Dennis Baron’s What’s Your Pronoun? is a delightful account of the search for what Baron, a professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois, calls ‘the missing word’: a third person singular, gender-neutral pronoun. Indefinite subjects make the grammatical need for this part of speech most evident. When words and phrases like ‘everyone’ or ‘the student’ are used to refer to a group of people of mixed gender, as in ‘everyone misplaces ____ keys’ or ‘to graduate, the student must pass all of ____ exams’, the only grammatical option is a pronoun that is both singular and sexless. A singular, sexless pronoun is also needed to refer to subjects who have some specific gender that is either unknown or that the speaker doesn’t wish to reveal. An example of the first is: ‘The anonymous witness said ____ had seen a gruesome act.’ An example of the second is: ‘The person, whoever ____ was, had come in so suddenly and with so little noise, that Mr Pickwick had no time to call out, or oppose ____ entrance.’ (Dickens himself insouciantly filled in the blanks: ‘it’, ‘their’.) If ‘he or she’ is too cumbersome, ‘one’ too ridiculous and ‘it’ too contemptuous, there are no strictly grammatical options left.
This archaic notion took hold in formal instruction in English too, and we remain stuck with its baneful residue. In this learned and entertaining book, Dennis Baron provides vital historical context to today’s impassioned debates over gender-neutral and non-binary pronouns. As a retired American professor of English and linguistics, Baron knows what he’s talking about and provides a much-needed dose of scholarship leavened with good sense in the language wars. The book is timely, for pronouns are suddenly politically sexy.