Pronouns and gender: together forever?

The English language is in the midst of a gender revolution – one that began the first time someone questioned why the default state of every noun and pronoun was masculine. Since that point, “humankind” has gradually replaced “mankind,” and the male-centric generic “his” has given way to “hers or his” or (the still grammatically incorrect) “theirs.” Gradually, the language has moved toward treating both genders equitably.

Wordle: Pronouns

However, the preceding statement presumes that there are only two genders, and highlights a very real gender gap remaining in the language: the presumption that gender has only two variants, and thus requires two, or perhaps three, pronouns to reflect reality. Like the generic “he,” the use of these gendered pronouns is so commonplace that it’s all but invisible, except to the people who don’t fit either one and their allies. These people have chosen a more suitable set of pronouns, either based on existing words or new ones that have been invented for the purpose.

Perhaps it makes more sense to call it an evolution than a revolution, since it has been in-progress for decades and isn’t likely to be settled in the near future. To get a sense of what the language might look like once the question of pronoun use is settled, The Wild Hunt asked a number of Pagans and polytheists about their own use of, and attitudes about, pronouns in English. Because the Polytheist and Pagan communities are generally more supportive of transgender people, than what is seen in the overculture, it is possible to speak to a selection of people who have, at least, a passing familiarity with the issues involved.

Generally, it’s considered polite to ask a trans* person what pronoun e prefers. E, em, and eir comprise one set, the old Spivak pronouns, which have the advantage of sounding similar to common English pronouns, unlike zie and hir, which are also deemed too feminine-sounding by some. On the other end of the spectrum is the use of the word “one” to denote a person without referencing gender. While this has been argued as perfectly practical, no one interviewed for this article uses that form. There are those who use “they,” despite the fact that it sounds incorrect to many a grammarian’s ear, and others think “it” is the most appropriate descriptor.

P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

While seemingly inconsequential to the cisgendered, binary-gender pronouns have a very real impact on those who don’t identify as one, or the other. P. Sufenas Virius Lupus, a metagender person, said that the simple act of filling out an online form can be incredibly frustrating. E explained:

[A]ny online form that forces me to choose either male/man or female/woman for a gender, and does not allow me to proceed without making that choice, isn’t something I can fill out … I do not mark them on forms at doctor’s offices and such any longer, either.  Any online forum, survey, or anything else which requires it isn’t something I can participate in. This is what kept me from joining the Polytheism Without Borders project last year when it started; when I raised this point with the creator of the group, I was told, ‘Can’t you just pick one for convenience?’ Nope.

To take this trend to its natural conclusion, the expectation would be that all people have the right to choose the pronouns that are most suitable, and the assumption that the preference is “he” or “she” unless otherwise stated would have to fall away. Is that a realistic or practical outcome?

Melissa ra Karit, a genderqueer priest/ess in CAYA Coven’s Wildflower tradition, said:

Personally, I would love to see preferred pronouns becoming an automatic part of introductions. ‘Hi, I’m Mary, I use she/her pronouns,’ and, ‘I’m John, I use e/eir pronouns’ seem simple enough to add. I don’t actually think remembering someone’s pronouns would be much if a stretch once we got beyond the assumption that someone who appears female uses female pronouns and someone who appears male uses male pronouns. (What do we mean by “appears female/male” anyway?) We routinely remember all sorts of information about people, such as jobs, their families, their food allergies, their birthdays, and so on. For those who tend to forget such details, I imagine they would use the same sorts of memory aids, such a cell phones and calendar reminders, that they do for everything else. (Can you imagine if your phone popped up a message that said ‘John, e/eir, is texting you?’ I can!)

While zir may feel that learning preferred pronouns is simple, not everyone agrees. Autumn Pulstar, who identifies as a cisgender woman, admits, “I find it hard to use the nonstandard pronouns, even when referring to someone who prefers them. Being in my 50s, old habits die hard. I’m not trying to be disrespectful, but it is something that does not come naturally … and the awkward pause is often more unsettling than saying what comes natural. Fortunately, I have very cool friends.”

Shauna Aura Knight

Shauna Aura Knight

Speaker and ritualist Shauna Aura Knight, a ciswoman, also admitted that she finds the various pronouns confusing. She added, “One piece of advice I was given by a genderqueer activist was to just use people’s names.” That advice is helpful, but Knight has other limitations that reduce its usefulness: she’s not terribly good remembering names. And while she didn’t say so, avoiding all pronouns in lieu of a person’s name can lead to speech or writing that feels clunky or contrived.

Lupus recalled a relationship that went south over eir desire to use Spivak pronouns to describe emself. It was a surprising case, e said, involving “a trans*woman, who was also not going to go through with any surgical interventions or procedures, who said that I confused her and that the mental gymnastics required to conceptualize my gender as non-binary were not of enough interest to her to do to make any effort toward, and therefore she’d just consider me however she wanted to despite my asking otherwise.”

Diane Verocchi, a cisgender woman, does make sure she uses pronouns of choice, although some of them feel more awkward to her than others. “I don’t know if ‘hir’ would stand out less to me if it were in common use,” she wrote. “I encounter zie/zir online a lot, so they don’t particularly jump out at me. Hir looks like a typo for either him or her and sounds closer to her, so I find it puzzling that some prefer it, but if I know that is their preference, that is what I’ll use.”

Familiarity breeds comfort to ciswoman and writer Jolene Poseidonae, who acknowledges that she doesn’t have much occasion to become familiar with alternative pronouns. She said:

If they were more widely used, I certainly believe that gender-neutral pronouns would be easier for me to see and use and not feel like I’m making up words. If they were something that were more widely used just in my own life, it would be easier — but again, it’s not a huge issue. I won’t say that most of my friends are cisgendered, but those who are not have expressed the desire to be referred to by one of the two gender specific pronouns. That very well may be because those are what’s available, but I couldn’t say for sure.

Jaina Bee, a metagender priest/ess of the CAYA Wildflower tradition, added, “If we really care about each other, we will pay attention to the things that matter to each individual, whether it be a religious observation, a dietary restriction, a differently-abled physical or mental condition, or a set of pronouns. This is not inconvenience, this is common courtesy.”

Wordle: pronouns

An alternative to personalizing pronoun choice is to adopt a more inclusive set, one that either ignores or more fully embraces gender variation. Given that the spectrum of gender includes metagender, intersex, feminine cismales and masculine cisfemales, androgynes, genderqueers, and gender-fluid people, among others, a theoretical group of pronouns that acknowledged all possible genders may be too large to be manageable. Pronouns that do not acknowledge gender at all can also be used if the gender of the person is not known or is irrelevant, but that doesn’t mean there is anything like a consensus to adopt that particular standard. And which ones should become the norm?

“When I look at myself in the mirror and think of what I’d most like to be, I don’t see ‘he’ or ‘she,'” said Lupus, “nor do I see ‘ze/sie,’ I see ‘e.'” Others, however, “prefer the plural-as-singular, which actually has Victorian precedents. Still others I know prefer to be called ‘it,’ since that is a de facto neutral pronoun.”

Hearthstone, a ciswoman writer, remarked, “You’d think it would be possible to adopt a neutral pronoun since English uses natural gender rather than grammatical gender.” She added that she would be fine with being addressed using a neutral pronoun, “if it was a pronoun understood to mean a human being. I would feel dehumanized if someone called me ‘it,’ but that’s because “it” is so strongly contextualized as non-human.” Pulstar also said she would be offended if someone were to call her “it.”

Poseidonae was mindful that, as part of the cisgendered majority, she has choices others do not. She said:

In theory, I’m not sure that I would care if someone referred to me with a gender-neutral pronoun. As much as I’m cisgendered, it is mostly something I’m not overly attached to — which I understand is part and parcel of the privilege of being cisgendered. I wouldn’t hate for us to be more gender neutral when talking about people we don’t know well, but that’s me wanting more of a clear delineation between the public and private realms in our lives than what society currently tolerates.

Verocchi said that her reaction would “depend entirely on situation and context.”  She said:

If they didn’t know which pronouns I prefer, then it I think it would be no different than correcting the pronunciation of my last name (something I do all the time) to respond to that, if I even felt it was worth doing so.  If they knew that I am a cisgender female who prefers feminine pronouns and were using neutral pronouns with the intent of misgendering me, I’d be annoyed or possibly offended.  In either case, I don’t think I’d be as offended” as transgender people have told her they feel when others misgender them, out of disinterest or malice, “probably because I don’t experience it on a regular basis.

A cisgender woman who identified herself as Juni also didn’t want to be misgendered, saying, “I would be fine with it if someone used [a neutral pronoun] to refer to me, though it would probably feel a little odd; I think the only pronoun that would actually make me uncomfortable would be he/his. I would be perfectly comfortable with gender-free pronouns as a general rule.”

Knight agreed that context is important in accepting someone’s use of a gender-free pronoun for herself. She said:

For instance, when I’ve gone to a store or answered the phone and been referred to as ‘sir,’ I’ve been offended. I don’t think I particularly look male, but I’m pretty tall and I have a deeper voice. In retrospect, I’m aware that that has much more to do with my body image issues around weight/attractiveness to men. It was a hit to my self esteem since it told me, in a nutshell, that I was obviously not attractive (as a woman) to these men.

If I were at a Pagan, spiritual, or activist event and I were referred to by gender-free pronouns, I probably wouldn’t necessarily have any negative feelings around it, since it doesn’t really impact my identity in that context. I grew up in a gender binary environment so using the gender-free pronouns might itch a little. That’s the best word I can use to describe it.  It’s not me being offended so much as me not being used to something.  It’s like moving into a new house and I’m not sure where things are and I have to think about everything more.

Knight also said that she wrestles with how to incorporate gendered language into ritual. “There’s a general axiom that multi-syllable words that come from a Latin root tend to have a more clinical sound than the more onomatopoetic words that come from the Germanic,” she explained. “The problem is that Latin has better gender neutral words.” The Germanic words are more primal, and help participants get out of “thinky headspace” but are less inclusive. She cited examples such as “parent” instead of “mother” or “father,” and “siblings” as a more clinical but also more inclusive substitute for “brothers and sisters.”

CAYA Coven Wildflower initiate Verity Blue said:

I would love to see us collectively move to a inclusive/neutral set of pronouns. I think the hard part would be changing habits, but we aren’t really getting any useful info out of she/he her/him. Gender is not the physical sex of a person, it is not the chromosomal sex of a person, it is a complexly layered part of identity that is often beyond describing. Basically our current system is ones and zeros when what we need is more a robust, elegant language. Personally, I enjoy what I call ‘zednouns.’ Zie walked down the street singing zir favorite song quietly to zirself. In my understanding it is the evolution of creating pronouns that start with xy, like the human sex chromosomes. Zie is the collective of all gender expression.

Others are not so sure that separating gender from pronouns is preferable, much less possible. “As for moving the language toward an all-inclusive, neutral-gender pronoun system, there are many considerations that lead me to think this goal is not only improbable, it is also undesirable for many reasons,” said Bee.  “As we’ve seen in recent public discussions of racial issues … [there has been] essentially a denial of the distinctions between people, their diverse concerns and needs, and tends, in practice, to lead to a default that erases those who don’t fit into the conventional definition.”

Ruadhán J McElroy

Ruadhán J McElroy

Trans*man Ruadhán J McElroy also isn’t sold on divorcing gender from pronouns.

