pronoun problems

Finishing “Once a Goddess” reminds me of the great appeal of short story writing: instant gratification. Instant from the point of view of novel-writing, anyway; I cranked out the bulk of that story in a single evening, and it’s a rare story that requires more than three days of me sitting down and adding words to it. So I’m going to see if I can’t finish two more before the end of the year.

One is the sacrilicious story, provisionally titled “The Gospel of Nachash.” I figure I’ll save that for closer to Christmas. ^_~ I need to figure out a name for one of the characters, and then I need to figure out what happens to him; everything around that is more or less in place.

With that one on the second burner, the immediate project is “Chrysalis.” And here, gentle readers, I need your help.

See, to make the structure work, I’m pretty sure I need an additional character at the midpoint of the story. I know who that character is; what I don’t know is what to call him/her/it/them. Said entity is a character perfectly balanced between male and female — which might mean perfectly androgynous or perfectly hermaphroditic, I’m not sure which. Anyway, this being English, where we’ve jettisoned grammatical gender pretty much everywhere except our pronouns, I’m not sure which one to use.

My preferred gender-neutral default in speech is singular “they,” which has been in use for centuries and has the advantage of being a solution people actually use. But in a story situation like this, it can leave the reader thinking I mean more than one person, and generally undermines the sense of unity I want the character to have. “It” would work if I decide on androgyny, but I’m not sure I like the way that renders an individual into an object. (There’s a reason I had the witches call a doppelganger “it” instead of “she.”) Beyond that, I’m looking at a bunch of neologisms like “sie,” all of which I fear would kick the reader out of the fantasy-Mesoamerican setting and into the twenty-first century. My final option — thanks to Wikipedia — is to go the other direction and dig in the dusty corners of English past, which gives me three possibilities: “heo,” which was replaced by “she” because it started to sound too much like “he;” and “ou” and “a,” both of which were used in Middle English. (Is the latter what we see when Ophelia sings “And will ‘a not come again?”)

Or I could use the Nahuatl third-person pronoun yehwatl. Or the K’iche Mayan are. (Sorry, had to repost the poll to add those.)

Anyway. I have options; I just don’t know which one I like. So we have a poll. Check all that you like, and feel free to present your case in the comments.

(Edited again to add: okay, it looks like “yehuatl” might be shortenable to “ye” or “yehua.” If I go with that option, I will very much need to consult with someone who knows Classical Nahuatl, since the way it handles pronouns is very alien to English, and I don’t trust myself to make up the appropriate substitutions without help. But if the length of that word is keeping you from voting for it, there may be shorter alternatives.)

0 Responses to “pronoun problems”

  1. chibicharibdys

    I vote “ou” or “yehwatl.”

    The only possible problems that I see with “a” and “are” is that, well, those are both words which are used quite often in English.

    • Marie Brennan

      Which is indeed a problem. “Are” is less cumbersome than “yehwatl,” and for that I like it, but it’s likely to be far too confusing.

      I need to find out what the other cases are for yehwatl — or whether its home language even has pronoun cases.

  2. juushika

    I generally prefer he (as many other languages use it when no gender is specified) or it as non-gender-specific singular pronouns, simply because they’re grammatically correct. That said, grammar stickling aside:

    I would use “it.” That pronoun can be dehumanizing, but it isn’t necessarily. Because it’s unusual (for modern, common English) it’s remarkable—it makes the reader stop and notice a difference. If you emphasize androgyny, “it” will make the reader notice that androgyny. As an example, Gaiman uses “it” for the Angel Islington in Neverwhere, and it functions to set the character apart—he is separate, he is remarkable, he is non-sexed. It reads smoothly and works very well.

    If you go with hermaphroditism rather than androgyny, however, I do think that “it” could be dehumanizing. There, as politically correct and modern as it is, I’d use sie/hir. I think it’s recognizable enough to function without explanation, and it’s a visual mesh of two genders—which, as it were, rather suits a hermaphrodite.

