Gender Neutral Pronoun

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

Invention’s Necessity:

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.

Natural Evolution:

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.

Conclusion

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:

Last edited: 12/22/15 added discussion of “it” and “you”.

7/7/7 Writer’s Challenge

I’ve been tagged by the fabulous Verna Austen to do the 7/7/7 challenge for my current manuscript.

  1. Go to page 7 of your WIP (Work in Progress).
  2. Scroll down to Line 7.
  3. Share the next 7 sentences in a blog post.
  4. After the excerpt, tag 7 other writers to continue the challenge.

(So I guess, technically it’s the 7/7/7/7 challenge? The Quad-7 challenge?? The 1/343 challenge? OK, this is why I’m not in charge of naming things.)

My current work in progress is THE NAMELESS QUEEN. Here’s a glimpse:

“Run along, Hat,” I say. “I’ve got an argument to get to.” Ren is behind me, and I know it’s him without checking.

Marcher storms up to us. “That’s my grab.”

Hat scurries off, and I hold my cool until she’s out of sight.

I shake the coin purse at him. “You sent that girl to pickpocket a Royal. That was stupid. There’s no way she would have lifted it without getting caught.”

“You did when you were her age,” Marcher says slyly.

*pretends you’re not counting the sentences* OK, in my defense, I count a line of dialogue + the tag as one sentence.

This scene introduces Marcher, a darker part of MC’s past that won’t stay buried. It also briefly shows Hat (a sort-of-twelve-year-old with excellent hair) and Ren (voice of reason among thieves).

Aaaand, because I’m in an editing mood (when am I not, though?), I’m going to comment on one thing I like and don’t like about my own excerpt.

Like: “You did when you were her age”  — This line of dialogue hints at their history without explaining it outright. It’s a decent balance of backstory and action.

Dislike: Ren is behind me, and I know it’s him without checking. — Ehhhh, I don’t like the “know it’s him without checking.” That, plus the passive “is” makes this sentence feel out-of-place, like Ren just suddenly appeared out of The Nothingness of Nowhere. He isn’t super present in this scene even though he’s actually physically present.

Tagged authors:

  1. Anne Slease
  2. Katherine Hillis
  3. Claribel Ortega
  4. Kristin Howe
  5. Becky Munyon
  6. Suzanne Samin
  7. Diana Pinguicha

Sticks and Stones and Words and…?

Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me. Is it true?

We tell this to kids so that when the toothy 9-year-old calls them a no-good teacher’s pet, they don’t engage in a flying tackle of almighty retribution that results in minor to severe injury.

On some level, we all know that this is crap. Words can do far more than hurt us. Words can scar and injure us just like pain. Pain isn’t just something that happens to us. It’s something that changes us.

Words are the same. Like pain, words can affect us without leaving a mark. They don’t leave scars or scrapes or colors. Yet they can heal or hurt us in a way we can’t ever recover from. We are inspired or despaired by the words and ideas and beliefs, dreams, and fears of others.

The idealism of our youth is that we can always recover from the words of others. To an extent, this is untrue. Bells cannot be unrung, and songs cannot be unsung.  But remember that bit about words being able to heal us?

If you’ve ever listened to something inspirational (MLK and Reagan on equal rights, most inauguration speeches, even You Tubers on social dynamics), then you know the power words can have. If written right, if spoken right, and if delivered, words can change us forever. Words can damage and mend in equal measure, depending on who is speaking and who is listening.

Not to put too much weight on it, but we all must be mindful of the words we produce. The blogs, the books, the stories, the comments, the articles, the essays, the poetry… with every word we write, we pledge ourselves to our words and to our readers. And with every word we read, we take the fealty of the author to heart.

What about you? Have you ever heard or read something that hurt you? Have you ever said anything to hurt others? Have you ever been mended so slightly by something you’ve read? What books have most affected you?

Using Interesting Words to Name Characters/Places

All writers have love affairs with words. On some level, we all have that passion for language and voice. This passion drives us to tell our stories. Even for those who don’t write, words are still a mystifying, exciting, and fun experience.