Every language [that] I have some familiarity with acknowledges gender, and most societies pre-Christianity, in some way, recognise more than two genders. Ergo, it really upsets me when I see others, especially my fellow trans people, talk about abolishing gender from society. While different cultures recognise a different range of non-cis genders, and hold different standards for all genders recognised, one thing is clear: human beings are a gendered species …

Furthermore, it strikes me as highly dismissive of the issues faced by people based on gender, and the suggestion to ‘abolish gender’ as little more than a cop-out to justify doing nothing; it’s ridiculous and potentially evidence of deep internalised transphobia coming from other trans and non-binary people, and infuriating coming from cis people — the former people are saying that gender for non-cis people only makes life harder, potentially to the point that giving up on a central aspect of a person seems preferable to the headache it causes, but the latter group is basically saying that the former group’s concerns aren’t worth addressing in any way, much less a productive one.

Like the use of preferred pronouns, adopting a set that does not take gender into consideration would require buy-in from the cisgendered majority to gain traction. Hearthstone pointed out, “There needs first to be willingness on the part of cis-folks to use nongendered pronouns and so forth for ourselves, I think, rather than only using them for non-binary folks. Otherwise, it’s still exclusionary.”

Karit agreed, saying that even zir idea of introductions that include pronoun preference that ze imagines needs a generic option. “I see the second part of such a system as moving to a gender-neutral set of pronouns to describe anyone whose pronouns we don’t know. That, I think, would take a big cultural shift. I think anything like that is a ways off in the future.”

Knight looks to altering the entrenched rules of accepted sentence construction. She said:

I think that one part is doing whatever is necessary to change the rules of grammar that say that his/her is appropriate and ‘their’ is not. Going further, if we’re going to use gender neutral pronouns, I really feel that there needs to be a consensus on which ones.  I see ‘hir’ with some frequency, probably because it’s the most [common], but that doesn’t bear up in speech because hir and her are virtually indistinguishable. I kind of like the old Spivak ones because they sound like ‘their,’ but without the consonant. Speaking as a language nerd, the lack of initial consonant makes it a little more difficult for English speakers, or more specifically, it’ll sound like we’re mispronouncing him/her, etc. However, to my eye they look and sound good.

High-school English teacher and ciswoman Robin Ward resists the idea that “their” can or should be used as a singular pronoun, but pointed out the important role teachers play in any change in the language. “People didn’t start accepting ‘his or her’ in place of ‘his’ until teachers started expecting it,” she said. “I’ve thought about introducing my students to alternative pronouns, but to be honest I’m worried about pushback from the parents.”

Changing language changes how the speakers of that language think. Whether those thoughts are guided by an implicit assumption that individuals get to control what pronouns are associated with em, a widespread agreement to adopt one set of pronouns over all others, or a combination of these approaches, it seems apparent that such change will only occur when the cisgendered majority adopts it with intent. So long as these alternatives are only utilized by transgender people and a few allies when referring to those trans* people, it will not be a movement, but the quirk of a small subculture.

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250 thoughts on “Pronouns and gender: together forever?

  1. While I do not see any direct links between Gender pronouns and Paganism (besides the overall tolerance expressed by many Pagans and Witches) I have to acknowledge that this was a lengthy and informative article as usual. Thanks for the information Terence!

    I just am slightly disappointed that no mention of the newly-created Swedish pronoun Hen and its (rather controversial) use in children books and kindergarten (I Give You Four Links)

      • Quite a lot, actually…

        Independent of the fact that polytheist and Pagan groups are far more welcoming of gender-diverse populations than most mainstream groups (and many subcultures as well), as was especially noticeable at the Polytheist Leadership Conference this last July (where trans* and gender-variant folks were not just merely a noticeable minority, but were a significant part of the attendees–perhaps as much as 30% or more), gender-variant roles within a culture are often sacred roles or are part of being a particular type of spiritual practitioner or sacred functionary. The erasure of polytheism and animism over centuries of colonization by European Christians often depended upon not only suppressing their religious practices, but also demonizing those among them who were gender-variant.

        Some of us are gender-variant and also happen to be polytheists or Pagans (and whether the two have anything to do with each other may not be an issue). Some of us are polytheists or pagans who have certain sacred functions that rely upon our alternative gender identities. Thus, to acknowledge these things within polytheist and Pagan spaces, even if we cannot get recognition for them in other areas of life, is essential.

        • This indeed makes a lot of sense, but in that cases we should take the whole transgender/gender-fluidity concept into account. This article unfortunately strictly focuses on one side of this concept which is rather hard to tie to Paganism proper. In addition, the article itself does not make this connection you are referring to and solely bases itself on the tolerance the Pagan community has towards the gnederqueer group. I don’t blame the author though, because the article is quite lengthy already as it is…

          • I think part of the reason Terence wrote this is because of the need for gender-variance-inclusive language in general paganism, though, and it was aimed toward assisting in that regard, or at least making people aware of the need for this. Several of us have been talking about it in various forums, on our own blogs, and so forth for a while now, and he was just bringing that issue to wider visibility.

          • We do cover topics that are of interest to our communities – even if those subjects aren’t specifically of a religious or spiritual nature. As Lupus mentions below, Terence was very interested in bringing this discussion, one being had in other Pagan/Polytheist forums, to our readers. And, additionally, it affect us, as TWH writers, and other Pagan/Polytheist writers.

          • And, as we see, several readers/commenters (I’m okay with she, but still feel left out in binary language like “Sirs and Ladies” etc.). Thanks for this coverage.

          • Perhaps the short version is “Cause Pagans Actually Care.” Much of the rest of the world is just trying to figure out how reactionary to be, we’re *always* interested in how to speak accurately, I think.

          • Yeah…. That’s a nice thought, but it’s what differentiates the “Pagan Community” from what’s referred to in academia as “paganism” or referred to as polytheism in their own communities.

            Meet enough recon polytheists, and it’ll really disillusion you to whether or not those who, in the broadest terms, are in pagan religions “actually care”.

          • Honestly, Ruadhan, when it comes to ‘Recon Polytheists’ that’s why I love the academics about it and just never had the time to wrap my life around their debates.

        • Exactly this.

          I get that Pop Wicca and its ostensible inclinations toward (cis-)gender normativity is the most popular manifestation of paganism today, there is a huge wealth of gender variant deities, including gender variant forms of presumably “cisgender” deities (Dionysos, Adonis, Rhea or Gaia when syncretised with Kybele [as per Attic and Boeotian traditions, respectively], and in Classical period Hellas, Athene was often practically “genderqueer” in artistic representations, by modern standards, just to name a few Hellenic examples; if I’m not mistaken, Odin, Freya, and Loki in the Heathen pantheons also have gender-variant mythology). To be unaware of this is to be simply ignorant, but to have even a passing familiarity with any of it and still be curious as to what trans and non-binary issues have to do with pagan and polytheist religions is to be so wilfully damaging as to be on a close rung with blasphemy.

          • Hm! I’m not aware of Freyja having *gender* variant mythology, unless you parse Freyr as part of Freyja, perhaps. I’d be very interested to see that material. What I know She does have is access to roles that other cultures would attribute as male, but those roles aren’t restricted to men in Norse culture. Skadhi has similar traits and is even treated as masculine, culturally, in certain ways, but that, too, is not parsed as Her gender being different per se, so much as Jotun (possibly in this case Finnish) culture having different roles.

            Odin definitely does have cross-dressing in the Lore, as well as practices later restricted to women, and Loki is all over the map both in terms of role and in terms of physical manifestations. Freyr’s celebrants are said to include effeminate males, and we tend to interpret that to include gay men today. Modern practitioners often parse Jormungandr as hermaphroditic.

            I know there’s more, but that’s what comes from the top of my head 😉


          • I’m not a Heathen and don’t have any more than the vaguest familiarity with Heathen mythos. Thank you for offering a correction, considering my lacking knowledge of heathenry, I’m not surprised that it happened.

          • Fun fact:

            In Snorra Edda (The Prose Edda), during the tale of Þrymskviða when Þórr and Loki cross dress, their gramaticla gender appear to be changing: instead of Masculine, Feminine is used (Tvær, instead of Tveir) which is quite amusing to say the least.

            However, I have studied the sources quite a lot and I can’t find anything gender-bending in Freyja. Óðinn’s quite the transvestite though.

          • Thanks for the Þrymskviða information. It’s been quite long since I looked at the old Norse texts.

          • Just as an observation: it’s not really ‘Pop Wicca’ that has the biggest issues about ‘heteronormativity,’ …the more “*traditional Wicca*” a group gets, the more likely they are to have difficulties fitting non-straight or non-binary people into their practices, even if they’re all for LGBT rights and equality and all. Being rather non-binary myself, it’s come up often that really traditional groups and covens wanted to but just couldn’t fit me in. (On the other hand a lot of less-formal groups would tend to just ignore the issue, essentially, which didn’t really seem to fit.)

            It’s not hard to *be* a non-binary Wiccan, …Lord and Lady obviously have plenty of non-binary *kids,* after all. The issue there is really if in ceremony you’re expected to work in a scheme where that means you have to *be* one or the other.

          • In NROOGD Wiccan practice, we can express duality or polarity as roles (who straps on the sword, who raises the cup), rather than merely gender. However, we also feel it useful for celebrants to learn the different roles and deity “signatures”.

      • Apart from what’s already been said, if you consider how many Pagan religions don’t really consider *anything* truly inanimate, there’s kind of a question about how to speak of non-human entities that aren’t really an ‘it’ in that sense while having indeterminate gender in human terms. I mean, if we can’t respect non-binary *humans* how are we going to talk about a tree or spirit we just met? Without saying ‘it’ with all its connotations of *not* being animate, you know? 🙂

        • Yep.

          And the neuter in Indo-European is only a part of the typically “inanimate” spectrum.

          Fun fact: There’s neuter fire and non-neuter (in fact, feminine) fire in Indo-European. Neuter is Greek pyr, German Feuer (and the Germanic roots of that). Feminine is Latin ignis (and a Sanskrit cognate of that).

    • Swedish is, afaik, a bit different with genus anyway. WRT pronouns, there are, I think, *four* customary pronouns before adding “hen” (human[-like] masculine, human[-like] feminine, other utrum[=common], other neuter).

      I like the fact that “hen” actually starts getting established there.

      And the comment at the end of the daily mail article, so then, let me translate that guy: “I fear that the holy maleness of children I’d like to still assign boy and to pidgeon-hole into boy stereotypes is so fragile that it’ll break apart just by more playthings offers to all children of all genders and of a more careful language practice, leaving gender open as long as it is not *really* a given.” (They didn’t say they don’t use “han” or “hon” even if gender is given.)

    • Seeing that there is now over 2030 comments on this post, my question seems quite irrelevant now.

  2. The use of too many pronouns confuses me. I once tried to combine she he and it, but the resulting word was not ideal…

    • I think the sheer practicalities mean that trying to contrive more pronouns and then make them stick is simply a lot more dubious a venture (Especially when so many different ones are tried, but don’t seem to work as well spoken as they may seem to in writing) …than simply, at least for a start, accepting and going with what seems to be happening in the language *anyway,* …namely using ‘their’ for a gender-indeterminate as well as a plural.

      The good thing about ‘their’ is that it’s actually a natural part of the English language, and it’s only treated as grammatically-incorrect because it was once *declared* so. Quite apart from gender-related matters, people are doing it anyway, so all that’d need to be done is to stop declaring it wrong.

      • I still don’t get exactly how their can be a third person pronoun singular. In Old Icelandic, there are forms that are quite alike but only as demonstrative pronouns.

