Kip at Long story; short pier has a long discussion of the various gender-neutral pronouns that have been proposed in the course of crackpot and/or feminist history, with especial focus on a set he vaguely remembers from the ’70s: hi, hir, hirs, hirself (never saw ’em myself, and they seem way too confusing when said out loud). He turns up a comprehensive faq on the subject. What baffles me is that he and other intelligent persons of the feminist persuasion ignore the obvious solution, one inherent in the language and used naturally by actual speakers—namely “they“—in favor of a collection of bizarre forms that will never achieve currency outside a small circle. But there are many things I do not understand.


  1. Those epicene pronouns seem to be popular among Furries fsr.

  2. How uncanny. Just this morning I was bemoaning the lack of a singular gender-neutral pronoun in English. “S/he” and “he/she (his/her)” are horrific and stylistically jarring, respectively. “He or she (his or her)” works for formal tracts but leaves something to be desired, especially when one needs to repeat the pronoun over and over. Going with one or the other, and being consistent, seems to be the current fad, but choosing the masculine or the feminine appears to be depend rather heavily on the field in which you’re working and your level of disdain for so-called political correctness.
    My solution to my concrete puzzle this morning was to rewrite the sentence to place the unspecified subject in the plural. But I didn’t like it, not one bit.
    Also, while I’m riffing, I’d like to file a formal complaint with the U.S. English Language Academy (we do have one of those, right?) regarding the lack of a proper third-person plural pronoun. The regional “you(se) guys” and “y’all” are just not cutting it.

  3. Whoa. I should have been more clear: I’m not favoring much of anything; more playing vaguely (and snarkily; maybe I should have been more sarcastic and less kind?) with the idea. A lot of my reminiscence is keyed to science fiction and world-building in the context of role-playing games, and while there’s a lot of serious thought behind them, I don’t expect them ever to catch on in the “real” world. (I’m actually more than a little serious when I note the reason why most of the compilations of epicene pronouns slight science fiction as a source: while they may pluck this or that reference for a little pop culture cred, what they’re really interested in is how “real” people “really” used them, in “real” attempts to create utopian pronoun-spaces.) (Okay, I’ll stop scare-quoting now.) (But I will note that if I were at all even half-heartedly serious, I’d go chasing the epicene through the various alternate-sexuality Usenet boards; that’s a target-rich environment, as they say.)

    Hi is dreadfully ungainly in actual usage, and I cheerfully admit as much; I only note in passing that it’s relatively less so than “sie” or “zie,” and that I’d think a lot more carefully these days when next I want some adolescent androgynous cool. —I use “they” as the singular quite often, and have felt secure in doing so ever since I noticed John D. MacDonald did it with no apologies. But they, while perfectly suitable for referring to an unspecified individual, gets a little weird when you’re referring to a specific person, but wish to leave the question of their gender open, unaddressed. That’s a specific problem that hi and sie and zie and their ilk try to solve, after their fumbling fashion, and though I do think there’s a worthwhile there there, those cures are worse than the disease. The five-point gender plan I briefly sketch is an ideal, and like all such doesn’t do that well outside the hothouse. (I like what Jenn’s doing [subtly] with peh in Dicebox, but she is engaged in world-building for a science fiction story. She’s not tossing it around in everyday conversation, or digging others in the ribs when they don’t follow suit.)

  4. That’s funny – haven’t we talked here before, Steve, about how ‘they’ and ‘them’ are actually quite well established in the third singular?
    I use ‘them’ a lot for him/her, and it seems very clear and useful, not troubling anyone I meet.

  5. Dan: I feel your pain. In my day job as a copy editor, I have to do all that stuff, and I’ve grumpily rewritten many a sentence, leaving it only slightly less awkward, wishing “they” would hurry up and become universal so the problem would go away. As for “he lack of a proper third-person plural pronoun” (you mean second-person, right?), I like “y’all” a lot and use it when appropriate. But (like “they”) it certainly isn’t generally accepted.
    Kip; Sorry, I didn’t realize you were snarking. (I mean, you used the damn things! OK, that was a while back…) I completely agree about the general contempt for sf, and I agree that “they” for specific persons sounds a little odd now — but that will diminish as the usage spreads. (Every new use sounds odd at first.) But it will never sound one-millionth as odd as “zie.”

