View Full Version : Gender-neutral Pronouns - Come Out and Play!

08-05-2010, 02:06 PM
This thread* is for learning about gender-neutral pronouns in English and how to use them. We can also use this thread for practice - feel free to just chat, and try out some new words. :)

Why does it matter?

From Wikipedia, a rationale (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gender_neutrality_in_English):

Proponents of gender-neutral language argue that the use of gender-specific language often implies male superiority or reflects an unequal state of society.[1][2] Words that refer to women often devolve in meaning, frequently taking on sexual overtones; for example, the word "mistress", once a title of honor, now denotes a man's lover, or a "kept" woman.[3] Also men and women who engage in similar sexual behaviors may be referred to as "players" and "sluts" respectively; the word with the negative connotation is the one that refers to women.

These differences in usage are criticized on two grounds: one, that they reflect a biased state of society,[4] and two, that they help to uphold that state. Studies of children, for instance, indicate that the words children hear affect their perceptions of the gender-appropriateness of certain careers.[5] Other research has demonstrated that men and women apply for jobs in more equal proportions when gender-neutral language is used in the advertisement, as opposed to the generic "he" or "man".[6] Some critics make the further claim that these differences in usage are not accidental, but have been deliberately created for the purpose of upholding a patriarchal society.[7] Proponents of gender-neutral language give many examples of usages that they find problematic.

Check out regender (http://regender.com/index.html) for an interesting experiment in the use of language:

Welcome to a little experiment in webpage translation. Have you ever wondered...

* What would the world look like if the two sexes switched places?
* What would it look like if English had genderless pronouns?
* What would it look like if English identified races the way it identifies gender?

Language has power.

*eta: inspired in part by this exchange (http://www.plantbasedpeople.com/showthread.php?t=16776&page=4).

08-05-2010, 02:08 PM
First order of business: which conventions to use? According to this GNP FAQ (http://www.aetherlumina.com/gnp/):

Depending on how one counts, there are between three and five active groups. The two most popular seem to be "sie, hir, hir, hirs, hirself", (especially "hir"), and "zie, zir, zir, zirs, zirself". The latter apparently came into being after a German-speaking netizen objected to "sie" and "Sie", which in many contexts means "she" in German. Third and fourth, differing only in the first and maybe last word, are "e or ey, em, eir, eirs, eirself or emself". Fifth, some people use "per", from "person", which i assume has the set "per, per, pers, pers, persself", although i've never seen it developed that far. I've not actually seen this in use on the net, but i've seen people on the net who claimed to use it all the time in their own lives. These will all be discussed in detail later in the FAQ.

Before this FAQ, i don't believe there were any standards agreed upon in any formal way; people have just used whatever felt right, or whatever they were first exposed to. Neologism has waxed and waned, and wheels get reinvented over and over. As mentioned, one goal of this FAQ is to standardize the forms and pronunciation of these different sets, and hopefully to get a lot of people to standardize on just one set.

08-05-2010, 02:09 PM
A short story using GNP: Dirt Fugue (http://www.aetherlumina.com/writings/dirt-fugue.html)

08-05-2010, 02:16 PM
Of course, non-sexist language is not all about pronouns.

For what it's worth, you hear less and less of the old argument that "he" (and "man," for that matter) somehow "includes" women. Common sense suggests, and studies bear out, that when you see supposedly generic masculine terms you think first of males. But let's not pretend that the elimination of such problems would mean the end of sexist speech. As writer Deborah Cameron points out, the sentence "The man went berserk and killed his neighbor's wife" is unobjectionable on its surface. But stop to think: why "his neighbor's wife" instead of "one of his neighbors"?

Source: Is there a gender-neutral substitute for "his or her"? (http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/750/is-there-a-gender-neutral-substitute-for-his-or-her)

08-05-2010, 02:21 PM
Why not use GNP? An argument Against the Theory of "Sexist Language" (http://www.friesian.com/language.htm)

08-05-2010, 02:26 PM
From Gender Dysphoria (http://theorem.ca/~mvcorks/girls.html):

Gender-Free Pronouns

Why are there no gender-free, third-person pronouns in English? If it were practical, I'd ask not to be referred to by either male or female pronouns, but this would be really akward in our current language. There's no good reason for this shortcoming in English. Besides referring to people of indeterminate sex, or situations where you don't feel like revealing the gender of a person you're describing, it doesn't make sense to have to know the gender of a person to refer to them in the third person. For example, if you were to tell me, "I just met the new teacher", it doesn't make sense for me to say, "what is he like?" If I happen to know you're referring to a kindergarten teacher, should I say, "what's she like?" Why? Neither "he" nor "she" is really appropriate in this case, although your high school english teacher would tell you to use "he".

We got into our current mess due to institutionalized sexism: since the early 1800's, grammar textbooks have been telling students to use the male pronoun in the case where the gender of the subject is not known. This implicitly defines women as "other", as de Beauvoir wrote in The Second Sex: "Man represents both the positive and the neutral, as indicated by the common use of man to designate human begins in general; whereas woman represents only the negative, defined by limiting criteria, without reciprocity." The most workable solution to this is simply to use plural pronouns in cases where gender is not clear, although this is less than ideal. It does, however, get the job done. More to the point, that's what virtually every English speaker did until around 1900 (and if you don't believe me, go read your William Shakespeare and Jane Austen).

08-05-2010, 02:31 PM
Footnotes (http://footnotes.jinkies.org.uk/pronouns.html):

A transgendered person examines several systems of gender-free pronouns. Possibilities include the singular "they", the phrase "he or she", and the Spivak Variant.

