Gender-neutral pronouns come to campus

August 30, 2015 • 12:00 pm

As Steve Pinker discusses in his new book, The Sense of Style, the use of “his” or “her” when writing about general situations can be tricky. For example, using only the masculine form in sentences like “A scientist shouldn’t invariably put his name on papers that come from his lab,” does marginalize women, and I can see how that would irritate the many women who are scientists—or readers. Times have changed, and it’s a form of sexism to always use “his”, which ignores half the population.

My own solution has been to alternate between “him” and “her” or “his” and “hers”, so that nobody gets left out. Or you can use “his/her”  or “his or her”, but that is a bit awkward.  But for many that’s still not a good solution, as it leaves out people who don’t identify as either male or female. Granted, that’s a small minority of people, but the “his/her” dichotomy does bother those who want to recognize that—although there is a strong bimodality of those who identify as male or female—there are some people in the dip between the peaks.

What has happened is that a variety of alternative pronouns have arisen that are gender-neutral, like “xe” and “hir” instead of “he/she” or “him/her.”  And this usage has now come to campus, at least in Tennessee. As WATE, the ABC station in Knoxville reports, the University of Tennessee at Knoxville is encouraging students and faculty to change the pronouns to neutral forms:

The University of Tennessee Office for Diversity and Inclusion is asking students and faculty to use the pronouns in order to create a more inclusive campus. They say it alleviates a heavy burden for people expressing different genders or identities.

“We should not assume someone’s gender by their appearance, nor by what is listed on a roster or in student information systems,” Donna Braquet, the director of the University of Tennessee’s Pride Center said. “Transgender people and people who do not identify within the gender binary may use a different name than their legal name and pronouns of their gender identity, rather than the pronouns of the sex they were assigned at birth.”

For the first week of classes, Braquet is also asking teachers to ask everyone to provide their name and pronoun instead of calling roll. “The name a student uses may not be the one on the official roster, and the roster name may not be the same gender as the one the student now uses,” ze said.

“These may sound a little funny at first, but only because they are new,” Braquet said. “The she and he pronouns would sound strange too if we had been taught ze when growing up.”

Braquet said if students and faculty cannot use ze, hir, hirs, xe, xem or xyr, they can also politely ask. “’Oh, nice to meet you, [insert name]. What pronouns should I use?’ is a perfectly fine question to ask,” ze said.

Here’s the chart of guidelines (this is not a requirement or an official policy) given to UT faculty and students:


I don’t have strong feelings about this one way or the other, except to say that I don’t think it will work given the tenacity of current usage, and that it seems awkward to ask someone when you meet them what their preferred pronoun is. The vast majority of the time you’ll just get the conventional answer. My own feeling is to wait until someone tells you that they don’t want you to use the word you thought was appropriate—and, as ever, to be sensitive when writing or speaking to not stick to just one of the “he” or “she” usages.

But because Pinker has pondered this issue, I asked him what he thought of the Tennessee guidelines, and received the following response, which I reproduce with permission (note that Pinker emails are always perfectly written):

I did write about gendered pronouns in The Sense of Style, including mention of the dozens of gender-neutral pronouns that have been floated over the course of more than a century. Not surprisingly, none of them caught on. In general it’s difficult for anyone to engineer linguistic change other than governments, or professional societies within their publications, partly because it’s difficult to get hundreds of millions of people to do what you want, but  also because conventions require “common knowledge” – everyone has to know that everyone else knows that everyone else knows … ad infinitum, that the new convention will be followed (see the attached paper, whose intro also makes some seldom-appreciated points about the evolution of cooperation – biologists tend to conflate it with the evolution of altruism, but there are important evolutionary puzzles in the evolution of mutualistic, win-win cooperation as well). Sometimes there are unpredictable tipping points, as with fashion, in which some public figure or movement creates a critical mass, as in the switch from Mrs. and Miss to Ms. (though even here Google ngrams shows that Mrs. and Miss are going strong), and Black to African American. But it’s far tougher to change “functional” or “grammatical” or “closed-class” morphemes such as pronouns than it is to change common nouns; these small words are embedded with the grammatical infrastructure of a language, are acquired early, change slowly over history, and even may be represented in different parts of the brain.

Steve then looked up the usage of “Miss”, “Mrs.”, and “Ms.” over the last century by tracking usage among all Google books online. The figure gives the percentage of total words that fall into these three classes between 1900 and 2000.

Screen Shot 2015-08-29 at 11.57.36 AMSteve noted:

I was surprised by this – not by the trend, which is common sense, but the fact that “Mrs.” and “Miss” are still going strong, and dominating “Miss.” Changing a pronoun would be orders of magnitude more difficult.

And he added this caveat:

The hits for the text string “Miss” could include other senses such as “Miss you!” and other instances in which it’s upper case.

This effort then, well intentioned as it is, is likely doomed to failure. However, readers should feel free to note below what they think of the recent push towards gender-neutral pronouns.

232 thoughts on “Gender-neutral pronouns come to campus

  1. My solution to this is to stay in the plural as much as possible.

    “Scientists shouldn’t put their names on papers…” L

    1. But you can’t stay in the plural all the time, unless you are going to be grammatically inconsistent.

      Frankly the default ‘his’ which for the last couple of centuries was understood to include potentially female members it worked fine until the whining generation. This whole business is getting nutso, and at my age I am not interested rewriting my language.

      BTW, is this demand not inconsistent with the use of ‘sir’ when referring to both male and female military officers?

      1. Well, let’s make it simple for you. Since “his” was the default for the last couple of centuries, let’s make “her” the default for the next couple of centuries. It will be understood to potentially include male members. Fair enough, eh?

        1. ‘It will be understood to potentially include male members.’ (Mudskipper) But surely male members should be referred to as ‘it’.

    2. “My solution to this is to stay in the plural as much as possible.”

      That’s not a solution, it’s a workaround.

      What I mean is that it’s like dealing with a software bug. Even if you can figure out a way to avoid having to deal with it, it’s still a fault that ought to be corrected.

    3. While many say it is grammatically incorrect, I find that I lose no sleep whatsoever, or clarity, in using they, their, and them in the singular.

  2. I’m going to use Its. That way I won’t marginalize animals, or inanimate objects. If I sound like I’m ridiculing the the whole notion of people taking offense to this, it’s not by accident.

    1. Maybe my problem is I’m old enough that I can remember my mother’s friend couldn’t divorce her alcoholic husband who beat her, because the only way she could divorce him at the time was proof of the beatings, or of infidelity. This, by comparison seems so trivial.
      I suppose I shouldn’t judge because to those women who didn’t experience such injustice this may be the worst they have to suffer.

      1. No social change would ever occur if we compare the wrong done to the absolute worst wrong that could be done. This sort of analysis has been used to defend all sorts of reprehensible practices.

        1. “No social change would ever occur if we compare the wrong done to the absolute worst wrong that could be done.”

          I know, and you’re right, but it strikes me as much ado about not much.

      2. Nobody’s feelings matter unless they are experiencing something worse than virtually anyone else. Got it. Great point, retard.

        1. Okay, Dumbledore, you’ve committed a major Roolz violation with your name-calling. You will never post here again. See the comment by Scott Draper above to learn how you could have made your point without invective.


    2. If someone doesnt identify as male or female, I figure there’s a good chance they simply have a rebellious nature and dont *want* to be included. And now someone’s invented some stupid pronouns to force them to be included. How insensitive!

    3. Mike, I’m with you. I use the appropriate form of it in place of he or she. It doesn’t feel right and using it ridicules the reformers. It is a perfectly good word, there’s no need for righteous replacements except as signals.

      Wheb “Ms.” came in I read Mrs., Miss, and Ms. as “civil status = married, including married and divorced”, “civil status = never married” and “civil status hidden, probably out for a good time.” What a silly coinage.

      1. I grew up with Ms. All of my female teachers were called Ms, and I heard Ms usually used as the “default” for women.

        Now as an adult, I never use Miss, and only use Mrs in certain circumstances (there are women who get upset if you don’t use Mrs). I live in a big northern city, and I’m sure these things move at different paces around the country, but my guess is it will be ubiquitous after some time.

        To have to figure out the marital status of people I’m talking about seems like a pointless, not to mention insulting, exercise. This is especially true since Miss/Mrs has semantic meaning beyond marital status. Would you really call a 60 year old that has never married Miss?

        Your comment about “probably out for a good time” is of previous time, and hopefully that sort of thinking will die out at as the generations roll over.

  3. For generic individuals, as in your scientist example, I have been a long-time advocate of singular “they”/“their”/“theirs”, which has a literary traditional going back at least as far as Austen. (Contra my firm’s editorial policy, which is always to use the cumbersome “he or she”, &c.)

