Gender Neutral Pronoun(s) / GNP(s)

Pronouns in the English Language

The English language has a couple of pronouns - usually, these are among the first words you learn in English, as they are, in fact, some of the most important words in inter-human communication.

Singular pronouns in English are "I", "you", "he" and "she". These are known as 1st, 2nd and 3rd person pronouns, respectively. Plural pronouns are "us", "you" and "they".

As you can see from the list above, there are actually two third person singular pronouns, namely "his" and "her". This means that if you want to communicate an idea about a third person, you automatically have to know their gender, which is where the problem of gender pronouns come in.

In addition to the mentioned pronouns (which are technically known as Subject Pronouns in linguistics), there are modifications of these: Objective pronouns (him / her), Possessive pronouns (his book / her book), Possessive pronouns that function as nouns (I don't have a computer, can I borrow his? / can I borrow hers?), and reflexive pronouns (himself / herself).

In the past, people have solved the problem by writing "s/he" and "his/her", but reading a long text with his/her throughout not only significantly breaks up the flow, but it also looks too in-specific, it is clumsy when read out loud, and because it is an unusual word-shape, it can really screw up somebody's speed-reading.

Some writers have gotten around the problem by consistently referring to the writings in third person plural (they / their / theirs / theirself) instead, knowing that this pronoun is, in fact a GNP.

Other writers have dodged the problem by writing "his" or (less frequently) "her" throughout, but adding a footnote or comment pointing out that the same applies to the opposite gender. Of course, this results in the overall text being inaccurate and unclear (because it is left to the reader to remind himself / herself of the fact that what they are reading applies to both gender) or excluding: If all texts about nurses use "she" as the third person singular pronoun, you automatically exclude the existence of nurses of the other gender.

Avoiding pronouns

This Avoiding pronouns section has been written by Simulacron3, who managed to summarise the ideas far better than I ever could

One way for writers and speakers to reduce the pronoun problem is to simply use pronouns less, particularly when referring to unspecified persons.

Japanese has been cited as a sexist language that uses gendered pronouns, but pronouns in general are used much less frequently in Japanese speech than they are in English, and even less frequently in Japanese writing. Titled names are used more often than pronouns. Formal titles are gender neutral (e.g., Morita-san: Mr./Mrs./Miss Morita or Morita Sensei: Teacher Morita). Other times, "that person" or "this person", either of which is also gender neutral, is used.

This is not a complete solution, but there are usually reasonable options to using inappropriate pronouns in other cases. For example:

"The next President should present the best public behavior." or "should act with the dignity worthy of the office." etc. (rather than 'act his best')

"If anyone threatens to kill me, I will kill that person first." or simply "I will kill anyone who threatens to kill me." (rather than 'kill her first')

"The reader should take sufficient time in reading the next paragraph." (rather than 'the reader should take his time' or 'their time')

"Everyone should put away his or her books." "One should put one's books away." (If speaking a general opinion.) or "Everyone, please put your books away." (If directing a group to do something.)

Some may say this cramps their style or limits their range of expression, but it will come naturally to most people that do not have a learned gender bias.

The problem of plural / singular confusion

Whereas it is easy enough to use "them" and "their", it is not always grammatically correct. If someone were to be interviewed by the police, for example:

- I was attacked by someone when I made an inappropriate comment
- What did you say to them?

In this example, the police officer conducting the interview either doesn't want to assign a gender to the assailant, or automatically assumes there are more of them. However, as the original statement already indicates that there was only one ("someone"), the police officer's sentence does not make sense gramatically.

If the police officer had said "What did you say to him", she would have been guilty of automatically thinking it was a male, and the same goes if she had said "what did you say to her".

Another case in point: re-read the previous two paragraphs. I did not assign the police officer a gender until in the very last sentence, when I referred to her as "she". Because we, in most societies, automatically assume that police officers are male, this may come as a surprise, but if the gender of the police officer is unknown or irrelevant, it would be strange if I had re-written the sentence to use the third person plural: "The same goes if they had said..." - because we all along have been speaking about a single police officer.

Because of this mismatch between plural and singular, "them" is not always a successful replacement as a Gender Neutral Pronoun.

Gender Neutral Pronouns in other countries

Most other languages in the world use "him" (or their local variety of the male third person singular) as a gender neutral pronoun. Even languages that have a third gender - neuter - tend to use "him", as referring to somebody in neuter is generally considered as a grave insult.

