The Pronoun War: English’s Gender Neutral Third Person

Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about.

–Benjamin Lee Whorf

In English, if we are going to talk about someone in the third person, we are often required to assign them a gender. However, in recent years, more and more people have been coming forward to talk about their relationship with our culture’s gender system, and many have found it lacking. They may consider themselves to be at multiple points within this complex universe (a gender wormhole!), or planted firmly on an asteroid between Mars and Venus, or floating apathetically somewhere in another constellation.

This matter is of particular importance to me because I am one of those people. The fact that English has no construction for a gender-neutral third person singular shows how non-binary people have not traditionally had a voice or a place in our culture. We should not have to jump through verbal hoops to express our lived experience.

I completely support anyone who would like to invent their own pronouns, but this post will provide a survey of the most common gender-neutral pronouns. While written from a language-centered point of view, I hope it might provide some guidance to non-binary and/or questioning people looking for a pronoun to identify with, and their loved ones who may be new to the issue.

(It is generally considered dehumanizing, and isn’t commonly used by non-binary people, and therefore is left off this list. However, like anything else, it is a perfectly legitimate choice!)

THEY

They/them/their is a common choice for people of non-binary genders. It has the advantage of being already firmly entrenched in our language, but the disadvantage that it is generally understood to be plural, resulting in possible confusion.

Many people denounce its use on the basis that it isn’t “grammatical,” but really, that sort of prescriptivism is nonsense. Singular “they” has a long use in literature, often used alongside the sexist but more acceptable general he/him/his. Chaucer, who is particularly well-respected in academia, used it. Its use was not even questioned until the 1700s, when intellectuals began to artificially apply Latin logic rules to English grammar, resulting in the shunning of many perfectly natural English constructions.

If you’re still not convinced, check out this article from Motivated Grammar about why singular they is perfectly acceptable.

This page focused on singular they in the works of Jane Austen also provides an interesting look at the history of pronouns in English.

EY

These pronouns, often called Spivak pronouns after the mathematician who popularized them, are particularly convenient as far as invented pronouns go because they are based on existing ones. It’s easy to think of them as they without the “th:” Ey went to the store and bought emselves a cake for eir birthday. Interestingly enough, since Spivak was a mathematician, the pronoun has caught on surprisingly well in the world of internet gaming, and is often used as a gender option in multi-player games..

ZE

Ze/hir/hirs is a common choice in the transgender community, but is easily mixed up with “her,” which may or may not be desirable. It has a variant, ze/zir/zirs, that avoids this problem. Neither come particularly naturally to most English speakers, but this is not a reason not to use them!

For a more gender-neutral pronoun options, and examples of how to use them in a sentence, visit the Gender Neutral Pronoun Blog. Almost certainly useful for anyone deciding on their preferred pronoun!

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