Pronouns for nature

Normally when we talk about trees, plants and landscapes, we use the language of inanimate objects. There is a world of difference between saying ‘this is the tree that grows near my house’ and ‘this is the tree who grows near my house’. My grammar check rejects the second option.

Equally, when it comes to living beings, we’re more likely to call them ‘it’ (which is the ‘proper’ grammar) than to use pronouns in a way that foregrounds their individuality. Compare ‘it is an otter, it is eating a fish’. With ‘she is eating a fish’.

Where I can, I prefer to use he/she pronouns for nature, because it makes other living beings sound less like objects, and I think that’s important. This is of course not without issue. Some creatures I can gender-identify at a glance because of size, plumage or behaviour. Some I can’t, and I have to guess. For many, gender doesn’t really apply. Mushrooms, most trees, snails, earthworms, fish – there’s all kinds of living things that don’t do gender the way mammals do, and are hermaphrodites, or change genders. Mammals don’t always do gender the way we use language to construct mammal gender. I’m conscious that if I use gender pronouns for creatures who don’t do genders, I am perpetrating the fiction that nature has only two sexes in it.

To call a person ‘it’ is to put them down. To call an animal ‘it’ is similarly to reduce its status. To call an animal he, or she, is to reinforce his or her status. Using ‘they’ or ‘their’ in this context has interesting effects. This is language we still aren’t sure about for humans, so in terms of lifting a living creature out of objectification, it doesn’t always work. We’d have to be more comfortable talking about humans as ‘they’ not to have a feeling of othering when it’s used to talk about an individual. Perhaps in time, this will change.

In the meantime, I invite you to think about who gets which pronouns. Pets tend to get pronouns, wild animals, and farmed animals less so. We only use pronouns when we identify an individual as unique and when we value them. Plants are alive, but we normally frame them with language as though they were simply objects.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, polyamourous animist, ant-fash, anti-capitalist, bisexual steampunk. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

11 responses to “Pronouns for nature

  • lydiaschoch

    I’d never thought about giving plants and animals pronouns before, but it does make sense. I’m going to try to follow your example in the future.

  • Ellen Efenricea

    I’ve always given animals personal pronouns but tend to fall into the trap of using he unless I know it’s female. So the default assumption is male.
    I’ve challenged myself on this since having my daughter as I don’t want male to be the default norm.
    It’s also ridiculous for worms.
    So I have consciously been trying to say ‘it’ if I can’t identify gender.

    ‘They’ is good – I hadn’t thought of that.

    I do use ‘it’ for people though. When little monster points at someone and say ‘what’s that?’, ‘it’ is a grammatically appropriate response so ‘it’s a human/ person/ child/ baby’.

  • Laura Perry

    Small children naturally refer to practically everything, including rocks and sticks, as “who” rather than “what.” I think we could learn a lot by listening to them instead of “correcting” them when they speak like that.

  • Michael

    OOOO, Such an interesting post!

  • TPWard

    In some cultures pronouns distinguish only between animate and inanimate. It’s a much better system, and I’d love to find a way to decouple gender from pronouns anyway because “personal pronouns” is an oxymoron and “they” won’t be a singular pronoun until people use the construction “they is.” Why we wrapped gender into such important words is beyond me.

  • Ryan Cronin

    Really interesting idea. The way our language shapes our relationships to each other and the world is an important point to consider when we weigh up what to say. I’m keen on the singular “they” as a gender-neutral pronoun (and it has lexicographical weight for those who care about such things, Shakespeare used it and it is recognised by the OED). I’ve no problem with “they are” as a singular: “they forgot their phone but they are coming back for it later” is fine as a sentence, and so is “the cherry tree is blossoming and they look lovely”. Avoiding objectification for living beings, human and otherwise, allows us to respond to them with greater compassion.

  • Diane Gallagher

    I hadn’t thought of this before but it is an important idea in making us less ‘species-ist’. What about using the pronouns that some trans people use… they/them/theirs when you aren’t sure of the gender?

  • Friday Foraging 10: The return – Wrycrow

    […] I really want to write a proper response to this next article, and I will once the ideas have fully percolated through my brain, but Nimue Brown has written a very thought-provoking piece about the use of Pronouns for Nature. […]

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