Tag Archives: pronouns

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.

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