For most students, back-to-school means new clothes, a new phone, a new laptop, but this year some colleges are offering students a new pronoun as well. Harvard is suggesting the gender-neutral ze, hir, and hirs, though it will accept traditional he and she if students prefer them, and the University of Tennessee adds xe, xem, and xyr. This Fall, students at American University’s orientation are asked to break into small groups and introduce themselves with name, major, and preferred pronoun. This year’s Vanderbilt student handbook adopts singular they as an inclusive and welcoming pronoun. And the University of Vermont has been letting students name their own gender and pick their own pronoun for a few years.
Although the New York Daily News accused Tennessee of inventing ze, hir, and hirs, made-up gender-neutral pronouns have been around for 150 years (I’ve collected some of the older ones here), and though he’er and thon have appeared in respectable dictionaries like Funk and Wagnalls and Merriam-Webster’s Second Unabridged (1934), none has ever been widely used. But then again, these pronouns have never received the media attention they’re getting right now, particularly from conservatives who see the new words as a radical plot to weaken America’s already-fragile moral fiber.
Nineteenth-century coinages like en and ip had nothing to do with gender-bending. They were invented because the lack of a third-person singular common-gender personal pronoun leads English speakers to violate the usage rule that pronouns are supposed to agree with their referents—the words they stand for—in gender as well as number. As early as 1851, a writer in Lowell, Massachusetts, called on “some of our grammar makers [to] fish us up” a new pronoun, and the grammar makers dutifully fished up ir, ons, E, hie, ha, se, and hesh.
In contrast, today’s proponents of gender-neutral pronouns are not out to correct our grammar, they’re looking for linguistic options that don't specify gender at all, or that go beyond the traditional categories of male and female to refer to people who just don’t see themselves that way. Their numbers aren’t large: just over one percent of the 4,000 Harvard students who indicated their pronoun preference chose a gender-neutral one. But with the transition of high-profile trans people like Bradley/Chelsea Manning (of Wikileaks notoriety) and athlete-turned-celebrity Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner, they’ve become more public, and their support community is growing.
One of my students wisely said in class yesterday, isn’t it just a courtesy to let people choose how they want to be referred to? Unfortunately, not everybody thinks so. Reactions to the recent choose-your-own-pronoun movement have been, not just negative, but visceral and nasty. Writing to the Boston Globe about Harvard’s pronoun policy, one angry reader called it “PINK FASCISM” and blamed colleges for “raising generations of fairies in Academia.” Responding to the suggestion by the University of Tennessee Pride Office that when meeting someone, you should ask, "Oh, nice to meet you. What pronouns should I use?," Tennessee’s lieutenant governor called interfering with the pronoun paradigm “political correctness run amok.” A state senator denounced gender-neutral pronouns as a waste of taxpayer dollars, and angry Tennessee lawmakers scheduled two committee hearings to investigate the pronoun problem. On Facebook, Tennessee Rep. John J. Duncan, perhaps unaware he was using gender-neutral language, attacked "this stupid revision of personal pronouns by someone who obviously had too much time on his or her hands" (emphasis added). And the Family Action Council of Tennessee weighed in with this astounding overreaction:
Let’s not let UT (University of Tennessee) use our tax dollars to neuter the English language and foist on our state a radical understanding of male and female!
Tennessee's the state where John T. Scopes was fined for teaching evolution, so it's not suprising that its legislators have become pronoun deniers, coming out against linguistic evolution. Yet it's disappointing that the university president, bowing to political pressure, banned, not just gender-neutral pronouns, but all references to their use, from the Pride Office website, the one place where you'd expect to find them.
Suddenly pronouns aren’t a matter of grammatical correctness but a marker of political correctness? Suddenly they’re a threat to family values and a drain on the economy? That’s absurd, because when you get right down to it, pronouns have nothing to do with either public morality or taxpayer dollars. But some people find the new complexities of gender threatening, and so they’re quick to lash out at any pronouns that represent this change. Language in this case is just a stand in. It’s easier to attack pronouns than the people who use them.
But the Tennessee state legislature needn’t waste taxpayer dollars denouncing parts of speech, because it’s not clear that ze, xe, or co will succeed. Pronoun systems in language are conservative, slow to change. The last new pronoun to enter English was its, the possessive form of it, which appeared about 400 years ago. Its evolved out of the familiar it, making its meaning easy to deduce. But invented pronouns like ey don’t arise naturally, the way its did, and they seem strange and foreign, which clouds their meaning and makes their success less likely. Even if some college students adopt them, the new pronouns will have to spread beyond their current nucleus of trans and gender-queer users and their friends into the wider campus community, and they’ll have to continue to be used after graduation. Right now, it’s not clear they’ll survive the current news cycle.
On the other hand, one gender-neutral pronoun does have a future: singular they. It’s already the most common choice for English speakers everywhere. Singular they isn’t new or invented: despite its grammatical irregularity, it has a respectable track record in formal, written English going back a couple of centuries. And singular they works for people who want to keep traditional gender distinctions as well as those who believe gender categories need expanding. If you think that singular they is grammatically incorrect, morally tenuous, or both, all I can say is that, the plural pronoun you replaced thou as a second-person singular with no drain on the public purse and no disruption to anybody’s way of life.
The English pronoun system may or may not be on the brink of change, but whatever happens, English will survive. In the end, language doesn’t respond well to the demands of lawmakers, grammarians, or social activists. Instead, its direction is charted by ordinary speakers who choose words, not from some moral imperative, but just because they find them useful or effective, or sometimes for no discernible reason at all.
For the whole story on gender-neutral and nonbinary pronouns, click to order your copy of my new book, What’s Your Pronoun? Beyond ‘he’ and ‘she.’