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  • The gender-neutral pronoun: after 150 years still an epic fail

    Entry for 'thon' in Webster's Second New International Dictionary, 1934
    Entry for 'thon' in Webster's Second New International Dictionary, 1934

    Every once in a while some concerned citizen decides to do something about the fact that English has no gender-neutral pronoun. They either call for such a pronoun to be invented, or they invent one and champion its adoption. Wordsmiths have been coining gender-neutral pronouns for a century and a half, all to no avail. Coiners of these new words insist that the gender-neutral pronoun is indispensable, but users of English stalwartly reject, ridicule, or just ignore their proposals.

    Only last week, Guardian columnist Lucy Mangan called for a gender-neutral pronoun:

    The whole pronouns-must-agree-with-antecedents thing causes me utter agony. Do you know how many paragraphs I've had to tear down and rebuild because you can't say, "Somebody left their cheese in the fridge", so you say, “Somebody left his/her cheese in the fridge”, but then you need to refer to his/her cheese several times thereafter and your writing ends up looking like an explosion in a pedants' factory? . . . I crave a non-risible gender-neutral (not "it") third person sing pronoun in the way normal women my age crave babies.

     

    The Guardian, July 24, 2010, p. 70

     

    English is a language with a vocabulary so large that every word in it seems to have a dozen synonyms, and yet this particular semantic black hole remains unfilled. As Tom Utley complains in the Daily Mail,

    It never ceases to infuriate me, for example, that in this cornucopia of a million words, there's no simple, gender-neutral pronoun standing for 'he-or-she'.

     

    That means we either have to word our way round the problem by using plurals —which don't mean quite the same thing—or we're reduced to the verbose and clunking construction: 'If an MP steals taxpayers' money, he or she should be ashamed of himself or herself.' ('Themselves', employed to stand for a singular MP, would, of course, be a grammatical abomination).

     

    London Daily Mail, June 13, 2009

     

    The traditional gender agreement rule states that pronouns must agree with the nouns they stand for both in gender and in number. A corollary requires the masculine pronoun when referring to groups comprised of men and women. But critics argue that such generic masculines—for example, “Everyone loves his mother”—actually violate the gender agreement part of the pronoun agreement rule. And they warn that the common practice of using they to avoid generic he violates number agreement: in “Everyone loves their mother,” everyone is singular and their is plural. Only a new pronoun, something like ip, coined in 1884, can save us from the error of the generic masculine or the even worse error of singular “they.”

    Such forms as co, xie, per, and en abound in science fiction, where gender is frequently bent, and they pop up with some regularity in online transgender discussion groups, where the traditional masculine and feminine pronouns are out of place. But today’s word coiners seem unaware that gender-neutral English pronouns have been popping up, then disappearing without much trace, since the mid-nineteenth century.

    According to an 1884 article in the New-York Commercial Advertiser, the pronouns ne, nis, nir and hiser were proposed and briefly used around 1850. These coinages, which would yield such sentences as “Everyone loves nis (or hiser’s) mother,”have yet to be documented, but an 1852 newspaper report which calls for the invention of a new pronoun “of the common gender” demonstrates that the subject was being discussed that early. Justifying the need for such a word, the writer argues that in sentences like If the reader will only glance at the map of Europe, he will see . . .  ,” the word reader “refers to either male or female, while the pronoun ‘he’ refers alone to the former.” The writer rejects the coordinate phrase he or she as “inelegant and bungling” and finds singular they “a direct violation of the rules of grammar” (similar arguments against he or she and they are still common today). Instead, the writer pleads for a new pronoun—“Will not some of our grammar makers ‘fish us up’ one?” But he or she also insists that, until a new pronoun comes along, the sentence must be recast as, “The reader who glances at the map of Europe will see . . .”  because, if something can’t be said well, then it "cant be said at all.” 

    Lowell Morning News call for a common-gender pronoun

    From the Brattleboro, Vermont, Semi-Weekly Eagle. Jan. 1, 1852, p. 3, citing an earlier article in the Lowell News.

    Napoleon Bonapart Brown argues in The Atlantic (Nov., 1878) that the need for a new pronoun is “so desperate, urgent, imperative that . . . it should long since have grown on our speech,” allowing us to refer to both genders while sparing us from coordinate he or she, his or her, and him or her.

    Call for a new pronoun in The Atlantic

    Napoleon Bonapart Brown, writing in the Contributors’ Club, The Atlantic 42 (Nov., 1878): 639-40.

    Another call in the Memphis Free Trade (1882) also rejects the generic masculine in reference to a woman, as well as the “clumsy circumlocution ‘he or she.’” This time the grammatical argument for a new pronoun is supplemented with an appeal to feminism:

    Why should it not be the duty of woman’s rights women to supply this, the needed term? As the laws of grammar now stand, the use of “he” when “she” may be meant is an outrage upon the dignity, and an encroachment upon the rights, of woman. It is quite as important that they should stand equal with men in the grammars as before the law.

