What I want from a gender neutral pronoun

Well, first things first: I would like a gender neutral pronoun. There are perhaps only two or three people I’ve ever spoken about this with, so it could well be new information for most of you.

I have nothing against the masculine pronouns usually used to describe/refer to me, but I feel no strong attachment to them. I would assume that this is because I do not strongly identify as “male”. Don’t get me wrong, I love my y-chromosomey body. I’m just confident that I wouldn’t be any happier or less happy with two x-chromosomes.

For all I know, the majority of people feel this way. However, few people explicitly state it (and people who act or present themselves in ways that are contrary to their perceived gender often face ridicule and harassment from their peers). I must, therefore, assume that the majority of people are comfortable both with their biological sex and the corresponding gender role they are assigned based on it.

There are multiple arguments in favour of gender neutral pronouns. There is the issue that since some people do not identify as male or female (and some people are not biologically male or female) referring to them as male or female is inaccurate and/or inappropriate.

There are feminist concerns as well. It is unarguable that women have been treated as second class citizens for hundreds (if not thousands) of years, and it is theorised that this is reflected in our language. In addition to this, it is proposed that unnecessarily revealing a third party’s gender in conversation may influence the participant’s opinion of that person (see the old joke “How to tell a businessman from a businesswoman“).

The more I think about it, the less necessary gendered pronouns seem. We don’t have separate pronouns for people based on any other characteristic – can you imagine if we did? Imagine, for example, that we had separate pronouns for people of different hair colours. The entire concept is actually fairly ridiculous.

And in my opinion any argument against the use of gender neutral pronouns can easily be countered by the simple fact that there are dozens of languages that exclusively use GNPs.

Sadly, English is not one of them. It is occasionally argued that the masculine pronouns “he/him/his” can be used to refer to any party whose gender is not known, but there are a million problems with this. It can easily cause confusion amongst those who only know “he” as a masculine pronoun, and is often (unsurprisingly, and perhaps justly) claimed to be sexist. Another solution is to use the third person plural pronoun “they”. “They” is ungendered, and already often used as an gender neutral third person singular pronoun. For example:

“What time does the plumber get here? Will there be anyone at home to let them in?”

I think this works quite well, and it’s widely accepted, but it is very impersonal.

I think that if I am to find a gender neutral pronoun I must look to those that have recently been created or found favour on the internet. However, some are more well crafted than others. The three main things I want from a gender neutral pronoun are:

  1. A rational, logical construction (rather than being a new, arbitrarily constructed word set).
  2. Elegance, and ease of use. No one will want to use a clumsy preposition. This is my main problem with the whole “hir” thing. Like, seriously, what is that? Hear? Her? Hrrr?
  3. Common acceptance and acknowledgement. This could be a problem… I’m prepared to go out on a limb and say that the majority of people don’t spend time considering alternative pronouns. Those that do have a variety of GNPs to choose from, and once someone has chosen pronouns that they feel comfortable with they may be reluctant to convert to a more “popular” alternative.

The most pleasing set I have found are the Spivak pronouns (ey, em, eir, eirs). It is constructed from the third person plural (they, them, their, theirs) by the removal of the “th”. It doesn’t stand out too much in regular speech, and isn’t difficult to say. I may well start using these both o/l and irl :p

Don’t worry, I’m not expecting people to start using these pronouns when referring to me. Call me cynical, but I can’t help feeling that it might cause more problems than it’s worth. However, if you feel you are in open-minded company then go for it.

If you want to do any more research there are a lot of amazing sites out there. There’s an amazing FAQ here, and a very clear video done by TheMetallicSharpie (http://www.youtube.com/user/TheMetallicSharpie) here.

Thanks for reading : ) x

  1. I really enjoyed your post,

    The problem, however, would be that this only really works in an ideologically perfect universe. In the real world, where we do, in this country, use gendered pronouns, a person who started to use GNP would jump from having people make potentially inaccurate assumptions about their gender to having people make potentially inaccurate assumptions about their personality and motivations. Also what about names? People will still make assumptions about GI based on someone’s names, which almost always have a “gender value”

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