Gender-neutral pronouns


I recently attended a Safe Zone training program at my university. It is designed to help faculty and staff be more aware of LGBT issues and thus create a more welcoming atmosphere. After completing it, one gets a Safe Zone badge that one can stick on one’s door so that anyone who comes there knows that you are accepting of them.

One of the exercises we did at the beginning was the familiar ice-breaker where one pairs up with one’s neighbor and quickly learns enough about them to be able to introduce them to the whole group. But just after we completed the sharing and before we introduced each other to the whole group, the facilitators threw us a curveball and told us to do the introductions without using the pronouns he/she or her/him. It was not easy and there were many stumbles.

In a time when we are moving away from an understanding of gender as a binary concept to that of a continuum, the issue of gender pronouns becomes significant since some people may not feel comfortable with using the standard male and female choices. Some new neutral ones like ze and zir have been suggested and there are others. It is also becoming increasingly common to use ‘they’ and ‘them’ for third party pronouns even when talking about a single person.

Writing in The American Conservative, Rod Dreher sees the gender nuances in language that are emerging as a ridiculous indulgence. But as Sean Carroll says, “Language matters, and matching how we speak about people to how they think about themselves is an important part of human dignity. I don’t know what the best linguistic solution is for the knotty realities of human gender and sexuality, but I welcome the attempts to do better. Perfect equality has not yet been achieved, but I like to think we’re moving in a good direction.”

It is going to take a while for the dust to settle and a new consensus to emerge as to what becomes the standard among the various experimental forms being used currently. The beauty of language is that it does evolve in response to changing situations.

Comments

  1. Wylann says

    I wish we had a more neutral term in English than ‘it’. There should be, IMO, a gender neutral term that can be used, particularly in writing, but that would be also easy to incorporate into spoken language.

  2. hyphenman says

    Good afternoon Mano,

    Just as “girl” once meant “child in their mother’s care,” so too was “they/them” at first number neutral.

    I learned this as an undergraduate in Journalism school during the first Reagan administration. I stopped using he/she him/her in my reporting and writing unless there was no doubt about the gender of the person I was writing about.

    For cases where the biological gender did not match the psychological gender, I used the gender associated with the individual’s choice. Note, that biology trumps dress in the case of homosexuality since gender is not the issue. While I’m sure that cases of dual gender identity exist, in my experience they are as rare as black swans and may be considered the case that proofs the rule.

    Do all that you can to make today a good day,

    Jeff
    Have Coffee Will Write

  3. besomyka says

    As Lux mentioned on one of their posts, “We use “they” to refer to hypothetical people we don’t know, like the drivers of other cars.”

    That surprised me, so I tried it. Imagine a car cuts you off on the way home and you tell your S.O. about it.

    “Oh, honey, you’ll never guess how close to death I came on the way home. There was this car..”

    “Wait, what? What did they do?”

    “The driver must not have seen me. At least, I don’t think I did anything to antagonize them. They merged into my lane and almost ran me off the road!”

    Not only does it work, but I’m not sure how I’d say it any other way if I didn’t know the gender of the driver. I can keep saying ‘The Driver’, but that gets old fast. And it’s not like anyone things there was more than one person driving the car, right? Singular is understood.

    So it’s unusual, in some contexts, but we do already use it.

  4. Kengi says

    hyphenman, things are more complex than your summary, and more “black swans” are coming out than you may realize. You need to update your thinking as well. For example, biology doesn’t always trump dress in the case of homosexuality. How should you refer to a person who is genderqueer and pansexual?

    Right here on FTB is a good place to start:

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/zinniajones/2014/03/gender-neutral-pronouns-rant/

    Mano is certainly right about the beauty of language and its ability to evolve to handle our changing culture of respect. Gender neutral is the best way to go until you actually know a person well enough to do anything different, and that means biology never trumps dress or anything else, regardless of sexual orientation.

