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The gender-neutral pronoun: 150 years later, still an epic fail

Every once in a while some concerned citizen decides to do something about the fact that English has no gender-neutral pronoun. They either call for such a pronoun to be invented, or they invent one and champion its adoption. 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.

Recently, Guardian columnist Lucy Mangan called for a gender-neutral pronoun:

The whole pronouns-must-agree-with-antecedents thing causes me utter agony. Do you know how many paragraphs I’ve had to tear down and rebuild because you can’t say, “Somebody left their cheese in the fridge”, so you say, “Somebody left his/her cheese in the fridge”, but then you need to refer to his/her cheese several times thereafter and your writing ends up looking like an explosion in a pedants’ factory? … I crave a non-risible gender-neutral (not “it”) third person sing pronoun in the way normal women my age crave babies.  (The Guardian, July 24, 2010, p. 70)

English is a language with a vocabulary so large that every word in it seems to have a dozen synonyms, and yet this particular semantic black hole remains unfilled. As Tom Utley complains in the Daily Mail:

It never ceases to infuriate me, for example, that in this cornucopia of a million words, there’s no simple, gender-neutral pronoun standing for ‘he-or-she’. That means we either have to word our way round the problem by using plurals – which don’t mean quite the same thing – or we’re reduced to the verbose and clunking construction: ‘If an MP steals taxpayers’ money, he or she should be ashamed of himself or herself.’ (‘Themselves’, employed to stand for a singular MP, would, of course, be a grammatical abomination).     (London Daily Mail, June 13, 2009)

The traditional gender agreement rule states that pronouns must agree with the nouns they stand for both in gender and in number. A corollary requires the masculine pronoun when referring to groups comprised of men and women. But critics argue that such generic masculines – for example, “Everyone loves his mother” – actually violate the gender agreement part of the pronoun agreement rule. And they warn that the common practice of using they to avoid generic he violates number agreement: in “Everyone loves their mother,” everyone is singular and their is plural. Only a new pronoun, something like ip, coined in 1884, can save us from the error of the generic masculine or the even worse error of singular “they.”

Such forms as co, xie, per, and en abound in science fiction, where gender is frequently bent, and they pop up with some regularity in online transgender discussion groups, where the traditional masculine and feminine pronouns are out of place. But today’s word coiners seem unaware that gender-neutral English pronouns have been popping up, then disappearing without much trace, since the mid-nineteenth century.

According to an 1884 article in the New-York Commercial Advertiser, the pronouns ne, nis, nir and hiser were proposed and briefly used around 1850. These coinages, which would yield such sentences as “Everyone loves nis (or hiser’s) mother,” have yet to be documented, but an 1852 newspaper report which calls for the invention of a new pronoun “of the common gender” demonstrates that the subject was being discussed that early. Justifying the need for such a word, the writer argues that in sentences like “If the reader will only glance at the map of Europe, he will see…” the word reader “refers to either male or female, while the pronoun ‘he’ refers alone to the former.” The writer rejects the coordinate phrase he or she as “inelegant and bungling” and finds singular they “a direct violation of the rules of grammar” (similar arguments against he or she and they are still common today). Instead, the writer pleads for a new pronoun – “Will not some of our grammar makers ‘fish us up’ one?” But he or she also insists that, until a new pronoun comes along, the sentence must be recast as, “The reader who glances at the map of Europe will see…”  because, if something can’t be said well, then it “can’t be said at all.”

Napoleon Bonapart Brown argues in The Atlantic (Nov., 1878) that the need for a new pronoun is “so desperate, urgent, imperative that…it should long since have grown on our speech,” allowing us to refer to both genders while sparing us from coordinate he or she, his or her, and him or her.

Another call in the Memphis Free Trade (1882) also rejects the generic masculine in reference to a woman, as well as the “clumsy circumlocution ‘he or she.’” This time the grammatical argument for a new pronoun is supplemented with an appeal to feminism:

Why should it not be the duty of woman’s rights women to supply this, the needed term? As the laws of grammar now stand, the use of “he” when “she” may be meant is an outrage upon the dignity, and an encroachment upon the rights, of woman. It is quite as important that they should stand equal with men in the grammars as before the law.

