Pronoun poser

I couldn’t find a full answer on my own. Cartoon by John Deering.

You might remember that a couple of weeks ago, the Word Nerd asked for your help on a query from a reader:

“‘Pronoun Challenged’ sent me a note: ‘I have a teenage relative who has decided that she is now gender-fluid and (in addition to a name change) wants to be called they/them instead of she/her. I am supportive of whatever this young person is going through, but I have a hard time using these pronouns, since to me these words have always been plural. I’m sure there is a history behind the choosing of these words, but can you please tell me that there are alternatives? I think some new words should be invented or appropriated (as appropriate).’”

I responded: “Some ‘gender-neutral’ pronouns have been introduced (as English doesn’t have a gender-neutral or third gender pronoun), but I haven’t heard any of them in use. While I could spout off The Associated Press rules on ‘they’ and other pronouns, and I have friends who are often unintentionally misgendered, I would like some input from readers.”

Hopefully “Pronoun Challenged” might be able to find some direction or inspiration in the responses I received.

These are the most commonly used pronouns when referring to oneself. Image found on ADL.

I posted the column and question on my Facebook page, and Anne Titus responded: “How funny—my husband and I just had a discussion about what word could replace he/she. The plural ‘they’ bugs me, too. We decided on ‘zee’ as the perfect neutral-gender pronoun. Rhymes and everything! Couldn’t find a good substitute for objective case her/him. My solution is: We continue to simplify English and just use zee for the objective pronoun too. It’s usually preceded by ‘to, at, for, with, beside, without,’ etc., so it won’t really be confusing.”

Frequent guest columnist Coralie Koonce shared my column on her Facebook page as well. Kevin Carson responded: “We’ve had ‘they’ as a singular third person pronoun since the beginning. I’m totally fine with using people’s preferred pronouns, along with ‘they’ for nonbinary people or someone of unspecified gender. … I mean ‘since the beginning’ of English, because it was an entirely correct third person singular until the 17th century grammarians tried to impose a Latinate logic on the language, and persisted in ordinary use after that.”

Very good point. Grammar grouches can be a pain, especially when applying Latin rules to English, which prefers rifling through the pockets of other languages for what it can steal. We’re renegades! (And yes, like English itself, I stole that joke.)

But, Coralie wrote: “In the printed word, singular ‘they’ grates on my ear. It’s illogical. It doesn’t recognize the distinction between one and many. … I just wish people could have agreed on a non-gender-specific, first-person, singular pronoun.”

Well, that would make sense, which, yeah, doesn’t seem much in supply sometimes.

Ze and ey aren’t as easy to remember as they, nor as likely to catch on in general usage. Image found on The Davis Center at Williams College.

Another frequent guest, artist and activist Shelley Buonaiuto, wrote: “Someone wrote into Dan Savage that it should be ‘sha,’ pronounced like ‘the.’ He said OK, but … was too close to she. So I was thinking, umm … what about ‘um’? Maybe too much like ‘him’? So maybe ‘uh’ … give the book to ‘uh’ … it might catch on … except in Brooklyn, Boston or England where it would be heard as ‘her.’

“Whatever it is, it must be respectful … what about ‘san’? Like the term of respect in Japan? It’s bigender. ‘As a rule of thumb, in Japanese business life, the surname name is always followed by the honorific suffix “san” (meaning ‘dear’ or actually ‘honorable Mr./Ms.’),’” according to Japan Consulting Office.

I’m not opposed to this idea at all, though considering how hard it is for some Americans to adjust to one fairly recent Japanese custom (wearing masks in public, especially during epidemics/pandemics), it would probably be even tougher to get them to accept an old Japanese custom. Especially if it means being respectful.

Friend and social scientist Earl Babbie noted on my blog: “On gender, as you may recall, I favor using the third-person plural when gender is unknown: ‘When a student comes to office hours, I have them sit here.’ (Once more, I said it and the world didn’t end.)”

Fellow blogger Susan Richards said: “[E]xcept for constructions similar to Babbie’s example, I’ll probably not be using ‘they’ as a singular pronoun. (I’m old and set in my ways.) I’ve read too many examples of that usage that were either ridiculous or impossible to understand. If we could invent ‘Ms.’ when it became necessary, we can invent a new singular pronoun.”

