Tuesday, March 11, 2014

B87. Let's Make Our Language Better: Gender Neutral Pronouns

I can’t count the times I’ve needed a gender neutral pronoun or adjective and didn’t have one.  Maybe I’m discussing a situation involving a student but want to keep his/her gender anonymous.  Or maybe I’m telling about an accident I witnessed, and I didn’t see the driver to know her/his gender.  

Previous solutions

50 years ago the grammatical answer was to use the masculine pronoun, often called the “generic he.”   For example “Any student wishing to go on the field trip must get his parent’s signature.” The older English versions of the Bible provide many hundreds of examples of this, like "Man shall not live by bread alone," with man meaning people; or "He who has ears to hear, let him hear."  This structure has fallen out of favor for both its confusion and its lack of inclusiveness.

Also often used, recently and mostly in very informal writing, is the skipped subject pronoun. "My friend turned 26. Had a party last weekend."  This one, while adequate for emailing, texting or social networking, is grammatically problematic and unacceptable in formal writing.

Many have answered the dilemma by using the third person plural pronoun rather than the singular.  “The student I mentioned to you can’t meet today. They have to work.” This is widely understood, but sometimes just plain awkward, not to mention the cringing it causes our English teachers, grammarians, and linguists.

In many languages, Spanish for example, gender neutral pronouns are much less an issue.  A Spanish-speaker can legitimately opt just to leave out the subject pronoun.  Baila can be translated He dances, She dances, or It dances.  And the possessive adjective su can mean his, her, or its.

Even in English all our pronouns except for 3rd person singular are inclusive.  We don’t have a separate I for male and female, or a separate you or we.  It’s only that 3rd person singular that causes the problems.

While many have lamented the need for neutral pronouns, and, since at least the 1970’s, several attempts have been made at coining the needed pronouns, we have yet to use any one solution enough for it to become widely recognized or embraced.

Proposed Pronouns and Adjectives

Taking what I consider the best of the proposals (many of the others still seem to lean more toward masculine or feminine), and adding to them what seems logical in form, I propose the following gender neutral pronouns and adjectives:

xe (pronounced zee) subject pronoun meaning he or she
When a student arrives, xe will sign in and choose a seat.

xed (pronounced zed) object pronoun meaning him or her.
The teacher will greet xed.

xir (pronounced zeer) possessive adjective and possessive pronoun meaning his or her(s).
Once the student has joined the class, it becomes xir responsibility to complete all the assignments.
I don’t remember which student sat here, but that notebook is xir.

Getting them into Circulation

Now, for those of us who see the need for such gender neutral words, there is one way to get them into circulation - use them.  Bloggers, we incorporate them into our blogs.  Facebook users, we incorporate them into our updates. Teachers, we introduce the concept to our classes and maybe give a writing assignment in which all personal pronouns are to be neutral, then have the students share their writings aloud so they get used to hearing the words, not just writing them. 

A word of caution to students however: Unless you find the word included in a dictionary, it is not yet accepted as officially part of the English language, so be careful not to use these in your academic or other formal writings, unless of course your writing is about the words.

My wish for each reader: that xe begins to incorporate gender neutral words into xir speech and writing, for inclusiveness and clarity!

Complete charts:

Subject Pronouns
               singular                                                                plural




you (informally y’all, yous, etc.)





Object Pronouns




you (informally y’all, yous, etc.)



Possessive Adjectives







Possessive Pronouns







photo credit: englishexercises.org


Calavari said...

I particularly love the teaching assignment. Interesting post and I totally agree!

Kathy Vestal said...

Hi Calavari - Thank you for reading and taking the time to respond! If you should use the teaching assignment, I'd love to hear about it!