Dan.’

‘Nice to meet you, Daniel!’


Scene 2: ‘I’d like you to meet Vice-Regent Professor Emeritus Montgomery Hardwhistle.’

”Nice to meet you Monty!’


It doesn’t take a Professor Emeritus to realize that the respondent in both cases above is either deliberately messing with his/her interlocutors or is incredibly ignorant of social protocol. Address forms should be managed in the manner that the interlocutor requests them (whether directly or indirectly). This is a basic feature of social courtesy.


Enter the great pronoun debate. Surely you know about it — the issue as to how fluid gender people should be addressed. A considerable political hot potato.

But it shouldn’t be. And here’s why:


The answer is simple. ‘You.’ 


Biologically there are two genders. Ok, fine. Gender identity, however, is clearly more nebulous. It is more obviously socially (or perhaps more fittingly, cognitively) constructed, and, address forms should meet our social conditions and expectations. Now, in reality, there is a continuum across the gender plane, with a somewhat indeterminate point in the middle. Biological male identifies as female — maybe even goes through the process of genital surgery. So, how do we address that person?


The answer is simple. ‘You.’ 


I mean, why is this even an issue? When we address people face-to-face the default second-person pronoun is the gender-neutral  ‘you’. Why would the highly-contentious ‘he-she’ element even come into play here? Surely, these words would only be uttered to another (third) person since, presumably, they are referring to company not present.


Which makes a lot of the heated commentary about Ontario’s controversial C-16 bill moot. After all, in what alternate universe would anyone directly address an interlocutor as ‘he/she’?


But let’s dig a little deeper. This bill allows legal sanctions to be placed against an interlocutor who does not use the desired pronouns of the ‘recipient’ under the vanguard of protecting people (specifically transgender in this case) from ‘hate speech.’ 


This bill]is weaponizing them.


Most hate speech laws exist to prohibit someone from saying things that are deemed to be socially/psychologically damaging or demeaning. Putting aside for a moment the very pertinent question as to whether such incidences should be covered under the rubric of law, the existing hate speech laws basically say, ‘You can’t say this.’


That’s not the case with C-16. It turns the principle on its head and now states that you must use the address forms that I deem suitable, under threat of legal sanction. This is not protecting the rights of the allegedly weak or disadvantaged, it is weaponizing them.


Don’t believe me? Here is another case in which failure to use the recipient’s preferred address form has legal sanctions: ‘Dear Leader


And I don’t think it’s too hard to imagine that any number of Indian commoners were punished for not using the preferred ‘sahib/memsahib’ when addressing their colonial masters. Former British public school boys will readily tell you that failure to use the preferred ‘Sir/Ma’am’ was sufficient cause for physical punishment. It might even be conceivable that Dan (and possibly, Montgomery) in the examples given at the top of this post would have a legal case against the speaker. 


…these forms should be taught precisely because they are so common


Ok, let’s apply this back to Japan — language classrooms in Japan. A few points of discussion:


A. Gender is real. The fact that it is fluid and not always 100% visually identifiable does not negate the existence of gender: The negation of a strict binary in no way necessarily implies a singularity. The original categories still exist — not everybody is forced into the indeterminate range. The fact a gradient of colors can morph from red to brown to green does not negate the fact that some things remain, by any measure, clearly red or brown or green. So let’s not allow the illogical nonsense that ‘there is no gender’ to infiltrate our teaching materials or classrooms under the flimsy guise of ‘compassion and caring’.


B. I’ve had a handful of transgender students. All but one made ‘the move’ during their university years. One was a biological female who identified as male. He told me during his first year that he did not want me, or anyone, to use his given first name, which was overtly feminine. Fine. I dropped the ‘ko’ from his birthname and other students addressed him using his surname (which is much easier to do in the more linguistically gender-equal Japan than in English).


Another student changed visibly from male to female over the years after she had finished my classes (she was carrying out clerkship in the attached hospital as a medical student). One day, upon encountering her in a café, I ventured, ‘So is it safe to say that you are — ko, now?’ This turned out to be precisely correct. It was now her preferred address form (as most readers know, personal pronouns – names – are very frequently used as second-person direct address forms in Japanese).


A third shifted from female to male, again with the concurrent ‘—ko’ to ‘—to’ name change. Once when discussing his future as a doctor, he mentioned the possibility of practicing in Taiwan because his partner lived there. When talking about his partner, I very briefly had a pronoun mix-up, ‘So, right now, she —- uh, he…’ because I had to think through the satiation for a moment. How did my transgender student respond to this? He sued me in court.  Umm, actually no. He immediately brushed it off, as normal people do, because it was understandable that others, who had previously known him as a female, would need a brief address form adjustment period. Well played, sir.


C. ‘They’ can be used, and is in fact used regularly deployed, as a third-person singular pronoun (and is much more user friendly than the awkward, bulky, ‘he/she’). Its usage predates the current gender-neutral pronoun debate. It refers to an indeterminate or general abstract individual (usually the antecedent in a sentence) and they are used almost everyday in speech and in writing:

‘If someone said something you thought was inappropriate, what would you tell them?’

‘When I tell somebody a joke, they laugh.’

‘No one raised their hand.’

‘If the child appears to be traumatized, you should counsel them.’


For some reason, these very common, grammatically-sound forms are not taught in Japanese schools, with teachers apparently preferring to limit the usage of ‘they’ only to explicitly plural subjects. Independently of the great pronoun debate, these very functional forms should be taught precisely because they are so common. And you know what else? They are very useful in describing gender-neutral scenarios too!


Mike Guest

Mike Guest

Michael (Mike) Guest is Associate Professor of English in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Miyazaki (Japan). A veteran of 25 years in Japan, he has published over 50 academic papers, 5 books (including two in Japanese), has been a regular columnist in the Japan News/Yomiuri newspaper for 13 years, and has performed presentations and led workshops and seminars in over 20 countries. Besides ranting and raving, his academic interests include medical English, discourse analysis, assessment, teacher training, and presentation skills.
Mike Guest

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