Daily Archives: April 28, 2008

Pronouning Your Hermaphrodite

Here’s a writing issue I suspect is largely confined to the realm of speculative fiction: I’m editing page proofs of Zoe’s Tale at the moment and catching a significant number of errors — why is why we edit page proofs, so we see them, but you don’t. The largest class of errors? Me calling either Hickory or Dickory — two aliens who belong to a race of hermaphrodites — “him” or “he.” Man, that’s irritating. And it also shows how strong the default setting in our language is that I’ve made dozens of mistakes giving the incorrect gender to a creature I made a different gender entirely.

(And yes, hermaphrodites are, in my humble opinion, an entirely separate gender from either male or female; having the sexual characteristics of both sexes doesn’t make you a member of both sexes, or of no sex; it makes you a member of another gender. The English language, sadly, doesn’t have a formally accepted pronoun form to accommodate this, so in Zoe’s Tale I use “it” for Hickory and Dickory, although “it” is genderless, not signifiying of a third gender. This doesn’t present a problem in the book, as H & D are of an alien species, and it’s okay to refer to an alien species as “it,” because, dude, they’re aliens, and who cares. I wouldn’t use “it” in the real world to refer to someone intersexed or hermaphroditic, however; that would probably get me slugged, and rightly so.

I suspect in the end I would use “they” in the cases where I met or was describing someone intersexed/hermaphroditic who did not already self-identify as male or female; “they” is nominally grammatically incorrect, but in yet another blow to my presumed prescriptivist ways, I don’t much care, since in my opinion the English language at this point needs a singular pronoun that encompasses all genders without privileging one over the others, as, say, the generic “he” does. “They” is already used this way informally, and it’s not a new pronoun form that people currently over the age of 25 will feel goofy using. Everyone wins.

Now, at this point this is all theoretical, since at this point I haven’t personally met an intersexed/hermaphroditic person, or for that matter, a transsexual person, who didn’t generally self-identify as one sex or another, if only for the purpose of getting through everyday conversation. But, you know. It’s nice to be prepared.)

The point of noting this is to recognize this is just one of those writing issues that most writers outside this genre don’t have to tackle on a regular basis. Their lives are poorer for it, even if their page proofs are nominally cleaner.