  6. I’m more or less exactly in Hat’s position. I will write a sentence “Anyone can say whatever they want to.” But then my late 8th grade teacher (from 1959, still alive in 1970, DOD unknown) whispers in my ear. So I change it to “People can say whatever they want to”. But to me “People” often sounds mushy, and sometimes it sounds really bad. Ya can’t win.

  7. I just realized why I don’t like “people”. “Anyone” and “everyone” explicitly universalize, which is the effect are looking for. “People” doesn’t.
    I do enjoy, however, explicity degendering certain words: “No matter how brutal and loathsome the dictator, the debts he or she incurs on the behalf of his or her nation are legally binding . Take that, bra-burners!

  8. Actually, I and many other persons of the feminist persuasion (leaving “intelligent” out as even more of a judgment call than “feminist”) have been pretty insistent about using what you call “the obvious solution” for decades now. I wouldn’t be surprised if that wasn’t one of the reasons it seems obvious now. I’ve certainly gotten lots of flak for the “affectation” from conservative types.

  9. My memory is that for about a century Middle English survived with such a messy, inconsistent system of pronouncs that you mostly ended up guessing from context. Shouldn’t we make this our goal. And I’ve forgotten the details, but I remember being told that in Brazilian Portuguese there were not just two (as often) but three forms of the second-person-masculine-singular. And then there’s the oral “m” which can mean any third person object form whatever.

  10. If it’s not broke, why fix it?

  11. I’m a little confused about the statement that “they” for the third-person singular is a new usage. Didn’t Shakespears use it? Yes, googling “they singular”, I turn up http://www.crossmyt.com/hc/linghebr/austheir.html#X1a, which is chock-a-block full of lovely historical examples, including, “God send every one their heart’s desire!”[Much Ado About Nothing, Act III Scene 4].
    Sheesh! How old does it need to be before it stops being a new usage!
    (I’m all for the they-singular, incidentally.)

  12. LH, you seem to be getting more and more belligerent. I say this with amusement, and not with rancor. Your pages are an unfailing delight, and if some New York Times articles, feminists or people named “William Safire” draw your ire (as they have this past week), well, ’tis a small price to pay for the many pleasures one predictably finds here.
    (One daren’t admit that the very ire IS one of the pleasures here…)

  13. Ray: Good for you! (And perhaps I should be more explicit about the fact that I’m a person of the feminist persuasion myself.)
    zizka: I’m all in favor of messy, inconsistent systems, just so long as they come naturally and are not imposed by brutal diktats from a Committee of Bienpensant Overlords.
    jennie: Nobody’s saying it’s new; in fact, if you’ll click on the “they” link in my post, you’ll find a discussion of how old and ingrained it is. (And mark, I think that’s what you’re remembering, although I go on rants about this every chance I get.)
    CB: I fear I must confess that I’ve actually gotten mellower, not more belligerent, as the years have gone by; you should have seen some of the rage-filled letters to the editor I penned when I was in graduate school (“bumbling incompetence,” “abysmal ignorance,” that sort of thing). If you consult the archives, you’ll find a good bit of bile from the beginning, notably in posts about the Times (starting, I believe, in Aug. 2002 with this and this), but also in blasts at the attempted revival of Cornish and most sustainedly in my vicious attack on David Foster Wallace. I’m afraid I take as much guilty pleasure in my ire as do you…

  14. Sorry, I took “wishing ‘they’ would hurry up and get established…” wrong—reading too quickly, didn’t click the link.
    I rather think, though, that I came across the Shakespears and Jane Austen argument on an Editors’ list to which I subscribe. Not that it matters where I found it—it’s far more important to know that others accept the usage.

