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August 28, 2010 12:19 AM   Subscribe

The Gender-Neutral Pronoun: 150 Years Later, Still an Epic Fail. Wordsmiths have been coining gender-neutral pronouns for a century and a half, all to no avail. Coiners of these new words insist that the gender-neutral pronoun is indispensable, but users of English stalwartly reject, ridicule, or just ignore their proposals. [Via].
posted by amyms (122 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
Seems like people are pretty happy to use "they". A set with one element is still a set, so I don't see what the problem is.
posted by delmoi at 12:23 AM on August 28, 2010 [14 favorites]


"They" is fine, but what would gender-neutral pronoun you recommend for this sentence: "All the MeFites laughed at _____."
posted by Taft at 12:26 AM on August 28, 2010


It always seemed so simple to me: if we're referring to a specific person, we say his or her, and if we're referring to someone that may be a him or a her, we say their to encompass the two potential genders.

But, not that I've read the (excellent) article, this is going to bug me.

dammit
posted by davejay at 12:26 AM on August 28, 2010


One hopes that a gender neutral pronoun is found in one's lifetime.
posted by Cranberry at 12:28 AM on August 28, 2010 [47 favorites]


Stilted and British sounding, no?
posted by Cranberry at 12:28 AM on August 28, 2010


All the MeFites laughed at _____.

You're describing something that actually happened, so there's going to be a gender-specific pronoun that's appropriate. For this to be a valid example, it would have to be "If someone were to do that, all the MeFites would laugh at _____." For that construct, we don't know if "someone" is male or female, so "them" is used to encompass both options. In my head, anyway.
posted by davejay at 12:29 AM on August 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


Actually, that's a good cop-out -- since a pronoun should refer to a noun, just say "that [noun]." "If someone were to do that, all the MeFites would laugh at that someone."
posted by davejay at 12:31 AM on August 28, 2010


(ugh. too late at night to overthink his or her plate of beans)
posted by davejay at 12:32 AM on August 28, 2010


I always used "they/their/them" to describe my partner to others before I came out, not only was I grammatically incorrect, but I also sounded like I a slut.
posted by carnivoregiraffe at 12:32 AM on August 28, 2010 [39 favorites]


English already has (and has had for many centuries) both a neutral gender pronoun and a common gender pronoun in wide use. Attempts to solve the non-existant problem is nothing more than academic/editor handwringing.
posted by sbutler at 12:36 AM on August 28, 2010 [7 favorites]


They sound stilted, contrived, and affected. Things like "se" and "hir" won't ever catch on.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 12:41 AM on August 28, 2010


linguistic prescriptivists boggle the imagination
posted by oonh at 12:46 AM on August 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


"They" isn't fine in the singular form, and "it" sounds downright derogatory.
posted by 2oh1 at 12:48 AM on August 28, 2010


Things like "se" and "hir" won't ever catch on.

That's what thon said.
posted by dersins at 12:48 AM on August 28, 2010 [23 favorites]


Seems like people are pretty happy to use "they". A set with one element is still a set, so I don't see what the problem is.

"The mayor left the meeting for an appointment they couldn't miss."
posted by fatbird at 12:50 AM on August 28, 2010 [5 favorites]


The author is smart and good at writing, but stops just short of prescribing that which has already begun to happen and will surely continue on its path to legitimacy: the repurposing of "they"/"them" as a gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun.

We do it in speech already, and if there's one thing we know about English it's that she'll do what she wants, whether the prescriptivists and grammarians approve or not.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 12:56 AM on August 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


"The mayor left the meeting for an appointment they couldn't miss."

But if you were in a case where you'd have to use that sentence, wouldn't you know before the gender of the mayor anyway? That's why it sounds a little odd, I think...

How about this? "One of the mayors left the meeting for an appointment they couldn't miss."
posted by KChasm at 12:58 AM on August 28, 2010 [6 favorites]


carnivoregiraffe: I always used "they/their/them" to describe my partner to others before I came out, not only was I grammatically incorrect, but I also sounded like I a slut.

I suspect that if English had a well known and accepted gender neutral personal pronoun, using it to refer to your significant other would be an instant tell, since you obviously know their gender. At least using the plural could be interpreted as a mistake.
posted by Mitrovarr at 12:59 AM on August 28, 2010


The singular "they" has a fair bit of traction, I think it will win out in the end. I expect that to resolve the occasional ambiguities, we will deploy "them all", just as we do for "you" ambiguities.
posted by breath at 1:02 AM on August 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


Aversion to using a singular "their" is based on fetishistic reverence for Latin just as is the idea that you can't split an infinitive in English. There is absolutely no reason to kowtow to 19th century Latinate hagiographers. The use of "their" in this context precedes such people by many centuries and is the logical answer to this non-problem.

To unashamedly write English sentences without pretending we are writing Latin is quite easy and requires virtually no additional effort.
posted by Justinian at 1:02 AM on August 28, 2010 [34 favorites]


"They" is fine, but what would gender-neutral pronoun you recommend for this sentence: "All the MeFites laughed at _____."

Uh, "All the mefites laughed at them"? As in "When the person came on stage, all the MeFites laughed at them"?

