Are Gender-Neutral Pronouns Actually Doomed?

Some linguists say English, flexible as it is, isn't built for gender-neutral pronouns. Others say there's a good chance "they" could take flight, given the right visibility and support.
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Some linguists say English, flexible as it is, isn't built for gender-neutral pronouns. Others say there's a good chance "they" could take flight, given the right visibility and support.


Dennis Baron calls it the word that failed.

Baron, a professor of linguistics at the University of Illinois, has been monitoring the development of epicene—that is, gender-neutral, third-person singular pronouns—since the 1986 publication of his book Grammar and Gender. He keeps a list tracking the introduction of new epicene pronouns in English and has counted dozens, with the first documented in 1850—most of those being proposed by writers who took grammatical issue with, say, the singular “they.”

“They were the ones I found from the 19th century, when a rationale was given for them, it was a grammatical one rather than an issue of social equality or social justice,” Baron says.

I got in touch with Baron this summer after a heated meltdown with my friend Eric. It was right after “ougate”—a minor flap in which writer s.e. smith, who identifies as genderqueer and prefers the pronoun “ou,” was misgendered by Gawker writer Hamilton Nolan; the ensuing correction spurred a minor tizzy after which smith and Nolan both moved on.

Eric's a grad student in linguistics, wrapping up his dissertation on Balkan languages as I write this, and his argument was a little more specific: Prescribing a new pronoun for speakers of a language to adopt is an effort that's not all that likely to succeed. Some languages don't gender personal pronouns, but English does, and has for so long that reversing the trend seems completely impracticable.

"This stings, because my gender identity is not semantic to me. There's not much I can do about it until non-binary genders gain more recognition in mainstream society—which, I feel confident saying, is not imminent in the U.K. right now—so I am learning to tune it out. It hurts, but what else can I do?"

I grant that as an English speaker, gender is inextricably tied to how I want to talk about people and even animals (why do so many people, by the way, refer to cats as “she”?). For years, I despised the numeric inconsistency of the singular “they” in writing (though I used it all the time in conversation), and usually struck it when editing others' work.

But I'm also deeply skeptical of claims that humans or speakers of a given language will inevitably think about gender in a certain way—or what languages are intrinsically built to do. They strike me nearly the same way as arguments using evolutionary psychology to bolster rigid gender roles—though I wonder if the latter flies because most people don't know enough about primitive humans to argue that primitive men probably didn't use the pre-agricultural equivalent of sports cars and expensive briefcases to lure primitive ladies into their primitive caves. Even non-linguists—say, every high school kid trying to figure out how French nouns are gendered—know there's remarkable diversity in the way living languages handle gender.

And anyway, there's the theoretical notion of how pronouns ought to work in languages, and then there's the practice, which is more a matter of etiquette than argument about what a language will “naturally” do.

Clouds Haberberg, a social worker in the United Kingdom who identifies as gender neutral, came out asking to be referred to as “they,” and while most friends were supportive and some merely confused, a few argued that singular “they” is ungrammatical and refused to use it.

“This stings, because my gender identity is not semantic to me,” Haberberg writes, adding that they are not out at work, because explaining gender-neutral identity would get too complicated, so they get misgendered all the time. “There's not much I can do about it until non-binary genders gain more recognition in mainstream society—which, I feel confident saying, is not imminent in the U.K. right now—so I am learning to tune it out. It hurts, but what else can I do?”

“I think the bulk of the population is just so locked into gender binarism that they can't get their heads around anything else. It just discombobulates them,” says Sally McConnell-Ginet, a professor emerita at Cornell, whose research has focused on the intersection of gender and language. “They're not at all at ease around this.”

BARON ARGUES THAT PRONOUNS are the most conservative part of speech in English, and that speakers are incredibly slow to adopt new ones broadly. The most recent one he counts is “its,” which appears in some of Shakespeare's work (though Shakespeare uses other words, including “is,” to mean precisely the same thing), but not in the King James Bible.

Baron's essay, “The Epicene Pronoun: The Word That Failed,” first appeared in Grammar and Gender and appears in a truncated form online, where he also collects news items related to gender-neutral pronouns. If the first attempts at creating an epicene pronoun came from nitpicky writers and grammarians, it's only been fairly recently—say, the 1950s and ‘60s—that writers started proposing epicene pronouns as an argument for greater inclusiveness. Feminists trying to shift away from the generic “he” were among the first; transgender and genderqueer writers came later. Baron finds broad use of the Spivak pronouns—“e,” “eim” and “eir”, coined by mathematician Michael Spivak—in transgender forums online, and in science fiction, but hasn't found an instance of a new epicene pronoun gaining traction in English.