The American literary critic Richard Grant White mentions a common-gender pronoun en in 1868, but 1884 turns out to be the watershed year for pronoun coinage, bringing us thon, hi, le, hiser, and, as I mentioned earlier, ip. Thon was coined by the Philadelphia lawyer and hymn writer Charles C. Converse, and unlike most epicene pronouns, it enjoyed some recognition over the next century, accepted by two major dictionaries and adopted by a few writers. Thon blends that and one and is pronounced with the initial sound of  “they.” In describing his motivation, Converse mentions nothing about women’s rights, insisting instead that his goal is to restore the “beautiful symmetry” of English, to avoid “hideous solecisms” (presumably, singular they), and to save writers—and lawyers like himself—precious time.

In 1886 a writer in the New York Evening Post offers his-her as “an hermaphrodite pronoun,” adding, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, “When one has become accustomed to the use of him-her, his-her, etc., one can drop the hyphen at his-her pleasure.”

In 1890, a report in the Rocky Mountain News recommends hi, hes, hem, as a paradigm that will be “readily taken up and assimilated spontaneously,” though of course that didn’t happen, and so, after more than thirty years of proposals for hi, ir, hizer, ons, e, and ith, no word took hold, in 1894 the paper called on the state legislature to create a gender-neutral pronoun to “correct a well known imperfection of our language.” And shortly thereafter, a reader suggests a “bi-personal pronoun,” either the coordinates he or she, his or her, him or her, or the compounds hesher, hiser, himer: “It was particularly appropriate that Colorado should do so, because the ladies are on a political equality with men.”

And in 1897 a Charleston, South Carolina, newspaper reports on a Massachusetts law that forbids certain kinds of feathers to be worn in hats, a law presumably aimed at women but which employs a masculine pronoun. This presents a problem for the Boston police commissioner, who insists that the masculine pronoun does not include the feminine: “I don’t believe I could arrest a woman on that law,” he said. “The masculine pronoun does not specifically include the women. The law including both usually says ‘person’ or ‘persons,’ but this one simply says ‘his.’”

Such discussions in the 1880s and 90s did nothing to shake up the pronoun paradigm, and nothing came of subsequent proposals for heer, hie, ha, hesh, thir, she (together with shis and shim), himorher, se, heesh, hse, kin, ve, ta, tey, fm, z, ze, shem, se, j/e, jee, ey, ho, po, ae, et, heshe, hann, herm, ala, de, ghach, han, he, mef, ws, and ze [a list with dates and sources for many of these pronouns can be found here].

Flash forward to 1978, when The Times (of London) prints a letter in response to yet another call for a new “unisex” pronoun set, advocating le, lim, ler, and lers. (And another correspondent tersely suggests it.)

Despite this wealth of coinage, there is still no widely-accepted gender-neutral pronoun. In part, that’s because pronoun systems are slow to change, and when change comes, it is typically natural rather than engineered.

In 1884, a writer in the New-York Commercial Advertiser responds to Charles C. Converse’s launch of thon, making just this point, that pronouns evolve gradually and naturally, and that blends like thon have failed before:

[Mr. Converse] is ill informed as to the history of the craze for a new pronoun. Thirty years ago, or more, attempts were made to apply precisely the method of combination and abbreviation which he has adopted. The earliest result which we remember was “ne, nis, nim,” and a very serious effort indeed was made to introduce this bastard word form into use. Later somebody suggested a combination of “his” and “her,” making “hiser,” and one or two newspapers used the form for a time. But hitherto all attempts in this direction have failed, partly because it is always exceedingly difficult to introduce new forms into a language, unless they spring up naturally and, as it were, spontaneously.

The writer mentions the slow adoption of its, which first appears in the seventeenth century (its can be found in Shakespeare but not in the more linguistically conservative King James Bible). Before the advent of its, the possessive form of it was the uninflected it, or sometimes, his). He deems its a much more necessary form than thon, and although he indicates his preference for one, he concludes that a gender-neutral pronoun isn’t necessary because most people observe “the sound rule of rhetoric which recognizes the masculine pronoun as dominant.”

But today the “dominant masculine” no longer applies in grammar, and still no gender-neutral pronoun thrives. It turns out that it’s not just the conservatism of the pronoun system that’s blocking the gender-neutral pronoun. It’s also the fact that the speakers of English seem content to muddle along without this particular innovation. Even before the generic masculine started its decline, singular they was always an option, both in speech and, despite the tongue-clicking of purists, in serious writing as well. More recently, writers seeking to avoid the generic masculine have been plugging in the coordinate he or she, him or her, his or her(s), sometimes choosing slashed forms instead, he/she, him/her, his/her(s), despite long-standing objections that such constructions are cumbersome, especially when they’re repeated several times.