"The mayor left the meeting for an appointment they couldn't miss."

Hmm, that one's a little ambiguous, but you could rephrase it as "The mayor left the meeting due to an appointment that couldn't be missed". I suppose there is a big more ambiguity then with 'he' or 'she'
posted by delmoi at 1:02 AM on August 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


...And don't get me STARTED on second-person plural, y'all...
posted by Joseph Gurl at 1:03 AM on August 28, 2010 [5 favorites]


Hm, and I guess "they all", as well. Though it will be a long time before that little phrase doesn't sound like a horrible parody of vernacular.
posted by breath at 1:03 AM on August 28, 2010


Th'all!
posted by breath at 1:05 AM on August 28, 2010 [6 favorites]


"Them" "their" and "they" are fine for singular pronouns in casual conversation, and have been for years now, at least in online and face to face discourse. You only have to spend a little time on a site not quite as obsessed with language as MeFi to notice and get used to this. The last time I was corrected for using "them" in this manner was 9th grade English. Although I've had my share of awkward "he or she" constructions in subsequent papers, the only situations where the use of "them" would be inappropriate would have be easily served by "hir", considering they were formalized academic pieces with accompanying explanatory footnotes.
posted by Mizu at 1:07 AM on August 28, 2010


But if you were in a case where you'd have to use that sentence, wouldn't you know before the gender of the mayor anyway?

I can construct a different example where we're talking about a general singular subject ("the volunteer to be chosen"); the problem is still the numerical disagreement. It sounds odd because the subject is obviously singular, and "they" is plural, and "they" hasn't been used a singular neutral pronoun long enough for normal usage to overcome that. I normally use "they", and it still sounds a bit off to me.

The fact that sets can contain a single member misses the point: "they" sounds funny because its customary usage was, and mainly still is, for plural subjects. It's about what our ears are used to, not the logic of it.

"One of the mayors left the meeting for an appointment they couldn't miss."

Same deal, to my ear.
posted by fatbird at 1:08 AM on August 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


"they" hasn't been used a singular neutral pronoun long enough for normal usage to overcome that.

This is not true. It has been used that way for centuries, and any good usage dictionary will provide no shortage of evidence.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 1:10 AM on August 28, 2010 [4 favorites]


(and watch out for "normal usage." we're talking about spoken English vs. Standard Written English; the latter tends to follow the former, not the other way around, and it always has.)
posted by Joseph Gurl at 1:11 AM on August 28, 2010


"The mayor left the meeting due to an appointment that couldn't be missed"

Avoiding the issue doesn't resolve the problem, it just papers over it.

I suspect what will happen is that, in a hundred years, it'll be "they/he/she" for the singular third person pronoun (with "they" given preference for the general case), just as "you" is both the singular and the plural second person pronoun. We seem to have settled on "they", it'll just take a couple generations for it to sound natural. It's like ending a sentence with a preposition: The old rule is just about ready to be called "archaic" now, and it's fussbudgetry to convolute sentences to avoid it.
posted by fatbird at 1:13 AM on August 28, 2010


There are examples of singular they in Shakespeare. Let's stop talking about it as if it were a recent phenomenon.
posted by sbutler at 1:14 AM on August 28, 2010 [13 favorites]


and "they" hasn't been used a singular neutral pronoun long enough for normal usage to overcome that

"They" has been used as a singular neutral pronoun since the 13th century.
posted by Justinian at 1:14 AM on August 28, 2010 [14 favorites]


"The mayor left the meeting for an appointment they couldn't miss."
But if you were in a case where you'd have to use that sentence, wouldn't you know before the gender of the mayor anyway? That's why it sounds a little odd, I think...
Well I don't know your gender, so how about "KChasm left the meeting for an appointment they couldn't miss." as an example?

It sounds a bit off to me, but is probably the option I'd go with in normal speech. Written, I think I'd rephrase it.
posted by russm at 1:15 AM on August 28, 2010


It's like ending a sentence with a preposition: The old rule is just about ready to be called "archaic" now, and it's fussbudgetry to convolute sentences to avoid it.

That was never much of a rule & was mocked and rejected by serious scholars and regular English speakers alike long before a few crusty Latin-worshiping pedants attempted semi-successfully to foist it upon us.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 1:15 AM on August 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


There are examples of singular they in Shakespeare. Let's stop talking about it as if it were a recent phenomenon.

If this is so (and I'm not doubting it), then why did its usage not become codified as grammatically acceptable?
posted by fatbird at 1:15 AM on August 28, 2010


If it didn't happen, it must have not happened for a reason, amirite?
posted by Joseph Gurl at 1:16 AM on August 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


I always used "they/their/them" to describe my partner to others before I came out, not only was I grammatically incorrect, but I also sounded like I a slut.

It's been quite a while since I was in school, but I seem to remember having been taught that it wasn't grammatically incorrect to use they/them/their to refer to a singular. Either that or I truly was taught it was grammatically incorrect but have long since learned to ignore it because being a rather avid reader I have come across a number of authors who break that rule.