Even more pronouns. Image found on Carleton College.

There are pronouns, but I haven’t seem many of them in use. Devin-Norelle wrote on “Gender-neutral pronouns aren’t a fad, and they aren’t new, either.  Throughout the history of the English language, pronouns have evolved to adapt to the circumstances of the times. The plural ‘they’ shifted to a singular ‘they’ several centuries ago, when writers went in search of a more gender-neutral pronoun; multiple gender-neutral pronouns have come about since and been embraced by members of the trans and nonbinary communities. Third-person pronouns like ‘xe/xem’ or ‘ze/zim’ are growing increasingly popular. Likewise, it is becoming more common for people to avoid using pronouns altogether, and instead just use their name in all circumstances.

“This gain in popularity reflects both a need for more inclusivity in the language we use and a desire to keep us all connected. When trans people like myself hear others use gender-neutral pronouns, whether in regards to other people or when referring to us directly, we feel seen. It’s an acknowledgement and recognition of our existence. The usage of these pronouns and names validates both our identities and experiences, and helps us to continue feeling connected to others, as the culture surrounding us continues to shift and evolve.”

“Likely the oldest gender-neutral pronoun in the English language is the singular ‘they,’ which was, for centuries, a common way to identify a person whose gender was indefinite,” wrote Michael Waters in The Atlantic (click the link for the whole piece; it’s fascinating). “For a time in the 1600s, medical texts even referred to individuals who did not accord with binary gender standards as ‘they/them.’ The pronoun’s fortunes were reversed only in the 18th century, when the notion that the singular ‘they‘ was grammatically incorrect came into vogue among linguists.”

There go those grammarians again, pooping on everyone’s party.

If someone tells you their preferred pronouns, just do your best to accommodate them. Making a big deal about it helps no one. Image found on University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Waters related multiple alternatives that have been floated over the years, noting, “the bulk of what’s changed is that gender-neutral pronouns are more widespread today than ever before. The backlash to them, however, is nothing new.”

That’s human nature; we get stuck in what’s comfortable for us: the same old rules for grammar, etc., not caring that evolution is a natural process that has resulted in a vibrant, often fun English language. If we were still “thee-ing” and “thou-ing,” we’d be a pretty sad lot. Sure, we might still be using some awesome phrases like “farting crackers” (trousers), but there’d be an awful lot of us feeling left out by phrases like “brother of the quill” (professional writer) … my sisters of the quill are not happy with that.

Barring acceptance of newer pronouns, I think those of us who had it drilled into our heads that “they” is never singular may just have to suck it up and use that or whatever other pronoun someone requests. It’s only polite.

And if you misgender someone? Apologize. It’s not that hard, and an apology helps them know that you’re trying.


Trans man Trystan Reese (on the right, if you can’t tell) gave birth to his and husband Biff Chaplow’s son Leo in 2017. The two were already parents by that time, having adopted Biff’s niece and nephew and raising them as their own. Image found on Huffington Post.

The gender-fluid pronoun problem wasn’t the only thing that readers responded to.

Ethel Simpson wrote in an email: “Very recently, I am seeing ‘a pregnant person.’ It is one thing to prefer ‘mail carrier’ or ‘firefighter,’ since presumably persons of both sexes can fill those roles. But only females can be pregnant. If someone wants to affirm women’s importance in the world, why would they neutralize the one area in which the female sex is uniquely qualified?”

My understanding on the “pregnant person” debate is that it’s a recognition that transgender men (meaning having made the transition from female to male) can and do become pregnant. While there’s no exact number available, it has happened, and likely more often than you might think.

Again, language changes with the times. While it may not always make us comfortable, it’s a fact of life. You take the good, you take the bad; you take ’em both … uh … sorry.

Is there a pronoun for those of us who get earworms from random words and phrases?

4 thoughts on “Pronoun poser

  1. I should clarify that I did not think up the practice of using the third-person plural when the gender of a single person was unknown or variable, as much as I’d like to be hailed for pioneering the English language. I just put in print a practice I’ve heard in conversations my whole life. I think we all do it without fear of a sulfurous eternity.


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