     

    Call for a new pronoun, 1882

    From the Daily Arkansas Gazette, (Little Rock, AR) Sunday, May 07, 1882; Issue 143; col C, citing the Memphis Free Trade.

    The American literary critic Richard Grant White mentions a common-gender pronoun en in 1868, but 1884 turns out to be the watershed year for pronoun coinage, bringing us thon, hi, le, hiser, and, as I mentioned earlier, ip. Thon was coined by the Philadelphia lawyer and hymn writer Charles C. Converse, and unlike most epicene pronouns, it enjoyed some recognition over the next century, accepted by two major dictionaries and adopted by a few writers. Thon blends that and one and is pronounced with the initial sound of  “they.” In describing his motivation, Converse mentions nothing about women’s rights, insisting instead that his goal is to restore the “beautiful symmetry” of English, to avoid “hideous solecisms” (presumably, singular they), and to save writers—and lawyers like himself—precious time.

    Converse proposes

    Above: Converse introduced thon in an article in The Critic, here reported in the Boston Daily Advertiser, Aug. 6, 1884. Below: thon defined in Webster’s Second New International Dictionary (1934); it appeared as well in Funk and Wagnall’s Standard Dictionary from 1898 through 1964.

    Entry for

    In 1886 a writer in the New York Evening Post offers his-her as “an hermaphrodite pronoun,” adding, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, “When one has become accustomed to the use of him-her, his-her, etc., one can drop the hyphen at his-her pleasure.”

    His-her

    Above: San Francisco Evening Bulletin, Dec. 31, 1886, citing the original proposal in the  New York Evening Post. Below: Rocky Mountain News call for adoption of the pronoun set hi, hes, hem (Aug. 3, 1890, p. 19).

    A needed common pronoun

    In 1890, a report in the Rocky Mountain News recommends hi, hes, hem as a paradigm that will be “readily taken up and assimilated spontaneously,” though of course that didn’t happen. After more than thirty years of proposals for hi, ir, hizer, ons, e, and ith, no word took hold, so in 1894 the paper called on the state legislature to create a gender-neutral pronoun to “correct a well known imperfection of our language.” Shortly thereafter, a reader offers a “bi-personal pronoun,” either the coordinates he or she, his or her, him or her, or the compounds hesher, hiser, himer: “It was particularly appropriate that Colorado should do so, because the ladies are on a political equality with men.”

    Rocky Mountain News asks legislature to coin a pronoun

    Above: Denver Evening Post, Dec. 15, 1894, p. 4, citing the Rocky Mountain News. Below: a reader responds with a “bi-personal pronoun,” Rocky Mountain News, December 17, 1894; pg. 4; Issue [351]; col D 

    a bi-personal pronoun

    And in 1897 a Charleston, South Carolina, newspaper reports on a Massachusetts law that forbids certain kinds of feathers to be worn in hats, a law presumably aimed at women but which employs a masculine pronoun. This presents a problem for the Boston police commissioner, who insists that the masculine pronoun does not include the feminine: “I don’t believe I could arrest a woman on that law,” he says. “The masculine pronoun does not specifically include the women. The law including both usually says ‘person’ or ‘persons,’ but this one simply says ‘his.’”

    That puzzling pronoun

    The Weekly News and Courier, (Charleston, SC), August 11, 1897; p. 14; col E

    Such discussions in the 1880s and 90s did nothing to shake up the pronoun paradigm, and nothing came of subsequent proposals for heer, hie, ha, hesh, thir, she (together with shis and shim), himorher, se, heesh, hse, kin, ve, ta, tey, fm, z, ze, shem, se, j/e, jee, ey, ho, po, ae, et, heshe, hann, herm, ala, de, ghach, han, he, mef, ws, and ze [a list with dates and sources for many of these pronouns can be found here].

    Flash forward to 1978, when The Times (of London) prints a letter in response to yet another call for a new “unisex” pronoun set, advocating le, lim, ler, and lers. (And another correspondent tersely suggests it.)

    Unisex pronoun, 1978

    The Times, Oct. 27, 1978, p. 17

    Despite this wealth of coinage, there is still no widely-accepted gender-neutral pronoun. In part, that’s because pronoun systems are slow to change, and when change comes, it is typically natural rather than engineered.