        • Well, the English and Icelandic languages may both have Germanic roots (if I’m not mistaken about Icelandic, anyway), but are two functionally, demonstrably different languages. What’s normal for English may be awkward for Icelandic, and vice-versa.

          • Indeed, I just wondered if a Philologist might come by, say Hi and explain the origin of this Their.

        • Simply put, it applies to multiple possibilities. Just like you don’t know a number when you say ‘Their’ in general. It’s just dropping the expectation that ‘Their’ must be ‘More than one individual’ cause someone once declared it so.

          (You know, just like they declared it should be ‘he’ if you don’t know: assume it’s a male unless stereotype says otherwise. That’s why in later times we’ve had to introduce awkward ‘he or she’s to keep modern reality correct by the same grammars, when ‘They’ or ‘Them’ used to be perfectly ordinary. Also even in the Latin declensions there are plenty of words that don’t change from singular to plural or between genders by case. It’s not that odd, really.)

          • It’s interesting because Old Norse/Icelandic originally had also a form of dual, specifically used to refer to two items/individuals.

          • The Dual number (in some pronouns in Old Icelandic, yes, just like in Old Greek and Sanskrit) is not related to gender, though. It’s just “two”. In Arabic, there’s a Dual, but only for “natural” pairs of things/persons. Other “two”s use the usual plural number.

  3. Marge Piercy’s book “Woman on the Edge of Time” (1985) envisioned a future where gender was irrelevant, as everyone had the same socialization and had the same roles open to them. Reproduction was done artificially by combining DNA of three individuals. The pronoun Piercy used for he/she was per. The ideas was very shocking in 1985.

    • Reproduction was done artificially by combining DNA of three individuals […]The ideas was very shocking in 1985

      Some still are

    • I always think of the Piercy book when these discussions arise. I think the use of ‘per’ (presumably derived from ‘person’ ) for he/she/him/her/his/her is kind of elegant. Of course, it rhymes with ‘her’ which some will find problematical. I am not sure there is a perfect end to this quest!

    • I acquired the 2nd edn of Webster’s Dictionary due to its inclusion, left out in the later editions, of “thon”, which fact was mentioned in Josephine Tey’s Daughter of Time, a book better known for acquainting Yanks with the Richard the 3rd supporters of the present day.

      Did I mention I was a linguistics major?

          • I understand. I am deep in my thesis research myself so I don’t mind. I’m sure I’ll find it one day, on some dark corner of the internet (or in a dark and dank etymological dictionary)

        • I think it’s more the origin of it came from where he and she came from, and only later did someone say that ‘their’ was a no-no. 🙂

          • Hmmm. I’d think (not specifically well versed in English historiolinguistics) that “their” really stems from plural pronouns like e.g. “þeir” in Icelandic (nominative masculine plural, actually from the deictic pronoun but re-used as anaphoric in Icelandic, too). So it *is* a language change (which is the framing I prefer over “incorrect usage”) to use it for unspecified-gender singular.

          • Except that usage *did* come from the past, H. So it’s not actually a novelty. ‘Rules of Grammar’ made it *improper* in Victorian times.

          • Yes, I know that. I think the origins of “their” or “they” as specifically plural pronoun came from even older times than the documented uses as singular neutral pronoun (known pieces of old germanic root back to B.C.E. and a bit before). And that’s just a historic observation: We can trace that pronoun’s history (as a word and in cognates, as plural only) back so much, and we can trace back the singular use quite far, too. For nowatimes, the now is relevant. For many it flows well enough, even if they don’t know of established pre-Rules-of-Grammar usage. Those who know can feel even more empowered to reclaim that usage, of course. And knowing the even older origins doesn’t invalidate that at all.

          • That is, I didn’t want to imply any incorrectness, except that the origin of “he” and “she” as singular gendered pronouns might be even older, while the very old historic neuter pronoun was what became “it”. “their”, probably “they” too, traces back to the extended deictic pronoun, and has plural historic morphology. And at the same time, historic morphology, more precisely, the historic meaning of some forms/endings/…, does fall apart from current (or a bit less ancient, in the case of pre-Victorian singular they) meaning and usage in many more cases than this, just like lexical meanings can shift over time, too.

          • I would venture to observe that across even closely-related languages, pronouns vary pretty greatly, probably just according to what’s mellifluous (Exactly one big concern here when it comes to trying to coin new pronouns) rather than there being any root words. If you squint, you can even kind of see how familiar pronouns might have come out of Latin ‘that’ pronouns, which kind of of themselves seem to be almost disembodied word endings.

        • Google “language log and singular they”, it’s a linguistic blog and there’s a whole tag’s worth of posts on this topic.

  4. This article is painful. The treatment of language is horrendous.

    No matter what people may want to believe, “mankind” does not refer solely to males; “man” refers to a person and any replacement of that is utterly silly and shows a poor understanding of etymology. It’s just as foolish to say that “history” means “his story” or to replace “woman” with “womyn”. (Want to have some fun? Consider the following: woman comes from Old English wīfmann “woman, wife”, from wīf “woman, wife” and mann “person”. Compare with Old English wer “male, husband; hero (poetic usage only)”, which solely survives in Modern English werewolf. Or consider Old English guma “man, hero”, which solely survives in Modern English bridegroom with an intrusive R. I’d dare say that males got the short end of the stick by losing their own words.)

    Knight’s understanding of language in particular bothers me. While it’s true that polysyllabic words are likelier to come from Latin or Greek, especially after the inkhorn debate of the 16th and 17th centuries, Germanic words are not more onomatopoetic somehow, nor are they magically more “primal”. Goodness, if that were said of a culture in some obscure place in Africa, people would be up in arms here! At least the idea of “sibling” being more clinical—and thus apparently like Latin-derived terms—amused me, considering that it’s a modern revival of an Old English word and has no relation to Latin.

    Hearthstone doesn’t understand what natural gender and grammatical gender are. English does neither especially, although historically it had grammatical gender like other Germanic languages. Our demonstrative pronouns don’t express gender anymore at all, for example. Animals and plants, regardless of gender, are often referred to as “it”. Boats, the personifications of many countries, and a variety of abstract concepts are feminine to many. This is hardly natural gender.

    All in all, this whole business is poorly done. Making nonsensical words that can’t be parsed to have any meaning doesn’t help. People aren’t going to care and going outside of so-called social justice circles will show that many just laugh at these terms. I don’t blame them, especially when half of these pronouns have unclear pronunciations and there are dozens upon dozens of competing forms.

    Using “they” as a singular is awkward. To me it just shows that the speaker doesn’t know how grammatical number works. (For the sake of consistency, I’d like to get “thou” back as a singular second person pronoun and return “you” to its rightful position as a plural second person pronoun, but that’s a losing battle.) I’d personally prefer to see “it” be recast as being gender neutral, as that helps with the aforementioned issues of unclear or inapplicable genders for animals and plants, as well as people. If the worry is about its meaning being dehumanising, then campaign to change that. It will be easier for people to accept an existing word than a neologism that will be forgotten in a few months.

    • Words are invented, or their pronunciations and meanings changed, constantly. Should we also ditch “Internet” (1974) and “laptop” (1984), or made up greetings like “hello” (1827)? Hell, maybe let’s even run Shakespeare through a 1595 version of spell-check (1983) a few times, since he pulled half the words he used out of thin air (1616) or used them incorrectly? As a matter of fact, since our speech now is pretty unrecognizable (1817) compared to Old English or Proto-Indo-European, it’s safe to say that all of the words we use today were either freshly-bastardized “incorrect” versions of older words, or “forgettable” neologisms, at one point in time.

      Unlike some languages (like Spanish, which is prescribed & overseen by the Real Academia Española), English is free. English roams and evolves at the will of the average speaker. That’s the beauty of our language – it’s flexible, malleable; we make it up as we go along, and dictionarians’ and grammarians’ only task is to try to keep up. The irony of people trying to preserve or enforce “correct” English is, of course, that by suggesting there’s an authoritative rule of English language & grammar outside common usage, they’re showing their own ignorance.

      There’s a confusing embarrassment of riches in the gender-neutral pronoun world right now. Things are in flux. People are throwing a lot of stuff at the wall, and in a few decades we’ll know what stuck. (My money is on singular “they”, since it’s already been in constant use by casual speakers and respected authors for at least 700 years.) Let’s just chill out (1990), honor people by referring to them how they ask us to, and embrace the change.

      • I commend you for the lengthy, thorough response, but I disagree on many points.

        You confuse what I said with derivation. “Internet”, “spellcheck”, and “unrecognisable” can be broken down into smaller pieces and parsed. “Laptop” is clearly something on top of a lap. “Hello” has an unknown origin and isn’t applicable here, but variants are attested back into the fourteenth century and may, in fact, derive from an existing Germanic verb. “Out of thin air” is an idiom and is meaningless on its own; all languages have this to some degree and is not comparable with derivation or most forms of neologisms.

        The lack of a language institute for English is appalling to me, but clearly you’re a descriptivist, while I’m a prescriptivist. I am envious of languages that have proper controls on things. Alas, English failed to do this a long time ago and the language is far too large now to set things right. But I do find it funny that it’s wrong to preserve English, but it’s a fantastic thing when it’s done for American Indian languages in order to prevent intrusion of, say, foreign words. Likewise, what is your opinion on Icelandic? I can read Old Norse texts a bit, all thanks to how static the language has been in most regards, but surely you wouldn’t say that Icelandic is ugly and that English is vastly better. To say that would show your ignorance, to borrow your phrase.

        I will agree with you that there is an embarrassment regarding pronouns, but it’s certainly not in any sort of richness.

        • To be fair, Icelandic evolved constantly from the XIth to the XiXth century. It picked quite a lot of Norwegianisms first, and Danish words then. The orthography changed even more, to the point that an early XIIIth century text (Old Norse = Icelandic in the year 1203 more or less) look extremely different from a XVth century one.

          The reason Modern Icelandic and Classical Old Icelandic (= Old Norse) are so close today is because of the emergence of a strong national movement in the XIXth century that literally “purged” Icelandic from foreign influences and modern changes.

          Otherwise, you do make a point.

          • Yet, when people suggest linguistic purism for English, people go mad.

            Personally, I quite like the idea of coining new terms in place of the inkhorn terms, as advocated by William Barnes.

          • English has its own problems. Like Karl pointed it out earlier, there is no regulating organism for the Language. Before even considering purism as a policy, one should probably institutionalize the language further. Maybe making the Oxford Dictionary the “Official” one for British English?

          • The OED almost is the official dictionary for English English. (I won’t say “British”, because we do have other languages here.)

          • I read the Wikipedia article on linguistic purism in English, noting that Poul Anderson’s Uncleftish Beholding was mentioned therein. I think the Lord Darcy novels had some evasion of Teutonic words, but can’t recall.

          • I have the PDF for Uncleftish Beholding somewhere. It’s a great example of what can be done with our language, if we but try.

            I also heartily recommend this book by Bryan Evans.

          • The juxtaposition of “linguistic purism” and “English” flabbergasts me (ahem). I want a stronger term than “oxymoron”, but I don’t know where to find one.


          • The thing that amuses me about calling for Linguistic Purism in English is that the term “Linguistic Purism” is actually made up of two “loan words”, which means there needs to be a better term for it.

        • Oh, you prescriptivists are so adorable.