    But for an individual with a non-binary gender identity, I can understand that I’d want to use something that was more specifically singular. the “ze”/“zir”/“zirs” option seems the least objectionable to me.

    Le Guin had “heesh” in The Left Hand of Darkness, iirc. Of course, that never caught on.

    (Btw; my trans* daughter is emphatically a “she”.)


    1. I agree with the

      singular “they”/“their”/“theirs”

      solution. It’s the least bad in a language that has no grammatical solution.

      1. This seems the best solution, as it’s what many already do. Just declare it acceptable in the style and usage guides and be done with the issue.

        1. I agree this is the way to go. I’ve used “they” and “their” in the singular sense most of my life when *speaking* and would love it if it were officially sanctioned for written communication. Who’s in charge of this? (“Who” and “whom,” by the way, are singular, gender neutral pronouns we’ve always had at our disposal all along.)

          1. Most thoroughly agreed. ‘They’ (singular) is fairly natural, and something we can easily adopt without undue effort (unlike ze / hir / whatever), albeit with a slight loss of precision.

            Most** Polynesian dialects do not use gendered pronouns, though they do complicate pronouns in other ways. (Proper names aren’t usually gendered either). Anyway, in English my wife just uses ‘he’ and ‘she’ interchangeably, sometimes with slightly startling results.

            ** I think.


    2. Austen? Try Shakespeare (‘​Tis meet that some more audience than a mother, since nature makes them partial, should o’erhear the speech.’). In fact, the usage is attested as early as Chaucer.

      English already has gender-neutral pronouns, they have existed for over 500 years, we just need to use them.

      1. I did say “back at least as far”!

        I think Austen is still the better example as she’d be seen as a relatively modern writer. Since we no longer use Shakespeare’s “’tis’ and “thou” and so on. (More so re Chaucer.)


      2. Though the interesting thing in your example is that ‘them’ must stand for ‘mothers’ (in general) and not ‘her’ (this specific mother), so I don’t think that here, at least, Shakespeare is using ‘they’ or one of its derivatives as a singular pronoun.

    3. Yes. As you say, they/their/theirs are common words that have been used as singular in for a long time. I’m not sure what the objection is to these words or how trying to get people to use a newly created work would be preferable.

      Perhaps I’m biased. For a long time I played the “pronoun game” used by lesbian and gay people to avoid revealing sexual orientation in conversation. So, they/their/theirs is completely natural to me.

      1. I am in this camp as well. I advocate avoiding using the gender specific pronouns, and I use ‘their’, etc, whenever I can. I too do not know why ‘their’, ‘they’, etc. are not brought up in the recommendations for gender neutrality.

      1. “I doesn’t always sound very stylish”

        Only because our sense of style has been dulled by unimaginative teachers reiterating the un-evidenced beliefs of uninspiring grammarians.


        1. I’m an English teacher, and this made me LOL for real because you are so right. I do know some imaginative English teachers (Ceiling Cat, I hope I’m one of them), but I also know a bunch who just don’t understand how pedantic snobs of the past perverted English usage.

    4. Warmly agree with using ‘they’ & ‘their’ when possible. Otherwise, I recommend writing in Japanese rather than in English – it’s so much more convenient where this sort of thing is concerned.

    5. These alternatives just seem awful to me. I’m fine with using gender neutral pronouns (and as someone else mentioned, have had plenty of practice when talking about significant others now that gay and bi relationships are out in the open). I’m also fine with introducing new words, though they/them/their seems sufficient to me.

      But, if we are going to use new words, can we make them not absolutely awful? Why on earth are we trying to use x and z, two letters that are rarely used for a reason.

      Also, hir/xir/zir are poor choices for his/her analogues, especially if they went them to sound like “here”. Many people are going to pronounce them like sir or Fir, which makes “hir” unworkable and even with the other two there will be lots of confusion about how they should be pronounced and spelled.

      If we’re going to create new words that will be used this much, make them easy on the mouth and ears, and make their pronunciation/spelling obvious.

      1. Also, hir/xir/zir are poor choices for his/her analogues, especially if they went them to sound like “here”. Many people are going to pronounce them like sir or Fir, which makes “hir” unworkable and even with the other two there will be lots of confusion about how they should be pronounced and spelled.

        …and what’s the difference in pronunciation between “xir” and “zir” that should distinguish between the two? Or, for that matter, Xur of the Ko-Dan Alliance? And isn’t “sir,” which is nearly indistinguishable, even more patriarchal than “his”?


        1. Absolutely right. Those proposals are awful. I’d much rather commit a minor grammatical crime and use singular ‘they’.

          In contrast, I’m fine with ‘Ms’, which is close enough to both ‘Miss’ and ‘Mrs’ that it solves a knotty problem without drawing attention to itself.


  4. This isn’t as odd looking to me as I thought it would be thanks to Star Trek. There is a book series, Star Trek: New Frontier, that has a dual-gendered character serving on board the USS Excalibur. That’s where I first encountered the term “Hir” as a third-person pronoun in reference to a dual-gendered being. Now that I have read the 21 novels in this series, it doesn’t seem so odd or out of place. Now if we could just get the faculty and students up on Rocky Top to read the New Frontier books, this effort might go more smoothly.

  5. It sounds a bit clunky to me. My name is Geoff, which is an unusual spelling compared to the vastly more common Jeff. Whenever I tell someone my name when they might need to write it down, I have to spell it out. I do so without thinking about it. “My name is Geoff, G-E-O-F-F.”

    It’s a bit annoying, but there it is. It doesn’t seem much of a solution to require that everyone ask “Is that spelled with a J or a G” without me prompting them, as it’s still not a quick flow of the conversation, and adds the discussion to the 90% of the time people will just spell it ‘Jeff’ without incident.

    I think it’s best just to not sweat the details of pronouns in general, and merely for people to be corrected in the relatively rare circumstances where the first impression is wrong. After all, how many people are there out there where it’s not obvious what they’d like to be called?

    1. A side curiosity is that the possessive “its” has come late to the language. Before “its”, you used “his” to refer to a characteristic of an inanimate object object, e.g.,

      “Samuel picked up the stone, noting his rough, pitted surface.”

  6. There are other possibilities. We could borrow from other languages. Finnish, for instance, does not have gendered pronouns. “han” is animate, “hen” is inanimate. We could also make a formulation from English, for example, a contracted form of “he or she or it”, to be spelled “h’orsh’it”.

      1. Having learned that joke, I have become acutely aware of the regrettable absence of an “unlearn” feature for my brain.

          1. OMCC (Oh my Ceiling Cat), this thread has me rolling. It needs its (or is that his? hers? hirs? Hits? Shits?) blog post.

    1. If the pronouns distinguish animate vs. inanimate, then those are the grammatical genders. Gender=/=Sex.

      1. You are partially right. I should have said that the grammatical genders in Finnish do not, as they sometimes do in Indo-European languages, correspond in any way to biological gender. Get back to me after examining Ganda or Swahili.

  7. Many people use “they” or “their” for undetermined gendered singulars. Despite being wrong in many ways, I think that’s the version most likely to succeed because it repurposes words already in the vocabulary. Adding a new meaning to an old word is much more effective than making up new words.

  8. A simple solution is to change the noun to plural; i.e., Scientists shouldn’t invariably put their name on papers that come from their lab.

    1. “their name”

      Well, you’ve run into one problem straight away!

      I run into this with password policies a lot: “Users must keep their passwords confidential.” Does that mean that there’s some kind of collective responsibility?

      Sometimes it’s important to be clear you’re talking about a singular individual.


      1. “Sometimes it’s important to be clear you’re talking about a singular individual.”

        Easily done for your example: “The user must keep their passwords confidential.” Add a the, remove an s, and clarity is achieved. Lou’s could also be altered easily in a similar manner: “A scientist shouldn’t invariably put their name on papers that come from their lab.”

        1. Though, as Ben Goren points out elsewhere on this thread, there is still a subject/verb disagreement in play here, so a problem remains.

            1. There is surely not a subject/verb disagreement in these examples. ‘User’ & ‘keep’; ‘scientist’ & ‘shouldn’t’; ‘papers’ & ‘come’…

  9. I think this’ll take off about as well as the conversion to metric has in the States.

    Also, it’s not hard to re-work a sentence so as to avoid gendered pronouns at all. For example, rather than, “A scientist should be careful in his work,” try, “Scientists should work carefully,” or even, “scientific work is carful.”

    …and there’s another problem. Whilst it’s admirable to avoid assuming gender and thereby inject various biases, we do have gender. There will always be circumstances in which gendered pronouns aren’t merely appropriate, but required. “If a person wants an abortion, xe has a right to seek competent medical assistance”!? No, I think not. And it can quickly get incomprehensible. “Xe should be sure xirs condom is secure on xirs genitals before proceeding to insert it into xirs orifice.” Huh?