In fact, despite the almost universal condemnation of the coordinate he or she by supporters of gender-neutral pronouns, the rule books now opt for he or she and not an invented word to replace the generic he. Students who once were taught that the masculine pronoun must always be used in cases of mixed or doubtful gender are now taught instead to use coordinate forms, not for gender balance or grammatical precision, but simply because that’s the new rule. Those writers who question the rule, who realize that multiple he-or-she’s just don’t make for readable prose, won’t seek out a new gender-neutral pronoun. Instead they’ll recast some sentences as plural, and for the rest they’ll just take their chances with singular they. After all, if you, which is also gender neutral, can serve both for singular and plural, why can’t they do the same? In any case, after more than 100 attempts to coin a gender-neutral pronoun over the course of more than 150 years, thon and its competitors will remain what they always have been, the words that failed.

Featured Image Credit: ‘Gender Bender Bricks’, Image by Windell Oskay, CC by 2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Anonymous

    Twitter Trackbacks…

  2. Lamar

    We have a perfectly fine neutral singular pronoun — it.


  3. Jason Gage

    “It” is not gender neutral, it is generally inanimate, or referring to abstracts and existing only to create agreement in a sentence so that we can have a verb. E.g., “it is raining”. There is no “it” that “is raining”, we just need subject to have a verb so that we know how to tense it.

    We have a perfectly good third person pronoun. “They”. It’s been in use for over 600 years. Shakespeare used it. Arguments about plurality are irrelevant. “You” is both singular and nonsingular, and the only complaints we generally hear about that are when some people say “y’all” and some stick-up-assed others twinge. We even have other plural single nouns such as “themself”. (Google it, there are > 10 million hits, it is plenty attested)

    The only reason that “they” has fallen out of favor is because of the same nitwit victorian pseudogrammarian latinophile meddlers who gave us idiotic “rules” like “don’t split infinitives”. (Which is impossible in English anyway, as the infinitive of a verb doesn’t include “to”, it includes only the verb. I.e., “I build houses”. There is no “to” anywhere in that sentence, yet it is an infinitive. Specifically, it is a habitual infinitive)

    We don’t need to invent new gender neutral pronouns, we need to stop half-educated English professors from spreading disinformation about our perfectly functional existing ones.

    To preempt an argument about prescriptivism: any non-descriptive grammar is *by definition* incorrect.

  4. Jason Gage

    Bleagh. Disregard my screed. I’m so used to dealing with cranky English professors on a power trip that I failed to make use of any semblance of literacy I once had, you already covered “they”.

  5. […] idea is far from new, but nothing seems to stick: The traditional gender agreement rule states that pronouns must agree with the nouns they stand […]

  6. Don

    Singular they > it.

    Move on.

  7. Mark

    What’s wrong with ‘they’? I don’t mean use the plural for a gender-neutral singular, I mean add a new sense to the existing word ‘they’ as a gender-neutral singular. For the reflexive singular, use ‘themself’. This is what a lot of people do anyway. Remember that grammar is descriptive, not prescriptive, and the rules of grammar change over time according to linguistic need. There are no laws of grammar.

  8. Sam

    Lamar: But who wants to be called “it”? Calling someone “it” is not just offensive and dehumanizing to pretty much anyone, but the word has a particularly painful history as a slur against the transgendered community.

    I agree with the author’s ultimate conclusion: just use they and their. It seems like society as a whole has agreed to do that; it’s just the grammar Nazis who are still weeping and gnashing their teeth over the problem.

  9. Doug

    Get da Beck and Dubya team right on it.

  10. Doug

    and on a more serious note, can’t you just leave it out and then possession is implied? Someone left cheese in the fridge.

  11. Gazbo

    The problem – as you point out – is that change is indeed natural; most of us have no trouble with “If an MP steals taxpayers’ money, they should be ashamed of themself.”
    Horrid I know (even my spellchecker had a fit) but far more natural than any neologistic decree, and who cares what the rule is when the idea is perfectly clear.
    By the way, MPs may have shame but congresspeople sure don’t.

  12. Peter Coles

    Great article, I didn’t realize that this topic had such a history! I’ve noticed that a lot of technical/web design writing that must constantly reference “the user” will just use the feminine pronouns (“she” & “her”). If anything, it does cut down on words.