          Do you actually wear bow ties? I’ve heard it’s mandatory in some departments. And I know that if it were, you’d wear them. Because rules are rules! 😉

          So you can probably tell I’m one of those mad hippie descriptivists, right? *evil grin*

          And this is the beauty of grammar wars. We can duke it out in the back of the room, and nobody else will know or even care what we are on about.

          Good times, good times…

          • When it comes to war, Grammar Wars are probably the least destructive of all. + It hardens the soul of the spiritual Pagan warrior! (or something like that)

      • The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.–James D. Nicoll, 1990, in the Usenet group rec.arts.sf-lovers

      • Well, besides that, one must admit that he raises practical issues that so far no one on this thread has considered like:

        Making nonsensical words that can’t be parsed to have any meaning doesn’t help. People aren’t going to care and going outside of so-called social justice circles will show that many just laugh at these terms.

        • We have people outside of social justice circles who laugh at other notions as well; we refer to them as “racists” and “homophobes” and other such things relating to bigotry. The issue of practicality is what term to use for this particular form of bigotry, so thank you for raising that–it is important that we have a name for what we’re fighting against.

          • Cissexism? Binarism? Not liking the “-phobe” construction/framing, I’d prefer “heterosexism”/”heterosexist”, too, btw.

          • While I take your point, this is a problem I’ve also encountered within LGBTQIA+ communities. “Homophobia” is too weak a word to express why Matthew Shepard was killed, and likewise “transphobia” is for the HUGE list of trans* people who are killed each year for being trans*. Likewise, while I think basing this conversation in an “-ism” as the concept which leads to the actions, I think using both draws out a particular nuance. There are many people I know who are not homophobic (as in actively speaking against equality and inclusion for certain people), but that doesn’t mean they’re not heterosexist, and they often don’t even know they are until they say something like “Oh, he’s not gay, he’s normal” or something like that.

          • The “-phobia” framing is also questionable because it lumps trans*, homo*, … haters (i.e. the more violent cissexists, heterosexists, …) wrongly in with people with mental illnesses, and erases what mental illness really is like. It’s more a matter of degree of *ism to me. (At least) both degree of intensity of *ist action, and of awareness (i.e. knowing and willing *ist vs. *ist out of unawareness).

          • That is, there is something ableist about the “-phobia” framing, too. It erases that those wrongly called “-phobes”, once aware of the situation, usually have more agency and choice than those who actually suffer some phobia and can not so easily change their reactions. (And rarely act out violently against humans because of their phobia. Like someone with claustrophobia killing someone suggesting they use the elevator together? Just unlike the trans hater who violates/kills trans people.)

            Interesting is that we don’t frame (the more intense kinds of) sexists as “gynephobes” but if at all, more accurately as “misogynists”.

          • I dunno, there: I think ‘phobia’ works quite well, despite all the complaints. I’ve seen the fear in the eyes of people bashing *me* quite physically. (Even calling it ‘love,’ but, yeah. Fear. Even supposedly on *my* behalf, but deeper than that, *fear.* )

            Come down to it, people don’t torment other human beings without either being actual sociopaths *or* fearing something worse than becoming what they do when they torture you.

            Short version: I’ve seen it in their eyes. I’m queer, not headblind.

          • Thanks for offering your personal impressions “in the field”, so to say.

            I’m still not at the point of using the phobia framing myself. An influence to my point are, by the way, articles like these:



            One point is, whether fear is actually behind “*phobic” acts or not, in other areas, the phobia doesn’t necessarily imply violence. So at least, the “phobia” framing conflates states of mind – often, mental impairments that work against the afflicted persons themselves rather than others – with violence against others, suggesting a background that may be there in cases, but possibly not in all.

        • Well, I think pronouns are a more difficult matter than simply coining terms, precisely because they’re little words that hold a place for all kinds of other words and names, essentially, and they *don’t* really mean anything specific. It’s why I think using ‘they’ ‘them,’ (’em,) etc is what’s actually going to do most of the lifting when it comes to shifts in language, cause it’s already there.
          So all that has to happen is people get used to not treating it as a *mistake.*

          When people try to graft another pronoun set into such a basic part of English usage, you can debate all you want, but unless and until something percolates into common usage, it’s bound to be clunky: it might work all right in theory but in practice it’s a shift of gears, and in a lot of cases I’ve seen, don’t really cross regional *accents* very well even if they seem perfectly elegant in writing. Which isn’t to say ‘don’t try it,’ but it’s not as if we’re talkng about something you can just declare and make happen to begin with. Language is alive and organic that way.

        • Weird, I’ve only ever run into people complaining about how hard and weird it is online, never offline. Most people are actually polite enough to go along with it, limiting any ‘laughter’ to themselves because, you know, manners and such.

          Just, you know, pointing out that this ~wah wah you’ll be made fun of~ isn’t actually something I’ve seen in reality, just concern trolling.

          • For that matter “If you do something new, people will be uncomfortable and laugh at you for doing something unfamiliar” is an incredibly weak argument against new things.


          • Well, I personally only ever found this issue to be one on line. I haven’t met many transgender people and the only one I briefly knew was quite happy to be treated and called like a bloke. Other may have different opinions on the matter (hence the present debate) but not everyone, even in the Pagan subculture have had the opportunity to face the practical every-day life challenges of post-gendered pronouns.

          • Typically, trans people will present as their identity says: if they’re a ‘bloke’ ‘born female,’ they’re ‘a bloke’ (and thus a he and all.) The indeterminate pronoun thing is for when someone’s not sure about someone else or actually ‘in-between’ themselves.

            Typically trans people are by definition he or she, according to how they present themselves. “It” being an anti-trans slur is part of how badly trans people are treated that way, not about how making the language work better is. Trans people aren’t in large measure the ones who want to declare themselves ‘in between pronouns ‘ in their own lives. Genderqueer people might.

          • Neutral pronouns can also help if I just don’t know. I.e. instead of making default assumptions.

          • Funny thing is that a comrade of mine who’s super conservative in some aspects never noticed (in several months) that he was trans-gender. When I told him he was so incredibly shocked 🙂

          • To be fair i did not think about it. We just were talking about this person with someone else who knew and then my third comrade revealed his ignorance of that fact. It wasn’t done on purpose.

          • We were talking about someone who had left, not just the city, not even the country, but the continent for good. It’s not like I went to the local KKK hangout giving personal information about local trans people. No-one planned on harming anyone and no-one was harmed as a result. While I most certainly understand that in many other cases, doing so might indeed cause distress.I fail to see what harm we inflicted in that particular case.

          • I haven’t met many transgender people and the only one I briefly knew was quite happy to be treated and called like a bloke.

            You *do* realise that this sentence contradicts itself, right?

    • It isn’t awkward at all– singular “they” is a perfectly natural expression of English that crops up all the time.
      “If you ever figure out who fixed that problem, thank them for me.”
      (approaching a customer service desk) “Someone left their phone on the table over there.”

      “This program is really messed up. Whoever wrote this didn’t know what the hell they were doing.”

      We use expressions like these every day and don’t find it awkward. This is just an extension of that usage.

  5. Singular “they” is not grammatically incorrect, whatever our high school teachers may have wanted to teach us 🙂 It’s been in use consistently since before the dawn of modern English: Chaucer used it, as have many “respected authors” in the centuries since–not to mention everyday popular use, which is what defines our non-prescriptive English language.

    Singular “they” wasn’t really criticized until the late 1800s, when a stew of Western exceptionalism and white supremacy (and the concept of whiteness in the first place) was being brewed up by academics in all disciplines in part to justify ongoing chattel slavery & colonialism — think phrenology, eugenics, nineteenth century versions of “history”, “research” trying to categorize & rank races supported by anthropology & ethnography, etc etc. Linguistics wasn’t exempt, & the idea that along with our society, art, and literature, Western *language* had descended from Classical Greece and Rome was really being wrung out for all it was worth.

    Whoever was making these decisions (definitely nobody asked em to do it) decided that English needed to be regularized and conform to as many Latin grammar, syntax, and word-formation standards as we could possibly shoehorn it into (awkward, considering it’s a Germanic language and not a Romantic one). This is when ‘grammarians’ started complaining about singular “they” (but not, interestingly, singular “you”, an equally “grammatically incorrect” use ?) which had been in natural popular use for centuries.

    • I beg to differ! English can be a very Romantic Language, as exemplified by (an excerpt) of this modern classic:

      Take me out tonight
      Because I want to see people and I
      Want to see life
      Driving in your car
      Oh, please don’t drop me home
      Because it’s not my home, it’s their
      Home, and I’m welcome no more

      And if a double-decker bus
      Crashes into us
      To die by your side
      Is such a heavenly way to die
      And if a ten-ton truck
      Kills the both of us
      To die by your side
      Well, the pleasure – the privilege is mine

      Otherwise, what you say is interesting, do you have any sources you could refer to?

      • Ha! Thanks for the laugh 🙂 As for sources, I haven’t got any off the top of my head (besides, I guess, that if you read enough Chaucer you’ll come across him using singular “they”.)

        Most of my knowledge on the subject comes from synthetic, interdisciplinary conversations, as opposed to formal research, among people involved in Ethnic Studies, History of Science, Lingustics, etc. If you want to learn more, look out for info on language imperialism, scientific racism, and the Victorian obsession with antiquity — those three interrelated concepts are the main ingredients for this particular “stew”.

        • To be fairly honest I never read Chaucer. I’ve heard lots of good things about him so I might try one day (Once I’m done with the Medieval Icelandic corpus).

    • What most English speakers sadly don’t seem to realize is that their whole idea of what is ‘grammatically correct’ or ‘standard English’ is largely a construct. There is no ancient, official rule book for the English language that these rules come from; they were mostly made up by grammarians over the last few centuries, and later grammarians continued to teach these rules as if they were inherent to the language.
      People also really need to think about the fact that what is considered ‘grammatically correct’ English largely coincides with the speech of the upper classes and privileged racial/ethnic groups, while the speech of the lower classes and non-white English speakers is generally derided as ungrammatical (certainly true in the US, in the UK geography no doubt also plays a large role). Clearly there are very racist and classist assumptions at play here. What English speakers need to understand is the difference between what is flat out incorrect and what is a dialect. If someone learning English says something that doesn’t correspond to anything said by native speakers, then that is incorrect or ungrammatical. If whole groups of native English speakers consistently use certain forms or words that other groups of native speakers don’t, this is dialect. People need to shed their assumption that languages exist primarily in some pure form and differences occur when uneducated people don’t properly learn that pure form. All languages always exist in multiple dialects, then one dialect, usually the dialect of the educated in perhaps the political center of the language comes to be seen as the ‘standard’ form, which over time imposes itself on the other dialects.
      It come down to the difference between a grammarian and a linguist. A grammarian seeks to impose rules (often arbitrary ones) on a language and make everyone’s language the same. (Responsible) linguists observe and describe the language the way(s) it actually is, and treats that seriously.

      • True. One just needs to see what happened to the rules proposed for The First Grammatical Treatise to know it doesn’t work this way.

      • Though to be fair, btw, in the US there’s a reason we’re supposed to have public education standards in proper English, (At least the American version: some things were actually deliberately altered as an experiment in de-Britishing the country) …is because we’re supposed to *be* an educated Republic without such class divisions.

        (And that’s not just about treating ‘lower-class’ speech as uneducated, it’s also about filing off a lot of the ‘Queen’s English’ as snooty aristocratic or anachronistic affectations, too. It’s something so basic that we forget about it when it comes to debating what common usage is OK, or if people should be teaching ‘Ebonics’ or teaching only ‘American standard’ English or whatnot.)

