Earlier this week I spent an enjoyable hour being interviewed on the Wisconsin Public Radio show “At Issue with Ben Merens.” Though our topic was ostensibly the New Oxford American Dictionary‘s choice of locavore as Word of the Year, as well as other notable words of 2007, we soon ventured into other word-related matters when the lines were opened for listeners’ calls. One caller had his own coinage that he hoped might someday achieve the fame of locavore and other recent additions to the language. Since English lacks a singular pronoun that can be used to refer to a person regardless of gender, the caller suggested that O be used for this purpose (since I is used as the first-person singular pronoun). Though I congratulated the caller for his effort, I had to inform him that his proposed pronoun has virtually no chance of success. Time and time again, well-meaning neologizers have suggested gender-neutral (or “epicene“) third-person singular pronouns, and time and time again those suggestions have been relegated to the dustbin of history. How is it possible that a word like locavore can be coined and quickly find acceptance, and yet this obvious lacuna in the English lexicon cannot be filled?
The demand for a single word that would do the job of the cumbersome phrase “he or she” (along with “him or her” and “his or hers”) has long been expressed by would-be reformers of English. As the nineteenth-century lawyer and hymn-writer Charles Crozat Converse wrote, “That a new pronoun, of the singular number and common gender, is needed in the English language, is a fact patent to every English speaker and writer.” In 1884, Converse suggested that this hole be filled by the word thon, a blend of that + one. Thon actually had a modicum of success, taken up by some writers and even appearing in a few dictionaries, such as the 1898 edition of Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary and the 1909 supplement to the Century Dictionary. The entry in the Century, even though it provides an illustrative example from the Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology (1897-98), already remarks that thon “has been but little used.” Nonetheless, Funk and Wagnalls persisted in including thon in its Standard Dictionary as late as 1964, some eighty years after the pronoun’s brief heyday.
Other attempts at introducing an epicene pronoun were even less successful than thon. Dennis Baron, whose book Grammar and Gender provides the definitive history of these linguistic experiments, has compiled a list of several dozen failed pronouns over the past century and a half, from ne to heesh to ze. And the efforts continue: in 2005, Dr. Richard Neal was reported to have applied for a patent to replace “he or she” with hesh, and “him/his or her” with hir. Just last year, D.N. DeLuna, a part-time writing teacher at Johns Hopkins University, received some attention in the press for advocating the epicene pronoun hu (pronounced as “huh”). Needless to say, hesh and hu have met with the same deafening silence as all of their predecessors.
Pronouns are clearly a very conservative part of our lexicon, by and large resistant to the whims of linguistic change. It’s possible for pronouns to drop out of the language, as thee, thou, thy, and thine started to do in the seventeenth century or so. And regional dialects of English can spawn nonstandard variants, notably for second-person plural pronouns (y’all, youse, yinz, and so forth). But according to Baron, the last time a new pronoun entered Standard English was the seventeenth-century introduction of the possessive form its.
Though the prescriptively minded would object, the only epicene pronoun that has had any real luck in the history of modern English is the supposedly plural they/them/their, pressed into service as a non-gendered singular form, as in: “Everyone should return to their seats.” This use of singular they very often appears when a personal pronoun is needed to agree with a grammatically singular (though notionally plural) indefinite quantifier like anyone/anybody or everyone/everybody. But they/them/their can also show up when referring to a particular unknown or unspecified person, as in the statement by a senior adviser to Rudy Giuliani, “Americans will pick the next president based on their ability to lead.”
Despite its usage by everyone from Shakespeare to Jane Austen, singular they has received a great deal of scorn over the years. In their 1908 book The King’s English, the Fowlers wrote, “Our view, though we admit it to be disputable, is clear — that they, their, &c., should never be resorted to.” More recently, however, Garner’s Modern American Usage offered a sober assessment of the growing acceptance of singular they: “Disturbing though these developments may be to purists, they’re irreversible. And nothing that a grammarian says will change them.” It would seem that no amount of neologizing will change the pronoun picture either.
Ben Zimmer is an editor at Oxford University Press and a true word junkie. Once a week he surfaces from his dictionaries to write this column. Check out his “words of the week” on our main page (center column) or by clicking here