  13. Dennis Tuchler

    Often, one needs no personal pronoun. The example about cheese could be “somebody left cheese in the refrigerator”. Who cares whether it was that person’s cheese? In other cases, like commands, use “your” rather than his or her, e.g. Everyone, take up your coats and leave.

    If you really need a personal pronoun, why not alternate? One time use “his” and the next time use “her” or “hers”. If you only use it once, use the feminine, because otherwise someone will ignore the text and yell political epithets at you.

  14. The Real Zajac

    It may offend the proscriptive sensibilities of the lexicographers, but singular “they” is and has been the preferred vernacular for about 300 years on both side of the Atlantic. Part of the problem is that English grammar is a cobbled together mix of Germanic, Nordic, French and Celtic. The formalism of a proper court tongue, where there is a verb conjugation for every tense, is lacking in English. In order for the Norman nobility to be able to communicate with the Anglo-Saxon commoners, the speech was stripped to a minimum. Oh, silly grammarians. Don’t they know? “They” always wins.

  15. Nonamouse

    Obviously “they” and “their” aren’t exclusively plural anymore, and haven’t been in my lifetime (I’m pushing 30).

  16. Carlos Solis

    As a non-native English speaker, I don’t feel inconfortable on using “it” as an alternative for “he/she”. I don’t know what will the native English speakers think about it.

  17. roansart

    Puritanically-inspired, feminist-whipped claptrap! The “p.c. era is dead, or at least in the final throes of a long-awaited passing by more reasonable folks. English has gotten along _just_ fine without the wanna-be mucking about by hangers-on to outdated imperialist-totalitarian neologist grammarians. Humbug, eh?

  18. Cory

    > The example about cheese could be “somebody left
    > cheese in the refrigerator”. Who cares whether it
    > was that person’s cheese?

    More to the point, how would the speaker even know? In his quest for unambiguity, the writer has actually given an example where false knowledge is claimed. Cheese was left, you can’t say anything else about its provenance, so don’t try.

  19. Orion Lawlor

    If you survey the options:

    “Everyone loves their mother,” is offensive to a few self-appointed grammar Nazis.

    “Everyone loves his mother,” is offensive to women.

    “Everyone loves its mother,” is eyebrow-raisingly odd.

    “Everyone loves gleborchens mother,” (or any similar unrecognizable made-up word) fails to communicate.

    I gotta go with #1. Sorry, grammar Nazis.

  20. Mike D

    It always bothered me that William Safire never wrote a column just declaring gender neutral pronouns. If he had done it, everyone would have followed.

  21. Brent

    I feel that arguing the rules against they, their, and such in this instance is somewhat moot as the language has evolved to use it as such. We have many words that mean different things in different usages and further that we are not trying to speak in English from the 1800’s or earlier but rather its modern form.

    We must allow constructive change rather than cling to the past. While people argue over this, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of far more serious problems with our language that promote its decay rather than its evolution into a greater and more powerful tool.

    Further, I could argue that “it” is applicable based on Jason Gage’s definition of “it” being inanimate or abstract. If you do not know the gender, it can be abstract. If you refer to a person in modern times, you are referring to a mere, hopeless part of a decaying machine. One of these human cogs would be an “it.”

  22. battlepanda

    Which one of the below sounds the best/most natural/clearest?
    “Somebody left his cheese in the fridge.”
    “Somebody left his or her cheese in the fridge.”
    “Somebody left their cheese in the fridge.”

    There is no debate anymore in my mind. Singular “they/their” all the way.

  23. annette

    everyone loves one’s mother…is that incorrect?

  24. annette

    or, everyone loves one’s own mother

  25. […] University Press blog, The Gender Neutral Pronoun: 150 Years Later, Still an Epic Fail. (This irks every […]

  26. Frank

    We should get rid of the gender rule entirely; just use he/his/him for all. Why is it so important to indicate gender? We don’t incorporate hair colour, age or other attributes into pronouns.

  27. […] OUPblog » Blog Archive » The Gender-Neutral Pronoun: 150 Years Later, Still an Epic Fail (English,… […]

  28. ohwilleke

    It is also worth noting that the level of futility in filling the grammatical black holes hasn’t been as great as it seems.