    1. “I think this’ll take off about as well as the conversion to metric has in the States.”

      Metric has been creeping in. Everyone now talks about liters of soft drink and I measure my cooking ingredients in grams. People involved with hobbies such as biking often talk about Newtons, Pascals, and Millimeters, and I’m sure the same is true in any other hobby that has an international component.

      1. I’ve just run the numbers. At this rate we will be fully converted to metric just about the time soft drink comes by the deciliter due to drought, and global warming makes outdoor hobbies such as biking impossible south of the arctic circle.

        1. Scott, but how do you measure, for example, baking soda in grams? I have a kitchen scale, but can’t imagine getting 1/2 tsp. precisely enough in grams.

          1. I bought a digital jeweler’s scale on Amazon. About $10, but it’s accurate to 1/100 of a gram. So I have two scales…a big one for when precision doesn’t matter (flour is fine to the nearest gram), and then the smaller one for when it does (baking soda, powder, yeast, etc).

            I use it every day. I only pull out the measuring spoons when I have a new substance for which I don’t know the mass per volume.

            1. I will note that most bakers who use weights will still use volume measurements for small quantities like baking soda, because of the weighing problem you mentioned. Most of them only have scales accurate to the nearest gram at best.

          2. Measuring spoons are often marked in both conventional and metric figures. One teaspoon is five milliliters, and a milliliter of water weighs one gram.


      2. Drug dealers use a blending of metric and imperial systems as well. Want to know how many grams are in an ounce? Most stoners could answer that question without a second’s thought.

        Well. Maybe a second’s thought. 😉

    2. Those example sentences completely fail to demonstrate that gendered pronouns are “required”. Both work perfectly well with they/their with no loss of relevant information.

      1. That may be…but I think there’s also a very real danger of going overboard in a manner that does nobody any good.

        I have no problem with somebody who today identifies as a man having once been pregnant. But, if you’re pregnant today, you’re a mature female human — and, if the language is to mean anything at all, a mature female human can only reasonably be a woman. If you’re pregnant right now and yet still think of yourself as a man, you’re very, very confused, out of touch with reality, and in serious need of a great deal of more-than-competent professional mental health care.


          1. “Cis-plaining” or no, there’s this niggling little fact that we allegedly share a language. In my dictionaries and historically for millennia, a woman is an adult human female, and a female is a member of the sex that bears offspring or produces eggs. If you’re literally in the process of bearing human offspring, you are literally the very dictionary definition of a woman.

            I’m sorry, but I just don’t see any practical way around it. I’ve met people who say they’re not Christian because they’re not religious and don’t go to church; instead, they have a personal relationship with Jesus and his extended family. No; sorry; they’re religious Christians. And if we can’t even agree on something so simple as that ancient and universal definition, then no conversation is possible. Same thing, of course, with those godless people (such as Neil) who insist they’re not atheists.

            As in this case. If you’re pregnant, you’re a woman. (And, conversely, if you’re in the personal act of making a woman pregnant, you’re a man.) You may well be a particular type of woman; you might even be a burly, manly he-woman who bears all the hallmarks of maleness. But to deny that a pregnant woman is a woman…well, it renders the term as utterly meaningless as the Jesus-lovers who deny being Christians or the ungodly who reject atheism.

            Note: I’m not claiming you have to take on any of the social roles or habits of women, any more than I’m claiming that Christians must recite the Rosary and receive communion weekly or that atheists must publicly claim absolute unshakable knowledge that no gods exist. Regardless of biology, you should feel free to be as much or as little masculine and / or feminine as you wish, whether that means fully embracing the non-traditional and unexpected or switching roles on a whim or inventing your own entirely novel non-normal norms or whatever.

            But if you’re actually pregnant and you’re denying that at least one very significant and defining part of who and what you are is a woman…then you’re not only experiencing a serious delusion but demonstrating the most extreme form of misogyny I can imagine.

            I mean, really. You’re pregnant, and yet you still can’t stand the thought of identifying at least in part as a woman? And that’s a source of pride?


            1. I think you’re presupposing that “man” and “woman” are mutually exclusive. If it is possible to be both (is it?), then one could presumably be a man who is (currently) pregnant, because one is also a woman who is pregnant.

              The convention these days seems to be that whoever says they are a man (woman) sincerely is a man (woman) for whatever reason. Presumably that allows also saying: “neither” or “both” by any criteria also desired.

              1. I think you’re presupposing that “man” and “woman” are mutually exclusive.

                I could swear that I not only addressed that, but made the point that that’s the sin the transgender advocates are committing.

                If you’re going to insist that a pregnant person is not a woman, you’re not speaking any language that can reasonably be called, “English,” and you’re denying that pregnancy (etc.) is the defining characteristic of being female. In any other context, in any other species — even hermaphrodites and gender-changers and parthenogenists — there’s not even the slightest hint of controversy.

                By claiming that somebody who’s pregnant might be a man, entirely a man, and nothing but a man, you’re claiming that “man” and “woman” are mutually exclusive — and that (and I do believe Ant wrote as much) matters of reproduction are entirely irrelevant to considerations of gender.

                As I’m sure I wrote, a pregnant woman can certainly be a most manly masculine woman, with no outwardly-recognizable female characteristics. But there’s still a part of that woman that is inescapably and definitively female — and to deny that a pregnant person is a woman is to reject the very notion that there’s a spectrum of gender that the transgender advocates claim to be promoting.


            2. I think you’re only consolidating your error. We have long passed the point where “man” and “woman” are defined solely by biology (specifically, by whatever kind of plumbing you were born with, since psychology is ultimately biological, of course). It seems that you don’t understand gender dysphoria very well; in any case, your comments come across as rather unsympathetic, if not demeaning.


              1. On the contrary. Even the Bible itself has all sorts of multiple marriages and what-not; outside of the fantasies of the homophobes and local tribal practices, marriage has never been restricted to one man and one woman.

                But both “male” and “female” have always, in all cultures, in all contexts, been about reproduction.

                What you’re claiming is akin to, for example, a parallel claim that Michael Jackson could have been legitimately described as white if he had decided that black was no longer an accurate description of his inner sense of the true color of his skin.

                What I’m claiming is that, no, these words are well defined, and we do nobody any favors by pretending that reality is something other than what it is. But, at the same time, Michael is more than welcome to sculpt his body however he wants and act however he wants (within typical limits of criminality and the like) and we should treat all people with the same dignity and respect (or lack thereof) without concern for the color of their skin, whether at birth or after subsequent modification.

                In other words, you’re in the position of claiming that the whole problem is the person’s plumbing and the plumbing must either be “fixed” or we must pretend that it’s been fixed. But that’s not the problem; the problem is that people are discriminated against because of their plumbing, and changing or ignoring the plumbing won’t do a damned thing to fix the problem.


              2. Nice straw-manning, Ben. I’m not making that claim about plumbing at all.

                I don’t think you’re right with your “always” &c. comment. Even if it were, it’s just not a good argument that it always must be so. Analogies are never good examples, either.

                The fact is that the usage you’re disputing is already established amongst the LGBTQ community and the medical professionals that deal with gender identity.


              3. And I think it’s even more telling that you avoided my analogy with race. So let me push that a bit further, to see if it sinks in.

                Imagine that you yourself, a lily-white British man, declared yourself to be a Black American. Not that you love Black culture; not that you’re appalled at the historical treatment of Blacks in America; not that you appreciate your own (and everybody else’s) ancient African ancestry; not even that you’ve fallen in love with a beautiful Black woman with whom you plan to raise a family and share the rest of your life.

                No, you yourself claim to actually be Black, a reflection of your inner Blackness, and that your Blackness transcends the superficialities of your skin color. And, further, as far as you were concerned, you had always been Black, even from birth, and suffered great trauma and anguish growing up as a white Brit in a white British family and society with everybody expecting and pressuring you to be white and British when your true identity was really Black American.

                There’s no need to imagine what the reaction would be; that experiment has been run.

                Consider, now, how much more fluid race is than gender…and how much similarly weaker the case is for gender.

                Again, I’m not claiming that one must hew to any sort of gender stereotypes, any ore than I’d claim that white people can’t immerse themselves in Black culture. My Black friends welcome and embrace me into their lives, as much as any other friend — and vice-versa, of course. And we accept each other for who we are, not denying the color of our skin not attempting to change it or pretend it’s something or not; it’s just one fact of many, along with any other demographic fact such as height or eye color.

                And it also doesn’t mean that one can’t explore, and explore deeply and immersively, the perspectives of others. I would have loved to have seen Washington Shakespeare Company’s Othello with an all-black cast save for Patrick Stewart in the title role.

