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  • The gender-neutral pronoun: after 150 years still an epic fail


Comments Aug 2, 2010 7:33 am

This is all such nonsense. What's wrong with "they?" We already have it, and, many of us already use it regularly in this way. All we have to do is get the number-agreement nazis to back the hell off and get a life of their own. Ron KephartAnthropologist/LinguistUniversity of North Florida

Reply to at 7:33 am Aug 3, 2010 9:09 am

The words "they" and "their" have been used for centuries as gender-neutral pronouns by good writers from Chaucer onwards. Why so many pedants seem to insist that "their" is plural only, but "you" and "your" are singular or plural is beyond belief.

Reply to at 9:09 am Aug 3, 2010 10:31 pm

New words only work as people use them; where there is prevalent use there is adoption. Being a speaker of French and from an area where the English is heavily influenced by French and Spanish, I do not find any fault with the gender-neutral masculine singular, nor do I find any fault with using "one". Others are not from my non-standard area, though, and many seem to have adopted the third person plural to signify a gender neutral third person singular without (m)any difficulties in comprehension. Given that, one would wager that the third person plural should be adopted across many English dialects and readily comprehended in all.

Reply to at 10:31 pm Aug 18, 2010 10:43 am

As a transgender person who does not wish to treated as a man or a woman, I have a vested interest in people using gender-neutral pronouns to refer to me (and others like me).I encourage people to use "ze" (which conjugates as "hir" or "zer"), and find that works really well in writing but is very hard for people to adopt in speech though not impossible: several of my friends use it with relative ease. In practice "they" as a third person singular pronoun is very widely used, and it seems to me that it's only a matter of time before it becomes accepted by by even the most pedantic of the language police.

Reply to at 10:43 am Aug 18, 2010 5:19 pm

I find this problem particularly annoying in legal writing. After all, you can't assume the judge was a he, (though on the bar exam the murderer is strangely usually assumed to be a he). Mine are: "pey" (singular they), "peir" (singular their), and "pem" (singular them). The 'p' is from the acceptably neutral word "person." Problem solved. Let's do this.

Reply to at 5:19 pm Aug 19, 2010 1:47 am

Why anyone would want there to be only ONE gender-neutral singular third-person pronoun defies comprehension.I read a parenting book which needed to speak almost constantly of gender-uncertain children. The author opted to alternate between he and she every time the hypothetical child was distinct. It was distracting for a few paragraphs, and then it became perfectly readable and understandable.That made me realize the problem is not the lack of a gender-neutral pronoun. The problem is the alternately gender-specific or headache-inducing rules about what to do when the noun is gender-uncertain. Let's scrap those rules and replace them with one that says "either he or she (and consistent derivatives) is fine." Then we don't need a new word that we're probably never going to get, anyway.Plus, you get an added advantage. You now have two different gender-uncertain pronouns to use in the same sentence. For example:"A tour guide should make sure her tourist packs his camera with him, and tells her when he will be returning."The gender neutrality is implied by the nouns, and neither noun needs to be used more than once. Imagine trying to say that using any of the current rules or suggested alternatives."A tour guide should make sure their tourist packs their camera with them, and tells them when they will be returning."

Reply to at 1:47 am Sep 2, 2010 12:00 am

Heh, that gets us into a whole different topic, distinguishing between identical pronouns with different objects. Pal of mine went thru a stage where he used 'n (for nominative) & 'a (accusitive) as suffixes in a combo Pittsburgh/hillbilly sound to get around this. "The operator told the irate lady that she'n'd be right with her'a as soon as she'n could." He got to where it sounded natural for him to be saying 'he-un', 'she-un' and such, but then he ran afoul of his professors when he forgot and used those in his essays. Getting constantly down-graded for his personal linguistic style eventually broke him of it.That same institutionalism is also part of the problem for shifting language. Teachers won't accept language changes until they have become well-established in the common parlance, but utterly hound those who use such in their classrooms while they develop. Problem is, that's exactly what we want them to be doing, for the most part. We want them drumming the rules of established spelling and grammar into our young so that what we write today can be understood generations hence. It's the basis for libraries and universities, allowing the dissemination of knowledge to others who may then utilize our work and extend it further. It's the reason why people around the world can come to a site like this and share their thoughts.Just don't get me wrong. We need a "thon" and other changes to the language, to fill in outdated modes of speaking. Not to mention, correcting awkwardly imposed rules, such as making English (with two-word infinitives) act like Latin (one word infinitives). The well-known quote from pop culture doesn't strike quite so resoundingly when 'properly' reorganized as "To go boldly where before no man had gone." [Citing old Star Trek intro, for those not recognizing it.] We just need to figure out how to balance language evolution and commonly-spread education structures.But then, that'd almost certainly require a formal body for English like the IAU for astronomy -- the forum that decided Pluto wasn't a planet, but then called it a 'dwarf planet'. [How a gas giant is a planet while dwarf planets aren't baffles me. But that's another forum.]

Reply to at 12:00 am Sep 10, 2010 10:25 am

Greg wrote: I don't see why all the fuss about avoiding "he" or "she" when the gender of the person is known, though I agree using the form "he or she" is clumsy.Well if the pedants of the world won't accept what many grammars already allow i.e. the use of the singular "they", then there is another gender neutral third person singular pronoun already available, with no complications of being considered plural as well as singular, and perfectly acceptable in the case of all other life forms on Earth. The pronoun I refer to is "it".Both male and female animals, birds, fish, insects, etc can be referred to in this way, so why not humans as well? Would a construction such as "it has left it's book here" be so shocking? confusing? Are we so concerned about gender recognition that this would be unacceptable? While I myself routinely use "they" in these situations, I feel "it" would be a useable alternative for consideration.

Reply to at 10:25 am Oct 11, 2010 9:16 am

No, sorry, 'it' won't do, because the way we use it now, it would be really difficult to dislodge "it" from the notion of non-gendered, non-sexed, neuter, etc. "It" has too much weight in that area, I feel. If someone called me an it I think I'd be rather offended, because I think they'd be referring to me as neither male nor female, and I'd interpret it quite negatively, like I'm some kind of anomaly.The Finnish language has an interesting setup: there's only one third-person pronoun, hn, and so it's gender neutral. But the funny thing is the fairly recent phenomenon, which is that in spoken Finnish, hn is rarely used--it's been beaten by "se," which means "it." Somehow referring to people *as people* took too much energy for us here. :)I'd go with they and them. Why? Because many of us already do. Crowd rule is great here. And because I don't want to make up a word that is supposed to be gender-neutral, but which will end up denoting a person who identifies as both, either, neither, or other gender. It's more divisive than it is inclusive at this point.

Reply to at 9:16 am Dec 11, 2015 8:04 am

There is a solution to the third person singular pronoun problem that I have not seen previously suggested. The relevant noun is "person" so why not add "pe" to "he" and "her", "per" to "her"  and "his" etc. ? Some may point out that "pee" is a common term for urine or urination. However when, in the context of decimalisation, the UK introduced "p" to distinguish between the new and old pennies, after  few childish giggles, the new term was wholeheartedly adopted. 

Reply to at 8:04 am