Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

The Gender-Neutral Pronoun: Still an Epic(ene) Fail

University of Illinois English professor Dennis Baron writes:

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 (or "epicene" 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.

Only last month, 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 "cant 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 'heor 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.

Entry for 'thon' in Webster's Second New International Dictionary, 1934

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.)

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.

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Dennis Baron is professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois and writes regularly on linguistic issues at The Web of Language. He is the author of A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution. You can follow him on Twitter @DrGrammar. Click here to read more articles by Dennis Baron.

If you can tolerate "they" as a singular pronoun, there are still some rules to follow.
The Pronoun Problem
Margaret Hundley Parker takes a teacherly look at the lack of the gender-neutral pronoun.
Anne Curzan, an expert in the history of English, weighs in on singular "they."