                And it doesn’t mean that you can’t get plastic surgery to sculpt your body to some image more to your liking, for whatever reason. “Radical makeovers” are a big thing, after all.

                You only run into trouble when you cross that line of denying reality.

                And if the reality is that, at this moment in time, you’re with child, then the reality is that you’re a woman.


              4. The analogy remains poor: Gender dysphoria is very firmly established; racial dysphoria is not. (But see Jess Row.) (And, by the way, were you aware that “trans-racial” is one of the usual lines of attack from people who wish to ridicule transgender people?)

                Since it’s clear that your “reality” is relentlessly cis-centric, I shan’t try Jerry’s patience further with this conversation.


              5. Gender dysphoria is very firmly established; racial dysphoria is not.

                I’m sorry, Ant, but this statement is so far removed from reality that it just completely blew me away. I’ve had a very difficult time trying to think of a suitable response.

                May I suggest?

                Start with Shakespeare, with Othello (and, for good measure, The Merchant of Venice.) Continue with Harriet Beecher Stowe and the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — and be sure to get caught up on recent events in the States, especially those in Ferguson, Missouri. Don’t overlook the demographic composition of the American prison system, or of the life expectancy of young American Black men, or of racial rates of educational success, or even of substance abuse rates by race.

                And then come back and tell me that nobody in America experiences “a state of unease or generalized dissatisfaction with life” because of skin color.

                The LGBT rights movement is a recapitulation of the American Civil Rights movement, and you do yourself a powerful disservice in every way imaginable to think that the trials and tribulations of sexual minorities are in any way significantly different from those of racial minorities.


              6. I know I’d said I was done, but good grief, Ben! Are you being deliberately provocative? Or did you really misunderstand my meaning so badly? If you understand what gender dysphoria is, then what I meant by “racial dysphoria” should be obvious (something very different from what you apparently think I meant).


              7. Ant, I’ll end with this response.

                You’re repeatedly being very emphatic in distancing all things transgender from the American Civil Rights movement. And that is neither wise nor healthy.

                You’ve indicated that this amounts to common wisdom amongst transgender activists, and I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt that that’s where you’re getting it from. But it is depressingly very likely that the ultimate origins of this antipathy are very ugly, indeed, even if there have been many layers of patina laid upon it to cover that over before it reached you such that you don’t recognize the fundamental nastiness.

                At the very least, the Civil Rights movement has an enormous wealth of practical wisdom and experience to offer the disadvantaged of all stripes. The recent success of marriage equality in the States owes an incalculable debt to Loving v Virginia. Not only did that case lay the legal foundation for Obergefell v Hodges, marriage equality advocates made repeated reference to the bad old days of laws against miscegenation in their public outreach and advocacy. They successfully hitched their wagon to the train, and it got them exactly where they needed to be.

                But that also points to the flip side. Historically, those purportedly seeking to make redress for the disadvantaged who distance themselves from the Civil Rights movement…have not been seeking equal protection under the law, but rather special considerations — to be made more equal than everybody else.

                At the very least, you owe it to yourself to do some deep soul searching, to try to figure out why it is that you’ve got such a strongly-worded reaction to anybody even hinting that American Blacks face the same classes of struggles as the transgendered. And if you come to the conclusions I hope you will, you’ll embrace the Civil Rights movement yourself and move the rest of the transgendered advocates in that same direction.


    3. Gendered pronouns aren’t a given in those sentences. Someone who identifies as a woman can have a penis, and someone who identifies as male can get pregnant.

      1. Exactly! (Let alone someone who identifies as non-binary, who might use “ze”/“xe”; “his abortion”, “her penis” in your examples. But “their” would work as well for a generic individual of no particular gender.)


        1. But “their” would work as well for a generic individual of no particular gender.

          The problem with “their” for use as a singular pronoun is manyfold. First, we lose the plural pronoun. As bad, it implies that the single individual is in fact a multitude, an hive mind — and, when it doesn’t do that, it brings us right back to the territory of the royal “we.” And it further creates confusion when it’s used interchangeably with individuals and groups.

          I wouldn’t design a new language without a generic genderless pronoun, but we’re faced with serious problems in retrofitting such onto English. None of the alternatives are good…and the least worst continues, for me at least, to be to avoid writing sentences in ways that call for pronouns in the first place.


          1. “The problem with ‘their’ for use as a singular pronoun is manyfold. First, we lose the plural pronoun.” &c. — Nope. We didn’t lose “you” as a plural pronoun when it all but completely replaced “thou’ for the singular!

            “it implies that the single individual is in fact a multitude, an hive mind” — Only if you insist on still thinking of it as “really” only a plural pronoun.

            What you’re saying really boils down to an argument from authority, since only certain grammarians insist that “they” is plural. As I noted before, very literate writers have had as little problem with singular “they” as many ordinary English speakers.

            “Each user must keep their password confidential.” Where’s the confusion there?


            1. “Each user must keep their password confidential.” Where’s the confusion there?

              Subject / verb agreement.

              Consider the inverse. “The users must keep his password confidential.” Wait — whose password is being kept confidential, especially since everybody already knows it?

              If you’re going to use “their” in such a context, at least take a moment to pluralize the rest of the sentence. Try, instead, “All users must keep their passwords confidential.” Not only is it grammatically correct, it’s slightly more rhetorically forceful.


              1. “Subject/verb agreement.” Nope. “Their” functions as a singular just as readily as “you” does.

                I already highlighted the problems with that formulation of policy elsewhere.


            2. Their as singular still grates on my admittedly “snowflake” ear, though better than the xe nonsense I suppose.

              1. But I think ‘their’ as singular occurs quite naturally in speech. But, yes, that xe, xir, complete with pronunciation guide, is nonsense.

          2. But English already adopted a plural form for the singular–think of “you”. At one time there was both a singular and plural form of you. Now we use “you are” for both singular and plural. This is not exactly new territory for our language.

            1. The language certainly evolves. But it tends to do so organically over time, and frequently resists authoritative attempts to have order imposed upon it.

              There were a couple windows of opportunity for systematic reform: first, at the start of the age of the printing press when the written language really took off for the first time; and, second, when lexicography and grammar studies became a serious subject. Nothing much came of the first one — at least, not that I’m aware of. The second one was when, for better or worse, the rules first got formally codified — and that’s where most of our current conventions trace to.

              That those conventions have remained relatively stable, for the most part, since then should tell you something. Usage of course continues to change, but there’s a lot more inertia these days — and that inertia is only building. Note the discussion elsewhere of gendered honorifics, including the realization that, whatever we might do today, there’s still centuries of writing using “Mr.” and “Mrs.” Unless we’re to undergo an Orwellian re-write of such, those terms are going to be ubiquitous for ages, even if we stop using them ourselves today.

              And, honestly…if you look at it objectively…most European languages tend to be much more gendered than English, and yet they also tend to have more gender equality than America. So the problem isn’t gender in English; it’s how women are treated. And, honestly, I don’t think language reform is going to do anything significant to address the very real problems we have here with gender equality. Maybe it will; and, if so, fantastic. It just seems like an awful lot of work for so little real-world gain.

              Quick poll: which would you prefer? Congress passing a law mandating gender-neutral language in all settings paid for with taxpayer money, or passage of the ERA and equal pay for equal work?

              I remember a time when the face of feminism was the ERA and Title IX and demands for equal pay. Today…well, I really don’t think we’re headed in anywhere near the right direction, and I’ll leave it at that for the time being.


            2. English used to have three numbers – singular, dual and plural. The dual number was a feature of Proto-Indo-European and survives in a number of languages in that family.

  10. Greetings Earthlings,
    “Sapiens” or “Sapien” would seem to be
    accurate, applicable and gender neutral terms. It was his book. It was her book. It was the sapien’s book. What do the sapiens think?

  11. I don’t like the gender neutral pronouns. It’s just not practical. I like the change-to-plural solution.

  12. In scenarios where one knows the gender or preferred pronouns of the individual use those pronouns.

    In scenarios where one wishes to be general or does to know the preference either pluralize (as others have described above) or use (as I have been) “one” or “one’s”.

  13. In 1976, in his “author’s note” to Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Tom Robbins wrote:

    Throughout this book I have used third person pronouns and collective nouns in the masculine gender. To those readers who may be offended by this, I apologize sincerely. Unfortunately, there are at this time no alternatives that do not either create confusion or impede the flow of language; which is to say, there are no acceptable alternatives. Here’s hoping that when and if I publish again, there will be.

    Unfortunately, four decades hence, and pace Mr. Robbins’ hopes, there still aren’t.

