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  • Pronouns on TV: pop culture meets inclusive language

    You know that gender pronouns like hie and zie are a thing when they start showing up in TV dramas. If you haven’t noticed them, never fear, for I, your professor of pronouns, will now enlighten you.

    Let’s start with hen. It’s Swedish, not English, but be patient, because there’s an English tie-in at the end. 

  • Heer, hiser, himer: Pronouns in the news, 1912 edition

    On January 7, 1912, a headline in the Chicago Tribune breathlessly announced, “Mrs. Ella Young Invents Pronoun . . . Makes Principals Gasp.” Ella Flagg Young, Superintendent of Chicago’s public schools, told the Tribune she thought up what she called the “duo-personal” pronouns he’er, his’er, and him’er as she walked to a meeting with school principals. The story went viral. Then it unraveled.

  • The oldest genderless pronouns are lo and zo, for French, and e, es, em, for English

    In 1765, Joachim Faiguet de Villeneuve invented two genderless third-person pronouns, lo (singular) and zo (plural), for an artificial language that he called Langue nouvelle, or ‘new language.’ English didn’t catch up until 1841, when Francis Augustus Brewster coined e, es, and em.

  • Verbing pronouns

    Nonbinary singular they has become so normal that people now want to know the rules for how to use it. Which is right, they is or they are? Is the reflexive themself or themselves? Even if your answer is, “Wait, what rules? There are no rules,” the fact that anybody’s asking is all the proof we need that English pronouns are continuing to change. Here’s the latest change: as we see in this tweet from the British writer and gender activist, Shon Faye, nonbinary singular they has become a verb:

    A trans man described his period of identifying as nonbinary to me the other day as “I was they/themming at the time.”

  • Gender conceal: Did you know that pronouns can also hide someone's gender?

    Gender reveals have been exploding in the news recently, but there are also a growing number of gender conceals—using a pronoun to hide someone’s gender. Historically, two English pronouns have been used to mask a person’s gender: it and they. But so far the definitions of it and they don’t include the gender conceal.

    First let’s look at they. The Oxford English Dictionary lists three senses for singular they: 

    • referring collectively to members of a group (everyone, everybody)
    • referring to an individual generically or indefinitely (someone, a person, the student)
    • referring to someone who is nonbinary or gender-nonconforming (Sam Smith’s pronouns are they and them).

    I think it’s time to add a fourth sense:

    • referring to someone whose gender needs to be concealed (the whistleblower…they).
  • Teachers' pronouns

    I’m a teacher; my pronoun is _______.

    If you answered, My pronoun is they, you’ve done nothing wrong. Yes, teachers are expected to model good grammar as well as teach it—sometimes the job depends on it—but no matter what you’ve been told before, singular they is grammatically correct, and the American Psychological Society’s influential Publication Manual (7e) is the latest authority to agree. The APA manual stresses correct grammar in writing, and it approves the use of they, them, their, themselves, and even themself, when an individual’s pronouns are unknown or irrelevant.

    Teachers have a reputation for stressing grammatical correctness, but the last time the National Education Association had a style manual, back in 1974, it didn’t even consider singular they as an option. At the time, Mildred Fenner, editor of Today’s Education, reported that for many years the NEA journal used generic she for teachers because most teachers were women. But in the 1960s men began to complain that expressions like the teacher . . . she were responsible for teachers’ poor public image and their low salaries. One man objected at an NEA meeting that generic she was both bad English and a bad look for the profession. . . .

  • The Song of Singular they

    When the singer Sam Smith announced on Instagram that their pronouns were they, them—which got more than half a million likes in less than a day—the Oscar and Grammy winner acknowledged “there will be many mistakes and mis gendering but all I ask is you please please try.”

    Smith was correct that there would be some misgendering. In reporting the story, CNN, the BBC, and the Guardian all referred to Smith as “they,” but over the course of a 5-sentence story the Associated Press called Smith “he” and “his” seven times.

     

  • A Brief History of Singular 'they'

    Singular they has become the pronoun of choice to replace he and she in cases where the gender of the antecedent—the word the pronoun refers to—is unknown, irrelevant, or nonbinary, or where gender needs to be concealed. It’s the word we use for sentences like Everyone loves their mother.

    But that’s nothing new. The Oxford English Dictionary traces singular they back to 1375 . . .