Singular "their" in Jane Austen and elsewhere


I certainly use it the "grammatically incorrect" way and would rely on context to determine if it was singular or plural.

posted by Randwulf at 1:18 AM on August 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


Just affect a Cockney accent:

"The Guv'na left the meetin' for an appointment 'e couldn't miss."
posted by Davenhill at 1:24 AM on August 28, 2010 [17 favorites]


She'll be right, mate.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 1:30 AM on August 28, 2010


There's always Spivak. We used to use it in games of Nomic (wherein rules-lawyering is part of the game, so extreme precision in your writing is necessary).

It does sound a bit like Cockney, actually.
posted by rifflesby at 1:39 AM on August 28, 2010


If this is so (and I'm not doubting it), then why did its usage not become codified as grammatically acceptable?

Well, there's no official body deciding what is and isn't correct English grammar. In many ways, you could call English a language of exceptions. We tend to borrow words and grammar -- wholesale, without thought of how it fits into the regular rules -- from other languages when it suits us. To quote James Nicoll:

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.

My armchair theory on the uproar over singular they is that during the late 19th and early 20th century there was a movement to make English more logical and reasoned. Some people think it comes from a glorification of Latin, which by this time is a logical language. Of course, during its heyday Latin was much less strict... it had to die before it became the structured language we have now.

And I think it had something to do with the Industrial Revolution. This idea that science and engineering could/would solve all the worlds problems. And we needed a modern, scientific, logical language for this new world!

So we get movements against singular they. And movements against split infinitives. And movements against ending sentences with prepositions. And movements against starting sentences with conjunctions (my personal favorite to violate).

Again, this is just my wild speculation.
posted by sbutler at 1:45 AM on August 28, 2010 [10 favorites]


The obvious choice is shklee.
posted by Talez at 1:51 AM on August 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


MetaFilter: Not only was thon grammatically incorrect, but se sounded like a slut!
posted by deep thought sunstar at 1:55 AM on August 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Just refer to everything as "your majesty" and you'll do fine.
posted by Back to you, Jim. at 1:57 AM on August 28, 2010 [5 favorites]


An allegorical play:

A: I'm famished! If only there was something to eat!
B: Oh, look, a huge pot of delicious stew right here on the table! I think I'll tuck in. [Does so]
A: So, so hungry! Woe is me—er, I! Perhaps I can make some food out of my hat, if I fold it differently...
B: [Swallows] Why don't you just share this stew with me, A?
A: Don't be ridiculous! Didn't your teachers ever tell you not to eat stew?
C: [Entering] Hey, stew! [Spoons some into a bowl]
B: [To A] It's really very good.
A: Perhaps that stew seems "good" to you, but I believe in tradition and culture. You won't catch me dragging the tone of the place down with dreadful, classless, soullessly modernized behavior like stew-eating.
SHAKESPEARE: [Entering] But soft, behold! May I, too, have some stew?
B + C: Absolutely, Shakespeare!
A: Look, that stew is bound to give you the runs! It can't be good for you!
C: According to this list of ingredients, it contains all the major food groups in sensible amounts, and was cooked using locally-sourced non-factory-farmed ingredients in such a way as to reduce the probability of food poisoning to below 0.01%.
A: Aha! So you admit that you might get food poisoning! And then what if you were dining with someone who was allergic to carrots? You must admit that in that case—
EVERYONE IN THE WHOLE WORLD EXCEPT FOR PEDANTS: [Entering] Hooray! Stew! Just like grandma used to make, and her grandma too, and so on back for centuries and centuries. Pass the bowls!
A: [Suddenly] I've got it! Listen, everyone, if we cup our hands like so and make a chewing motion, it almost seems like food! Then we won't have to eat stew!
EVERYONE: [Cheerfully eating] No, thank you. We'll just enjoy this stew.
A: [Sits in corner, pretending to chew out of cupped hands and glowering at EVERYONE] Feh! Honestly! Stew!

FIN
posted by No-sword at 2:31 AM on August 28, 2010 [68 favorites]


That rules.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 2:43 AM on August 28, 2010


Ladies and gentlemen, the Mayor has left the building.

No wait, that's Elvis.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 2:46 AM on August 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Clint Eastwood was mayor when I was a teenager. True story.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 2:47 AM on August 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Oi, British people. You twats.
posted by bardic at 2:59 AM on August 28, 2010


Their crazy if they think there rules matter if asked in Matses in Peru, where they're questions would probably be considered invasive and rude.
I for one support the indefinite pronoun.
posted by hypersloth at 3:09 AM on August 28, 2010


"... the pronouns ne, nis, nir and hiser were proposed and briefly used around 1850."

Hiser? Sounds Snoop Doggish: Somebody left hizzer cheese in the frizzer.

I like it!
posted by bwg at 3:13 AM on August 28, 2010


Clearly this issue engenders much confusion and debate. We should scrap all of the previous attempts and start fresh with a new, gender-neutral, third-person pronoun. I suggest "pat".
posted by TedW at 3:26 AM on August 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


Strange. Finnish has famously no gendered pronouns, but where english people make a distinction between inanimate (it) and animate (he/she), finnish is a bit stricter there and uses person (hän) only for humans and gods and (se) for everything else, animate or inanimate.

