English does not have a gender neutral pronoun. We have “he” or “she” but no neutral form. That also applies to all the variations of the pronouns: him/her, his/hers, etc.
What’s the deal? Can we just invent a new one?
Well, yes and no. Let’s discuss.
Language is fluid. Adaptable. Evolving. That’s why it’s so hard to read Shakespeare and why portmanteaus like “frenemy” and “bromance” are now in the dictionary.
So why can’t we just invent and use a gender neutral pronoun?
Change is Scary, but it still happens
Well, much like “frenemy” and “bromance”, a lot of terminology develops naturally in communicative language before it bridges officially into the written word. Sometimes that process meets a lot of resistance. You’ll hear people argue:
- That’s not a real word.
- You just made that up.
- It doesn’t have a legitimate etymology. (aka, it doesn’t stem from latin, greek, or other origin languages)
- That’s just another example of the youthful disrespect of the art of language and the educated world.
Pardon me while I shake off a shudder.
The reason I shudder is because language is much more flexible, but it can take a long time for people to get used to the changes (or any change really; people like their comforts). And when it takes a while for things to change, people begin to think of it as static.
But just because you can’t feel the earth move doesn’t mean it isn’t hurtling around on its axis at over 1,600 kilometers per hour. And just because we’ve lived our entire lives with familiar borders and government doesn’t mean those things can’t change in an instant–in fact, the perpetuity of time guarantees that it will change at some point.
Anyway, that outlines one of the biggest roadblocks in creating a new word: People don’t like change.
There are two major ways new words are made/accepted: invention by necessity, and acceptance over time.
Invention vs. Evolution
This happens when we invent a new object or discover something new. That new thing needs a word. We try to follow nomenclature rules for naming new things so at least the new thing is familiar or discernible. I mean, you might now want to invent a new piece of furniture and call it a zouleifonsteg. It doesn’t feel familiar in anyway. If, on the other hand, you called it a handstool, we have a weird almost-image of a stool-arm-rest-thing maybe.
Language evolves naturally with those who speak it. Communicative language is much more flexible and malleable than the written word. I mean, how often do you get on someone’s case for a run-on sentence or a misplaced comma? Unless someone refuses to breathe or is narrating their comma-placement, I’d wager not that often.
So if we want to have a gender neutral pronoun, it is most likely going to appear in dialogue before text.
What has been done already, and what’s the future look like?
Moving Away From HE
With the advent of a more aware and accepting world, people no longer want to use “he” as the gender neutral standard. Because 1. It isn’t gender-neutral and 2. It implies the standard gender is male which, on a micro level, reinforces the long-standing patriarchal standards. Good news is that the natural evolution has found people moving away from using “he” as the neutral term. It was bound to fail, because if you say “The teacher moved his car”, you don’t assume it’s a man or woman, you just assume it’s a man. In obvious terms, you can’t use one of two binary terms to refer to a neutral state.
Instituting NEW Pronouns
The necessity of invention gets a bit tricky in here. We require a gender neutral pronoun when the gender of the subject (the “teacher”) is unknown. We also require a gender neutral pronoun when the subject doesn’t have/identify with one of the binary genders. And that’s not even considering the difference between being gender-neutral and sex-neutral. (Check out this fantastic video that tackles the complexity of human sexuality.)
So, in this sense, there is a new necessity for gender-neutral terms. Not just when there is a lack of clarity, but when there is clarity, and it lands squarely between or outside of the binary he/she system. As an example of the difference, take this example:
The teacher is an unknown character: “The teacher moves his or her car.”
The teacher does not identify with a specific gender: “The teacher moves [pronoun] car.”
See, we can’t do the “his or her” option when there isn’t wiggle room for either/or. Not to mention the comprehensive super-annoyingness of saying “his or her” every time you don’t want to identify a gender. Bahh. [Sidenote: If you object to the fact that other people are identifying outside the binary system, I would encourage you to try to be open to the fluidity and evolution of language (and of culture, sexuality, and identity). If you don’t think you can do that, you may continue using “his or her” sentences or even default back to “his,” which was, indeed, socially acceptable during the past. Your language (and culture, sexuality, and identity) choices are your own, as is everyone else’s.]