    • Marie Brennan

      For all my grammar-fascism, “grammatically correct” is an argument that does not always hold much force with me. Technically it is grammatically incorrect to split an infinitive, or end a sentence with a preposition. But those rules exist because some dead guys decided English really ought to behave more like Latin, and pasted on some artificial strictures that don’t really represent how people speak. I kind of put the supposed universality of “he” in that category; by the rules, it may be the required pronoun for any non-specific reference to an individual in a mixed group, but I call shenanigans on treating masculinity as the default for the human race.

      Anyway. It wouldn’t work here regardless.

      There are sex-based weirdnesses with this kind of creature — for anybody who’s read “A Mask of Flesh,” the character is a xera — so it’s actually important whether said character is androgynous or hermaphroditic. I think I will lean toward “it” if I go the former route, but I’m still not convinced by “sie.” (Though I like your argument for it.)

      • mindstalk

        I’d say it is purportedly incorrect to split an infinitive, but those ‘rules’ are in fact incorrect. Technically, they were wrong.

        Pronouns: hard decision, really, (and what if you were writing in Romance languages?)
        * structure your writing to avoid or at least minimize any pronoun use.
        * ey, em, eir — a different artificial form, from ‘they’
        * ve, ver, vis — another one (Egan’s Diaspora? v for virtual, less appropriate for you
        * I think Bujold’s hermaphrodites of Beta Colony use ‘it’, so you’d have Hugo company.
        * Sandman’s Desire was his/her.

        On the related problem of honorifics, I like to imagine AIs might end up importing -san from Japanese, though ‘M.’ has also been suggested. Monsieur, mademoiselle, machine.

        Wikipedia probably has a whole page of gender-neutral pronoun suggestions.

        • Marie Brennan

          Yes, it does. They all share the problem of being words almost nobody uses.

          I’d consider ey/em/eir as a neologism; I like it as well or better than sie/hir/hir. Then again, I’m not sure I like any neologism that much.

          Unfortunately, minimizing pronoun use just won’t be possible without being horribly clunky. There will be an entire scene from this character’s pov, in the third person.

      • doriscrockford2

        “the character is a xera”

        In that case, you could make your own pronoun and call the person “xe” and use “xis” or “xers” for the possessive.

        • Marie Brennan

          Hmmm. I like the idea, but I don’t know if it would lead to confusion — people interpreting “xera” as a sex/gender rather than a species or race.

  3. jtucktattoo

    You could use he and she switching as the character switches froma masculine point of veiw to a feminine point of veiw. As long as you remain consistent in showing the reader that you are intentionally referring to the same character, it shoudl work pretty well.

    • Marie Brennan

      I’d think that would give the impression of a character who’s constantly sliding back and forth, though, rather than one who has found a point of balance between the two.

  4. london_setterby

    Is it possible to write the scene from the character’s pov in first person instead of third? 🙂

    You could also use the character’s name in place of every pronoun. It would depend on the length of the scene (and the name).

    Those ideas aside, I’ll be honest, I prefer “it.” It’s less jarring than an unusual pronoun for most readers. I suppose it depends on your target market.

    • Marie Brennan

      Nope. The story needs to be in third throughout. And, unfortunately, I suspect the scene will be long enough — as will the name <g> — that avoiding the pronoun entirely would become obtrusive. (Heck, it got obtrusive in the writing of this post.)

  5. unforth

    I vote for one of the two Meso-American tongues, because that seems to be in keeping with the theme. However, there are problems with using any choice that will have to be defined at some point (even if the “definition” is simply by consistent usage in such a way that makes it clear). Still, this seems clearer to me than using “they” or the old/middle English options – I’d favor “it” too, but I didn’t vote for it because of the reasons you cited for your reluctance.

  6. norilana

    My solution in my novel LORDS OF RAINBOW was to use no pronoun at all, but the character’s name always. I feel your pain. 🙂

  7. clarentine

    Are there other instances where what English speakers would read as “foreign” terms are used in your story? If so, I don’t see a reason you can’t use another “foreign” term to denote this creature’s gendered pronoun…though “yehwatl” and its derivation “yehua” feel very awkward to me, almost as if they become the creature’s name rather than its pronoun.

    Of the options listed, in context below, I’m afraid I’d have to go with “it” as being the only one immediately recognizable by English speakers, obviously singular, and not inclined to trip up the reader. (Or maybe It?)