  14. I encounter this problem all the time in my work as a translator, primarily from French. All French nouns are gendered so for the French there is no problem regarding gender assumptions. For example the word for a person is une personne, which is feminine, so any adjective or pronoun that follows the use of that word will be feminine, regardless of the fact that it may be used in reference to a man. Conversely, the use of the masculine pronoun says nothing about the sex to which it refers, but simply to the gender of the word used. On the other hand, they have in recent years run into a few political problems. For example the word for a minister (political) is masculine (le ministre). However, since there are now female ministers, there has been a slight shift towards political correctness in that a female minister is no longer addressed as Madame le ministre, but Madame la minstre, I guess someone similar to the problem that arises in English when week address someone as Madam chairman. In French and many other languages, of course, gender (in the linguistic sense) depends on linguistic roots. The reason why a French person is always always female is that the word personne derives from the Latin persona, which is a first declension feminine noun.

    1. Dutch words are gendered too. But, befitting Dutch, we’ve made a mess of it. The article for a male and female word is ‘de’ (the) and the article for a neutral word is ‘het’ (it). So there’s no way to tell wether a ‘de’ word is male or female.

      To make it even worse, some ‘de’ words are gender neutral. Take for example the three Dutch translations of the word teacher: ‘de leraar’ (male), ‘de lerares’ (female) and ‘de leerkracht’ (neutral). The gender of the word doesn’t match the gender the word refers to.

      And ofcourse I fully agree with Steven Pinker that changes are difficult to implement. The best solution is use plural as mentioned above or to say one uses a certain pronoun because there is no alternative, like Tom Robbins did.

    2. If I remember correctly, in German all diminutives are neuter, so the most common word for girl, das Mädchen, is neuter.

      1. “in German . . .the most common word for girl, das Madchen, is neuter.”

        Hence Mark Twain’s observation that in German, a cabbage has a gender, but a young woman does not.

    3. I’ve always considered those languages more sexist than English with a noun usually having to be masculine or feminine. Kitchen is feminine, office is masculine for example. There are thousands of examples. I’ve always thought “the” a better idea.

      I always hated Miss/Mrs/Ms. When I was in my 20s (1980s) Miss meant you hadn’t found a man who thought you were worth marrying, Mrs meant you had found a man to justify your existence, and Ms meant you were gay or you were one of “those” extreme feminist types. I always insisted people just call me Heather.

      It hasn’t really changed much. When people assume a title for me, they always pick Mrs. As I’d rather we were like the Japanese and had no titles unless we earned them, I don’t bother to correct them. Those who pick that title consider it’s the “highest” form. Software, especially from British and US companies, often forces you to pick a title between the three. I had to do it just yesterday. I go with Ms, but it annoys me intensely I have to make a choice.

      There’s a small movement here of Maori going back to using one name as in pre-European days. It’s partially a nod to this that sees NZ musicians choosing single names e.g. Lorde and Kimbra.

      As for pronouns, I mostly use their etc as singular unless I know the person prefers something else, including his, her. Otherwise I go with whatever feels right on the occasion, and I’m sure I get it wrong oftentimes, but never deliberately or maliciously.

      1. Grammatical gender has noting to do with biological gender. The word is derived from Latin genus, meaning type or class. It is an accident that most Indo-European languages have three genders which sometimes correspond to biological distinction of male, female and neuter. Persian, on the other hand, is an Indo-European language that has no grammatical gender and languages in the Austronesian, Turkic and Uralic language families also have no grammatical gender. The record (that I know of) is Swahili, which has 18 genders. Czech and Slovak have four (masculine animate, masculine inanimate, feminine and neuter). Ganda, spoken in Uganda, has ten (people, long objects, animals, miscellaneous objects, large objects and liquids, small objects, languages, pejoratives, infinitives and mass nouns).

        To think of grammatical gender as being somehow sexist is a mistaken notion that might be true only if all languages had the same genders and they all corresponded to biology. English at one time was much more highly inflected than it is now, with all nouns, as in German, being masculine, feminine or neuter. After the Norman Conquest, the influx of French created a situation in which new words differed in gender from their English counterparts (French has masculine and feminine but no neuter). The people responded by dropping noun gender altogether, and by the end of the Middle English period the only remaining gender distinctions were in the pronouns, and the dative and accusative cases had conflated into a single objective case (Proto-Into-European had eight cases)and the dual number was also lost, leaving only singular and plural numbers. There is a reason that reading Beowulf and other Old English literature is like reading a foreign language. It was, indeed, a very different language than Modern English.

        1. But modern English doesn’t have *grammatical* gender. With very few exceptions (e.g., using “she” &c. for ships), gender in English has tracked biological sex. The question now is, should it be modified to track non-binary gender identities?


          1. I disagree. Modern English does have grammatical gender, but it’s almost exclusively confined to the pronomial system. Of course if you hearken back to the days when it was Anglo-Saxon (aka Old English), all the nouns were either masculine, feminine and neuter, and all the articles and adjectives associated with them had to be declined properly according to gender, number and case.

            Here, of all places, I shouldn’t have to explain the term “vestigial”. You wouldn’t say that boas and pythons don’t have a pelvis just because it’s vestigial, would you? One place where we’ve seen Modern English gender marker fall into disuse is the use of diminutives to mark the feminine. Today, one seldom hears speakers use the forms “waiter/waitress”, “actor/actress”, “major/majorette” or “comedian/comedienne”. However, some people do still distinguish between “fiancé” and “fiancée” and “alumnus” and “alumna”. Note, too, that bicycles are the only machines that come in male and female (despite what people sometimes name their cars). The larval forms are safety pins & paper clips and the pupal forms are coat hangers.

            1. Point taken. I should have said that grammatical gender tracks biological sex, but doesn’t exist otherwise (that is, inanimate objects are always – or very nearly, but I can’t think of any other example than ships – neutral, unlike German, French, etc.)

              But a bicycle remains neutral, whether it has a crossbar or not.


    4. I come across such problems when translating from Japanese, where subjects and objects and who something belongs to are generally understood from the context, and where number is not specified so we don’t know whether it’s one, two or fifty frogs jumping into Basho’s pond, let alone their sex, and we don’t know whether it or they have jumped in together or is or are continually jumping in.

  15. So when speaking of the large boat moving over the water, it should be said: She moves well over the water or She/he/it moves not so well over the water.

  16. I first encountered the subject of sexist language and pronouns when Douglas Hofstadter brought it up in his Scientific American column “Metamagical Themas” in 1983 (reprinted in his book of the same name in 1985), and have tried ever since to write without using gender pronouns. After years of practice it’s become second nature and now I find both “his” and “her” (alternated, say, as Dr Coyne does) just as jarring as the original “his”.

    As Hofstadter said when he wrote “A Person Paper on Purity in Language”,

    “My feeling about nonsexist English is that it is like a foreign language that I am learning. I find that even after years of practice, I still have to translate sometimes from my native language, which is sexist English. I know of no human being who speaks Nonsexist as their native tongue. It will be very interesting to see if such people come to exist. If so, it will have taken a lot of work by a lot of people to reach that point.”

    A found an online version here:

  17. Regarding Miss/Mrs/Ms:

    Another confounding factor is that books published today may nevertheless refer to historical persons as Miss or Mrs. So the ngram stats aren’t necessarily an accurate reflection of current usage, unless there’s some way to restrict the scope to (say)contemporary fiction.

    1. The thing I noticed about the graph was that the frequency of both Mrs and Miss had already been declining for a long time before Ms got off the axis. My hypothesis is that honorifics are usually redundant anyway when the purpose is to refer to individuals, so modern English increasingly uses personal names instead.

  18. My opinion on this as a white guy, I suppose carries no weight – but I just never even think about stuff like this, unless I know someone is intentionally using a certain pronoun to cause offence. Like if someone was talking about a transgender person, and intentionally used the wrong pronoun – that would bother me, and I imagine, the subject of the slight as well.

    Personally, In the case of a sentence like “a scientist should take care in his work”, my natural inclination would just be to phrase it “a scientist should take care in their work”. “Their” seems like the far more natural choice over choosing his/her/ze/whatever.

    As “Mr.” or “Mrs.” etc. – I think you just correct someone when necessary. As long as it’s an otherwise well-intentioned mistake, why be offended?

      1. I think that’s relatively rare, from the special snowflakes. Most, reasonable, trans* people take offence only if you ignore their request to use a particular pronoun, Continuing to use “he” when someone has asked to be referred to a “she” or “they” or “ze” or whatever is as rude as continuing to refer to them by a previous name. For example, continuing to call Loretta “Stan” or Caitlyn “Bruce”.


  19. I’m confident enough with my identity (woman in science) that I’m not in the slightest offended by the use of ‘he/him’ in referring to a general scientist.

    Problem with the gender-neutral pronouns above are that they don’t seem natural (the ‘z’ is a bit alienating, which is going to make it even harder for them to catch on.

