Aborting the sexist pronoun

In Connecticut in 1975, a Bill was proposed with the following text:

at least twenty-four hours before any abortion is performed in the state, the person who is to have the abortion shall receive counselling . . . concerning his decision to have such abortion.*

It’s an unremarkable passage, with one striking exception: the bizarre use of his, a masculine pronoun, in a context that could only refer to women. I came across this nugget of non-sense in Casey Miller and Kate Swift’s Words and Women (1976), a short, lucid and well-documented study of how sexist language reflects and perpetuates sexist culture. The authors write:

The decisive argument against using masculine terms generically . . . is not that they are often inadequate and sometimes ridiculous, but that they perpetuate the cultural assumption that the male is the norm, the female a deviation. It is this bias that the advocates of common-gender terms want to eliminate. Yet almost every attempt to evolve new, amplifying symbols meets with hostility: the response of purists is sometimes so highly charged it is as though the male-is-norm assumption itself is what they are defending rather than the generic terms.

In 1972, Miller and Swift argued for tey, ter, and tem as gender-neutral third-person singular pronouns, but these remain ‘almost invisible’ [PDF] despite some high-profile appearances. Workarounds like s/he and she or he are far more common despite being unsightly or ungainly. So I tend to be sceptical about newly coined (or resurrected) common-gender pronouns.**

Very few suggestions have attained any currency or widespread public recognition. Thon, ey, and xe did better than most, yet they’re unknown to most English speakers. Proposing epicene pronouns seems to be a doomed enterprise, albeit a persistently popular one that generates many curious terms, from a to zon.

Most of the time, semantically singular they, their and them work just fine, both in casual speech and in literature. But not always. Interest in this peculiar lacuna is therefore likely to continue, despite (or because of) the fact that there is no perfect solution.

For more on Miller and Swift’s work, there’s an interesting interview in the Fall 1995 issue of The Women in Literacy and Life Assembly.


* State of Connecticut, ‘An Act Requiring Counseling Prior to Abortion’, Proposed Bill No. 263, General Assembly, January Session, 1975.

** Other types of revision, such as humankind or humanity for mankind and generic man, pose no problems.


18 Responses to Aborting the sexist pronoun

  1. Aidan says:

    Using one and one’s also work as gender neutral pronouns/possessives. In this case ‘concerning one’s decision’ would not read so well I guess.
    I agree though that they and their tend to be used to obfuscate or mask the gender when necessary in colloquial English.

  2. John Cowan says:

    The only time I know that indefinite singular they doesn’t work is when dealing with someone who’s going to arbitrarily downcheck you for using it.

  3. Claude says:

    It was obviously a very unique case. The counselling session must have convinced him not to have the baby. Otherwise, we would have heard about it all over the world, specially about the pain of giving birth.

  4. Jonathan says:

    I remember an odd science-fiction book by Samuel Delany called Stars In My Pocket Like Grains Of Sand in which everyone, of any gender or species (there’s lots of aliens), is referred to as ‘she’ unless you fancy them, in which case they’re referred to as ‘he’. For example, if I went out for dinner with my female partner and a male friend, I would say that “my partner had the steak, which he enjoyed, and my friend had the fish, which she didn’t like too much.” Or I would say “Enda Kenny may lead the next Government, but I’m not sure she has the ability to deal with the problems left by her predecessor.” Or in a pub: “What do you think of Niamh?” “I really fancy him, but not his friend Orla; she’s boring…” And so forth…

  5. Jonathon says:

    “The only time I know that indefinite singular they doesn’t work is when dealing with someone who’s going to arbitrarily downcheck you for using it.”

    Yup. And indefinite they was standard until someone decided in the 1700s that it was illogical. But the “they must be plural” argument doesn’t hold a lot of water, because you could just as easily apply it to you.

    What really frustrates me is when people say that they would be the perfect solution, but unfortunately we can’t use it because it’s not standard. How on earth is it supposed to become standard if we don’t use it?

  6. sciamanna says:

    “zie” and “zir” seem to be favoured in my Internet circles – they are sometimes used in contexts where I might use singular “they” instead, but more commonly they are used to refer to a specific person who for whatever reason doesn’t like to *be identified* by gender, or who doesn’t *identify* as male or female (intersex or genderqueer). For this last use, “they” doesn’t really work.

    Personally I don’t like zie/zir because they just sound feminine to me (I’ve learned German at the same time as English).