The work of Lal Zimman, a visiting linguistics professor at Reed College who focuses on patterns in the speech of LGBT people, differs. Zimman tracks regional variants on the plural “you” (the Southern “y'all,” and the Pittsburgher “yin” for instance) as newer pronouns are created to serve a purpose other English words don't—and notes English used to have more pronouns than it currently does. There are even regionally specific instances of gender-neutral pronouns, like in Baltimore, where, at least a few years ago, “yo” was gaining traction.

Zimman agrees that language doesn't really work as a top-down system, with authoritative sources dictating how speakers should use it. But social and political change often does have a major effect on at least formal writing and, more slowly, speech. For instance, Zimman says, the use of the generic “he” wasn't an accident, but the result of an act by the British parliament that ordered that official documents be edited to use it. Prior to that, use of the singular “they” was common in formal writing.

“Their reasoning was explicitly that men are better than women,” Zimman says. “Later on, we kind of viewed it as a natural part of the language, but actually it's something where a major change took place.”

So, Zimman argues, it may not be fair to say pronouns are intrinsically more conservative. “If pronouns are slow to change, I would attribute that to social processes rather than linguistic ones,” he says.

And of course, even binary transgender identities aren't typically handled well in mainstream formal writing: Most media style guides specify that people should be referred to by the name and pronoun with which they publicly identify, but major media outlets balked nonetheless at referring to Chelsea Manning as “she” after her coming-out statement was released—at least until enough people yelled at them on the Internet.

Zimman notes that in the first days after Manning's statement was released, different reporters for the same media outlet referred to Manning differently, sometimes minutes apart within the same newscast, likely because reporters on the military desk simply have less experience reporting on LGBT issues.

Changing one's informal language can be more challenging, even when the situation is cut and dry: My best friend died in May, and I still catch myself referring to him in present tense, for reasons no more advanced or defensible than habit. A genderqueer friend who came out this summer admits that they still sometimes slip up when signing emails. And about 10 years ago, my mom was a long-term substitute at a rural Idaho high school that had a lot of Asian exchange students who went by Anglophone names because school administrators had told them Americans would never be able to pronounce those given to them. “We can try,” my mom said, and asked how they said their names. The administrators had a point—many Asian languages have sounds native English speakers can't hear or just have a hard time pronouncing—but their rightness mattered less to the kids than mom's kindness, however clumsy. Her students cried when they heard their real names for the first time in months.

EARLIER THIS YEAR, THE Swedish national encyclopedia added the gender-neutral “hen”, which has been used in various contexts there since the 1990s after being coined by a linguist in the late ‘60s. McConnell-Ginet says she's not sure how that will play out in terms of broad, informal adoption—and notes Swedish is spoken by a smaller, more homogeneous group of speakers than English, which is spoken by multiple cultures and multiple groups within cultures. McConnell-Ginet and Zimman both point out that other forms of gender-based language planning have been somewhat successful, such as the use of “Ms.,” which was scoffed at when it was reintroduced in the 1970s. While it hasn't been adopted across the board, it's still more often than not the default courtesy title given to women (or junk-mail recipients assumed to be women). McConnell-Ginet says that her dissertation is riddled with the generic “he,” and example dialogues using male names only.

“I look back and I think, 'Oh my god, how could I have done that?,'” she says. “At the time I would certainly have embraced gender egalitarianism. I didn't see it as connected, that they weren't just these dead examples.”

Now McConnell-Ginet has not only dropped the generic “he,” but is more likely than not to use the singular “they” in writing. She thinks the singular “they” is the epicene pronoun most likely to take off, since it's already in the language, and it would be easier to stretch its use than try to get a new word to take off.

“It's sort of the default, certainly in speech, and has been for centuries. It's perfectly acceptable. You see it more and more in writing,” Baron says. But now you see it, I think people are a little more lax about it in writing. I use it all the time. I use it fully aware of what I'm doing. It just sounds better.” While there are still people who object—including students in a classroom setting—more and more academics have begun to accept the singular “they” in formal writing, he says.

McConnell-Ginet is also optimistic that as trans people become more visible worldwide, speech will become more inclusive, at least in receptive communities: “The increased visibility of trans people is going to change the practice. It just is.”