  15. Whoever said “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” got it right.

  16. One problem with the singular they is that it really only sounds right when you’re talking about an indeterminate person, or one whose gender is unclear. “Everyone enrolled in Basket-Weaving 101 put their hand up” is fine (to my ear), as is “I just got an email from someone I went to school with.” “Oh? What did they say?”. But very few people would feel comfortable with “My brother opened the window and put their head through it”. The advantage that artificial gender-neutral pronouns have is that they work just as well when you don’t think someone’s gender is relevant (and thus don’t feel the need to specify it) as when you just don’t know what that gender is.
    Of course, “work just as well” pretty much means “don’t work at all”, in that context.

  17. “Youse” is gaining a certain currency down here in Oz. Especially in the phrase I love youse all.

  18. “He” (and its other forms) used to have two clear meanings, one referring to a known male individual and the other in the everyone/he sense where it obviously meant a person of either sex. Obvious to people born as long ago as I was, that is. What the feminists to who pushed, largely successfully, to eliminate the everyone/he usage failed to realize is that they were retroactively forcing male gender on pronouns that were neutral when they were written. (Same is true of “man,” of course)
    It would have been a far more effective strategy to have colonized the male usages (e.g., “guys”)wherever possible, thus, again retroactively, neutering words that did refer only to males when they were written.

  19. One concurs with commonbeauty.
    One imagines nostalgically those long ago times when the language percolated up through the daily lives of its myriad speakers, each going about their business and using what came to hand.
    Whereas now there are decision being made. Or attempts.
    It’s a natural evolution the old way. The people’s sense of utility is really the most poetic.
    We adopt the slang and jargon of those we respect, or admire, or think are cool, just like pants. Or shoes.
    But it’s a natural thing. Rationally shifting the language is creepy.
    The People’s Committe on Non-Sectarian Gender-Neutral Pronoun Reconfiguration will now convene.
    When the common people’s hearts change their language changes.
    There will be a time (granted we survive long enough) when the word “nigger” will be as void of immediate pain as the word “quadroon” is now.
    “Them” is it, as is “they”, though I’m still fond of the odd “him” and “he”. And wish there was a way to use “one” without pomposity.
    It’ll find its expression, the future’s common speaker will have (strike)his(/strike) (strike)their(/strike) comfortable term, evolved naturally from this awkward moment. Once people come unstuck from the television’s demonic-schoolmarm influence, and can teach themselves again.

  20. Well, Hat, when my post-Enlightenment futurist cabal and I take power, when we begin to impose our artificially and inorganically irrational pronoun system, we will know whom to send the boys to go looking for.
    Yeah, we’re keeping “whom”. That’s already been decided.

  21. See also Anna Livia [Brawn], Pronoun Envy: Literary Uses of Linguistic Gender (OUP, 2000).

  22. Jennie, may you’re thinking of the hem/them change. Norse “them” gradually replaces Anglo-Saxon “hem”, both are still around in Chaucer but I thought ‘hem’ (and other case forms) had died out completely before Shakespeare. I could look this up but I’m too lazy. These are both plural though.
    I’m all in favour of a bit of language engineering, but as well as abolishing gendered third sing pronouns, we need an inclusive/exclusive distinction. All the languages I work on have it and I miss it in English.

  23. One problem with the singular they is that it really only sounds right when you’re talking about an indeterminate person, or one whose gender is unclear … very few people would feel comfortable with “My brother opened the window and put their head through it”.
    I agree with the point being made, but in the example given it’s hard for me to to see it as a problem – you know your brother’s male*, and once you’ve used the word “brother” so does your audience.
    Where this kind of thing actually presents a problem is online, where one frequently knows a person’s name without knowing their gender. To write about them you have to either tie yourself in knots to avoid pronouns or guess (even at the height of its acceptance, I don’t think the “generic he” could really be taken as nonspecific in such a situation). They sounds awful – Languagehat has recently updated their blog? I guess it’s the way to go, though, in that it has a reasonable chance of becoming acceptable. Which novel pronouns don’t, so much, although they clearly represent a neater solution if one could get people to adopt them.
    I imagine most here are familiar with it, but it may be worth linking in Hofstadter’s satirical “A Person Paper on Purity in Language“.
    * Okay, there are certain cases where an individual genuinely isn’t unambiguously male or female. But they’re rare enough that I can’t imagine them having much effect on the common language.