    You may also want to stop thinking in terms of “biological gender” vs “psychological gender”. Gender is a role, while biological sex is plumbing. Besides, biological sex isn’t even that straightforward in all cases. In most cases a person’s sex isn’t something that should even come up in most conversations and interactions.

  5. John Horstman says

    I intially defaulted to sie (subject)/hir (possessive and object), in part specifically *because* the pronunciation is difficult for most English speakers (at least here in USA), which forces people to really stop and think about the pronoun. However, as neutral pronouns are gaining increasing traction, I’ve been switching to ze/zir, as they’re easy to pronounce, as well as trying to suppress my cringe response to singular “they”. With practice, one can substitute the neutral options as one’s default, eventually without needing to think about it.

  6. lsamaknight says

    Mano, what do you mean increasingly? The singular ‘they’ has been in pretty much constant use as part of the English language since the time of Chaucer.

  7. sawells says

    Of course singular “they” is valid English, always has been – it’s only the mad 19th century pretend-it’s-Latin grammarians who tried to claim otherwise.

    I also like the e/es/en set that Ursula Le Guin used sometimes, but I don’t see it around that much.

  8. steve oberski says

    And let’s consider the damage that the mistranslation of the hebrew word almeh (young woman) to the greek parthenos (virgin) has caused.

    All due to the fact that our use of gender in language is inextricably related to concepts of sexuality, ownership and power.

  9. Francisco Bacopa says

    And we also need a second person plural pronoun that is gender neutral. And it happens that some American English dialects have a perfect pronoun, “Y’all”. It has high class roots in the Cavaliers and English Catholics who were forced to relocate to Virginia and Maryland.

    “You guys” is a gendered abomination. I can forgive someone with a northern accent saying it, but to hear “you guys” with a southern accent makes me weep. My sister-in-law has the sweetest Deep East Texas accent, but somehow she picked up “you guys” and uses it when “y’all” would be more compact and gender inclusive. I don’t know where she learned this. She was raised better than this.

    And up north they think “y’all” is African American Vernacular English. I do not believe there is such a thing as AAVE All my older white relatives when I was a kid used the dispositional “be” and other supposedly weird terms like “untighten” an “twice as less”.

  10. says

    It is also becoming increasingly common to use ‘they’ and ‘them’ for third party pronouns even when talking about a single person.

    We might as well use “We” for singular people and please the pope and Ayn Rand fans. ^_^

    Some new neutral ones like ze and zir have been suggested and there are others.

    If such words enter common parlance, I won’t be using them.

    There’s nothing wrong with repeatedly using people’s names in the same text while writing. It’s also not difficult to organize one’s thoughts to avoid using names repeatedly when speaking of one person aloud. “One” already exists as a third person neutral pronoun, and sentences can be said without pronouns at all, listeners will fill in the blanks mentally. And why not use people’s initials instead of a name or pronoun?

    Here’s a rewrite of MS’s next blog post on Lawrence Walsh with changes for gender neutrality. It may use more passive language, but it has the same content and intent:

    The Special Prosecutor appointed to investigate the Iran-Contra affair died yesterday at the age of 102. The work done on the case highlights for me two things. […]

    As to the first point, when Walsh was appointed at the age of 75 […] I like many others thought that this was the beginning of a whitewash because Walsh was a highly successful corporate lawyer, a solid establishment figure with impeccable Republican credentials. But we skeptics were all proven wrong by a prosecutor who doggedly investigating and pursuing the wrongdoers to the highest levels, in the teeth of opposition from the Reagan and subsequent George H. W. Bush administrations and interference from Congress.

    Sufficient words already exist, it just requires people think more as they compose their words. Even gender titles (Mr., Mrs., Ms.) can be dispensed with and solely refer to people by their surnames of use of personal names is improper or too familiar. Some people find the use of family names disrepsectful, but those are often people who demand titles to inflate their egos.

  11. says

    A day later, another thought on the matter.

    How about repurposing thou as the gender neutral, singular, third person pronoun? It’s a word that already exists (thus none need to be invented), most people know it, and could be treated as a portmanteau of “you” and “they”.