    I do like tey/ter/tem, and I’ll try to remember to use them when I happen to need a non-gender-binary pronoun! (Of course, if I use them in speaking, people might not be able to tell the difference from singular “they”. Learning English in Ireland does things to your Ts…)

  7. sciamanna says:

    …drat, I got distracted. I meant it does things to your Ts and THs :)

  8. AT Garvin says:

    The Department of Justice Canada has a nice little article recommending, where it doesn’t introduce ambiguities, the singular they: http://www.justice.gc.ca/fra/min-dept/pub/legis/n41.html

  9. Max Atkinson says:

    Best suggestion I ever heard was from sociologist Dorothy Smith, who proposed (and practised) using gender of the author. But how much difference it makes is, to say the least, debatable. Years ago at a conference, I asked a linguist who was getting very worked up about it whether the use of neutral pronouns in Finnish meant that women in Finland had been less discriminated against than women in countries with languages where pronouns vary with gender. While she was confessing that she hadn’t a clue, someone else jumped in with the amazing news that it’s similar in Arabic and asked if that meant that Arab women had had a better deal over the years… game, set and match?

  10. wisewebwoman says:

    I’ve seen “hir” around quite a lot, but it sounds “feminine” though it looks alright in writing. “Zie” used for (s)he is used fairly frequently on the blogs I frequent (ha!).
    Pronouns are problematic, I do like the example you’ve given, taken to the ludicrous.
    “He” used for God/Higher Power/Whatever – ubiqitously, of course – is useage that always offends me as I’ve often said if there is such a Personage, I really really desire it to be female.

  11. I tink I would go for”it” rather than the bloody awful choices suggested by Miller and Swift

  12. MikeH says:

    Am I the only one who has never heard of these weird neutrals? Zie? Zir? Can someone give me a link to the kind of blog/site/altered state of consciousness ;) where these are common?

  13. sciamanna says:

    @MikeH: generally it’s most common in blogs or forums that are about gender issues, minority rights and/or non-conventional family arrangements. I think if you read a few such blogs/forums regularly, you’d be bound to come across the usage. If you read them a lot, it might even start to look normal :-)

    One obvious place is the Usenet newsgroup soc.bi:


    (Try searching for “zie”, you’ll find many examples)

    Here is a non-gender-binary pigeon: http://shakespearessister.blogspot.com/2010/07/brief-encounter.html (The same blog uses the pronoun quite regularly, mostly for humans).

  14. Stan says:

    Aidan: Yes, one and one’s can be useful, but they’re impersonal and quite formal, and therefore often unsuitable. They and its brethren are not just common in colloquial English but are also standard in literary usage.

    John, Jonathon: This has cropped up a couple of times in the comments here; last autumn, for example, Adrian of The Outer Hoard gave an example where singular they doesn’t really work. Its perceived awkwardness in reflexive constructions (e.g., “All it takes is for one member to find themselves lost”) may explain the gradual increase in the use of themself. In the Lingua Franca article to which I link above, Geoffrey Pullum offers the example “Chris says they’ll be back”, which he calls ungrammatical. It’s immediately ambiguous, but it doesn’t bother me too much. Singular they and co. offer a straightforward solution in most cases. I have no time for blanket objections to them based on numerical concord.

    Claude: Yes, I think you’re right. It would certainly have made headlines for the reasons you say!

    Jonathan: Thanks for the report on Delany’s book. It sounds interesting — a good idea for some pronoun-based fun and head-twisting.

    sciamanna: Thank you. I don’t move in Internet circles where zie and zir are used by default, so I appreciate your insight. To me they sound feminine too (because I studied German), but I imagine that they would come to seem more neutral and natural if I encountered them regularly.

    AT: Thanks for the interesting link. It’s strange that singular they elicits such consternation in some readers. The more it’s used, the more normal it will become, and the law can help in this regard.

    Max: The political effects of different pronoun systems are, I imagine, difficult to ascertain. There’s also the question of how a given system is used and applied. English has had singular they for centuries, but many people persisted in sexist usages to the point of absurdity until relatively recently.

    WWW: Hir seems feminine to me too, but it’s one of the more practical proposals. (Not that it’s ever likely to spread beyond niche usage.) The longstanding presumption that a Ruling Higher Power would be male is typical, and worrying.

    Jams: As Dennis Baron put it, the gender-neutral pronoun is still an epic fail — though I wouldn’t include singular they in that sweeping disparagement. It would be rejected on the grounds that it’s too demeaning to people, that is, to our egos.

    Mike: I’m glad you asked! I’ve seen these terms discussed more than I’ve seen them used.

    sciamanna: Thanks for your help. In the second example, with the pigeon, I’d have used it without feeling I was doing the bird a disservice.

  15. sciamanna says:

    Stan: I think in this case the author was making a point of personalising the pigeon, precisely by not using “it”. Choosing either he or she would be objectively tricky if you want to be accurate and are not a pigeon expert :-)

    (I find the choice between using animate or inanimate pronouns for animals in English to be quite interesting in fact. Maybe because in Italian, my native language, you don’t have that choice – no distinction exists in the language.)

  16. […] Previously: Aborting the sexist pronoun. […]

  17. […] use (and related terminology) reflects and contributes to sexist culture, as I’ve written about before. So I was a little surprised to see man used generically in TTLG: “man landed on the moon” […]

  18. […] objected to until 18th-century grammarians decided that indefinite pronouns simply had to be singular, and should be masculine. […]

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