But there is a practice of using 'se' for everything nowadays, for me it requires conscious effort of trying to be polite and correct to use person pronouns. I'd probably say 'Se tuli hakemaan kamansa.' ('It came to get its stuff.') instead of correct 'Hän tuli hakemaan kamansa.' ('He/she came...') So it looks like pronouns can shift their scope during time, at least human/other-barrier is breachable. So what's so deragotary about 'it'?

It is what it is.
posted by Free word order! at 3:37 AM on August 28, 2010 [4 favorites]


There's absolutely nothing wrong with ‘they’ as a singular pronoun, and it's clearly preferable to the barbarity of ‘he-or-she’. The violation of ‘number agreement’ is but a tiny wart in a language already composed almost entirely of warts.

However, this is not a gender-neutral pronoun! It's a pronoun for a party whose identity—not merely their gender—is unknown.

“The person elected mayor will leave their residence...” -> fine.
“Mayor Smith will leave their residence...” -> sounds weird and wrong, because the identity of Mayor Smith is known.

There is still a hole for a gender-neutral-but-not-identity-unknown pronoun. It's a smaller hole, but one that is gaining in importance with the increased prevalence of interpersonal contact between gender-unknown parties due to the Internet.
posted by BobInce at 3:42 AM on August 28, 2010


An aside: there are no he, no his, no him, no she, no hers and no her in American Sign Language. But there are wonderful pronouns that have no English equivalent. A single sign can mean 'you and you standing over there but not you standing between you and you and not anyone standing over there.' The 'you' of ASL is a handy thing, I wish it would spread to more languages. But living languages are well defended against any sort of tinkering. Here in Portland the word for a group of food carts is a pod (like whales). Accurate, useful, fun, but there's no Word Boss to standardize that. It will catch on or not. I do like that English doesn't gender most nouns like German does. Meaning German is bad? No, just that I'm too dumb to get it and too lazy to care. Probably makes for some good jokes in German.
posted by eccnineten at 4:03 AM on August 28, 2010 [5 favorites]


Well I don't know your gender, so how about "KChasm left the meeting for an appointment they couldn't miss." as an example

In a real life meeting, how you not know the gender of someone you were discussing?

Anyway...
How about '"KChasm left the meeting for an appointment that could not be missed"

though I see nothing wrong with throwing "they" in there
posted by nomadicink at 4:10 AM on August 28, 2010


I'm not absolutely sure about this but my impression is that Americans are much more resistant to simply substituting the third person plural pronoun in these situations. This is just standard in the UK and, perhaps oddly for such a nation of grammar Nazis, we don't seem to have a problem with it at all. Which is interesting. Then again, we refer to teams and bands in the plural too, don't we? You know, "Radiohead are great" and "England were shite, as usual".
posted by Decani at 4:12 AM on August 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


No language is perfect. And lack of a gender-neutral personal pronoun is just one of the ugly aspects of English.
posted by sour cream at 4:41 AM on August 28, 2010


There was an interesting NYT article on the historical appropriateness of them/their usage and how it was a grammar text in the US (in 1800's?) that put an end to it.

I can't find it right now, but it's there somewhere.
posted by oddman at 4:54 AM on August 28, 2010


With more people coming out as gender-queer, rather than just strictly trans, I wonder if these gender neutral pronouns will actually catch on one day out of a more urgent need than grammar. I go to a particularly open and liberal women's college, and I know of two people who ask that they not be referred to with either male or female pronouns. They just don't identify with either. One of them just asks that people don't bother with pronouns, and that people who are referencing that person to just use their (androgynous) name. (*Name* is hungry. *Name* went to the dining hall.) The other goes with "ze" and "zers". As far as I know, no one seems to take real issue with either option. (Yet another reason why I love my school.)
posted by myelin sheath at 5:01 AM on August 28, 2010 [6 favorites]


The Gender-Neutral Pronoun: 150 Years Later, Still an Epic Fail.

I have no opinion on the gender-neutral pronoun, but I do hate what has become of 'epic' lately.
posted by jonmc at 5:11 AM on August 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


This will no longer be an issue when we all speak Mandarin.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:13 AM on August 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


"They" is fine, but what would gender-neutral pronoun you recommend for this sentence: "All the MeFites laughed at _____."

The correct answer is "All the MeFites laughed at Dennis Baron."
posted by Devils Rancher at 5:15 AM on August 28, 2010


It's all Daniel Webster's fault. What an asshole they were.
posted by erniepan at 5:28 AM on August 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Ironically, we don't even have a second person singular. You is clearly a plural form. (He is, they are, you are) We already accept that a plural form will be used for an individual. I presume "they" will win the day eventually.
posted by Hildegarde at 5:32 AM on August 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


"Thems"?
posted by WPW at 5:46 AM on August 28, 2010


Youse.
posted by jonmc at 5:51 AM on August 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


Yes, yes, "purists" decry the use of the singular They. Then again, "purists" also decry the split infinitive. The former's good enough for Shakespeare, and the latter's good enough for Jean-Luc Picard. As far as authorities go, I know who I'm siding with.
posted by Tomorrowful at 5:55 AM on August 28, 2010 [4 favorites]


One of them asks that people don't bother with pronouns, and that people who are referencing that person to just use their (androgynous) name. (*Name* is hungry. *Name* went to the dining hall.)

