The Case of the Missing Nominative

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I have noticed an unsettling trend in recent years:

Have noticed an unsettling trend in recent years.

There is this tendency to drop the first-person nominative pronoun (aka, the loneliest word: “I”) from communications.

This phenomenon appears confined to text-based mediums like SMS, Twitter, or Discord. I haven’t observed folks do it verbally.

I chalk it up to simple laziness and frugality. Gotta minimize effort and keep it under the character count, right? Plus, the speaker is always “baked in” to the message on these platforms: tweets are accompanied by handles; texts by phone numbers. Frugality and economy are things I can get behind. I enjoy being lazy, too. But…

What I find unsettling is the how passive these pronoun-less statements become:

  • “Have cancer,” versus, “I have cancer.”
  • “Went to the mall,” versus, “I went to the mall.”
  • “Amputated the patient’s arm,” versus, “I amputated the patient’s arm.”

Pasteurized! The whole lot of them! Utterly drained of charge, urgency, and agency. What could have been a strong assertion shrinks to a spineless hedge.

Voting “present” on an important piece of legislature has the same energy.

And no, not all communications need a sense of urgency and charge. But — I do declare — if you’ve got the gall to publish a whatever, consider the potential impact of not using your pronouns.

I’m fascinated by linguistic relativity: the idea that language can impact perception of reality. I have a theory The Case of the Missing Nominatives has actually had a massive impact on our shared reality.

With so many people choosing to drop pronouns from their communications, our shared discourse has become increasingly cavalier. Everything takes on the air of a self-evident “truism.” Perhaps this is an evolved defense mechanism to an increasingly toxic environment of trolls wielding ad hominem attacks? By removing yourself from the statement, do you actually decrease the attack surface? Is this a type of linguistic camouflage?

Unsure.