Some modern languages have a gender-neutral pronoun for human beings, and others, like English, do not. The first country I’m aware of that has introduced a gender-neutral pronoun into its language in a deliberate manner is Sweden. The pronoun “hen” has been in use in Swedish long enough that the Swedish Academy has added it to the latest edition of its dictionary, which will be available on the 15th of this month.
This should be leading English language lovers and professionals to wonder why we haven’t managed to do the same yet and how far off we are from doing so.
It’s not for lack of gender-neutral pronoun options. On the contrary, the surplus of options is more likely to blame.
E, Ey, Zie, Per, Co…
…and so on. Most have their roots in a person or organization’s effort to invent an option that they perhaps believed did not yet exist. If they knew of earlier gender-neutral pronouns, they must have considered them inadequate in some way. Most emerged in the 1970s or later. I can’t claim to know why each one chose to create a new pronoun instead of taking an old one and promoting its cause; the only thing certain is that they did.
The lack of common purpose was probably one reason for pronoun glut. “Co” was created for use in intentional communities, “ey” for use in business communication, and “xe” by the Unitarian Universalist church. “E” was picked up by the LambdaMOO text-based virtual world, along with several other gender-neutral options, and prevailed as the most popular. These aren’t communities that are likely to be playing pickup games of miniature golf (actual or virtual) together, so it’s not a surprise that they and others were developed independently, for isolated reasons.
What gender neutral pronouns need is one overarching community that champions their use and commits—if not universally than at least in critical bulk—to one of the many existing options, even if its origins aren’t identical to the current need.
The Swedish pronoun was introduced in the gender-conscious ’60s but didn’t pick up steam in usage until the transgender-conscious ’00s. Media coverage of the news attributes the rise in hen’s use and acceptance to its use in transgender contexts. One wonders if a similar scenario could take place in English-speaking countries. Speaking of which…
All for One and One for All?
There are two pronoun contenders that are already in common use. “One” is sometimes already used as a pronoun, but there are good reasons for it not being the go-to gender-neutral nugget. Its use does highlight one of the reasons one is sought, however: the he-or-she conundrum.
The fact is, “one” sounds a bit formal, and if you use it too many times in one sentence, it begins to sound even clunkier than “he or she” does with three times as many syllables.
Maybe if it were used more frequently, the sheen of formality would wear a bit, but until then we’ll all be going around sounding like an Edwardian dowager.
They Are We
We already use “they” as a singular pronoun, and by “we,” I mean pretty much everyone, if only in casual speech. That might actually be the problem with “they”: while “one” is too formal, “they” is too informal. And a lot of people don’t recognize its use in the singular, even though the precedent for it is centuries old.
My most popular tweet (though that’s not saying much) was one I wrote during the ACES conference: “The ‘Singular They’ Revolution will not be televised.” My favorite response: “But it will be well documented.”
One drawback that both “one” and “they” have in common is that although they are both very good pronouns for referring to an abstract subject, they are not necessarily the best choice for applying to a specific individual of undetermined gender. Both options can be dehumanizing in a way that “he” and “she” are not and that the ideal alternative would not be.
Gender identity and pronouns are intimately connected. Many transgender individuals do of course prefer “he” or “she” (the applicable one might simply not be the one she or he was born with). “Transgender” is an enormous category that encompasses transsexuality as well as those who identify with any number of additional non-normative genders. Some seek out gender-neutral options, but it would be understandably important to have something to commit to that feels right for oneself, since the problem is precisely that both “he” and “she” fail for some people in that respect.
It might be worth considering that the existing terms don’t resonate for those who need them for the most personal reasons because they are so desperately underused. There is thus a catch-22 attached to the situation.
This gender-neutral pronoun blog has only one post, but that post has quite a bit of information about the options currently available and why they all fall flat. It’s probably not necessary to create a new one but to find one that works for a good number of people.
I'm Lea, a freelance editor who specializes in academic and nonfiction materials. More info about my services is available throughout this site.