        Personally I think it comes down to ‘responsible linguistics’ as you say, but that doesn’t mean it has to be imperialistic: in fact a lot of the new language and new words in English migrate *up* the social classes: you’ve got everyone up to Yale professors calling things ‘cool,’ for instance. So common now we don’t notice it.

        • I have somewhat mixed feelings on the idea of teaching a ‘standard’ form of a language in general. On the one hand, having a form of English that everyone learns and understands allows all of us on a place like this (English speakers from all over the world, both native and as a second language) to communicate with each other without much of the confusion that would come if all of us were speaking in a hundred different dialects. So, in that sense, it’s definitely useful, and I don’t oppose English speakers being taught such things as a part of their education.
          On the other hand, I hate that this seems to inevitably create disdain for other forms of the language, as I mentioned in my other comment. If a standard form of English could be taught without the idea that it is the only valid form of the language, I wouldn’t oppose that.
          I’m also wary of how the standardization of a language threatens linguistic diversity. It’s hard for me not to see dialectical forms of English retreating in the face of ‘proper, standard’ English. I think the mobility of modern people also hastens this. Living in the urban southern US, I’ve seen over the course of my life how the mass movement of people from all over the US, but particularly the North, to the Southern US has lessened the presence of Southern dialects, in cities particularly. You could easily go a whole day in a city like Atlanta or Charlotte these days without hearing a Southern accent. Many people no doubt don’t see a problem in that–indeed I’m sure a lot of people would cheer the death of Southern American dialects–but would you (general ‘you’) really want to live in an America where everyone spoke like the anchor people on TV? Or in the UK, would you want to see all the great dialectical variety there replaced by a whole population that only spoke in very ‘proper’ BBC RP English? Some people might like that, but I think that would make things very boring.

          • I agree with you but having a unified, centrally-controlled language can have its use, especially when it comes to fighting or resisting the influence of other, sometimes stronger languages. See for example how the spread of a unified Northern French did to unite the Nation (Imperialistic example, but anyhow) and how, for example, Sámi people are fighting internal language wars because some of their traditional languages don’t fare as well as others…

          • Of course, in doing so, what is now standard French pretty much shattered the linguistic diversity of France, or so I understand. There was a book written in English in the last decade or so on exactly this subject, but I can’t recall its title. The basic thesis was that a few centuries back France was a place of many competing languages, not only in terms of dialects of French, but also other languages altogether. But then the spread of French was so successful that these other languages are mostly endangered (if not extinct) presently.

            From what I know of the Sámi situation, I’m not sure what the solution would be. Certainly if one Sámi language were adopted by all Sámi (most likely Northern Sámi, since I believe that has the most speakers) it might be more likely for that language to survive and thrive in the right conditions. On the other hand, if we accept Pekka Sammallahti’s statement that “one can observe ten Saami languages which differ from one another at least to the same degree as the various Germanic languages”, there is a complication. I’ll use Germanic languages to highlight that since the quote mentions them: in a hypothetical world in which all of the Germanic languages were endangered, could you see all Germanic peoples saying, “Hey, let’s all give up our language and speak German or English so that way at least one Germanic language will survive!” It would hardly be fair for the Sámi to do the same.
            It seems to be the inevitable result for minority languages in modern nation states. The pressure to assimilate into the dominant language is just too strong. And sadly often Indigenous peoples are the most at risk from this situation. As someone who loves languages, it depresses me that by the end of this century it’s predicted that half of the world’s languages will be exinct. It’s a sobering thing to consider; and I honestly don’t know what a solution would be to stop that.

          • This is likely an extension of cultural erosion. Society, it would seem, just does not like anything “other”.

          • Indeed, there were (and still are, a little bit) lots and lots of dialects and other variants of French, but in the name of centralization they are probably going to die out. Even today none of those languages have any official recognition or support, not even Briton, which is quite sick when one thinks about it.

            Regarding Sámi, each dialect is really more of an actual language and some are simply too different from each other to be mutually understandable. Sámi in the south and the East would rather die painfully than adopt North-Sámi but on the other hand there are so very few of them that their languages are all probably going to die anyway. It’s quite sad, but at least we can witness some rather courageous attempts to fight the tides like SomBy, the first (and likely the last) band singing in Inari Sámi

        • There’s absolutely nothing wrong with educating people in formal uses of a language, but there’s also a point in stressing that there are appropriate situations for informal and vulgate forms of a language. That said, “singular they” has been in use, even in formal uses of English, for literally centuries; the idea that it’s “improper” is less than 150 years old, and and be traced to inherently sexist and classist motivations (and likely racist, as well, considering the time, especially) and “normalise” that in the very language itself.

        • Ebonics, about which much fun has been made, was not to be learned, but reformed from, into “mainstream” American English. Without a term to identify an issue, it’s hard to advocate its change.

    • THANK YOU. I was grinding my teeth over this very thing. I do have an article on this bookmarked somewhere, too. I’ll update if I find it.

    • THANK YOU!!!! I saw “grammatically incorrect” and actually shuttered. I have the 16th edition Chicago Manual of Style open here at my desk. Excluding formal writing (e.g., journal articles — i.e., NOT the blogs and facebook posts where people are bitching about this), singular “they” is fine.

      From 5.46, “Because ‘he’ is no longer accepted as a generic pronoun referring to a person of either sex, it has become common in speech and in informal writing to substitute the third-person plural pronouns ‘they,’ ‘them,’ ‘their,’ and ‘themselves,’ and the nonstandard singular ‘themself.’ [This] usage is accepted in casual contexts…

      Avoiding the plural form by alternating masculine and feminine pronouns is awkward and only emphasizes the inherent problem of not having a generic third-person pronoun. Employing an artificial form such as s/he is distracting at best, and most readers find it ridiculous. There are several better ways to avoid the problem.”

      Case closed, people.

      • I balk at using singular “they” because I simply would like to better understand the context and the identities of the person or persons being referenced. I consider it a point of courtesy to refer to people accurately, and if that means alternate terms and asking the person to tell me what the correct choices are, I do so without hesitation and expect others to make the same effort.

        However, yours and Erica’s posts have eased my mind on the usage. I was taught that a plural word must be used in that context and is not a substitute for collective nouns. I’m glad to have learned something new from this thread.

        • I balk at using singular “they” because I simply would like to better
          understand the context and the identities of the person or persons being

          And this betrays your privilege in the matter.

          In “story problems” in school children’s text books, the gender of a person may be irrelevant: “The teacher gave twenty apples to their class.” This is a hypothetical teacher with a hypothetical class; their gender is irrelevant in this situation.

          Sometimes you really can’t tell the gender of the person on the phone by their name and their voice, but if your partner asks you who called, it would be valid to say “just some telemarketer, I hung up on them,” when you can’t tell if they’re “Chris for Christian” or “Chris for Christopher”.

          There are plenty of other times in your (and anyone else’s) life where another person’s gender may be unknown and irrelevant to you. No-one is obligated to tell you their gender or the context of their identity; that is not information that you or any other (ostensibly) cis person has any right to, it is information that you will get on a needs-to-know basis, which is at the discretion of the other person.

          • I agree with you there. I just don’t understand why you need to phrase it as a matter of privilege. In a reply to another post of yours, I made an effort to see why I had that attitude.

            My conscious intent here is clear and accurate communication with whomever I encounter. I make neither requirement nor assumption of any sort of privilege in my intent.

            As for relevance, I determine it during the exchange, not prior to it, nor do I ever fret over another person’s choice of how much and in what detail they wish to disclose their personal identity.

          • You’re serious? You really don’t see how demanding to “understand the context” of everyone else’s gender is a symptom of your cis male privilege?

            If you play XBox online with a (cis or trans) woman who does not reveal her gender because of past harrassment over the same platform, did you not enjoy the game just as much? If you’re waiting tables and a customer is seriously the most androgynous person you’ve ever seen with a name on their credit card to match, did you not get tipped just as well?

            To say that either person needs to inform you of their gender to better communication absolutely is a symptom of your privilege in this matter. If neither hypothetical person feels you need to know, how does that make your interactions with them any worse?

          • Really? My exact phrasing “I WOULD LIKE to better understand” is exact in meaning to a demand? My citation of courtesy is from cis male privilege? My writing “nor do I ever fret over another person’s CHOICE OF HOW MUCH AND IN WHAT DETAIL THEY WISH TO DISCLOSE” means they need to serve a whim I clearly don’t have?

          • If you have a point independent of what I’m saying here, and I’m not getting your point because you are phrasing it as a rebuttal to things I clearly don’t believe I’m saying, then I suggest that’s where we are both coming up short on this.

            Do please note that I have stated agreement with you on certain statements of principle. The rest, I offer with an attempt at self-honesty, is getting mangled by our history of personal, heated exchanges here. I hold no animus towards you. I just would like to have a civil exchange on a topic you clearly know more about than I do.

          • The teacher gave twenty apples to the class.
            Not a personhold cover, please: access hatch.
            The phones are not manned, they are staffed.
            Not every reforming umbrella word needs to *state* gender.

          • “Sometimes you really can’t tell the gender of the person on the phone by their name and their voice”. That’s cissexist in my eyes. Often, on the phone, people don’t really listen to first names well enough if they get to hear it at all. Remains the voice. And assuming that the real gender of someone with a high voice is feminine and with a deep voice is masculine is cissexist and hurtful. BTDTNT.

    • I’m glad to hear the history of singular “they.” As an English teacher, I correct it on formal essays, because it will harm my students if they do not realize that they will be penalized for it. However, I never penalize a student for it in informal writing, because it absolutely is becoming accepted oral usage. I think it’s only a matter of time before “they” becomes the accepted gender-neutral pronoun we’re missing. I’ll be delighted when that happens, personally.

      As for “you,” singular “you” has always been fine, though it was the formal second person pronoun. It used to be paired with “ye,” the plural second person pronoun–another pronoun I miss; despite my New England origins, I’m inclined to add “y’all,” the Southerner’s solution to that missing pronoun, to make up for the loss of “ye.” (I don’t think that makes up for the contribution of grits to the American menu, but it does go a long way. 😉 )

      “Thou/thee,” which strikes many modern English speakers are formal because it is now archaic, was once the intimate or informal second person pronoun. Only “plain speech” Quakers use it now, alas… and writers of mock-archaic rituals. Perhaps it is time to lay “Thee” into its grave…

      • “Thee” is still in use in certain English dialects. Indeed, I have heard many a conversation start with “how bist thee?” or something similar.

      • I was only a Northern transplant to a state south of the Mason-Dixon line, but I picked up “y’all” and “all y’all” with delight and have no intention of giving them up any time soon. They’re so *useful*! (Although it drives me up the wall when I see people typing “ya’ll”. The apostrophe stands in for “you”. This is “youa all”. Stop it, people!)

  6. One thing I’ve thought about on occasion is how this discussion would play out in other languages or language groups. In English, the issue is largely confined to pronouns, but other languages would have their own unique issues. Semitic languages, for example, conjugate verbs by (male/female) gender in the second and third persons (or even the first person in Modern Hebrew present tense), e.g. Hebrew amarta ‘you (male) spoke’ amart ‘you (female) spoke’. In this situation, it would be hard to implement non-binary gender without drastically changing the whole language. On the other end of the spectrum would be Uralic languages which completely lack grammatical gender, even in pronouns, e.g. Finnish hän ‘he, she, it’.