    They opened the door.
    It opened the door.
    Sie opened the door.
    Heo opened the door.
    Ou opened the door.
    A opened the door.
    Yehwatl opened the door.
    Are opened the door.
    Ye opened the door.
    Yehua opened the door.

    • Marie Brennan

      The story is chock-full of foreign terms, yes — alux, vay zodtz, ocelotlacatl, xera, amentecatl, quetzalcoatl. Which is part of why I’m considering foreign solutions. I kind of like the “ome” suggestion below . . . .

  8. daydreammuse

    1) I received your novel. Thank you sincerely for sending it to me. I have had some emergencies November to sit down and properly write you an e-mail, but most of what troubled me has passed, so once again thank you kindly.

    2) I voted for heo. When I pronounce the word, it sounds masculine and yet stretches with some sort of elegance, which is the perfect balance between between feminine and masculine. It really suits the point of a perfect hermaphrodite or perfect androgynity.

    3) I am so hyped about this post, because my NaNoWriMo novel’s main character is a perfect hermaphrodite, has both gender’s denetials and can look both parts with slight clothing modifications, which makes the character perfectly androgynous too. It is really interesting how similar ideas can be developed at almost the same time…

  9. dr_whom

    Paraphrase. Write around the problem, using no third-person pronouns to refer to this character at all, but so subtly as to not sound awkward. It’s a pain, but it’s the only correct answer.

    • Marie Brennan

      “Correct” in what sense? It would be obfuscatory to the reader; it gives the impression I’m trying to conceal the character’s gender, rather than present a coherent alternative to the usual options.

      • dr_whom

        It only gives that impression if you do it wrong! Don’t write so as to call attention to the fact that you’re not using third-person pronouns; just write so that it never happens to come up. To do this elegantly is, as I said, a pain.

        It’s the only correct answer in that it’s the only way of dealing with the issue that won’t either jar the reader with unfamiliar non-English pronouns or use pronouns like “he” or “they” that give the wrong impression. You don’t want to call attention to how you’re dealing with the issue instead of what you want the reader to be paying attention to, the story itself. You can’t get away with the kind of tricks with pronouns that you can with nouns and verbs; they’re too deeply embedded in the grammar. The only way to win the pronoun fight is not to play.

        Le Guin pulled it off in one of the short-story spinoffs of Left Hand of Darkness, though not in the novel itself.

        • Marie Brennan

          But a judicious amount of jarring may be exactly what I want. If the story were set in the modern day, I would use “sie,” precisely because it would jolt the reader a little bit, and make them pay attention. The issue is part of the story, not a random hurdle getting in the way of it.

  10. aliettedb

    I’m not a big fan of “ye” or “yehua”, the first because it looks too much like the archaic version of “singular you”, and the second because it looks too much like Yeshua, the Hebrew name for Jesus. “yehuatl” looks good with your setting but is way too long and complicated for a pronoun, and I’m worried it would stand out unnecessarily in the story.
    “sie” or “heo” might be your best best–or how about “ome”, the Nahuatl word for “two”?

    • Marie Brennan


      “Ome” may have just vaulted to the front of the pack. I like the implication of duality — which sounds contradictory given what I said about “they,” but your average reader will not think I’m talking about multiple characters, and there’s mythological connections with “ome” that our plural pronoun doesn’t have. And it’s a lot more user-friendly than “yehuatl.”

      Yay for having LJ friends who know the society as well or probably better than I do!

  11. pameladean

    If you’d put “ome” in I’d probably have voted for it. As it is, I chose “ou” because it does not sound like some other English word, it’s not a familiar neologism that will put the reader into the wrong century, and it’s not long. English speakers are not used to long pronouns.


    • Marie Brennan

      I’m leaning strongly toward “ome” at this point. It even fits with the voting: at present, “they” and “yehuatl” are tied for first, though “sie” is just behind them.

  12. airycat

    I like heo because it’s simple. It sounds both masculine and feminine (sounding somewhat like he and meaning she). It isn’t another word already in use. It has no numerical confusion

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