    In Sweden, a couple of years ago, there was an effort to introduce a gender-neutral pronoun ‘hen’ (derived from ‘han’ (‘he’) and ‘hon’ (‘she’). It’s use was officially encouraged, and it seemed to catch on. I don’t know the current status of the word, but I know it’s reception was one if mixed feelings: some thought it very useful, and others thought it was barking up the wrong tree.

    I am personally of the opinion that increased egalitarianisation of society will remove the need for such pronouns; I.e. as women become more confident with their own identity, they won’t have to worry about insignificant words like ‘he/him’, but have more important things to do…

    1. I agree. As I, and many of the women I know, have become more self-confident, it doesn’t seem to bother us any more to be referred to, for example, as “girls”, especially among ourselves. Now if some really chauvinistic-seeming guy called a bunch of us women that, we might be annoyed. Kind of like how the n-word is usually OK among blacks, but not used by any others. That said, I was kind of annoyed to get an email yesterday from the phone company adressing me as Mrs. I have never used Mrs., even during the 12 years I was married. The he/her bit doesn’t really bother me much. I like Jerry’s idea of alternating them. This Tenn stuff seems a bit awkward (Tennessee?? really??)

  20. I could have this wrong, but the Quakers I associated with recommended using first and last name when referring to a person (particularly a college employee, teacher, instructor, etc), rather than Mr, Mrs, Miss, Ms, Dr., Professor, and so forth.

    1. I have read articles in which men are referred to by their last name, and women by their first name. It seems to be done unconsciously, but it does remind me of how the same used to be done to blacks and other non-whites.

  21. I think that one can be concerned about the issue without being offended. I think it’s likely that having the male gender as the default does bias our society to prioritize the male over the female.

    Having pronouns gendered seems rather pointless to me and makes the language harder to learn. I say get rid of them.

    All it would really require for this to take off is to have a popular TV show or movie incorporate the idea.

  22. I’d like there to be more common usage for non-gendered pronouns because using they/them/their can get awkward. I don’t think I’d ever ask someone what their preferred pronoun is though, and I usually just find it funny when people can’t figure out which I am.

  23. The fact that titles and pronouns have different usages don’t support the idea that changing pronouns will be harder – it just suggests that the comparison tells us nothing. The change in habitual usage follows on from a catalyst for change. The strength or urgency of the catalyst is as important a consideration as the mechanisms of cultural change vs. resistance.

  24. I read Pinker’s ‘The Sense of Style’ and, much as I enjoyed the book, winced every time he used the gender specific he/she when the gender pronoun required was clearly neutral. Now I’m reading Sam Harris’s latest book, ‘Waking Up’, and wincing again for the same reason. Sticklers may object to using the plural ‘their’, but it has a long history of common usage and doesn’t reek of political correctness as he/she does. I’ve also noticed the type of writer who opts for the politically correct ‘she’ will often revert to using ‘he’ whenever the reference is negative, thus displaying an inverted sexism.

  25. I think if I knew someone who was this uncomfortable with bring referred to by the traditional pronouns, I would just refer to them by name. It’s stories like this, though, that make me glad I didn’t go into academia, which I have, on occassion, regretted.

  26. One think that annoys me is the use of words like “chairperson”. If the person’s identifiable as a man or woman, I use “chairman” or chairwoman”. If the gender is unknown or ambiguous, I use “chair”, as in “Who is the chair of the committe?” or “Who chairs the committee?”

    1. Everyone is annoyed when others ask them to change their habits.

      The person who waits on you at a restaurant is now more commonly known as “server” and it strikes me as dated to refer to a “waitress”. And you really show your age when you refer to “stewardess,” rather than “flight attendant”.

      I’ve noted that “actor” is now most commonly used for both male and females.

      1. Yeah; you don’t hear “editrix” much. 🙂

        You do still occasionally hear “executrix,” as the position comes with responsibility and some honor.

      2. Concur.

        Although calling, say, Scarlett Johansson an actor still causes me momentary confusion, but less and less as it becomes the norm.

        Putting aside anti-monarchist sentiments for the moment, when will we see (say) Prince Alice?


        1. Well, you pretty well got Prince Alice in the Disney/Burton-Elfman thing – there she or he or they was or were scampering about in armour and slaying jabberwocks, whether male or female, I don’t know, since, as the film was Disney, animals aren’t allowed to have sexual parts, though there is the usual odour of smirking prurience that seems to be a Disney speciality.

  27. Inventing new words, especially when there are half a dozen different versions in use, is never going to work.

    I use they/their/theirs.

    1. Same here, especially in speech, where it sounds natural and neutral. Also in writing where the gender is not relevant. I have to say I find the (singular) they/their formulation a bit annoying when there is genuinely only one gender involved (eg nuns, Premiership footballers, WI members).

  28. The pronoun “Ms” should not take a period at the end. It isn’t an abbreviation.

    I’m all for gender-neutral pronouns, when they’d be useful. “Ms” isn’t gender-neutral, but it’s matrimonially neutral and usefully fills a gap between Miss and Mrs.(Both of which seem to be fading, especially “Miss”.)

    If we carry this gender-neutral business too far German speakers (among others) are going to have problems. 🙂

    1. The pronoun “Ms” should not take a period at the end. It isn’t an abbreviation.

      It isn’t a pronoun either (if we’re being pedantic); it’s an honorific.

    2. I understand in recent years the German use of “Fraeulein” has diminished, as referring to a woman as an unmarried woman (regardless of age) has become seen as slightly insulting, implying specifically that an older Fraeulein cannot find a partner. So it’s apparently now a “Frau” for all.

      (Written as a joke, but the contents are serious.)

      1. Yep, it’s Frau regardless of maritial status. The last time I have been called Fräulein was more than 30 years ago. An elderly couple living next door allways called me “Fräulein Monika” as a polite form for unmarried familiar young woman. I didn’t mind too much, both were well over 80. A younger person would have faced a very different reaction. 😉

    3. and I don’t think the Brits even put a period after Mr and Mrs (point taken about Ms not being an abbreviation, though).

  29. The plurals work okay for anonymous pronouns, as in “A scientist shouldn’t put their name…”, but they don’t work so well in a specific case – “Jerry Coyne shouldn’t put their name…” doesn’t roll off the tongue so easily.

    If we use he and she for those who like it, and only use the special versions for those who don’t, wouldn’t that single them out in an unintended way?

    I still can’t imagine using zir, it reminds me too much of Zsa Zsa Gabor and zir funny accent. Plus my auto-correct really fought hard to change zir to air.

    This could take time…

    1. Zsa Zsa has often been found in crosswords (as “ZSA”). The clue was often something like, “Half a Hungarian actress.”

      1. I guess that is my question: do they want us to use “ze” just for them (and others who so specify), or for everyone?

        My impression has been that some, at least, would like to see genderless pronouns all the time.

        1. Just for them.

          Undoubtedly /some/ might want it for everyone, but the central ethic of trans* culture as far as I see it is respecting people’s self-identification re gender, so “enforcing” a homogenous pronoun seems antithetical to that.

          Again there’s the distinction between the use of “they” &c. as genderless pronoun for a *generic* individual (as in Jerry’s scientist example) and the use of a gender-appropriate pronoun (“he”/“she”/”ze”, say) to reflect the fact that a *specific* individual identifies as male or female or genderqueer, agender, &c.


  30. In German, plural forms are not gender neutral, and usually identical to the masculine singular, so that, for instance, the plural form “Wissenschaftler” (scientists) is the same as “Wissenschaftler” denoting a single male scientist, even if the group of scientists includes female ones.

    Because this was perceived as sexist, there came into use several forms analogous to he/she like “Wissenschaftler und Wissenschaftlerinnen” (male and female scientists), which, however, was awkwardly long.

    Thus it evolved to “Wissenschaftler/innen”, which, however, was critized on the grounds that it makes the female form a mere attachment to the male and so relapses into the old sexism (seriously).

    Thus it evolved to “WissenschaftlerInnen”, (the famous “Binnen-I”) which, however, gives the impression to any casual reader of referring to an exclusively female group and so is sexist towards males.

    All of these three are in use in and have a pretty strong hold on contemporary written German, especially newspapers and, of course, campuses.

    Now I’m fine with it when it comes to things like the appointments section, but for journalistic texts and such I’m opposed to it for simple pragmatic reasons: You achieve change by communicating facts as concisely as possible, because, if anything, it’s facts that will enrage your readers in a way they want to enact change. Your rage doesn’t create rage, facts create rage.

    So awkward forms like “Wissenschaftler/innen” (and don’t forget we also have male and female articles, plus there’s the he/she thing like in English) can quickly render a text unreadable. There’s even a Firefox app which filters these forms out for you!