    • At least for Turkish (no grammatical genus), there are still gender connotations to the lexikon. Like associating masculine with “doktor” even if the word itself doesn’t *really* mark any gender (and there’s no simple “motion” in Turkish either, you’d have to add an adjective “male” or “female” to make it really marked in speech). But unmarked is still, on the social level, read male instead of human.

      For German (in singular, classical Indo-European/Germanic three genus system), I described some things in my other comment.

  7. I don’t care about the so-called rules of English. I just want to be understood when I speak. And I am glad to ask people how they want to be referred and then adopt that usage for them.

    • I really would not go around calling trans people ‘it’… unless you like the idea of false teeth! 😉

      • Considering the suggestion was to call everyone “it”, the notion that one group would be (violently) butthurt about it seems somewhat discriminatory.

        • Indeed, everyone could be offended by being called “It” but people who have had bad experiences are likelier to be on the defensive.

          • No matter what you do, someone will take offence. Even if you do nothing.

          • Especially if you do nothing, in many cases. Who knows, you could even be Conservative or Traditionalist in such cases…Gasp!

        • That’s not about ‘butthurt,’ it’s about it being an anti-trans slur to call someone “It,” …it’s not just degendering them but denying their very humanity.

          Being something of an animist I don’t call *animals* ‘it’ or even like cars, important tools, machines, things of that nature, ..really because in English ‘It’ carries such heavy connotations of being inanimate, soulless, etc, that it doesn’t seem right.

          Imagine if you were a minority that got called an ‘it’ usually as a prelude to something nasty being done to you. That’s not about ‘butthurt,’ that’s about being legitimately p.o.-ed.

          • In all honesty, I have used “it” as a gender neutral pronoun for years (even before watching Silence of the Lambs), without any notion that there was a degrading aspect to it.

            Possible case of privilege? Perhaps, but I was simply rendering gender obsolete.

          • Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga offers a hermaphrodite group, who generally prefer ‘it’. Herms don’t seem to have a problem with that, but it IS a constructed situation.

          • Written by a ciswoman, though. I adore the Vorkosigan books, probably my favorite series of all time and re-read so many times I’ve lost count, but the “it” in there always makes me cringe. I believe Bujold herself has said she regrets it, now that she’s more aware of trans people.

          • On the e-list, we have a number of orientations and gender identities. We’ve discovered this over time, as folk plan to get together, or meet Lois at a con she’s attending.

            The “it” makes me cringe, as well.

          • That’s a difference, yes. As trans/gender-variant/… person “it” is in the context of actual verbal or even more intense violence. A violence that others don’t experience on that ground. (I.e. not erasing other grounds on which cis people can experience violence.)

      • I’ve often found that interesting, but that would seem to be a specific context. (I’ve always thought it might be connected to the interrogative, ‘Who is it?’ really, such as when someone’s knocking on a door. But, pet theory. :))

      • In German too, but then, in German it’s “das Kind”, grammatical congruence to “es” (= it). Same for “das Baby” (loan from English, of course). At least in German, the “-chen”/”-lein” diminuitive also is of neuter gender, too, so the association with “small” might “help” in letting “es” feel not really out of place.

  8. As a woman with a trans history I must warn you that you are probably going to get hurt if you ever call me it!!! ‘It’ is a table or an inanimate object and is never a fellow human being or animal. ‘It’ is the method of abuse used against trans people to dehumanise us often by religious extremists, trans exclusionary radical feminists and generally unpleasant persons who want to harm trans people.

    • Its the only term of abuse that causes me great pain… Strip away my humanity at your own risk!!!

    • Do those people really use “It” when referring to Trans people? I am unfortunately not well-versed in these particular strands of bigotry so I never encountered this use.

      • They can and do…Paramedics picking up a transwoman I once knew who was seriously injured after a transphobic attack said, when they thought she was unconscious on the gurney, “This thing should have died.” That is one example I know of; there are countless others, and they don’t always end with the trans* individual surviving the encounter.

        Although, I know at least one gender-variant person who prefers to use “it” as their pronoun, and if that’s what they prefer, and they make that preference known, I don’t think it’s necessarily bad to use it for the person who has requested doing so.

        • This story about the paramedic is appealing. They wouldn’t even have used “It” if it had been an animal.

          • Thanks, I have been trained well by my US-born fiancée though, so she should get all the credit.

          • It seems we most commonly hear about trans people being called ‘it’ in context of human rights abuses such as by police or prisons or medical personnel, and of course, trans-bashers. Things you wouldn’t *do* to someone you considered a *person.*

          • As in the case of medical personnel, in which I happen to be, we are looking for a biological sex, period. Frankly, if you are in an ER being examined by a doctor, medications not only given at different doses, but in some cases, can only be given to one sex or the other. Just because you identify as a male does not mean you don’t have ovaries, get it??? We are trying to keep you healthy and possibly save your life. That life is inside your biological body. To not tell medical personnel your biological sex is negligent on your part and making a physician liable.

          • What do you do with those who do not biologically conform to either “standard” physiological sex?

          • Your apologetics and excuses are pretty sick.

            As a trans man who has been on HRT for seven years, I can say without any doubt that my body functions very differently from a cis woman’s. Giving me hypothetical medication that is only for people of my “biological sex” can be useless or damaging, because my hormone levels are functioning at a typically “male” level, and have been for quite some time, now.

            And just as cisgender men and women have heart attacks with very different symptoms, so do trans women and trans men on HRT have heart attacks with symptoms more-respective of the gender they identify as than the gender assigend them based on apparent sex at birth. By relying on “biological sex” for the treatment of trans people in medical emergencies, you are, in essence, killing trans people.

          • Even if I grant that premise (which is flawed for all sorts of reasons), there is absolutely no excuse for a medical professional referring to someone as “it” or “a thing” (or any other derogatory term) in the process of attempting to save a life.

            There has been more harm done in the name of “for your own good,” not only on this matter but on many others, that the problems of what you’ve just said should be obvious to everyone.

            Please tell all of us where you work and in what specialty, so those of us who are trans* and gender-variant can make sure never to be in your care if we happen to be near.

          • LC, that is *never* cause to call someone ‘it,’ or indeed to misgender someone when talking about them. (Yes, even post-surgery, medical clerks who have nothing to do with your medical care might decide you really are a ‘him’ because your history appeared on your records. In reality,
            pronouns are not the impediment to someone who actually needs to know asking, ‘Is there any chance you are pregnant, have you had a pap smear, do you take any medications,’ whatnot.

            There is no reason for anyone to call anyone an ‘it’ or a ‘thing’ much less ‘medical personnel’ trying to excuse saying ‘This thing should have been left to die’ about a patient.

            That’s more than a grammar problem. Try being *professional* at the very least.

          • But then, the hormonal status of a trans person might make many medications more right matching the inner gender than the perhaps “different” genital status. And then, in terms of rooming, it’s an abuse to put a woman into a men’s room if that implies her being misgendered as man. Be it a cis or a trans (or whatever) woman.

          • And there are many cases where a patient may not be able to signify gender (or sex hormone status or whatever) and where it just does *not* matter on the medical level. Heck, an appendectomy, for example, is probably quite similar in the very most human bodies.

  9. Calling anyone anything, or any group anything, as become quite a minefield within my lifetime. Is there some way to simplify it, rather than make it even more complicated. At some point people will just give up and complain about political correctness which already happens so often. So if we can find a simpler way to refer to all humans that would solve the problem in my opinion.

    • Erasure of all distinctions between people IS the problem, though. While it may ease things mentally for some people, think of what a disservice it would be if suddenly you were no longer allowed to order soup and bread, and instead you could only ask for “food” and would have to be content with whatever edible you were given, even if you didn’t like it, couldn’t eat it, and may even be allergic to it.

      • As has been pointed out, other languages already use gender neutral pronouns. Why should it be such a problem in English?

        Also, last I heard, people are not food. and people do not (to my knowledge) have an anaphylactic reaction to being referred to by the wrong pronoun.

        • people do not (to my knowledge) have an anaphylactic reaction to being referred to by the wrong pronoun.

          Shitstorm coming in 5,4,3,2,1…

          • I have sat by my brother’s bed in hospital because he accidentally ate a sesame seed.

            Let it come.

          • And I’ve sat with a trans woman who is very dear to me in the hospital after being gang-raped by police because she was the victim of a purse thief.

            If you really want to play that game….

          • Different situation. Shifting the goalposts doesn’t work. We are not talking about the very real problem of physical abuse. we are talking about pronoun use.

          • Which can be measurably shown to be reinforced by incorrect pronoun use, and vice-versa.

            And no, I’m not the one shifting goal posts. And since no-one has literally shifted any goal posts, your aversion to anaphylaxis as a metaphor is rather peculiar.

          • I saw the metaphor as flawed.

            Lupus and yourself have helped see that it was my perception that was flawed, rather than the metaphor.

          • It’s the power structure thing, I’d guess, instead of “primitive minds” (which also a bit reeks to me as ableist framing).

            There’s something to “power corrupts” in my eyes, even if I don’t want to erase the choice even those in power positions often really have.

          • If accusing someone in power with being bigoted and unwilling to behave in a civilized fashion with citizens asking for assistance is an ableist thing, you’ll need to explain.

        • How nice it must be to live in whatever world it is you happen to, where people don’t understand metaphors and minimize the experiences of those who have been harmed or even killed over identity erasure, and instead choose to make light of such things with jokes about using terms for excrement as pronouns.

          If there is a shitstorm, as dantes said there might be, realize that you flung the first pile of crap with your earlier comment.

          • I don’t minimise the the experiences of those who have been harmed or killed because of bigotry. I just hope that other won’t minimise a potentially lethal condition, either.

            However, comparing a bit of discomfort at being called “he” to the very real peril of death if you go to a restaurant is pretty offensive.

            I have been physically attacked for my appearance but, unlike Sophie Lancaster, I was able to see off my attackers.

            My eight year old son has been bullied at school (to the point where we now have to home-school him due to his anxiety issues) simply for having long hair – he gets called a girl.

            I get where people are coming from, when they talk about the abuse they have faced. I just don’t think that pronoun selection is comparable.

          • Are you not seeing that most of us who arguing for expansion of pronouns to fit our non-binary gender identities have also been bullied, attacked, demeaned, brutalized, fired from jobs, denied services, and some of us even killed, because of our gender identities? And we’re arguing that this expansion of pronouns, and for others understanding our doing so, is a move in a direction that we hope makes things safer and more accepting for us?

          • Honestly, no.

            Is this a bad thing? Most likely. But let’s face it, I am able and willing to learn from my past mistakes.

          • Considering I starting growing my hair long in my teens while still living in red-neck country, I totally sympathizes with your son. Hopefully, things might get better overtime.

          • Fuck you. That’s not even remotely valid as a comparison, unless you got dragged down a gravel road behind a truck because some hick didn’t like your hair.

            Keep in mind stats like these from the Report on National Transgender Discrimination, “A staggering 41% of [transgender respondents] reported attempting suicide compared to 1.6% of the general population, with rates rising for those who lost a job due to bias (55%), were harassed/bullied in school (51%), had low household income, or were the victim of physical assault (61%) or sexual assault (64%).”

            Beyond that, the first conviction of a hate crime for someone murdering a trans person didn’t happen until *2008*. The vast majority of our society is just NOW trying to figure out if violence against trans individuals is even wrong.