    “Ms.” has become a standard part of the lexicon. Sentences can frequently be crafted to wrangle the word “one” or a descriptive title (“declarant,” “the officer,” “landlord,” “tenant”) into serving as a gender neutral third person. A lot of once masculine only words now have a gender neutral meaning (e.g. “poet” and “testator”).

    The word “spouse” and “partner” (and even “significant other”) have become increasingly accepted alternatives to “husband” and “wife” without seeming as awkward as they once did. We’ve also grown to love the first and second person in legal agreements and formal writing previously reserved for the far less easy to comprehend third person (“the party of the first part and the party of the second part.”) A distaste of multiple “his and her” constructions has encouraged short, declarative sentences and helped us to purge run on sentences.

    We’ve had a second person plural for a long time in English, although it is different North (“you guys”) and South (“y’all”) for a long time, but as an idiomatic phrase rather than as a single word.

    The singular “they” and “their” is growing more respectable.

    It is also worth recalling the aphorism about consistency and hobgoblins. All languages have general grammatical rules, but almost all of those rules have exceptions. There is no reason that English can’t have a few more irregular forms or idioms that are accepted even though they don’t follow the general rules.

  29. Steve

    Everyone here needs to read the essay “Missing the Nose on Or Face: Pronouns and the Feminist Revolution, in John McWhorter’s “Word on the Street.” Trust me.

  30. andrew

    Ohwilleke, “you” is the second person plural. “Thou” used to be the second person singular, but it fell out of favour for some reason. It would be very interesting to know why “you” took on both singular and plural and replaced “thou”. There is an informal word “yous”, that is used in many places in the world as a plural form of you.

  31. […] Dennis Baron, Professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Illinois, is the latest grammar pundit to write about the lack of English singular pronouns that don’t have to be selected according to the sex* of the person referred to. The difficulty is evident in formulations such as From each according to his ability; to each according to his needs. […]

  32. Alles

    I’m with Annette. One does what one can with what one has, doesn’t one?

  33. Karen Myers

    This battle has already been won, by the only people that count: the ordinary speakers of English (specifically American). The winner is: singular they. Think how normal all the following spoken phrases sound…

    1) Invite anyone you like, if you don’t care if they come.

    2) If someone stops at the desk, give them the forms.

    3) Before you let the next patient in, make sure their medical history is up to date.

  34. Jeffrey Friedl

    Uh, English has a gender-neutral singular pronoun: “he”. “He” is used in every case unless you specifically know the gender is female.

    It’s a male-specific singular pronoun that English lacks.

  35. Ed.

    If the reader of this article attempts to think too deeply about its subject, shim will surely be confused, and heris brain will hurt mightily.

  36. Karen Myers

    I am not disputing that “he” for gender-neutral usage is the “correct” usage. However, it doesn’t matter what the official “correct” usage is in any living language — that is its own dialect and is primarily used for a particular domain of the language (formal, legal, educated, class, etc.). It changes over time, too, but more slowly and somewhat capriciously (remember the split infinitive hub-bub, or the sentence-ending prepositions, both of which are natural to the spoken language vs the school-marm prohibitions based spuriously on Latin for the written language.)

    What matters is what the spoken language does at the consistent “these are the current rules” level. That is the real language, the language new generations learn, and it changes over time.

    We are currently living through a multi-generation change where the felt absence of a gender-neutral singular is being supplied by a gender-neutral plural, similar to how “you” has supplanted “thou” (without the gendered component). It is unusual to see a language change in the process of happening, since we usually lack sufficient lifetime perspective, as we do in the field of geology, but we can watch this one in real time.

    Some folks are bothered by the sense that this is “wrong” or “bad” English, but it’s simply a logical evolution. “You” is not bad English for the singular 2nd person, at least not any more.

    The failure of attempts to force a particular gender-neutral singular 3rd person pronoun by example or experiment is very instructive, compared to the organic linguistic solution that is happening, following the 2nd person pronoun’s path. Even now, literate authors are beginning to adopt the usage. If they don’t use it in their novels, I’ll bet they do in their emails, and don’t think twice about it. Your children or grandchildren will treat it as normal literate usage.

  37. saturnine

    I second “gleborchens.”

  38. Bob Snyder

    I don’t think we have too worry too much about this. From the look of things on the street, I think the gender problem seems to be blurring…

  39. Stephen B.

    There’s been a lot of She/he/it written about this gender or corrected pronoun topic for quite some years.