And yet in referring to this person you broke their rule and used the singular they.
posted by creasy boy at 5:57 AM on August 28, 2010


I always kind of liked "spiv" on PMCMOO.
posted by damehex at 6:05 AM on August 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


"KChasm left the meeting for an appointment they couldn't miss."

Since this is a kind of clumsy sentence anyway, I would avoid the whole problem and write something snappier, like: "KChasm left the meeting for a vital appointment." Or "a critical appointment" or whatever. It not only removes the gender ambiguity, but it also removes the awkward clause at the end.

I write a lot of stuff for institutional policies, and gender-neutral language is preferred wherever possible, and it's pretty much always possible. You refer to people by titles and in the plural, since the policies don't ever refer to people in the singular. There is never a policy about Mr. Chair, the current Chair of the department, it's always "The Chair will do X within two weeks" or whatever. If I have to be singular, it's something like "the faculty member responsible" or something similar.

Now, this gives things a certain bureaucratic flavor, but that's what it is. In less formal writing, I use "they" and "their" (as suggested many time above) because that seems to be an acceptable usage. I usually pluralize examples, but, if I can't, c'est la vie. Perfect? No, but it's the best option open to writers for their gender-neutral writing at this time.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:05 AM on August 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


During my senior year, the high school administration (or some busybody within) decided to try and advocate for an epicene pronoun. Okay, whatever. Would they maybe choose the Spivak pronouns, or some other set already invented? No.

On the morning announcements each day they gave examples of how to use their preference, the word ethay. This went on for weeks.

Ethay is and was just simply moronic. Wikipedia's summary of artificial constructs are all monosyllabic in the subjective case. (Of course, none of them really caught on, so maybe that's not the way to go.) But no matter what the administration had chosen, it wouldn't have caught on. Despite the widespread conviction that youth are the social firebrands, there are really fewer groups on earth more complacent, oblivious, and lazy than a public high school (or maybe it just seemed so then).

Anyway, I've always been partial to Spivak, and used them occasionally—usually being misunderstood. (Although that's perhaps an advantage to Spivak—that they degrade gracefully as the programmers say. If the interlocutor doesn't understand em, e will likely just assume that one is saying he and them, which are usually grammatical.)
posted by adoarns at 6:13 AM on August 28, 2010


You could have linked to a lot more:
- Possibly link to the in-article link the "The Epicene Pronouns"
- Even that link doesn't for some reason link to the Spivak set, which is widely used on MOOs and MUDs (In my opinion, the Spivak set is reasonable for the written word, but for speaking the ze/zie/sie set seems to be better).
- There's a blog called the Gender Neutral Pronoun blog that writes about ze/zie/sie, and they even have an Alice in Wonderland excerpt using it.
- There's a Wikipedia entry.
- Lots of transpeople have an obviously vested interest in finding or inventing and using gender neutral pronouns. S. Bear Bergman, for instance, talks and writes a lot about gender idenity including pronouns (see first few questions of hir FAQ, also YouTube channel - which has some readings, etc. - unfortunately not a lot of printed excerpts available online) [Disclaimer: Bear's a good friend of mine - and there are other gender identity/transpeople activists who are good resources too]
- Various folks have written counterclaims to the Epic Fail aritlcle. Deborah Schweikart (Law) - John Williams (FAQ and guide based apparently partly on the USENET usage patterns) - Elaine Stotko and Margaret Troyer (Use of yo as a pronoun in Baltimore Schools)

I'll stop here - there's a lot more possible material to gather, filter and post, but I think I've done my part.
posted by kalessin at 6:19 AM on August 28, 2010 [6 favorites]


English already has (and has had for many centuries) both a neutral gender pronoun and a common gender pronoun in wide use. Attempts to solve the non-existant problem is nothing more than academic/editor handwringing.

Ursula K Le Guin had an essay about this, probably thirty years ago, making the exact same argument for "they" that has been made here: it works, it's well established in the vernacular, and it's only not-ok because of crusty sexist grammar prigs back in the day.
posted by Forktine at 6:24 AM on August 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


Y'all and All Y'all?
posted by blue_beetle at 6:28 AM on August 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Y'all and All Y'all?

Sadly, we need a 3rd person pronoun, too....
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:31 AM on August 28, 2010


I've always thought she/he/it reduced to one syllable -- shit -- worked just fine.
posted by briank at 6:33 AM on August 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


I expect that to resolve the occasional ambiguities, we will deploy "them all", just as we do for "you" ambiguities.

I am putting my lot in for the Pittsburgese "yins," personally.
posted by Kadin2048 at 6:40 AM on August 28, 2010


Sadly, we need a 3rd person pronoun, too....

Yonder Y'all-uns.
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:56 AM on August 28, 2010 [6 favorites]


'They' works and doesn't go clunk for me. It's the quantum pronoun. Schroedinger's pronoun. It is plural with indefinite possibility - a smear of gender reality.