  24. “They” is (are?) very handy to have around when translating from languages with a gender system (and gloriously immune, for the most part, to PC).
    It does, however, depend on the subject at hand. There are times when the message being conveyed requires the subject to be singular.
    One could take the nasty s/he path or simply choose one or the other, and put a footnote explaining to the readers that the masculine or feminine was chosen for reasons of style, and that no subterfuge need be read into it.
    In the same vein, we also have the fact that “one” now seems antiquated (i.e. highfalutin) in texts of a certain register, but “you” just a little too intimate.
    Youse shall overcome.

  25. In my earliest days online there was a pre-blog journal called “honeyguide” by someone named Raphael Carter.
    Carter claimed an hermaphroditic gender identity, so that, Raphael aside, I still don’t know which pronomial adjective to use.
    There was an essay in which Carter put forth the “gender diamond” as a more valid replacement for the linear male/female graph.
    The point was, in addition to the obvious binary gender split, and the slightly more sophisticated “some of each”, there are real people of strong male and female gender, carrying traits of both; and there are real people of essentially neutral or sexless gender, still in-between but carrying few traits of either; and there are people everywhere between those four points.
    That matches my experience of the world. It’s a much more satisfying, and far more inclusive, way of seeing things.
    It’s the wholeness that I think is revolutionary.
    We don’t have a word for a being that’s not male and not female, yet isn’t ‘other’ or ‘neither’. Which is how a lot of us imagine God.

  26. gthistle: Sounds like an interesting book; alas, the “sample chapters” at the Oxford site are from an entirely different book!
    Tim: although they clearly represent a neater solution if one could get people to adopt them
    The liberal says (with a sigh) “but since one can’t, let’s try the possible”; the radical says (with a gleam in zir eye) “then people must CHANGE!”

  27. Michael Farris says

    I like ‘they’ just fine and use it no matter how formal the context until overruled.
    But the more ‘they’ is used as a singular, the more semantic pressure there will be to back-form a new 3rd person plural, most likely something with ‘all’, but ‘theyall’ (th’all?) sounds ugly to me and themall will upset self-appointed prescriptivists no end.

  28. This is a mite off topic, but in an article I wrote yesterday about the Pet Rock I included the following sentence: “Humanity has been transfixed by rocks since the first time a caveman or cavewoman smacked two stones together and created fire.” I figure a sentence like that appears politically correct to some and funny (ha-ha) to others and I don’t really care how it is read. Usually when I use “s/he” I do it tongue-in-cheekly, but hope that those who are earnest about such things think that I am earnest too.

  29. Tsk, tsk. I believe the approved circumlocution is “caveperson.” Or is it “persons of caveness”?

  30. Michael Farris says

    Cave dweller? Or is it cave-dweller or cavedweller? At any rate, it seems better than caveman or cavewoman.

  31. xiaolongnu says


  32. Kenneth Dover’s autobiography, Marginal Comment (1994), uses ‘hrm’ (= him or her) and ‘hrs’ (= his or hers) throughout. He doesn’t try to justify it, he just goes ahead and does it (which I admire), though he is such a good stylist that there are very few occasions in the book when he actually has to resort to these neologisms (or ‘graphemes’ as he calls them). A delightful book, well worth reading.

  33. I’ve seen a webpage (or maybe it was a newsgroup faq) about neutral pronouns used in fiction. My favorite so far is Greg Egan’s ve/ver/vis, most often applied to sexless persons. (It was a bit of a jar for me to notice, while coming near the end of Diaspora for the second time, that Blanca – whose lover was explicitly he – was verself ve.)

  34. scarabaeus stercus says

    whots rong with good old fashion “Thee” yer kno its’ living but says nada about apendages.
    just a tort from the under world.

  35. Some say the correct word is Trogodyte. However, the error is over a thousand years old.
    I don’t have a link but there are those who argue that “Tartar” for “Tatar” is a Turkish dialect form and not a contamination from Latin “Tartarus”.

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