  40. Michael Segers

    It gets worse in other languages. In Spanish, you can have 100 male students (alumnos) in one room, 100 female students (alumnas) in another. If one male student joins the females, you then have 99 alumnos in one room and 101 alumnos (100 alumnas + 1 alumno) in the other. In Finnish, on the other hand, there is a paucity of gender distinctions, so that Finns learning English may speak of “his husband” or “her wife” without taking a stand on gay marriage.

  41. Jim DeTar

    Thank you, Mr. Baron, for the excellent history of the absence of acceptable non-gender-specific pronouns in our beloved English language. Like others who commented earlier, I didn’t realize the situation went back so far in time. I propose adding two non-gender specific singular pronouns to the English language: himorher and sheorhe (Example 1: She said when someone joins the group the baton passes to himorher. Example 2: The new choir member came into the back of the room and shorhe took a seat.) I know from your article that many words have been suggested and, so far, none have been chosen. But I will push forward anyway with my proposal. We are halfway there. All we would have to do is remove the hyphens from the hyphenated versions. They would be pronounced just like the hyphenated versions, only a tad faster, which is one of the benefits. I think they sound cool, too.

    If our society instead moves toward usage of plurals like “themselves” as both singular and plural pronouns, as you point out is already done with words like “you,” I’m fine with that. It’s an imperfect but for-now acceptable solution. On the other hand, on the improbable chance that some people see my suggestions for himorher and sheorhe, and they come into usage and become popular and are used routinely, then remember you heard them here first, folks.

  42. bigjohn756

    I like heshit. Or, possibly, sheit which also has all of the letters required.

    BTW, why do the feminists suddenly wish their pronoun to become the generic one. OTH, we poor men have been the generic pronoun for many years now, so I am looking forward to the promotion.

  43. DCM

    A vital exposition of women’s hideous sufferings because of the English pronoun system.

  44. badaude

    Surely ‘hor’ (his or her) which also has a nice Anglo-Saxon-language sound. I tend also to use s/he in writing (which puts women first for a change).

  45. The Word Guy

    My guess is that the likelihood of our inventing a genderless pronoun is close enough to zero to be… zero. Tossing out a new noun is easy. Inventing new verbs is a doddle. Why, even adjectives are a comparative stroll in the park. But pronouns are a horse of a different color. Like determiners (“a,” “an” and “the” – and even “an” is really just an “a” tarted up for when it goes on a date with a word starting vowel-headed word) pronouns are a closed class marked by being (a) small in number and (b) used very frequently. These closed class words seem to be particularly resistant to change, an exclusive club that doesn’t want to encourage new members.

    Of course, one can always look to the UK’s royal family, who not only have “the royal ‘we'” (which avoids the Queen ever having to use “I” in a sentence) but uses “one” and “one’s” to side-step the gender altogether. For Her Majesty, “Everyone loves one’s mother” and even “We love one’s mother.”

  46. Izkata

    I have to agree with Bob Snyder: The only ones worrying about this are the ones who want to keep the language “pure”. Colloquial English already has been using “they” and “their” for years. It is no longer a plural-only term.

  47. Fentex

    English does have a native non-gendered pronoun. It is ‘they’.

    It is argued this isn’t correct because (I quote form this article) “everyone is singular and their is plural”.

    But that position is mistaken. When used in a singular context “their” is obviously not plural.

    Attempting to ignore that native English speakers have no trouble using “they” and “their” as a non-gendered pronoun, managing to recognize by context singular or plural application, by insisting that “they” may only ever be plural is wilfully replacing observed use with inacurrate prescription.

    These are examples of perfectly comprehensible English used over time…

    1535 A.D FISHER Ways perf. Relig. ix. Wks. (1876) 383:

    “He neuer forsaketh any creature vnlesse they before haue forsaken them selues.”

    1749 A.D FIELDING Tom Jones VIII. Xi:

    “Every Body fell a laughing, as how could they help it.”

    1759 A.D CHESTERF. Lett. IV. ccclv. 170:

    “If a person is born of a gloomy temper … they cannot help it.”

    1835 A.D WHEWELL in Life (1881) 173:

    “Nobody can deprive us of the Church, if they would.”

    1858 A.D BAGEHOT Lit. Stud. (1879) II. 206:

    “Nobody fancies for a moment that they are reading about anything beyond the pale of ordinary propriety.”

    It is easy to demonstrate how naturally we use a non-gendered pro-noun by simply reading out the following lines and using the pronooun which comes naturally to a native English speaker…

    “Everyone saw me before I saw _____.”