In some Greg Egan book he uses 'ver' and it is a car wreck the first few times, but by the end it is totally normal. But, actually, 'ver' refers to genderless definite people, so that's different.
posted by dirtdirt at 7:01 AM on August 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm just happy when people actually use gender-inclusive language, awkward or not. It's still far too uncommon.
posted by Red Loop at 7:10 AM on August 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


I've written two books in third person where the gender of a significant character (one with dialogue and relevance to the plot) is not disclosed, so I'm in a position to say it's not terribly difficult to use the English language in such a way that you don't have to reveal or specify gender. Perhaps one reason there's not a (formally-accepted) gender-neutral third person pronoun is that English is flexible enough not to require one.

When I've had characters in my writing who are neither "he" or "she" and whom I have no desire to hide their gender (or lack thereof) I've used "it," but I note I'm also a science fiction writer, and "it" is easier to use when one is describing aliens rather than humans.

My own personal style guide (the one I use for writing informally and/or on my blog and/or while speaking) has "they" slotted in for gender-neutral third person singular pronoun, because I think it makes good sense and it's used extensively and colloquially so that there's generally no ambiguity or confusion as there is with the various manufactured attempted pronouns. I also use "one" in the gender-neutral slot when I know my sentence is going to run up against a copy editor and I don't want to have a fight.

I would like to see "they" eventually judged as a grammatically acceptable 3ps pronoun, but whether it is or not, people will go on using it as such.
posted by jscalzi at 7:22 AM on August 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


this is a big problem in theological circles since the 70s, because we have found that talking about the inclusive nature of the divine while using exclusive language is highly problematic, but have also found that fuck is most of it ugly as sin. You can see how awkard the moving towards political progress with something so importantly traditional in the Anglican Book of Alternative Services, and esp. in the ECLA Red Book, where it was rumoured that the Lutheran publishing house Ausberg press was saved by the publication of a new book of service. The REd book might or might not have been needed, but holy fuck is it the most patronizing, hideously written, work of tokenism.

Gender neutral/inclusive langauge is vital, but yeah it can be a bit of an aesthetic problem
posted by PinkMoose at 7:24 AM on August 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


I am putting my lot in for the Pittsburgese "yins," personally.

Oh, wow, I'm so sick of this word. Well, no, it's not the word I'm sick of, but the spelling of it. The first time I encountered this word in writing, it was spelled 'y'uns'.

Y'uns.

Being that it means 'you ones', that seems appropriate.

But fucking hell, the Pittsburgh Vowel Shift ate that alive, and we're left with yinz.

It's not a pretty word, but in a regional accent that turns almost all non-initial occurrences of L into W, renders long E into short I, and grinds the long I into some kind of 'ahh'-thing (and does the same with 'OU' as in house), and indiscriminately chops the inital 'TH' off 'though' as well as 'them' and 'there', the non-prettiness of y'uns is barely noticeable.

/rant
posted by Mister Moofoo at 7:34 AM on August 28, 2010


It puts the lotion on its skin.
posted by Rumple at 7:36 AM on August 28, 2010


I thought it was "younce."
posted by jonmc at 7:48 AM on August 28, 2010


Personally, I find the singular they very potent; it literally puts a (hallucinatory) bad taste in my mouth and makes my nerves go tense. This isn't because I'm scrupulously grammatical, or live my life in the shadow of a religious devotion to the parts of English speech-- on the contrary, I'd probably flunk a grammar test-- singular they, in its quantitatively counter-intuitive auditory ugliness, just does that, in my case.

Were the Benevolent Association of Retired Third-Grade English Teachers of Camden, Illinois to suddenly get a few headlines from their call for instituting some new word, any new word-- himher, or slork, or viggleshond-- for the gender-ambiguous singular, I'd happily use it. Just not frickin' Singular They.
posted by darth_tedious at 8:10 AM on August 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm a little surprised at the acceptance of they/their. As far as prevalence and usage goes, one does see and hear it, and apparently it's been used at least since Shakespeare. But I also see and hear a lot of strenuous avoidance, including the push for new gender-neutral terms, so there's also a lot of discomfort with it. I'm not persuaded that it's broadly accepted, and I see that at least some of its advocates upthread can't quite bring themselves to advocate its incorporation in "formal" writing and speech.

Perhaps the tide in its favor is inexorable, and if that proves to the case, I'm okay with that. If I had to decree a resolution, I would prefer "they" over "he," as I am less concerned with the tyranny of numbers than I am with the tyranny of man. But it's certainly not the best kind of repurposing, given the numeric disagreement, and it seems to me that searching for an alternative is completely understandable.