A bit of wordplay (on top of paying close attention to words) is what keeps writing fun. I’ve used words to create characters names, cities, spells, and inventions. Authors do this all the time.

Examples!

  • Maven Calore from Red Queen (Victoria Aveyard). Maven similar to raven in cleverness. Calore similar to calor in Spanish (meaning “heat”) representing their ability to manipulate fire.
  • Margo Roth Spiegelman from Paper Towns (John Green), where Spiegelman means “mirror man,” meant to represent the ultimately reflective nature of our misconceptions of others.
  • Primrose Everdeen from The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins). “Primrose” means proper and beautiful, delicate and in need of protection as she appears in the first book.

 

I’ve always tried to use words thoughtfully and creatively. Examples:

  • City named Eidolon from An Echo: City filled with people who were like ghosts (eidolon = phantom/specter)
  • Character named Ren from The Nameless Queen: moves quickly like a bird (wren).
  • Character named Jevios from The Amateur Witch: rearranged spelling of “viejos”  which means “old” in Spanish. Guess who was super old? Jevios.

 

How about you? Do you use words creatively to name characters or cities?

Have you ever intentionally named a character based on their personality?

Do you scour resources like The Phrontistry and Word of the Day to find new and interesting words?

Jelly Toast — The FUN in language!

There’s a running joke in my family about me. Well, there are a LOT of jokes about me. (Sidenote: Don’t ask my friends about me. The answers are equal parts humiliating and sigh-inducing.)

The running joke about me came to life when I was out to breakfast with my father and Twin Sister.

Dad: “What do you want for breakfast?”

Me: “I dunno. I’m not super hungry. Maybe just some fries, or a bagel. Or some jelly toast!”

Dad and Twin Sister exchange a look.

Dad: “…Jelly toast?”

Me: “Yeah. Like peanut butter toast but with jelly instead.”

Twin Sister: “You’re weird. I love you, but you’re crazy.”

Me: “What? Why can we call toasted bread and peanut butter “peanut butter toast,” but I can’t call toasted bread with jelly “jelly toast”?

Jelly toast. (And coffee, of course.) ((And who needs french fries??)

My robot-brain didn’t understand why they thought I was being odd. I figured that we’d already established a set method for referring to peanut-butter-laden toast, then it should be a simple step to extend the terminology format to jelly. EQUAL RIGHTS FOR JELLY!

Nonetheless, I got funny looks and raised eyebrows. I got It’s jelly with toast or peanutbutter toast.

Well, you know what I say to that? YOU KNOW WHAT I WANT TO SAY?!

Shrug.

I spit out a word that technically conformed to the almighty English rules. Even so, it was unfamiliar. People generally react strangely to unfamiliar things. Even if those things make sense, there is still some form of resistance.

When we’re writing, no matter what it is we’re writing, we use the language we know. We tiptoe around words that are too fancy, too simplistic, too made-up, or too abstract.

My family tolerates my insanity pretty well, so now every time we go out to eat, they ask me slyly, “What are you going to get? …It’s jelly toast, right?”

ALWAYS YES.

It can be tough to keep a hold on creativity. We learn the rules, we follow them, we become nazis of grammar, and we broadcast our expertise in all things word-related. Let’s not forget the fun of invention.

Here’s to making up words and using language in fun and interesting ways. Here’s to dancing around the rules and being creative and imaginative far after we’ve learned to abide by the rules.

Let’s celebrate language. In fact, let’s make a toast. What’s your poison, orange juice? Sparkling cider? A bit of sham-pain?

I don’t know about you, but I’m thinking jelly toast.

Language Speaks — “Slang is OK”

The point of language is to share and learn. People develop their own ways of speaking to each other (married couples sometimes have sickeningly adorable telepathy where a few words can mean volumes). This individualized level of communication is interesting and awesome.

From The Inv3nti0n of W0rd5 — Like “Selfie” and “Bromance”, February 14, 2015