    “Someone left _______ books on the desk.”

    “It’s annoying when someone constantly pats ________ on the back.”

    No one natively uses the masculine gender in those lines, we all use “them”, “their” and “themself”.

  48. Hans Dirkse

    Somebody left his/her cheese in the fridge
    try this
    Somebody left thur cheese in the fridge

    It sounds like a contraction between ‘her’ and ‘their’, making it vague whether it’s plural or singular, while not being overly biased towards feminine or masculine.

    An alternative could be “thir”, which in writing may seem a better mix between his-her-their, but would probably end up being pronounced the same as “thur”.

  49. […] piece is spot on, however, concerning the alleged gender neutral pronoun “he.” Here is an interesting essay about the history of searching for such an animal and the difficulties that lie in getting […]

  50. Denise

    e, (she / he); eris (hers / his); erim (her / him). Alphabetically in order, so totally gender neutral!

  51. Hello

    Personally, I think that the words “them” and “their” should officially be recognized as singular and plural general-neutral pronouns. As people have stated, people commonly use those words as singular anyway. It would benefit writers and students if it was made official. In my opinion, “he/she” doesn’t flow well in a piece if writing. I think the words invented for this purpose have no chance at ever catching on. Let’s just use what already has been misused (but understood) for years.

  52. […] While stumbling around looking for a history of gender neutral pronouns I discovered the term “epicene pronouns” and this article by Dennis Baron. I mistakenly assumed that the English language search for gender neutral pronouns […]

  53. Chacko P. G.

    Dennis Baron’s article (26, August 2010) on gender neutral singular pronoun for third person is, indeed, commendable. It is very informative and has given me some insight into the grammatical nuances of the topic. Having read various views, I would share the one expressed by Mark (28, August 2010).

  54. Daniel Brockman

    Here in Northern California, we have a persistent though intermittent subcult that uses “zhe” instead of “he” or “she”. I don’t know the possessive. Maybe “zhe’s”?

  55. Pam

    You missed ‘hir’, which made the rounds in the 1980s.

    Why is it so hard? It seems to me that the recent gender neutral insistence on using ‘they’ is more about manipulating mainstream than about their identity. The fact that the vast majority of them also identify under mental , especially depressing or bi-polar disorder, is an I dication of the pure self-indulgence of the campaign in recent years.

  56. Denise

    Historical failed attempts to agree a viable term don’t preclude one being defined today. I like the California solution myself.

    The trouble is, the people this applies to need to be victims so they won’t even discuss agreeing a viable gender neutral pronoun to apply to them. Most of them are being treated for depression or bi-polar disorder or are closely involved with a genderkin social group.

    They don’t care if you’re actively supportive of their right to identify however they wish or if speaking like an illiterate would affect your career. They show no respect for any view but their own.

    They will settle for nothing less than the whole of the English speaking world actually changing the structure of the language to make plural ‘they’ apply as a singular personal pronoun. Nothing else is important to them.

    And they won’t accept that this is unreasonable on an epic scale, but point out the common usage of singular ‘they’ in situations where you don’t know who you’re referring to (example: “Someone stole my bike and they sawed right through the chain.”)

    I’ve been supportive of marginalised groups all my life, but my experience of this group is that they’ve been antagonistic, demanding and aggressive to the point of bullying and trying to have an intelligent discussion with most of them is like trying to talk to Trump supporters or extreme religious fanatics.

    They refer to each other’s blogs for ‘evidence’ and imagine the structure of the English language is actually changing because a few institutions that deal with them have pandered to their demands, at least for the brief window of time they have to deal with them directly.

    In ten years time, they’ll be looking back and facepalming at how ridiculous they made themselves look over this when it could have so easily led to a new term being introduced to solve the issue once and for all.

  57. […] The pronoun “ne” appeared around 1850, and was first used in print in 1884 as a result of a heated debate on how using “he or she” in sentences was “clumsy” and “inelegant.” The topic of a gender neutral pronoun actually had feminist roots. An article published in 1882 in reference to this pronoun debate claimed that using “he” to refer to anyone regardless of gender encroached upon the rights of women and issued the need for the creation of a new pronoun. […]

  58. Simon

    Dennis congrats on a very thorough history.
    Interesting comments, too. Yous can read here how a word’s meaning can broaden, so that ‘it’ embraces males and females:

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