    I, you, we, they, thou, it. I might take to using it.

  12. says

    Francisco Bacopa (#10) –

    And we also need a second person plural pronoun that is gender neutral. And it happens that some American English dialects have a perfect pronoun, “Y’all”. It has high class roots in the Cavaliers and English Catholics who were forced to relocate to Virginia and Maryland.

    “You guys” is a gendered abomination.

    Not to be dismissive or condescending, but are everyone and all of you not in the common vernacular where you live? I know some phrases don’t travel but I haven’t heard of anywhere that those aren’t used.

  13. Francisco Bacopa says

    Not to be dismissive or condescending, but are everyone and all of you not in the common vernacular where you live? I know some phrases don’t travel but I haven’t heard of anywhere that those aren’t used.

    Around here “everyone” is a logical quantifier, not an alternative to ‘y’all”.

  14. lordshipmayhem says

    Some languages, such as Japanese, do not have gender-specific pronouns – or for that matter, gender-specific words like “Mr/Mrs/Miss/Ms”

    The Japanese avoid pronouns, trying to make clear by wording or gesture that you’re talking about the other person.

    How you address other people depends on your comparative status. In a school environment, the teacher is always addressed by the student as “Smith-sensei” and he or she addresses the student as “Smith-kun”. Between students (when being formal) upperclassmen are referred to as “Smith-Sempai”. In neutral environments, it’s “Smith-san”. Chidren (and teen girls and between lovers being cute with each other) are “-chan” – except to their teachers, who even in kindergarten will refer to both boys and girls as “-kun”

    I don’t recommend the Japanese method be adopted completely because this gender neutrality goes right out the window with family relationships, including different words for different levels of politeness, from highly formal to utterly casual: Father, mother, big brother, little brother, big sister, little sister, grandmother, grandfather, aunt, uncle.

    It’s a point to start though: can we come to an agreement on a common word to replace the mess that is “Mr/Mrs/Miss/Ms”? Maybe just “Mr” for everyone?

  15. Dunc says

    How about repurposing thou as the gender neutral, singular, third person pronoun? It’s a word that already exists (thus none need to be invented), most people know it, and could be treated as a portmanteau of “you” and “they”.

    “Thou” is second person. It’s probably better to invent a new word than to horribly misuse an existing one, even if it is archaic. Not that we need to, since as has been repeatedly pointed out in the thread already, “they” is perfectly normal and correct in this usage.

  16. dean says

    At the risk of showing my age, I will say my first informal exposure to gender-neutral writing was when I was typing my dissertation in the mid 80s. I used a copy of Spivak’s book “The Joy of Tex” handy as a reference (still have it, in fact). He states on page xi that “Since TeX is a rather revolutionary approach to typesetting, I decided that a rather revolutionary approach to non-SeXist terminology would be appropriate in this manual.”
    He went on to say this:

    Just as `I’ is the first person singular pronoun, regardless of gender, so `E’ will be used in this book as the third person singular pronoun for both genders. Thus, `E’ is the singular of `they’. Accordingly, `Eir’ (pronounced to rhyhme with `their’) will be the possessive, and `Em’ (rhyming with `them’) will stand for either `him’ or `her’. Here is an example that illustrates all three forms:
    E loves Em only for Eir body.

    The first exercise in the book is on the same page: “How many possible meanings does that sentence have?”

  17. hyphenman says

    @Kengi,

    I apologize for the later response, but I went on an electronics fast, what I refer to as Gone Thinking for 10 days, and just returned online this morning.

    I still think, from the writer’s point-of-view, the choice is straight forward.

    In those cases where I am personally unclear as to an individual’s identity, the default is always ask.

    If asking isn’t possible, or if the individual doesn’t wish to choose, then my default is the gender-neutral they.

    In rare cases where an individual wishes to make a statement by using some new pronoun, and I’m convinced that the wish is sincere (and not some marketing ploy), I can be convinced to take that alternative as well.

    Jeff

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