    And of course, what humorist Robert Gernhardt remarked some thirty years ago, when these forms first appeared, still remains true: “Just once before I take my leave from this Earth, I want to see Terrorist/innen and MörderInnen.”

  31. Can we just use “it” and move on? Or if they want to be mysterious and creative, use “zit”. There is no point in making subjective, objective, blah blah blah forms. Time to simplify, not compexify.

    Zit said to zit that zits zits were apopping.

    1. I used to use ‘ze’ ‘zir’ etc, and people who didn’t know about the gender neutral pronoun thing asked if I was pretending to talk in a German accent:)

      1. Honestly? So is zhew. The phonemes are not only not typical of English, but the sorts of sounds common in Chinese that Westerners have a lot of trouble with. You’d have about as much luck getting “lee” introduced in Japan as a similar pronoun.


  32. When my brother and his wife adopted a little girl after having two boys, I realized that English has no gender-neutral plural word for “niece or nephew”. Where is the equivalent of “siblings”? Italian has the word nipoti, and I’ve been meaning to use it.

    I don’t see how we can get away from she/he when we can’t even move to the metric system.

    1. nibling

      Conklin, Harold C., “Ethnogenealogical Method”, in _Explorations in Cultural Anthropology: Essays in Honor of George Peter Murdock_, W. H. Goodenough, ed., McGraw-Hill, New York, 1964 via Wp


    2. Although it’s not in the dictionary, I use ‘niecephew’ as an analog for sibling. Most people seem to understand what I mean….

      1. There’s always the (perhaps clumsier), “brother’s/sister’s/siblings’ child[ren]”! This might even be clearer if you want to distinguish between nieces and nephews on one side of the family and nephew and nieces on the other.


      2. Never heard that term before. If someone used it in conversation, I’d assume one of three things – the got their tongue twisted, my ears are in need of cleaning, or, most likely, they sneezed.

        Especially as an analog for sibling. Broster or something I could see, but you’re not only combining genders, you’re jumping relational distances.

    1. Therre’s always the “reg-ex” kind of solution, as e.g., in Spanish (from Wp):

      Two methods have begun to come into use. One of them, seen most often in Spain and Mexico, is to use the at-sign (@) or the anarchist circled A (Ⓐ) to replace -o or -a, especially in radical political writing (¡Ciudadan@s!), but use of the slash (/) as in (el/la candidato/a) is more common.

      So, if you use “s/he”, you could use “h*s” or “h%s” for “his”/“her[s]”. But that’s even more rebarbative. (And all of these preserve binary genders, where “ze”, “xe” and so on are proposed to meet the needs of those with non-binary gender identities for specific cases, so a non-gendered singular pronoun for generic cases should encompass this /as well/.)


      PS. An alternative (just to muddy the waters!); elide the “t” from the plural to give you “hey”/“heir”/“heirs” … 😆

  33. I’m curious who decided that pronouns refer to gender identity and not biological sex. It seems the obvious solution to the problem is to just use it to refer to people based on biological sex, which is what most people do anyway. We have no way of knowing what a person identifies as, but we’re pretty accurate on the sex. It also avoids awkward questioning and difficult and embarassing memory issues. We already know that it can be embarassing to forget somebody’s name we’ve been introduced to; now we need to double the info we attempt to remember by adding in gender identity? It’s just a horrible setup for embarassment and offense.

    If we only apply it to the apparent biological sex as seen from the outside then those who identify differently can know that any reference to them is on that basis, which they already know and understand now anyway. After all, they do have to decide which bathroom to go into. Is that also offensive?

    I think people of all gender identities are pretty smart and aware of that issue. This suggestion seems to be pure bureacratic with nobody asking for it, or possible some narcicist people asking for everybody else to burden themselves with this extra effort so that they don’t feel offended at clearly innocent uses of pronouns. Does anybody really care?

    However, I do agree that if somebody requests using a different pronoun for them then you can use it, the same as you would if they requested you use their nickname or middle name.

  34. First, I reject entirely the notion that using standing language conventions can, in principle, be sexist.

    The word “man”, for example, when part of another word, was understood to be sex-neutral by most everyone until the 20th century. So the term “chairman” actually makes no assumptions about sex, and is not remotely sexist. This is because the word “man” originally meant a person, male or female. Likewise, “man the [equipment]” doesn’t mean put a male human at the equipment. It means put a human of any sex at the equipment.

    So if convention has it that the default pronouns are “he/his/him”, that’s not sexist. That’s just one possible solution to the problem that English does not have a sex-neutral personal pronoun.

    Second, I reject entirely the attempt to create new words for a sex-neutral pronoun. They’re absolute rubbish, and they won’t catch on. I tend to use the awkward he/she, him/her type constructions, because too few people understand that a default “he/him/his” construction doesn’t mean the subject is assumed to be male.

    If any substitution is to be made, I favor the depluralization (in context) of “they/them/their”. That’s far less annoying than these newly invented pronouns, and has the benefit of already being widely used by a great many people.

    And finally, I’m really starting to dislike the use of “gender” to denote some mysterious quality completely divorced from sex. When it was just a stand-in for sex, to avoid ambiguity and childish answers (“Sex?”, “Yes, please!”), I had no problem, despite the fact that it’s a linguistic term that can apply to an arbitrary number of word classes, not just “masculine” and “feminine”. But now, it’s being used in blatantly self-contradictory ways as some barely-defined quality that has no legitimate connection to sex. But that’s a bigger topic.

    1. As I mentioned elsewhere, as a grammatical term, “gender” derives from Latin “genus”, meaning “kind”, “type” or “class”.

      The word “man” meaning “person” as in “chairman” is from Old English monn which is cognate with German “man” and is equivalent to using “one” as a pronoun in English. The word for a male human was “ceorl” (pronounced “churl”) and the word for a female human was “cwaen” which became Modern English “queen” (so who came off better with that one – men or women?). The word “woman” derives from Old English wifmonn, which meant “wife-person” or a human who was a wife, and was grammatically of masculine gender.

    2. …because too few people understand that a default “he/him/his” construction doesn’t mean the subject is assumed to be male.

      Words mean what people understand them to mean, not what dictionaries or tradition say they should mean. Even if it’s true that “man” was once understood to include women (and that women were understood to be subordinate to men), that’s not how people understand it now. That doesn’t mean they’re Doing It Wrong; they’re aware of the facts of contemporary usage and conform their speech to those facts, not the facts that obtained in their grandparents’ time.

    3. I agree with all Thanny’s well-made points (just saying so I don’t have to repeat/rephrase them myself).

      For a gender-neutral singular, I have no grammatical objection to he/she, but it’s quite clumsy. So I prefer the handier ‘singular they’, even if it’s not quite correct. It is in regular use, doesn’t need some new totally artificial word.

      But I would only use ‘gender-neutral’ pronouns where the gender is undefined or unknown. Where gender is known or obvious I’d use ‘he’ or ‘she’. It’s really fairly obvious what suits in any particular case.

      For example, “The website owner should give a link to their home page” sounds fairly natural and OK. But “Jerry Coyne links to their home page” (or “his/her home page) is obviously worng. OTOH, “‘Entomologist’ links to their paper in Nature” sounds natural because we don’t know ‘Entomologist’s’ gender.

      ‘He’ and ‘she’ have persisted because they carry additional information which is frequently useful. Gender is one characteristic of people which is (usually) easily identified and carries a quantity of information, even if stereotypical, and is compact. Trying to introduce unfamiliar terms or elaborate circumlocutions which fudge that information is, imo, doomed to failure.


      1. “The website owner should give a link to their home page”

        Try instead, “Website owners should link to their home pages,” or, even, if you must, “The website owner should give a link to the home page.”


        1. Well, yes, they’re probably slightly more correct, and re-configuring the example I used isn’t too hard. In other cases it might be much harder to reconfigure the statement concisely. I was just giving examples of when I find the ‘singular they’ unexceptionable, and when it sounds awkward (to me).


          1. In other cases it might be much harder to reconfigure the statement concisely.

            As it turns out, in practice…rarely if ever.

            We have two variables here: singular or plural, and identified or anonymous.

            All this confusion surrounds the anonymous singular…get virtually every real-world usage of such is for the anonymous plural — as in your examples and all the others on the site.

            Anonymous singular examples are vanishingly rare. Almost all examples you might think of are, once again, of inventions created for rhetorical effect — which, again, is the anonymous plural. Even in such cases, if you choose to retain the singular for rhetorical effect, you both strengthen your voice and avoid the situation by fleshing out your anonymous character with a bit more identity, to the point that gender becomes incidental and no more objectionable than that of any real person.