          • Well, you are lucky that I am a well-behaved gentleman, but be warned: using derogatory terms such as “Fuck you” towards complete strangers is generally considered quite offensive. In addition, you may not have read my comment in context: indeed, far from comparing the harassment of trans-people and long-haired ones, I simply wished to express my sympathy with Léoht’s son (Léohtsson ?) in the earnest. If you read the conversation again it will become crystal clear.

            Besides your highly inappropriate cussing, you most certainly do have a point. But be thankful that I am friendly enough to acknowledge this fact: most people insulted by random strangers on the world wide web would not be as accommodating.

            have a good day.

          • It’s part and parcel of it, actually, Leoht. For a transwoman to be called ‘he’ is usually at least a denial of their identities, and often indeed used as an excuse to threaten their lives for ordinary activities, like going to a restaurant or walking down the street. Or using a bathroom. Or having a job or a home. Or calling the police.

            It’s even worse when people are called ‘it’… in English that word isn’t so much ‘gender neutral’ as *specifically neuter and referring to non-people.*

            Trying to say that the existence of dietary allergies makes these concerns trivial is what’s really a false comparison.

            Getting hit by a semi might be in one sense more ‘serious’ than being socially-oppressed, but being hit by a semi or having a sesame allergy could happen to *anyone,* trans or cis. If someone thinks you’re an ‘it’ they might in fact think it’s just fine to forget to brake or to think you deserve to have a food allergy disregarded, for instance.

          • I may have a distorted perception of humanity, then.

            I’ve used “it” as a gender neutral term for humans for years. Mostly because I do not see gender as particularly relevant to anything.

          • Sorry, I have to call “bullshit” on that. How come you seeing “gender as not particularly relevant to anything” wasn’t a valid excuse for why to keep your son in school?

            “Don’t worry, son, those horrible boys who were calling you a girl even though you’re a boy don’t understand that gender is not particularly relevant to anything, and you should just understand that, too.”

            Now you’re just making excuses to defend a very poor position.

            I’m very sorry to hear that your son was bullied (if, in fact, that was true), but the “logic” you’re applying here, and the fact that you’re not getting how these things are connected, makes me wonder whether we can believe you about anything at all. You’re either lying, in need of correction, or are the biggest hypocrite to rear their head here in a while–which is it?

          • I think Léoht story about his son makes sense. Having long hair may not have anything to do with gender identification. One can just have long hair because why the hell not, but it will most certainly be people for whom gender boundaries are especially important that will end up being bullies.

          • Yes…AND THAT’S THE PROBLEM. If it were just a matter of self-identification or self-selection, none of us would have any problems with anything. But it isn’t. There are legal matters that are difficult or inaccessible due to gender evaluations; there are social ones. And, most often, the perception and enforcement of the latter leads to trans* and gender-variant people getting hurt or killed, not to mention many less-severe (but still fucking hurtful) deprivations, insults, and so forth.

            The sooner people start to figure out that there are many more options of ways to express one’s gender within the binary genders (and that hair length has nothing to do with it, for starters, for either of those binary genders, as one example amongst a billion), and that there are also other genders out there, the less people will be bullying and ostracizing people who don’t conform to their “either/or” mindset. And pronoun usage and expansion is part of that.

          • Actually, I use the “ignore them, they’re fucktards.” argument.

            However, they were causing him to suffer, so I removed him from the situation. Pretty simple.

          • Of course you did, and it’s not a bad argument, and I’ve used it many times myself.

            But, I hope in reflecting on the complexities involved here, you can see that there is a connection between the harassment your son endured, and the harassment (and more) that many of us gender-variant people have endured, and still endure.

          • “I do not see gender as particularly relevant to anything.” That’s part of your cis privilege. Not some guilt of you, but something you can become aware of. And aware of the effects of cis privilege and the societal structures around it, on both privileged and marginalized people.

          • I just hope that other won’t minimise a potentially lethal condition, either

            The annual list of trans people (mostly trans women of colour) who have been murdered really isn’t getting any smaller….

            Please don’t diminish a potentially lethal condition, either.

          • I’m not diminishing those people’s deaths.

            I just strongly suspect that they did not die due to pronoun misuse.

          • Then, your son, might experience, possibly still in lighter form (e.g. he *has* parental support) bits of what growing up trans* will mean to kids.

        • Considering that being called the wrong pronoun can, in fact, send some trans people into a full-blown panic attack (this seems to especially correlate with trans people who’ve been victims of extreme violence and suffer PTSD from transphobic attacks on their person –so generally, it’s mostly something faced by trans women of colour), yeah, misgendering people can be both mentally and physically harmful. It may also unintentionally “out” a person as trans and open them up to being attacked.

          Neutral problems are great when speaking generally or hypothetically, and in certain situations, it’s potentially more-appropriate to use a generic pronoun than a gendered one, if one is unsure of the other person’s gender, but it’s usually far better to afford that person basic gendered dignity.

          • Honestly, I wouldn’t let the crime statistics fool you into thinking the psychological effects are particularly any less for white transwomen. White transwomen are just less likely to actually end up killed or in that event have anyone actually admit why. They’ve still got to live under the same fears, not to mention more often keep police involvement out of things where possible if things *do* get hairy.

            Everyone’s under the gun when it comes to transphobia, it’s mostly a matter of who’s most likely to end up on a slab about it, which is another social reality.

            Basically statistics aren’t much comfort when people are getting called ‘it.’ Yaknow?

        • Much of Asia has managed quite well without without gender specific pronouns (or in some cases until fairly recently, as “modernization” based on Western models has foisted gender pronouns into some.

          Some of us find gendered pronouns oppressive. I look in the mirror and don’t see gender–I see me. I fail at gender.

    • Heck, in Turkey there’s still sexism, cissexism, heterosexism etc., even if they don’t have genus in the language *at all*.

  10. Great article!
    We’ve had quite a few discussions on the Lois McMaster Bujold list about gender identity and nomenclature thereof. This would fit right in.

    In the last decade of the 20th C., when I became exposed to more trans*folk and gender identity discussion & issues, I began to look at forms differently. If I have the chance, I make commentary about the situation. Actually, there are a number of items that irk me aside from the gender dis-inclusion, but that’s not important right now.

  11. This article was my first encounter with the concept of the Spivak pronouns, as most of my gender non-binary friends prefer the “z” pronouns, so can someone provide a proper pronunciation for eir?
    I am also unfamiliar with metagender and the internet is failing to provide me with an explanation, so details from someone who identifies that way would be appreciated.

  12. Aine nailed it.
    Language exists to serve people’s needs, not vice versa. It is a tool, not a god. If some people are not served rightly, then language needs to change. I am uncertain about how to pronounce some of these new words, but I’m sure I will meet folks who know.
    I myself always had a problem with “it” as an insult, because some of the entities I care for most, physical or conceptual, are “it”s. (Always hated it when people slapped a sexual gender on something with no physical reason.) Said entities, however, do not hurt people, and neither should language.

    • Language isn’t a tool, either. Tools are entirely the product of human will transforming matter into a particular form. Language, in contrast, is a thing that emerges organically from human mind and culture, and which also shapes human mind and culture.

      As an organic thing, language has its own nature; individual languages and dialects also each have their own natures. Attempting to enforce changes on a language without taking into account the nature of the given language (or the nature of language as a whole) will fail: not because people are mean or unenlightened, but because the attempt is akin to grafting a stone branch to a tree and expecting it to grow.

      Yes, language is malleable; albeit not infinitely so. Yes, languages change; albeit almost never just because people want them to, but rather due to their own internal natures and histories.

      “Always hated it when people slapped a sexual gender on something with no physical reason.”

      Might I venture a guess that you are a monoglot English speaker? I do not mean to assume, but this would seem to be the position of someone who does not speak a language with a more robust system of grammatical gender.

      • I’ve made a personal effort to understand the evolution of vocabularies — the term I learned to use is “lexicon” — both because I simply enjoy words for their own sake, and because I’ve had rather strong reactions to those shifts that have happened during my lifetime.

        Once I got over some of those reactions — ahem, several rants omitted here — I came to realize that the changes we are discussing are valid examples of lexicon shift in action. The difference, from my layperson’s point of view, making no claims to academic standing whatsoever, is the speed with which they are progressing.

        I hope I’m using the terms correctly. I’ll gladly accept correction at any point.

  13. Wishing to contribute to the sharing of information, a couple of items.

    Item: I searched, but couldn’t find an online reference for this: my Psychology “101” course in 1974 used a course book (and was co-taught by a man and a woman) that replaced all personal pronouns in any context with “co”. It took a while to get used to it — many of my classmates tried to get by without doing the required readings — but I rather enjoyed the freedom it brought to the ideas being expressed or described.

    Item: The Surgeon of Crowthorne: A Tale of Murder, Madness and the Love of Words is a book by Simon Winchester that was first published in England in 1998. It was retitled The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary in the United States and Canada.

    I enjoyed this book so much, I’m working with a theater professional to adapt it to a stage play version. Winchester is better known for his travelogues, and he takes a rather plodding and wordy pace in his writing, but I suggest that it is well worth the effort. The first chapter’s introduction is the entire OED entry for the word “murder”. Sigh. 😀

    • Heh. I think the gender-neutral/indeterminate pronouns thing would be a lot less of a ‘debate’ if there were something easier to integrate. It seems that in Scandanavian languages, those that didn’t use a ‘han’ or ‘hen’ have had a much easier time just dropping such a pronoun on in. (Something like that: I didn’t really hear the details, but I’m told it was something that caught on rather seamlessly for a variety of reasons. )

      Probably, that’s a bit parallel to the singular ‘their’ just being used a lot more in English, probably a lot more cause of more gender equality socially than trans people being more visible.

      • My attitude, suitably modified by what I’ve learned here and elsewhere, was that use of “generic” references was laziness or because of an inability to phrase a personal statement with the appropriate first-person pronoun. I still flinch while listening to interviews. The interviewer asks a direct question about the person, and that person uses “you” instead of “I” throughout the answer.

        People for whom the binary choices of gender-specificity are just not correct deserve that minimal respect of being referred to appropriately. If a person, like our friend Lupus, makes the effort to teach us what’s appropriate, we should make a similar effort to ask and consciously use what we’ve learned from there on. I remain cynical about most users of American English anyway, and I need more evidence to support the notion that they are not still just plain lazy. Shrug.

      • In all Scandinavian languages there are just two sets of personal pronouns (masculine and feminine) + a neutral one in Icelandic/Faroese.

        It’s only in Swedish that the use of “Hen” has been spreading as a gender-neutral pronoun. I have no idea how widely-spread it is but it’s important not to forget (like I did in my first comment) that the pronouns originates from Österbotten in West-Finland where the local dialect has been using it for numerous generations.

  14. Interesting. I’ve always pronounced “hir” as “heer,” which solved that problem for me and is using the older pronounciation of the letter I – like found in “audio.” I didn’t realize I was “doing it wrong,” but I think I’ll keep it for that pronoun. (I pronounce “zir” as “zeer” too. Oops?)

  15. Of possible interest for and enjoyment by the linguaphiles here is this short story by Hal Draper, first published in 1961: MS fnd in a lbry with link to text provided in the External Links section.

    I use the Wikipedia link because it provides a bit of interesting background to the story as well.

  16. As I commented on the related post to your own blog, teachers have been part of a push (one I’d be tempted to call a patriarchal conspiracy) to normalise “generic he” and deride “singular they” as “improper and incorrect”, when in fact, it’s been in use since at least Chaucer, and there are literally hundreds examples of use from well-respected writers.

