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Olson, Tobin Try Removing Masculine Pronouns from State Law, Constitution

Representative Jess Olson (R-34/Rapid City) and Senator Erin Tobin (R-21/Winner) are taking the pronouns war to South Dakota’s law books. Olson’s House Bill 1175 proposes to root out masculine pronouns from 39 statutes referring to the Governor and other officials and gender-neutrally reword the laws. Tobin’s Senate Joint Resolution 505 proposes the same anti-sexist overhaul of 24 sections of the state constitution.

Olson’s HB 1175 is the better-written measure. Not once does Olson commit the lazy error of deploying theythem, or their to refer to a single person. Nor does she clunkify or oppressively binarize statutory language with he or shehim or her, or his or her. Olson largely avoids pronouns and uses other edits to remove the current exclusively pronouns. For example:

  • Section 13: “the Governor or his designee” becomes “the Governor or the Governor’s designee”.
  • Section 16: “he shall transmit his veto message” becomes “the Governor shall transmit the Governor’s veto message”.
  • Section 19: “The Governor, in his discretion, may establish” becomes “The Governor may establish”.
  • Section 34: rooting out both sexism and inclarity, “he shall issue a warrant under the seal of this state, to some agent, commanding him to receive the person so charged if delivered to him and convey him to the proper officer of the county in this state in which the offense was committed” becomes “the Governor shall issue a warrant under the seal of this state, to some agent, commanding the agent to receive the person so charged if delivered to the agent and convey the person to the proper officer of the county in this state in which the offense was committed” (antecedents matter!).
  • Section 39: “the Governor or his designated agents” becomes “the Governor or a designated agent of the Governor”.

Tobin’s SJR 505 is sloppier. For one thing, Section 1, calling for placement of this amendment on the 2024 general election ballot, includes a strange striking of a reference to Article 4, as if Tobin were amending a previous resolution rather than proposing a new measure of her own. Section 1 also refers to putting Sections 2 through 23 to a vote, although SJR 505 also proposes amendments with Sections 24 and 25.

Tobin also commits grammatical sloppiness germane to the task of desexismizing the constitution:

  • Section 13: SJR 505 replaces “him” with “them” and “his” with “their”, even though the section in question (Article 6 Section 7) refers to the singular accused individual charged with a singular offense.
  • Section 14: “No person shall be compelled…to give evidence against himself” becomes “No person shall be compelled…to give evidence against themselves”, again improperly mixing singular and plural… or, perhaps worse, maintaining gender exclusivity but now making the law misgender cisgender citizens who identify with singular pronouns.

SJR 505 does include some smart changes making the constitution less exclusive and more concise:

  • Section 6: “No Supreme Court justice shall be deemed to have lost his voting residence” becomes “No Supreme Court justice shall lose voting residence”
  • Section 21: “No person shall be tried on impeachment before he shall have been served” becomes “No person shall be tried on impeachment before being served”.
  • Section 23: “the Governor shall issue his proclamation” becomes “the Governor shall issue a proclamation”.

Unfortunately, both measures go beyond the subject of removing sexist pronouns into other rewordings, like HB 1175 Section 27’s striking of “thereupon” from SDCL 5-9-15 (come on, Jess—can we have no fun anymore?) and SJR 505 Section 16’s replacement of “insure” with “ensure”. Neither of those changes refers to any person. The title of each measure says the subject is to update references to persons. Thus, neither measure’s title states the single and complete subject of the measure. Both measures thus violate the single-subject rule and would not survive judicial scrutiny.

The Legislature can pass HB 1175 on its own. But to desexismify the Constitution, SJR 505 will have to receive voter approval in 2024.


  1. Lynne 2023-01-30

    This has been going on for years. Whenever a legislator amends a statute, LRC’s draft modifies the rest of the gendered language. And I suspect you are not fair to Tobin here. Both of these bills will be LRC drafts. Even if you give LRC a ready draft in bill form, the staffers rewrite it for “form and style,” sometimes keeping the substance the same, sometimes not. It’s a crapshoot and depends on which staffer gets which bill to work on.

  2. bearcreekbat 2023-01-30

    I’m from the old school and tend to use identifiers such as “he or she” and “his or her” to identify an unknown individual. It seemed to be that repeating a title like the “governor” with the “the governor’s” this or that was more clumsy and somewhat redundant. Yet I have read recently that the use of “they” or “them” to identify an individual is no longer considered grammatically incorrect. I guess Cory, LRC and I each need to catch up with modern linguistic changes.

    Many people want to argue that the pronouns they and them are only to be used when speaking in plurals. They insist it is incorrect grammar to use them in any singular context.

    However, the usage of they as a singular pronoun dates back to around the 14th century. Whenever the gender of an individual was unknown, or didn’t want to be revealed, it was acceptable to use they, them, or their as singular pronouns.

    It wasn’t until the late 18th century that some language authorities argued against the usage of singular they/them when the gender of an individual was unknown. This led to the construction of the gendered pronoun pairings of his or hers, him or her, he or she. However, such constructions are clunky and not used as often in informal writing or speech, and the use of the singular they/them never entirely left the English lexicon.

  3. e platypus onion 2023-01-30

    Redundancy is living in South Duhkota and dying. No offense to the good guys there.

  4. Donald Pay 2023-01-30

    If you are strictly constructing, according to originalist legal theory, the current Constitutional language, Noem, as a female, may not truly be the Governor.

  5. All Mammal 2023-01-30

    We have people dying from the cold, grads reaching their zenith in gas stations, unsafe newly constructed roads, thousands of dead fish on the riverbanks in Huron, ZEBRA MUSSELS in Pactola, child abuse, dead girls rolling out of Pennington County Jail, more than one police shooting every month in SD (13 in 2022), gun violence and murders every few days in SD, landowners polluting the water, dumbing down daycare workers’ training requirements, suicide, more cyanide mining in the Black Hills, sky-high mortality rate during childbirth, weirdos writing Social Studies for students, old folks with no home or caretaker, no teachers, corruption, food deserts. Man, real issues are so abundant, I didn’t even have to think to come up with a list longer than Noem’s tail.

    I have a dog food can lid that’s sharper than the most intelligent senator we have in the capitol. I bet that gnarly lid could be far more useful too.

  6. Mark Anderson 2023-01-30

    The women of Japan have equal rights in their constitution because a young woman was in the right place at the right time. ” you’re a woman, why don’t you write the women’s rights section? Col Roest said to me. I was delighted. “I’d also like to write about academic freedom, I said boldly. “That’s fine,” Roest smiled. I had been given a plum, and here I was already demanding another. But I welcomed the responsibility, feeling all the more committed.
    This is taken from the book The Only Woman in the Room, a Memoir by Beate Sirota Gordon. She had to keep it secret for decades. She went on to run the Asia Society in New York and was a pre Beatle friend of Yoko.
    If their rewriting the constitution you’d better check on meaning twists and turns related to pronouns. Gordon was 22 when she gave the women of Japan legal equal rights that they still are fighting for.

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