Beyond the Gender Binary
The general-neutral pronoun zoo and singular they
Posted Oct 23, 2016
The administration at my college is pushing hard for more sensitivity to gender-related issues among faculty and students. We now have gender-neutral bathrooms on campus, and faculty meetings have included sessions intended to raise our awareness of gender issues. I applaud these measures, and I think they’re especially important at an institution like mine which prides itself on its cultural diversity.
At a recent faculty meeting, two members gave a presentation on gender-neutral pronouns. You see, a problem with the English language is that its third-person pronouns are gender specific—he for males and she for females. But what pronoun should you use when referring to a person who prefers not to be identified as male or female?
We’re academics. Surely we can think up a solution. But why stop at one? Let’s come up with a dozen possible solutions, and then bicker amongst ourselves as to which one is the best.
“Here’s a table of gender-neutral pronouns,” said one of the presenters, clicking to next PowerPoint slide. It showed a long list in multiple columns with text too small to read from the back row where I was hanging out.
I’ve searched the Internet and can’t find the table they presented. What I give below pales in comparison—I suspect that, in true academic fashion, the presenters culled from multiple sources. Nevertheless, the following pronouns, which I found on the web site www.forge-forward.org, gives you a sampling of the pronoun smorgasbord we feasted on that Tuesday afternoon.
GENDER-SPECIFIC SINGULAR PRONOUNS
She called me. I called her back. Her name is…
He called me. I called him back. His name is…
GENDER-NEUTRAL SINGULAR PRONOUNS
Ze called me. I called zim back. Zir name is…
Sie called me. I called hir back. Hir name is...
Zie called me. I called zir back. Zir name is...
Ey called me. I called em back. Eir name is…
Per called me. I called per back. Per name is…
GENDER-NEUTRAL PLURAL PRONOUN
They called me. I called them back. Their names are...
Certain communities have adopted various species from the gender-neutral-pronoun zoo, even making it part of the self-introduction ritual to state your preferred pronouns. However, such a practice is unlikely to catch on among the general public for a number of reasons that have nothing to do with inherent gender bias. And even more important, the problem we academics are twisting ourselves into contortions to solve is one of our own making.
None of the proposed pronoun schemes help us speak in a gender-inclusive fashion. Rather, they trade gender duality for gender multiplicity. That is, they expand the number of gender categories. Instead of taking a gender-neutral stance, that is, one in which gender is irrelevant, we instead demand a gender category from each person.
The European languages generally make a male-female distinction in their third-person pronouns, but there are plenty of languages around the world that are truly gender neutral in this regard. One example that I’m familiar with is Mandarin Chinese. In this language, there is but one pronoun—ta—to refer to a man, a woman, an animal, or an inanimate object. On hearing ta in a Chinese, you have only the context to infer the gender. If I was talking about my sister, ta means “she.” If I was talking about my father, ta means “he.” And if I was talking about my cell phone, ta means “it.” In other words, ta is truly a gender-neutral pronoun.
It’s often argued that gender distinctions in the language lead to gender discrimination in society. This was the reasoning behind the movement toward gender-neutral profession names. Instead of fireman, we now say firefighter, recognizing that women can fight fires too.
Since the academic literature in this area is so mired in gender politics, I really can’t say whether our adoption of gender-neutral profession names has led to a reduction in gender discrimination among the general public. However, I can say that a long history of using gender-neutral pronouns does not necessarily create a gender-enlightened society. For centuries, the Chinese used gender-neutral pronouns, yet they treated their women like chattel, binding their feet to keep them from running away.
My point here is not to maintain that the structure of the English language makes gender-neutrality an unattainable achievement for its speakers. Quite on the contrary, it’s the academics, so narrowly focused on superficial aspects of the language, who are oblivious to the fact that ordinary English speakers have been using gender-neutral language for centuries.
“Why can’t we just use singular they?” asked a faculty member from the audience. From all the nods and grunts this comment elicited, I surmise he'd spoken aloud what many of us were thinking to ourselves.
“Oh no, that won’t do,” replied one of the presenters—an English professor, of course.
All stylebooks of academic prose eschew the singular they as if it were a virulent plague. Most recommend using expressions like he or she, or else writing in the plural to avoid gender distinctions. This works fine in some cases. It’s easy to change Each student should raise his or her hand into All students should raise their hand.
But what if you’re only talking about one person? English demands that we identify that person by gender. Or does it? In casual English speech, we regularly use they to refer to a single person when we don’t want to identify that person’s gender.
Consider an utterance such as: I’m going out with my friend tonight. They’re picking me up around seven thirty. By using singular they, the speaker isn't identifying this friend as belonging to a gender-category outside of the traditional duality. Instead, the speaker simply wishes not to identify the gender of this person. This is what "gender-neutral" means.
But English teachers have a pathological fear of singular they. As the self-proclaimed guardians of the language, they do their best to hammer it out of their students and their fellow academics. And yet, gender-neutral singular they has been in common use for centuries. It even crops up in the works of literary greats such as William Shakespeare and C. S. Lewis.
As an academic, I’ve struggled to abide by the contortions of gendered-pronoun usage that is de rigeur in my line of work. And yet, the gender-neutral singular they is such an integral part of the spoken language that it cannot be held in abeyance for long. Just the other day, I received the following email from the University of Georgia:
[Name deleted] has applied to Psychology at the University of Georgia. He or she requested that you submit a recommendation form on his or her behalf.
Note: This applicant has not waived the right to view their recommendation.
Here, the writer tried really hard to avoid singular they but had already capitulated by the third sentence.
In the end, the gender-neutral pronoun zoo doesn’t solve the issue of gender-neutrality in language. Rather, it enforces a division of people into a larger number of gender categories. Instead, English already has a ready-made pronoun for convenient use when you don’t want to specify the gender of the person you’re talking about. And even an academic can use it—if only they’re willing to!
David Ludden is the author of The Psychology of Language: An Integrated Approach (SAGE Publications).