    In 1884, a writer in the New-York Commercial Advertiser responds to Charles C. Converse’s launch of thon, making just this point, that pronouns evolve gradually and naturally, and that blends like thon have failed before:

    [Mr. Converse] is ill informed as to the history of the craze for a new pronoun. Thirty years ago, or more, attempts were made to apply precisely the method of combination and abbreviation which he has adopted. The earliest result which we remember was “ne, nis, nim,” and a very serious effort indeed was made to introduce this bastard word form into use. Later somebody suggested a combination of “his” and “her,” making “hiser,” and one or two newspapers used the form for a time. But hitherto all attempts in this direction have failed, partly because it is always exceedingly difficult to introduce new forms into a language, unless they spring up naturally and, as it were, spontaneously.

    The writer mentions the slow adoption of its, which first appears in the seventeenth century (its can be found in Shakespeare but not in the more linguistically conservative King James Bible). Before the advent of its, the possessive form of it was the uninflected it, or sometimes, his). He deems its a much more necessary form than thon, and although he indicates his preference for one, he concludes that a gender-neutral pronoun isn’t necessary because most people observe “the sound rule of rhetoric which recognizes the masculine pronoun as dominant.”

    Attack on Converse

    New-York Commercial Advertiser, Aug. 7, 1884, p. 3, cols. 1-2

    But today the “dominant masculine” no longer applies in grammar, and still no gender-neutral pronoun thrives. It turns out that it’s not just the conservatism of the pronoun system that’s blocking the gender-neutral pronoun. It’s also the fact that the speakers of English seem content to muddle along without this particular innovation. Even before the generic masculine started its decline, singular they was always an option, both in speech and, despite the tongue-clicking of purists, in serious writing as well. More recently, writers seeking to avoid the generic masculine have been plugging in the coordinate he or she, him or her, his or her(s), sometimes choosing slashed forms instead, he/she, him/her, his/her(s), despite long-standing objections that such constructions are cumbersome, especially when they’re repeated several times.

    In fact, despite the almost universal condemnation of the coordinate he or she by supporters of gender-neutral pronouns, the rule books now opt for he or she and not an invented word to replace the generic he. Students who once were taught that the masculine pronoun must always be used in cases of mixed or doubtful gender are now taught instead to use coordinate forms, not for gender balance or grammatical precision, but simply because that’s the new rule. Those writers who question the rule, who realize that multiple he-or-she’s just don’t make for readable prose, won’t seek out a new gender-neutral pronoun. Instead they’ll recast some sentences as plural, and for the rest they’ll just take their chances with singular they. After all, if you, which is also gender neutral, can serve both for singular and plural, why can't they do the same? In any case, after more than 100 attempts to coin a gender-neutral pronoun over the course of more than 150 years, thon and its competitors will remain what they always have been, the words that failed.