A page on Spivak Pronouns (http://c2.com/cgi/wiki?SpivakPronouns)

Miso Vegan
08-05-2010, 08:23 PM
I read somewhere a very convincing rationale for using "they." I don't know where - I think it was a book... maybe Eats Shoots and Leaves (http://www.amazon.com/Eats-Shoots-Leaves-Tolerance-Punctuation/dp/1592402038/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1281054372&sr=1-1)? No, it was longer ago than that, I think..... Maybe The Language Instinct (http://www.amazon.com/Language-Instinct-Mind-Creates-P-S/dp/0061336467/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1281054329&sr=8-1)? (A book that, in general, I recommend, and which caused me to re-think a lot of my grammar uptightedness.)

But in whatever thread we last discussed this (and by last, I mean, not the most recent discussion you linked upthread) I posted a link to something that made a different argument for accepting "they" and it said that "they" as singular/gender-neutral was what was used long ago, before it became plural.

Which is good enough for me. Obviously, creating a new word isn't going so well.

08-05-2010, 09:34 PM
Today in a workshop someone asked me if I would use "his or her" in a particular sentence. I explained that I choose to use "their" because it is gender inclusive and it is more widely accepted now as a singular possessive pronoun. I got a blank look which made me realize he was just asking about whether "his or her" was grammatically correct. Oops. But he changed it to "their." :)

Miso Vegan
01-12-2011, 05:19 PM
Our Desperate, 250-Year-Long Search for a Gender-Neutral Pronoun (http://www.theawl.com/2011/01/our-desperate-250-year-long-search-for-a-gender-neutral-pronoun)

01-12-2011, 07:52 PM
Sometimes I find it easier to just refer to everyone as an "it."
Examples: "It ate my last toffuti cutie. I'm never talking to it again!"
"Your mom called. It wants you to call it back."

01-12-2011, 08:37 PM
hm, tofutti cutie.

Great article, Miso. (although, in itself, a little sexist)

Languages with gendered nouns require the development of an inbuilt, bone-deep sense of gender neutrality. In Spanish, for example, "table" is a feminine noun, but you don't really think of the table as being a girl at all; it's just a table. That brain-wired kind of gender neutrality is what Anglophones are meant to be apprehending in words like "mankind" or "citizens"; one is meant to be thinking "everyone," even though the word itself has got some gender to it, like "table" does in Spanish. The gender is supposed to evaporate right off such words according to the sense of what is being said. Or at least this was Anne Fisher's view, and if people didn't want to persist in being so horrible to one another, it would work just fine.

Of course, that's not true. People who speak gendered languages do have sub-conscious gendered notions of non-gendered things. (For example, see here.) (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/29/magazine/29language-t.html?pagewanted=all)

And of course it's utter b.s. that English speakers can separate "mankind" from "man." The masculine doesn't become neuter, the neuter becomes masculine so that the neutral human becomes male. I think, for me, this is part of what doesn't work with the singular "they." They is still masculine in most people's heads.

Beyond the need for transgendered people to have a way to identify themselves that is comfortable, I'm leaning these days toward using she/her as neutral, just for the sake of protest. That's what I've been doing in papers lately. (eta: I don't mean the asexual she referred to in the article, I mean actual, gendered she, just as actual he has been used - because women are neutral humans.)

01-12-2011, 08:48 PM
I'm leaning these days toward using she/her as neutral, just for the sake of protest. That's what I've been doing in papers lately. (eta: I don't mean the asexual she referred to in the article, I mean actual, gendered she, just as actual he has been used - because women are neutral humans.)
I like to do that. It's a shame that sometimes I don't if I feel it'll upset the status quo too much. I also like to sometimes use "gals" instead of "guys" when addressing a group of mixed people. It's a chance to explain that if "guys" works, then so should "gals", and hopefully, make people think just a tiny bit about the assumptions they make with their language.

Miso Vegan
01-12-2011, 09:16 PM
Yeah, I sometimes do use "she" as a bit of protest. For the same reason Dugan says "gals," I sometimes refer to God as She.

I say sometimes because when habit takes over I don't bother to correct or change what I've written/said.

I found the article a little short of a full exploration (for example, the author admitted in comments that she'd always prefer "he" because she prefers it aesthetically - it's simply what she's used to!), too.

But I'm going to go eat dinner so I'll either come back and post more, or forget! :p

01-12-2011, 09:21 PM
I don't do She for God (I don't do He, either), because although I think it's a worthwhile protest, God still doesn't have a gender and I don't want to regender God the way I want to regender people. I want to ungender God. So my mother made the haggadot (special books for the seder) for our Passover seders and the whole thing is gender-neutral except one really long reading from a book she grew up with. We each read one line of that reading, going around the table. Most people say He, my mother, siblings, and I say God, and my husband says SHE very forcefully. :)

01-13-2011, 07:00 AM
That is so cool Ariann!

At one AA meeting a feminist would always make God she and that really offended some old timers.

I use s/he a lot but he is still the main word and s , although it is at the beginning a word, is almost an afterthought.

We've come a long way with gender assumptions attached to words from when this was a logic puzzle though:

A child and father are brought into a hospital after an accident. The doctor takes one look at the child and says "I can't operate! This is my son!" How is this possible?

The doctor is the child's mother.

I came across that a few times in logic puzzles for kids books in the 70s, though I think the books themselves were older.

Also: I love Susan B. Anthony and Ursula K LeGuin!

01-13-2011, 11:17 AM
I grew up with that logic puzzle. It's not dead yet!

01-13-2011, 01:39 PM
This book (http://www.amazon.com/Pronoun-Envy-Literary-Linguistic-Language/dp/019513852X/ref=wl_it_dp_o?ie=UTF8&coliid=I2P8LKK4EC1MP0&colid=2LSLXYZKSZTSK) was mentioned in the article and it sounds fascinating. I hope I can get a library copy.