P.S. It's this repurposing that makes me pause over the wonderful stew allegory. The pedant A should protest that the stew's flaw lies in the fact that it looks exactly like cottage cheese, causing some to eat it when should not, and others to mistake the diner's activity when viewing a table for one.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 8:16 AM on August 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Along these same lines is a problem when referring to gays and lesbians. At one time the gender neutral term of "homosexual" seemed widespread but is, apparently, offensive (I don't get this on a gut level but it's not for me to determine what someone else finds offensive). So now "gay" refers to males and to both sexes (as in the "gay community") whereas "lesbian" is only used for women. I cannot bring myself to use "gay" to refer to both men and women (since I'm trying to be gender neutral) so everything gets written out "gay and lesbian". LGBT is a nice initialism that seems to be widely accepted but doesn't always work well in a sentence.
posted by bfootdav at 8:39 AM on August 28, 2010


Don't forget you can/should ask what personal pronoun people prefer. My trans roommate is a she, but my queer professor is a they. I recalled meeting someone who identified as "hir." I like to call people what they want to be called, instead of guessing.
posted by fuq at 9:14 AM on August 28, 2010


All of the pre-20th-century examples of singular "they" I've seen involve antecedents like "anyone," "everyone," "no one," "none." Yes, these are grammatically singular, but they in fact refer to a number of people or things, so their treatment in certain situations as plural is unsurprising. After all, "none is" vs "none are" frequently trips up even native speakers; I think the use of "they" in these contexts says more about the weird number of these particular antecedents than it does about the appropriateness of a more broadly singular "they."

"KChasm left the meeting for an appointment they couldn't miss."

Since this is a kind of clumsy sentence anyway


It's only clumsy because singular "they" is clumsy. "KChasm left the meeting for an appointment she couldn't miss" perfectly clear and not clumsy at all.

I don't doubt that singular "they" will become accepted eventually but currently it continues to feel wrong to many native speakers in many constructions where singular "he" or "she" do not.
posted by enn at 9:24 AM on August 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Joseph Gurl: "...And don't get me STARTED on second-person plural, y'all..."

YOUSE... It's YOUSE, like YOUSE GUYS!
posted by symbioid at 10:03 AM on August 28, 2010


Don't forget you can/should ask what personal pronoun people prefer. My trans roommate is a she, but my queer professor is a they. I recalled meeting someone who identified as "hir." I like to call people what they want to be called, instead of guessing.

You are a kind person, and a blessing, but this is no way to run a language.

P.S. Just like a professor. "I contain multitudes . . ."

P.P.S. In adverting to me, please employ "harrumph."
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 10:08 AM on August 28, 2010


I admit to some uncertainty as to whether we're considering whether there should be a singular of "they" or whether we are looking for a gender-neutral personal pronoun (i.e., limited to human beings or at least beings capable in principle of being gendered, but excluding "its").

If the latter, I have a new nomination, one already in popular usage: "pat"
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 10:10 AM on August 28, 2010


The most stunning commentary I've ever read on gender-neutral language is an essay by Douglas Hofstadter (of Godel, Escher, Bach fame). I think I found it from a Metafilter comment in the first place, but nobody seems to have linked it in this thread yet.

A Person Paper on Purity in Language

It didn't change my opinions on the solution (I've always reluctantly used "they" as a singular gender-neutral pronoun) but it did make me wonder if I wasn't subconsciously understating the magnitude of the problem.
posted by roystgnr at 10:18 AM on August 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


You are a kind person, and a blessing, but this is no way to run a language.

Yeah, but sadly we don't run the language. I mean, has there ever been any other successful similar adoption in English? English is a large, messy, stubborn beast and you can't really ever make it do what you want. And most people don't really care. Look at the usage of "less" and "fewer"."

Of the gender-neutral people I've known, asking them what they preferred worked out fine. Not everyone prefers the same thing. And who's to say that if we did find a successful gender-neutral pronoun that all gender-neutral people would want to use it? The point is that we as people recognize other people for who they want to be, regardless of whether our language "permits" it.

English is a pretty awkward language as it is, and I think letting "they" and "their" run their course is probably going to be the most successful choice.
posted by fryman at 10:24 AM on August 28, 2010



Ironically, we don't even have a second person singular. You is clearly a plural form. (He is, they are, you are)


Of course we do. Singular and plural have just agreed to share the verb form. And happily can avoid gender politics altogether.
posted by IndigoJones at 10:28 AM on August 28, 2010


I get this sense that languagehat is feeling such a deep ennui right now that he is unable to depress the keys of his keyboard. We'll see if the languagehat beam proves or disproves this theory.
posted by Devils Rancher at 10:35 AM on August 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


I get this sense that languagehat is feeling such a deep ennui right now that he is unable to depress the keys of his keyboard. We'll see if the languagehat beam proves or disproves this theory.

His/her input would be quite useful.

(Notes potential irony in autocratic descriptivism practiced hereabouts, flees.)
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 10:50 AM on August 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


IF we're getting to pick our own pronouns I want "the awesome, eloquent and vivacious Oddman" as mine.

Oddman left for a meeting that the awesome, eloquent and vivacious Oddman couldn't miss.

It rolls of the tongue.
posted by oddman at 11:24 AM on August 28, 2010


Ironically, we don't even have a second person singular. You is clearly a plural form.

We used to - that's what "thou" was.
posted by mdn at 11:38 AM on August 28, 2010


I always used "they/their/them" to describe my partner to others before I came out

A friend of mine did this back in high school. It doesn't fool anyone.
posted by EmGeeJay at 11:40 AM on August 28, 2010


For years I have asked people to call me "it" but no one ever does.
posted by enn at 11:43 AM on August 28, 2010


<missing the point>
A: I'm famished! If only there was something to eat!

