by Shannon Finch

I’d like to discuss a small word with a big problem: “it.”

First, a little grammar review for you. “It” is a pronoun, like he or she, that takes the place of a noun.

An antecedent, such as “the butterfly,” “the child,” or “the tree,” comes first so that readers know what you’re referring to when you use “it” later. For example: “A butterfly landed on my hand, its red and black wings gently fanning the air.”

When I write about other beings and I know the sex, I use the appropriate pronoun. But what to do if the sex is unknown?

I can write around the problem by using the noun, as in, “the moth,” “the dog,” or “the goldfinch.”

At some point, though, that’s going to be awkward beyond the simplest sentence. I could guess; I have a 50/50 chance of being correct. However, I want my readers to trust that I’m being accurate, so guessing feels dishonest to me. Some sources recommend using the plural “their”, but that doesn’t feel right to me, either. So that leaves us with “it.”

My computer dictionary shows one definition of “it” as referring to “an animal or child of unspecified sex.” That’s the way I’ve always used the word: a gender neutral way of referring to a being of unknown sex.

The problem is that common usage has turned “it” into a derogatory pronoun meaning less than, disposable, or not worth thinking about. I certainly don’t want to relegate a being to a mere object. I want to be respectful.

In an article entitled “Alternative Grammar: A New Language of Kinship,” Robin Wall Kimmerer suggests a new word: “ki,” which she defines as a “being of the living earth.” The plural form is “kin.”

I like that ki is gender neutral and inclusive of all living beings, including trees and plants.

Here’s the rub: I often write for readers who are just beginning a journey into the principles of living a humane life.

Introducing a new word could be educational and set the tone outright, which is a good thing. Or, as my pragmatic side keeps reminding me, it could be a distraction, even turning some people off.

Frequently as humane educators we are already butting up against ingrained resistance and suspicion to the topics we are teaching; the last thing I want to do is overwhelm someone by throwing “weird” new words at them.

Our language is a human construct, reflecting the world we live in and the things we think are important. Language is powerful. As Kimmerer points out in her article, banning native languages is one of the first tactics conquerors use to destroy existing cultures.

Language is also mutable.

Consider that in 2007 the Oxford University Press updated its Oxford Junior Dictionary, removing many nature words, like buttercup and acorn. Words that were added to the dictionary include blog and broadband. I find that a sad commentary, but an accurate gauge of what our culture focuses on these days.

The point is, language changes.

So maybe I’m being unnecessarily cautious about introducing a new word to replace “it.”

Maybe–more likely—I don’t want to buck the status quo. Such a thing requires courage, to stand up for a conviction, to risk looking weird. That’s hard.

I’m also not sure how to go about it. Maybe just boldly go forth as Kimmerer suggests? Still, there are many questions, starting with, what word should we use?

Do we all have to be in agreement, or just choose the word that feels right to us?

For now, my solution to the “it” problem is a simple acknowledgment: “In the interest of accuracy and truthfulness, when I don’t know the sex of a being, I use the pronoun “it.” I intend no disrespect.”

As readers have commented to me, this statement is just enough to get them thinking about using the word mindfully, without being too distracting.

Given the state of the world, I feel an urgency to communicate and educate, and I want to do that as clearly and effectively as I can.

It is an imperfect solution, I know.


Image via John Keogh/Flickr.