People have tried to propose new gender-neutral terms such as “ze, zhe, ‘e, hu, thon” (for the s/he forms). None of them have caught on enough to be widely recognized or accepted. Now, don’t despair. This isn’t a symptom of a never-gonna-happen ailment. It’s simply a reminder that it takes a while for something to catch on.
On a simple basis, if I saw “ze, zhe, ‘e, hu, or thon” in a book or conversation, I just wouldn’t understand. It hasn’t permeated the deeper layers of conversation or communication yet. Something you’ll notice is that the proposed terms are short and similar to the preexisting he/she.
On an aesthetic and functional basis, pronouns need to be short and somewhat similar to each other. If a new term is similar to the old terms (see “handstool” vs “zouleifonsteg”), people are more likely to recognize and accept it.
So. The proposed neutral terms haven’t panned out yet. That doesn’t mean they won’t in the future. Evolution in language can take a long time. Just like real evolution.
What’s Happening Already
All best intentions of creating a gender-neutral pronoun aside, whatever happens is going to happen. That’s just how language evolution works. Sometimes it’s less of a decision and more of a “Oh, okay. That happened. Let’s move on.” Similar to the Retrospective Glasses of Post-Alcohol Drinking.
So what’s happening right now?
They. They is happening. And it’s been happening for a while. It is the most socially recognized form of neutrality.
The teacher moves their car.
The biggest harumph people seem to have with this is that “their” is a plural pronoun. And if you use a plural pronoun with a singular subject, it can get confusing. But is it more or less confusing or annoying than using an unrecognizable new pronoun or stumbling over “his or hers”. For me, I stumble less over “their”. So I will likely keep using it.
Yes, it could be interpreted that the teacher is moving someone else’s car, but–like a lot of things in language–you have to determine its meaning through context. As an example, “you” is both singular and plural (and inherently neutral!). So there’s a precedence!
In defense of using a plural pronoun with a singular subject, the best thing I can say is that the English language has done weirder things.
Sometimes we pluralize words in the middle (passersby) or don’t pluralize them at all (fish). Sometimes we stem-change verbs (light/lit). Let’s not dive into pronunciation (ghoti = fish). Portmanteaus. Enough said. (Illustrated fantabulously in Portmanterrorism by Nick Lantz).
What about “it”?
Yes, “it” is a neutral pronoun. It is most commonly used to refer to inanimate objects. In some languages, even inanimate objects have gender-assignments. (In spanish, it’s “la manzana” for “the apple” and “el huevo” for “the egg.”)
But in English, why don’t we just use the neutral pronoun we already have? The answer to this depends on personal preference and, again, common usage.
Since “it” is used for objects, it is inherently strange to see it assigned to a gendered entity.
The teacher moves its car.
Compared to using “their”, this version does not lend itself inherently to the correct interpretation. Either we’re assuming the car belongs to a third, non-human entity, or we’re assuming the teacher is non-human.
Since “it” can be dehumanizing (and often is used derogatorily in conversations to intentionally dehumanize), it is not likely to be a contender for a proper gender-neutral term.
“It” is so historically separated from a human entity, it is unlikely that people will prefer to be called an “it” when the gender is unknown or unclear. Just look at how many times we use “it” when referring to parts of a sentence, a previously mentioned subject in a paragraph. Basically, “It” is pretty busy already, and can apply to such a broad variety of objects (anything and everything, really), that assigning it to the human unknown/non-specified gender would probably have the opposite effect. Instead of clarifying language or better-defining a term, it could muddle up all the other ways we use “it”.
That’s not to say it couldn’t make a turn-around if it garners more public and widespread support and usage. This is basically a live-action, long-standing game show where the audience votes for the winner. And, of course, if it’s a question of a person who identifies with a non-binary gender, it’s up to them to decide what term they are most comfortable identifying with.
Let’s circle back to the beginning of this post: What’s the deal? Can we just invent a new one?
Yes! We can! But it’s not a process over which we have a lot of control. It just sort of happens. And, if you don’t mind “they/their” plurality confusion, we might already have one!
Here are some interesting similar articles:
- The Atlantic: An argument from 1879 for using “they”
- Washington Post: An answer to a question of genderqueer terminology and language evolution.
Last edited: 12/22/15 added discussion of “it” and “you”.