This applies in English as well, of course: If a doctor did not know the gender of your first-born baby, and says "It may need its foot amputating", you would be unlikely to ever return to that particular medical practitioner ever again

As an aside: people who speak more than one language are more likely to be confused by the fact that the second person ("you") does not differentiate between singular and plural, than the fact that there is no GNP for the third person singular...

The use of Gender Neutral Pronouns in the English language

GNPs are in no way a new phenomenon - as early as 1910, a gender neutral pronoun was suggested; "thon" - a contraction of "that one". In the example above, the police officer would have said "What did you say to thon?". Other people - linguists and sociologists, in particular, have come up with bunches of other suggestions, such as "et", "na", "jhe" and "co".

None of these ever caught on so far, but the need for GNPs need has been accelerated with the invention of the Internet: If you meet someone named "Thomas" or "Christine", it is easy enough to guess the name. As a counter-example, "Kim" and "Jan" is more difficult, as they are both male / female names, depending on where in the world you are. On the internet things get more tricky. What gender is SharQ? How about Pint, Chihuahua Grub, Igloowhite, Iceowl or ElevenFiftyNine? Exactly.

In addition to not knowing someone's gender, there is the aspect of them not knowing - or not wanting to identify with - their own gender. With people who defy gender labels, and who refuse to refer to themselves as either gender - how do you refer to them in the third person singular?

This further extends to people who fall between gender classifications - what gender would you label someone born as a male who is about to undergo Gender Reassignment Surgery but has a passport that says the person is female? How about someone who has had the surgery done, but the passport still indicates the person's gender before the surgery? How about someone who is a hermaphrodite?

The introduction of new GNPs

Gender neutral pronouns were invented, to overcome all the problems and difficulties detailed above

Suggested systems include:

  1. Singular versions of the 3rd person plural
  2. Neuter pronouns used in transgender communities
  3. The Sie/Hir pronoun set, taking the "i" from "him" and the first- and last letter of "her"
  4. Another construction designed to combine "his" and "her" was devised by Eliezer Yudkowsky in CaTAI. The need for these GNPs arose when Yudkowsky realised that assigning language to Artificial Intelligence (AI) was ludicrous.
  5. The contributions of Casey Miller and Kate Swift
  6. The Spivak pronouns, introduced by the matematician Michael Spivak in one of his text-books (see the relevant node for lots more information)

#  he/she    him/her    his/her   his/hers   himself/herself
1   ey         em       eir       eirs         eirself
2   zie        zim      zir       zis          ziself
3   sie        sir      hir       hirs         hirself
4   ve         ver      vis       vers         verself
5   tey        ter      tem       ters         terself
6   e          em       eir       eirs         emself

Do we need Gender Neutral Pronouns in the language?

This write-up has illustrated that there is a distinct clumsiness inherit in the english language. However, in other countries, people get by just fine by using "him" or "they" as the gender neutral pronoun.

There is no doubt that there is, indeed, a loophole of logic in the language. People disagree, however, as to how this loophole should be corrected. Some people feel that the fact that Gender Neutral pronouns have been around for more than a hundred years without catching on proves that there isn't really a need - we can get by just fine doing the same thing everybody else does, namely by just accepting the fact that the language is flawed, and use him / they or s/he as replacements in cases where we need gender-neutral pronouns.

Others feel that the fact that there are no "real" GNPs is degrading and/or disrespectful to people who defy the binary gender definitions, or to people who wish not to be referred to as one gender or another for various reasons.

The problem is that we already have a hand-full of suggestions as to what GNPs we should use. Nobody agrees, nobody wants to adapt to another set of GNPs, and the fact that the number of people who use GNPs is only a minuscule percentage of the population (most people will not even know what a Gender Neutral Pronoun is, and the majority of the ones who know what it is don't use them on a regular basis), does not help the cause much. Furthermore, while a select few communities on the internet use GNPs on a regular basis, there is a huge leap from these written internet communities into the real world of the spoken word.

While there are convincing arguments for introducing GNPs into our everyday language, the english-speaking world has gotten by perfectly fine for hundreds of years without having a set of GNPs. Based on this, it is unlikely we'll see their introduction any time soon.

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