    Ergo, use of “singular they” in a push toward gender-inclusivity in the English language is technically also a reclaimation of the term, even if an unwitting one. The push to de-normalise “singular they” is barely 150years old –and Chaucer used “singular they” over seven centuries ago. Shakespeare used it. The Merriman-Webster 1848 edition of their “concise Dictionary of English Usage” used it. The de-normalisation of “singular they” is relatively new to the English language; it is also very easy to make a case that it was a decision made by a tiny handful of Bourgeois male writers to institutionalise classism and sexism in the English language.

    I’m sorry if quoting your wife leaves me unconvinced on this matter, but as a teacher endorsing the incorrect idea that “singular they” is somehow itself incorrect in spite of centuries of normalisation in the living language, she’s unwittingly part of the problem.

    Now people can prefer whatever alternative pronouns they like, but a generic option is necessary, as well, and the English language already has one that has had an institutionalised trend to deny its existence for the last century-and-a-half.

    • My aversion to using singular “they” derives, I suspect, from the family atmosphere in which I experienced learning grammar and syntax. I didn’t question the rules I was being taught because my mother reinforced them very strongly… and I really wanted to avoid disappointing her. She took great pride in her skill using American English.

      The mounting pressure to expand pronouns beyond the binary choices of masculine and feminine is a conscious effort (one I fully support). But the “traditional” usages were (and still are, q.e.d.) taken for granted. There’s much inertia behind that. I just don’t quite accept the implication of deliberate intent behind “institutionalized” in this context. I certainly acknowledge that there is some expressed by people with an antagonistic agenda. I just don’t see that intent as ubiquitous.

      Anyway, I’m very grateful for your commentary on this general topic area.

    • a patriarchal conspiracy

      Can it be a conspiracy if the author of said conspiracy are incontestably in power and open about their ultimate endeavors ?

  17. How does ESL factor into this? One of the most common mixups I see ESL speakers make are pronouns, largely because they’ve often come from countries where there are no gendered pronouns (for example, in Malay everyone’s “dia”). It happens across the board and is not a reflection on them denying people’s genders – it’s purely a language matter.

    As someone who is native-level fluent in English but comes from a non-English-dominant country, I often worry that in the name of social justice there isn’t a lot of patience given to people who are already struggling to grapple with English, dismissing their perspectives and contributions and good faith efforts at respect. I’ve seen this happen with other terminology and it’s frustrating.

    • I have a dual perspective. I’m of the first native-level fluent English speaking generation of my family. My parents and their cultures were multi-lingual by definition — the Balkans of the late 19th through mid-20th centuries — and they arrived in the US with heavy Slavic accents in the midst of our Cold War. We were to speak unaccented and completely proper American English (except for regional accents) because they knew what a foreign accent got one in this country at that time. The second part is the serendipidity of knowing ESL teachers and listening to them talk about just such issues as you raise.

      ESL teachers are (well, they damn well should be) aware of pronoun difficulties, but they also cite things like lack of the article in the native language, or that in some languages word order is not strictly adhered to as it is in English, or our “normal” word order is just very different. Over it all, though, is the skill which the immigrant brings to learning a new language. It can just be very difficult regardless of that person’s other skills.

      My mother was at least as skilled at language as anyone I’ve ever known. I frequently heard her counting out loud in Serbo-Croatian. She explained that the last and (for her) most difficult hurdle in learning a language was thinking in it, and as good as she was in multiple languages she never got past that.

  18. I’m pretty sure singular “they” goes back to Shakespeare’s time, actually. I know I’ve read that repeatedly, but I can’t remember the reference just now, sorry. Nevertheless, it’s existing usage is why I prefer it when gender is unknown, or the pronoun is otherwise not established.

    English isn’t the only language to have pronouns that are technically one category get respectfully used in another category – “Usted” in Spanish (Castellano) is a third-person prounoun which is also used for formal 2nd person, as if speaking to someone you look up to results in saying “How is one?” instead of “How are you?”

    I would be quite happy for generally neutral pronouns. My only objection to the pronoun soup we currently are developing is that there’s easily a half-dozen sets of different non-binary pronouns and I can’t remember which ones to apply to whom, because there’s no pattern of “This one for metagender, that one for genderfluid” or anything, it’s totally individual. I respect everyone’s right to choose their pronoun just as their name, but knowing that I’m going to forget does tend to aggravate my social anxiety. :/

    I need SOME kind of pattern if I’m going to be able to remember which thing to use where, which is probably why it also takes me a while to pick up names.


    • Since a lot of us already use ‘they’ in a gender-neutral way and it’s a familiar word to English speakers in general, I think it’s likely to become favored and spread, notwithstanding the 20th century’s hatred of this usage. When people try to correct my use of it, I tend to point out that Jane Austen used the singular they.

      Pronouns develop for ease; I agree that having dozens of terms is not very workable. It also tends to have an ableist and classist assumption (as in the comment we should have an app to store all these terms–I know plenty of people who don’t have ‘smart’phones and cannot afford them). Now, I will try my best to use the terms a friend prefers, although as a person with a couple chronic illnesses, which at times eat ravenously away at my memory, and at other times spit them back, I may have to look up the preferred term, or just use proper names.

      I’ve long admired that my Asian friends have first languages that don’t specify gender, and I find it so charming when they switch gender pronouns when speaking of the same person (in English). At any rate ‘they’ offers such a simple, effective way out of the binary (not to disregard those for whom ‘he’ and ‘she’ are important for their identity).

  19. Sometimes, the discussion about the language issues seems to mix gender (what others often call “natural” gender, ignoring the fact that gender isn’t natural) and genus (what others call grammatical gender, which is the usual term for it in English – I chose the Latin technical term to make the distinction more visible).

    Modern English has genus (grammatical) only with respect to the pronouns (anaphoric ones) he/she/it (standard) and possible non-(/not-yet-)standard singular uses.

    Genus, as far as I understand it, is a classification of nouns, including proper names, to which (in Indo-European) pronouns (articles are special cases of pronouns) and adjectives correspond. (As someone else mentioned, in Semitic languages, verbs sometimes correspond in terms of gender, too, something I don’t know of in Indo-European.)

    Gender (non-grammatical) can possibly be a (lexical) connotation to words. That connotation can be there even in languages without (grammatical) genus (e.g., Turkish, the Finno-Ugric family).

    That’s what I really see being the truth in ‘the default state of every noun and pronoun was masculine. Since that point, “humankind” has gradually replaced “mankind,” and the male-centric generic “his” has given way to “hers or his” or (the still grammatically incorrect) “theirs.”’. Only the pronouns have genus, so “the default state of every noun” can only refer to lexical connotations, such as e.g. “actor” (unmarked, often read as masculine gender) vs. “actress” (marked by so called motion, specifically female gender, and female genus congruence with “she”).

    The other thing is default genus. Things like “he who …”, in Latin/Romance languages using masculine plural pronouns for groups of unknown gender (sic!) or where just one thing has masculine genus or just one person is assigned masculine gender.

    However, default genus can be more complex. In Icelandic, the default plural genus for mixed groups is neuter (yes, Icelandic has genus in the plural, too), “þau”… However, in the singular, it’s masculine, “hann”.

    The distinction between genus and gender, which are often confused/mixed together (in English, to the point of using the same term usually), makes it possible for things like “das Mädchen” (German, neuter genus, meaning “girl”, i.e. feminine gender) to exist. And then, some people use “it” (es), which is grammatically correct, because congruence works on the genus level, not on the social gender level. Others, technically incorrectly, use “sie” (she), using the pronoun that is grammatically used for feminine *genus*, mismatching the neuter genus of “Mädchen”, but matching the fact that for humans (and emotionally close beings), “sie” is associated with the feminine *gender*, too (again, the mixture between gender and genus at work).

    But, that mixture does, of course happen in our Indo-European genus system (in contrast to gender systems that have either no grammatical genus system at all, or quite different ones like animateinanimate two genera). And then, language practices also exist that exclude non-conventional people alone on the lexical level “dear Sir, dear Madam” (“Sehr geehrte Damen und Herren” in German). There are nearly only words with feminine, or masculine connotation (regardless of whether a grammatical genus “matches” that, given the “usual” association, or not). And there’s the consequence of motion (an Indo-European development, making a specifically feminine word from and unmarked word; in German “-in”, in English e.g. “actor” -> “actress”). When you have “motion”ed words as marked feminine (gender, also genus in usual situations where genus applies), the unmarked word (un-“motioned”) will get read as masculine even if its root is being just human/animate. So there is not only a situation that excludes non-conventionally gendered people, but also makes for an asymmetric situation, reflecting the socially sexist situation where male is also often unmarked, the default unless specified otherwise, and the female is marked, and others are completely invisible.

    Language practices like alternative pronouns in English (where the singular anaphoric pronoun is the only place where there is genus at all), like dual/many gender markers in German (gender gap “Lehrer_in”, gender star “Lehrer*in”, binary “LehrerIn”/”Lehrer/in”), can help pointing those situations out and alleviate them.

    And it’s a matter of respect and of lives to be seen and reflected in a way who we are. Misgendering hurts, erasing/making invisible hurts. And both also help set the stage for more extreme discrimination and violence, even if those who do the former only may not intend the latter to happen.

    And, yes, this can be uncomfortable for others. But then, on one hand, the discomfort (here, in language, elsewhere, other kinds of discomfort for the privileged) can be an eye opener (huh, there’s something I didn’t know, can I learn something? Is there need for change?), and on the other hand, it’s just the little prize to pay for helping the marginalized hopefully paying the much bigger prize of being so at least somewhat less.

    • We have learned, in our lives, so many new ways to make people more comfortable socially. Is it that difficult to learn one more method of hospitable and courteous behaviour?

      • Exactly that. We brake for animals if possible or for slow pedestrians (I hope so), even if braking is uncomfortable. We (the more able bodied etc.) offer seats to people who need them more, even it it might be a bit of a discomfort.

        And of course I address people (or talk about people) in the way they prefer or need (sometimes “preferred pronoun” is too weak to express the level of need, in my eyes).

    • Adding to this: At least the more magically inclined here might know the saying “names have power” and perhaps “words have power” too, and possibly relate to it.

      And that’s true on the social level. Societal structures and development can influence language (and language changes), but language itself can influence what it “thinkable” to us and what we can imagine. And language acts do so too. And language acts in turn are usually social acts, possibly changing the world around the one acting, as well as possibly changing the language – or keeping it in a more conservative or even regressive way.

      The language structure that there is only he or she makes it more difficult to think of other genders, and it excludes intersexed people too. This can lead to the “desire” to erase other genders and (people with) non-binary physical characteristics more than only on the language level.

      Besides the violence against people who are trans*, have a non-binary or third or umpteenth gender, or none at all, or what else people can be, there’s the violence against intersexual people. That often begins at little age. People are forced to specify “male” or “female” for the birth certificate. And often, a sex is more or less arbitrarily assigned, and then surgically inscribed into the baby’s body. That is, an act of major severe genital mutilation on intersexed children. Not in Africa (where we can often point to with respect to FGM), but in western, industrialized countries.

      (In Germany, now they *have to* assign “no gender” for the birth record, i.e. leave the field empty, if a child is intersexed, leading to other kinds of marginalization, e.g. through forced outing. There the law of older Prussia (Preußisches Landrecht) was a bit different, at least not including forced outing.)