            Ultimately, that only leaves us with a tiny sample of specific cases where there really is only one real individual at hand, and that person’s gender is unknown. I think the most common such scenario would be an attorney speaking on behalf of a client who wishes to remain anonymous — and I hardly think we need to re-wire the entire language for such situations. Especially since, even then, alternatives abound: “My client has instructed me to convey the following conditions,” for example, rather than “They has instructed me to convey his, hers, zers, and / or zhits conditions.”


            1. “Ultimately, that only leaves us with a tiny sample of specific cases where there really is only one real individual at hand, and that person’s gender is unknown.”

              I think more than tiny. There is for example a significant number of posters on this site – and many more on others – who use a pseudonym which doesn’t suggest a gender.

              “I hardly think we need to re-wire the entire language for such situations.”

              I wasn’t suggesting it. I was saying that the ‘singular they’ works and doesn’t sound odd in such cases.


              1. Okay, a challenge then.

                Provide me with a sentence you think can’t reasonably be reworked in at least one of the various ways I’ve suggested and demonstrated, or that will otherwise stump me.


              2. Why, Ben? Not much hangs on this. I think ‘they’ in place of ‘he’ is often the easiest way to phrase something where gender is unknown. Could substitute ‘he/she’ with little work and no change of meaning, but it’s clumsy. Re-wording it is just a little more work and may subtly change the meaning.

                Try this: “After the argument got heated, Prof CC ordered ‘anonymous’ to apologise for their comments and to identify themselves properly when posting, or they would never post again on this site”.

                You can substitute ‘he/she’ in that quite easily (but clunkily), but I don’t think you can re-word it without losing specificity or subtly changing the emphasis, or getting much longer.


              3. “After the argument got heated, Prof CC ordered ‘anonymous’ to apologise for their comments and to identify themselves properly when posting, or they would never post again on this site”.

                What about “…, Prof CC ordered ‘anonymous’ to apologise for the comments made and to provide proper identification on pain of never being allowed to post again on this site.”

                Here I would not certainly object to ‘their comments’ (it sounds grand to me), but ‘themselves’ begins to make one wonder whether one (I’m being a nob, Ant!) is dealing with singulars or plurals and doesn’t sound good. I run into this sort of thing all the time when translating from Japanese, since, although Japanese has pronouns, they do not necessarily need to be used, and so in Japanese one can write away without specifying either the gender or number of the person or persons one is talking about. And then ‘He or she’ or ‘he/she’, and ‘him or her’, etc – the masculine seems naturally to come first, which again raises a similar problem. I really do not like alternating ‘she’ and ‘he’, since every time ‘she’ appears you feel the writer is making an effort to be fair-minded and it seems – to me at least – to be somehow condescending.

              4. “… to identify THEMSELF …”

                Usage note from NOAD: usage: The standard reflexive form corresponding to theyand themis themselves, as in they can do it themselves. The singular form themself, first recorded in the 14th century, has re-emerged in recent years corresponding to the singular gender-neutral use of they, as in this is the first step in helping someone to help themself. The form is not widely accepted in standard English, however.

                If editors and grammarians stopped their (pl.!) petty objections to singular “they”, “themself” could have far wider currency!


              5. Try this: “After the argument got heated, Prof CC ordered ‘anonymous’ to apologise for their comments and to identify themselves properly when posting, or they would never post again on this site”.

                After an heated argument, Jerry demanded an apology from an anonymous commenter and prohibited future anonymous comments.

                You can substitute ‘he/she’ in that quite easily (but clunkily), but I don’t think you can re-word it without losing specificity or subtly changing the emphasis, or getting much longer.

                No “s/h/it”; half the length; and, if I may say so, clearer and more emphatic.


              6. @Tim

                Not bad. ‘the comments made’ isn’t quite so specific to ‘anonymous’s’ comments as ‘their comments’ is.

                And ‘provide proper identification’ sounds more like they have to supply their passport, than just give themselves a nom de plume.

                I am splitting hairs a bit there. OTOH, I’m a little bit more tolerant than you are of the variations of the singular ‘they’.

                But there’s no absolute right-and-wrong with this.

                I do agree with your last point about alternating ‘she’ and ‘he’, it does feel awakward.


              7. @ant:

                ‘Themself’ – sounds OK to me. I know ‘them’ = plural (by convention) and ‘self’ = singular, so the word is apparently a wrong construction. But no wronger than ‘[singular subject] themselves’ is.

                Either way it doesn’t make me cringe.


              8. @Ben:
                ‘After an heated argument, Jerry demanded an apology from an anonymous commenter and prohibited future anonymous comments.’

                But that does raise a problem, for it definitely makes it sound as though Jerry is prohibiting all future anonymous comments, whoever makes them, and not just the comments made by this specific commenter if ze or ze continues to make them anonymously. But it is specifically the latter’s that Jerry is prohibiting (if made anonymously), and not anybody’s. Ganbatte!

              9. Well, in the real world, Jerry has, in fact, banned all anonymous comments. And, if you think it through, you’ll realize that it would be impossible to selectively ban anonymous comments; only pseudonymous comments could be selectively banned. At the least, Jerry would have to have a way of distinguishing one “anonymous” commenter from another — at which point, whatever method he’s using to identify them is a pseudonym, even if he doesn’t choose to share that pseudonym with the rest of us.

                But, if you’re really looking for how I’d distill all that without getting into the gendered pronoun trap:

                After an heated argument, Jerry demanded an apology from a certain anonymous-to-us commenter and prohibited future comments from that individual (uniquely identifiable only by Jerry) until after the apology has been delivered.

                Honestly, guys, it’s not that hard.


              10. No, it is not all that hard (I had already rewritten it), but can be tricky on occasion, as I know from translating from Japanese. Anyway, for everyone edification here’s a better rewriting:

                “… Prof CC ordered ‘anonymous’ to apologise for the comments made and not to post anonymously on the site again.”

            2. With respect to infinite…’s comments on my rewriting. I agree only to a very small degree with you, for in context no-one would misunderstand – and a language like Japanese makes you very aware of what context does for meaning: you just don’t need a lot of the distinctions we have in English, but we think we do.

        2. No; they don’t work. “Website owners should link to their home pages” To each other’s? “The website owner should give a link to the home page.” Which/whose home page?


          1. Assuming the rest of the context doesn’t otherwise make it plain, it’s trivial to further qualify.

            “Website owners should link to their own home pages.”

            Or whatever other variation on the theme you might care to express.

            “Website owners should link to each others’s home pages.”

            “Website owners should link to their respective instructors’s home pages.”

            Whatever. And as necessary.


    4. “First, I reject entirely the notion that using standing language conventions can, in principle, be sexist.”

      Languages don’t evolve in a vacuum. A sexist culture can evolve language conventions that reflect that sexism. In our culture, males have been largely viewed as the normative humans and our language evolved to reflect that view. It’s not by coincidence that our language typically defaults to the male, not female, gender.

  35. It’s worse in German.

    I suppose we will have to change ‘Der Teenager ist schwanger’ to ‘Das Teenager ist schwanger’ to avoid misgendering people who are pregnant but don’t identify as female.

    Will the University also be changing the signs on the toilet doors to have 3 pictures, instead of just a picture of a man and a picture of a woman?

  36. How about ‘they, them, their’ ungendered singular as already used and ‘theys, thems, theirs’ for ungendered plural? Still some confusion but familar.

    It still seems like a lot of fuss over something that will settle over time – I blame Thems.

  37. I identify as Agender and have adopted the use of thet/them/their used as a singular pronoun. I came out later in life so I am used to people using what to me is an uncomfortable pronoun use. Despite using they as singular being a bit awkward I think it is easier then getting people to use a newly minted word. Interestingly, Sweden recently added a gender neutral pronoun to its official Swedish language dictionary:

  38. I like the neutral pronouns, although I’m sure there will be lots of pushback from the same people who think women shouldn’t be allowed in Ranger School. It would also be nice if we had something like the German “Menschen” to replace “mankind.”

  39. From the ODE, 2010, 2013:

    “In other contexts, coming after singular nouns, the use of they is now common, though less widely accepted, especially in formal contexts. Nevertheless, in view of the growing acceptance of they and its obvious practical advantages, they is used in this dictionary in many cases where he would have been used formerly.”

    The use of “they” in the above context is gaining more acceptance every day.

    The Macquarie Dictionary (Australia) has this:

    “Usage: The use of they, them, and their as non-gender-specific singulars (as in a doctor and their patients) has always had currency in spoken English and is now increasingly accepted in written English. This use of they gives rise to the form themself for the reflexive pronoun by analogy with myself, himself, etc.”

    As this usage gains wider currency, its use will become commonplace.

  40. I agree with trying to be inclusive, all else being equal, but being linguistically prescriptive is *not* easy to implement, even in places with “official dictionaries” (e.g., like the those produced in France).

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