In English it is difficult to avoid personal pronouns, and in the case of third person singular pronouns (‘she’ and ‘he’) that means making a choice about gender. Is the person being referred to male or female? So, what about the growing number of people who prefer not to identify as either. Shouldn’t there be a gender-neutral pronoun available for them?
The current debate about gender-neutral pronouns focuses on the rights of genderqueer (or non-binary) people but it started out as a feminist issue. Until about fifty years ago, it was very common in English to use ‘he’ as a generic form, referring to both males and females. Today, using ‘he’ generically when referring to all readers would sound sexist and absurd. Starting around the 1970s, alternatives to the ‘generic he’ started to appear, especially in writing, for example: using ‘he or she’; always using ‘she’ instead of ‘he’; or alternating between ‘he’ and ‘she’.
A missing word
The problem with all three of the approaches mentioned above is that they still exclude anyone who doesn’t identify with ‘he’ or ‘she’. English seemed to be missing a vital word, a third-person singular pronoun that could refer to anybody: a woman, a man, or a person who identifies with a different gender.
Back in the 1800s, people were already experimenting with gender-neutral pronouns as an alternative to ‘he/him/his’ or ‘she/her/her’. The earliest of these alternative pronoun sets was probably ‘E/em/es’, proposed in 1841 by Francis A. Brewster, an American doctor who wrote a grammar book on the side.
In 1858, an American lawyer and composer suggested ‘thon’ derived from ‘that’ and ‘one’. This was a little more successful and even got included in a dictionary produced by Merriam Webster in 1934. But a few decades later they took it out again.
In recent decades, there have been new attempts, especially among genderqueer people, to come up with user-friendly, gender-neutral pronouns; these are sometimes known as ‘neopronouns’. Two of the most widely used neopronouns are ‘ze/zir’ with a ‘z’ and ‘xe/xyr’ with an ‘x’. For example, the sentence “David gave his book to Anna” could be written using neopronouns as: “Xe gave xyr book to xem.” Or, how about avoiding pronouns completely: “Jack ate Jack’s food because Jack was hungry.” Although this does get pretty tiring with longer names!
There’s another, more obvious solution to the missing word problem: ‘they’ used in the singular. For example: “When the student arrives, tell them to wait here.” It’s a construction we use every day without thinking about it and it’s widely accepted in formal writing, too. In fact, ‘they/them/their’ has been used in the singular for many centuries. The Oxford English Dictionary records an example of singular ‘their’ as far back as 1375. What’s changed in recent years is that ‘they’ pronouns are now being used for specific individuals. Of all the gender-neutral pronouns in use at the moment, ‘they’ is certainly the most popular.
Worth the effort
It’s true that using non-binary pronouns can be tricky at first but English has a long history of inventing, adopting or adapting words to reflect a changing world. In any case, it is possible that in a few generations, gender-neutral pronouns will be a fully-established part of the English language and people will look back in amazement at a time when we thought ‘he’ and ‘she’ could cover everybody.
Just a problem in English?
Although in Italian pronouns can often be avoided, which gets round the problem of gender, in other ways the Italian language is much more gendered than English. In an attempt to make Italian an inclusive language, the use of the asterisk or the neutral schwa (‘’) is increasing –especially online. However, a petition was recently signed by renowned scholars, writers and politics to ban the use of the schwa.