A would certainly have said "if only there were something to eat!".

</missing the point>
posted by kenko at 11:57 AM on August 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


> 'They' works and doesn't go clunk for me. It's the quantum pronoun. Schroedinger's pronoun.
> It is plural with indefinite possibility - a smear of gender reality.

More than you know. The tension arises from its being unresolved, like S's cat. Shot? Not shot? Alive? Dead? And worse, from the felt implication that something I do might, without my having the least wish to do it, flip the outcome one way or the other.

At least it's only an issue in everyday loose talk where there isn't much time to see and avoid, as pilots say. When I write formally the number disagreement is clunky enough to make me structure whatever I want to say so as to route the language around the pothole. Which is, after all, fun to do.
posted by jfuller at 12:39 PM on August 28, 2010


proposal-

male:female:neuter::him:her:mlorb
male:female:neuter::his:hers:melrorn
male:female:neuter::he:she:mrelk
posted by maus at 12:42 PM on August 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Consider yourself lucky you don't have to deal with the brackety madness that is politically correct French.

Pour le ou la rédacteur(trice) professionnel(le), il y a de quoi devenir cinglé(e).
posted by Freyja at 12:54 PM on August 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Ironically, we don't even have a second person singular. You is clearly a plural form. (He is, they are, you are)

Of course we do. Singular and plural have just agreed to share the verb form. And happily can avoid gender politics altogether.


"You are" is a linguistic fossil.

You / you / your / yours was once the 2nd person plural form only.
Thou / thee / thy / thine was the 2nd person singular form.

Have patience: pronouns are the slowest parts of language to change. But as noted here and previously, usage of /they/ for the 3rd person singular indefinite has an long pedigree. Generalizing to the definite is far more likely to become established than are any of these neologisms.

The late 20th c. revival of /Ms./ became pretty broadly (sorry!) accepted in less than three decades.
posted by Herodios at 1:10 PM on August 28, 2010


On the other hand, can we lose the term wordsmith, Professor Baron?
posted by Herodios at 1:14 PM on August 28, 2010


Use what feels right for you. In time, it will settle as an issue with suggestions from boards such as those at Am Heritage Dic, letting us know what literate folks use as a generally accepted "rule."
posted by Postroad at 1:57 PM on August 28, 2010


You (plural) can borrow ours.
posted by Anything at 3:18 PM on August 28, 2010


The commune where I once lived used "co" as a gender neutral pronoun. It'd been in use for at least a decade by the time I arrived, so it was in common and non-jokey use pretty much daily. It became totally natural to say, and even today I have moments that I forget where I am and use it in conversation. I really miss having the ability to use that term without having to explain it, or having to explain why such terms are a good idea.
posted by wowbobwow at 4:36 PM on August 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


'he' IS a neutral pronoun. It just happens to look like the male pronoun too. Ask Germans what they think about their neutered girls and masculine dogs.
posted by readyfreddy at 6:32 PM on August 28, 2010


"They" is fine, but what would gender-neutral pronoun you recommend for this sentence: "All the MeFites laughed at thon."
posted by Daddy-O at 6:40 PM on August 28, 2010


I've always liked s/he/it, pronounced "shee-it."
posted by galadriel at 7:27 PM on August 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


"All the MeFites laughed at _____."

you
posted by ODiV at 8:36 PM on August 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


I remember the subject broaching a couple decades back. I rejected 'they' because applying a plural form to an individual feels like a pejorative, and because the language is already, like, devo, ya know?.

I decided I liked s/he<> for the written form. I'll even say "shi-he" to someone I know has a sense of humor. And don't give me any shi-hit abouttit aight?
posted by Twang at 4:12 AM on August 29, 2010


I think it's time to bring thou back.
posted by Hildegarde at 7:42 AM on August 29, 2010


Ye Olde Schoole. Bring Thou Beat Back.
posted by Back to you, Jim. at 12:12 PM on August 29, 2010


Move to Yorkshire - thee'll get their thous there, sen?

As someone who plays board-games, I do appreciate it when the writer takes time to mix it up and not just go with 'he' all the way through the instructions. It winds me up less than it used to only because pervasiveness has made me feel like I'm being a bit Millie Tant even to get irritated by it.
posted by mippy at 3:45 AM on August 30, 2010


Among the hipsters I've known in Philly, each individual person chooses their own pronoun and gender classification. Attempting to refer to these people is terrifying.

(Also, in Detroit, I know a house where everybody has chosen names for themselves that are nouns and verbs.)

Is there a Long Bet about what gender-neutral pronoun will win? Hint: There should be.
posted by Galaxor Nebulon at 8:55 AM on August 30, 2010


I'm still bummed that English lost the second person dual.
posted by QIbHom at 11:40 AM on August 30, 2010



Does Your Language Shape How You Think? (NY Times, GUY DEUTSCHER, August 26, 2010).

It does matter. Gendered nouns and pronouns warp the inanimate world in a Whorfian way.

"The English language is a difficult mistress. It is the rare individual that can slap the bitch around, and make her put out."
posted by 0rison at 9:32 AM on August 31, 2010


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