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#1
rkephart@unf.edu Aug 2, 2010 7:33 am
This is all such nonsense. What's wrong with "they?" We already have it, and, many of us already use it regularly in this way. All we have to do is get the number-agreement nazis to back the hell off and get a life of their own. Ron Kephart Anthropologist/Linguist University of North Florida
#2
alanpalme@gmail.com Aug 3, 2010 9:09 am
The words "they" and "their" have been used for centuries as gender-neutral pronouns by good writers from Chaucer onwards. Why so many pedants seem to insist that "their" is plural only, but "you" and "your" are singular or plural is beyond belief.
#3
admin@suce-fleur.com Aug 3, 2010 10:31 pm
New words only work as people use them; where there is prevalent use there is adoption. Being a speaker of French and from an area where the English is heavily influenced by French and Spanish, I do not find any fault with the gender-neutral masculine singular, nor do I find any fault with using "one". Others are not from my non-standard area, though, and many seem to have adopted the third person plural to signify a gender neutral third person singular without (m)any difficulties in comprehension. Given that, one would wager that the third person plural should be adopted across many English dialects and readily comprehended in all.
#4
oshee@gdess.net Aug 18, 2010 10:43 am
As a transgender person who does not wish to treated as a man or a woman, I have a vested interest in people using gender-neutral pronouns to refer to me (and others like me). I encourage people to use "ze" (which conjugates as "hir" or "zer"), and find that works really well in writing but is very hard for people to adopt in speech though not impossible: several of my friends use it with relative ease. In practice "they" as a third person singular pronoun is very widely used, and it seems to me that it's only a matter of time before it becomes accepted by by even the most pedantic of the language police.
#5
shepdi@gmail.com Aug 18, 2010 5:19 pm
I find this problem particularly annoying in legal writing. After all, you can't assume the judge was a he, (though on the bar exam the murderer is strangely usually assumed to be a he). Mine are: "pey" (singular they), "peir" (singular their), and "pem" (singular them). The 'p' is from the acceptably neutral word "person." Problem solved. Let's do this.
#6
jason.p.morris@gmail.com Aug 19, 2010 1:47 am
Why anyone would want there to be only ONE gender-neutral singular third-person pronoun defies comprehension. I read a parenting book which needed to speak almost constantly of gender-uncertain children. The author opted to alternate between he and she every time the hypothetical child was distinct. It was distracting for a few paragraphs, and then it became perfectly readable and understandable. That made me realize the problem is not the lack of a gender-neutral pronoun. The problem is the alternately gender-specific or headache-inducing rules about what to do when the noun is gender-uncertain. Let's scrap those rules and replace them with one that says "either he or she (and consistent derivatives) is fine." Then we don't need a new word that we're probably never going to get, anyway. Plus, you get an added advantage. You now have two different gender-uncertain pronouns to use in the same sentence. For example: "A tour guide should make sure her tourist packs his camera with him, and tells her when he will be returning." The gender neutrality is implied by the nouns, and neither noun needs to be used more than once. Imagine trying to say that using any of the current rules or suggested alternatives. "A tour guide should make sure their tourist packs their camera with them, and tells them when they will be returning."
#7
khyranleander@yahoo.com Sep 2, 2010 12:00 am
Heh, that gets us into a whole different topic, distinguishing between identical pronouns with different objects. Pal of mine went thru a stage where he used 'n (for nominative) & 'a (accusitive) as suffixes in a combo Pittsburgh/hillbilly sound to get around this. "The operator told the irate lady that she'n'd be right with her'a as soon as she'n could." He got to where it sounded natural for him to be saying 'he-un', 'she-un' and such, but then he ran afoul of his professors when he forgot and used those in his essays. Getting constantly down-graded for his personal linguistic style eventually broke him of it. That same institutionalism is also part of the problem for shifting language. Teachers won't accept language changes until they have become well-established in the common parlance, but utterly hound those who use such in their classrooms while they develop. Problem is, that's exactly what we want them to be doing, for the most part. We want them drumming the rules of established spelling and grammar into our young so that what we write today can be understood generations hence. It's the basis for libraries and universities, allowing the dissemination of knowledge to others who may then utilize our work and extend it further. It's the reason why people around the world can come to a site like this and share their thoughts. Just don't get me wrong. We need a "thon" and other changes to the language, to fill in outdated modes of speaking. Not to mention, correcting awkwardly imposed rules, such as making English (with two-word infinitives) act like Latin (one word infinitives). The well-known quote from pop culture doesn't strike quite so resoundingly when 'properly' reorganized as "To go boldly where before no man had gone." [Citing old Star Trek intro, for those not recognizing it.] We just need to figure out how to balance language evolution and commonly-spread education structures. But then, that'd almost certainly require a formal body for English like the IAU for astronomy -- the forum that decided Pluto wasn't a planet, but then called it a 'dwarf planet'. [How a gas giant is a planet while dwarf planets aren't baffles me. But that's another forum.]
#8
dparvaz@gmail.com Sep 2, 2010 1:13 pm
Don't we have bigger windmills to tilt at? What is it meant to solve? Iran and Afghanistan have had gender-free pronouns for centuries, and look at their egalitarian paradise.
#9
gregqbear@gmail.com Sep 10, 2010 10:25 am
Greg wrote: I don't see why all the fuss about avoiding "he" or "she" when the gender of the person is known, though I agree using the form "he or she" is clumsy. Well if the pedants of the world won't accept what many grammars already allow i.e. the use of the singular "they", then there is another gender neutral third person singular pronoun already available, with no complications of being considered plural as well as singular, and perfectly acceptable in the case of all other life forms on Earth. The pronoun I refer to is "it". Both male and female animals, birds, fish, insects, etc can be referred to in this way, so why not humans as well? Would a construction such as "it has left it's book here" be so shocking? confusing? Are we so concerned about gender recognition that this would be unacceptable? While I myself routinely use "they" in these situations, I feel "it" would be a useable alternative for consideration.
#10
sssalvadora@gmail.com Oct 11, 2010 9:16 am
No, sorry, 'it' won't do, because the way we use it now, it would be really difficult to dislodge "it" from the notion of non-gendered, non-sexed, neuter, etc. "It" has too much weight in that area, I feel. If someone called me an it I think I'd be rather offended, because I think they'd be referring to me as neither male nor female, and I'd interpret it quite negatively, like I'm some kind of anomaly. The Finnish language has an interesting setup: there's only one third-person pronoun, hn, and so it's gender neutral. But the funny thing is the fairly recent phenomenon, which is that in spoken Finnish, hn is rarely used--it's been beaten by "se," which means "it." Somehow referring to people *as people* took too much energy for us here. :) I'd go with they and them. Why? Because many of us already do. Crowd rule is great here. And because I don't want to make up a word that is supposed to be gender-neutral, but which will end up denoting a person who identifies as both, either, neither, or other gender. It's more divisive than it is inclusive at this point.

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