ee: He, She, and It

There are too many schools of thought on the matter to list (he said, beginning in media res), but here are some of the most common:

  • Those who believe that "he" remains a gender-neutral pronoun and should be used in all cases where the subject's gender is not specifically known to be female. (With "one" as an acceptable alternative in some circumstances.)
  • Those who believe that the singular "they," as used in casual speech, should be adopted into formal writing.
  • Those who believe that one should always use "she" to level the playing field, or should alternate "he" with "she," or should use constructions like "he/she" or "he or she" in all cases.
  • And those who believe that we should start all over again with an entirely new pronoun.

Yep, it's finally time to talk about gender-neutral (or "epicene") pronouns. John Chao, maintainer of the lovely (though slow to download) GFP FAQ, calls them "gender-free pronouns." Dennis Baron, author of Grammar and Gender, refers to them as "the word that failed." Most people who write regularly have an opinion on them, but few agree on what should be done about them.

If you believe that "he" really is a gender-neutral pronoun in modern usage, consider the following sentence (attribution unknown): "Man is a mammal: he bears his young live and suckles them at his breasts."

If you don't believe that "he" is gender-neutral, there are (at least) three different cases where a gender-neutral pronoun would come in handy:

  • when you're talking about humans in general ("A person should always watch ta's language.")
  • when you're talking about a specific person of unknown gender ("So Pat has a new significant other? What's ta like?")
  • when you're talking about someone whose gender is known to you but irrelevant to the current topic ("My spouse says ta's sorry ta couldn't make it.")

Unfortunately, none of the available options for use in such circumstances really appeals to me. I'm not comfortable with he; I find one and his or her awkward at best and unusable at worst; the prescriptivist in me still rebels against singular their; and the Net semi-standard neologisms (like sie, zie, and ey) just don't sound good to me. For a few years I used thon regularly; then Ranjit introduced me to ta and I've been using that ever since. Still, I use it only in informal writing, and I always feel obliged to include disclaimers to ward off complaints about language Nazis and PCism.

When I'm more concerned with being understood than with being comfortable, I do use the singular "their" (as noted in a comments page a few months back, Terri Walton says that the new 14th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style leans toward using "their"; the FAQ says this usage has existed since Chaucer's time). In formal writing, I simply rewrite to avoid using third-person singular pronouns entirely (such rewriting is often fairly easy, but it's annoying to have to do) and use "he or she" when absolutely necessary.

But as the alt.usage.english FAQ points out, "[d]iscussions about gender-neutral pronouns tend to go round and round and never reach a conclusion." So instead of arguing about what epicene pronouns should be used, let's do a quick historical survey.

Alas, coined epicene pronouns have not fared terribly well. Dennis Baron, who keeps a fascinating historical list of them on the Web, says:

People have been inventing them for at least 150 years. The initial impetus was not feminism. Indeed, the coiners were grammatical purists who were upset that generic he did not agree with antecedents like anyone or everyone in gender as well as number, as the pronoun agreement rule demands.

The most popular coinages, historically, were thon (a blend of that + one, created by the hymn-writing attorney Charles Crozat Converse in 1884—he also wrote "What a friend we have in Jesus") and hiser, himer, heer, a paradigm coined several times...

The list starts out around 1850 with "ne, nis, nim"; "thon" is the third entry. "Ta," a borrowing from Mandarin Chinese suggested by Leslie E. Blumenson, didn't enter English until 1971. (The plural in Chinese is ta-men, but I just use "they.")

John Chao prefers (or preferred when ta wrote the FAQ) "ey, eir, em," first suggested in 1972 by Christine M. Elverson. Probably the most common epicene pronouns in use on the Net are "sie, hir," followed by "zie, zir"—the latter coined either for ease of pronunciation or to avoid being too close to German "sie," depending on who you ask. Although the connection is probably not direct, another interesting 1972 item on the list is "ze, zim" (suggested by Steven Polgar), explicitly stated to be derived from German "sie." Many of these epicene items get reinvented over time...

Finally, no discussion of epicene pronouns would be complete without Joel Weiss' facetious contribution to the topic: "h'orsh'it." I suppose it's a good thing such suggestions are made, if only to keep us GFP advocates from taking ourselves too seriously.

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