Gendered Pronouns

By Maeve Maddox

When I began writing about language several decades ago, the pronoun errors that concerned my readers related to number and case. I never imagined that gender would ever become a source of confusion.

Nowadays, however, journalists are faced with the question of which pronouns to use when writing about transgender people.

The recommendation of the Associated Press and other style authorities is to use whichever pronouns the subject prefers:

Use the pronoun preferred by the individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics (by hormone therapy, body modification, or surgery) of the opposite sex and present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth. If that preference is not expressed, use the pronoun consistent with the way the individuals live publicly.

The recommendation is easy to follow when writing about events that take place after the subject’s transition. Problems arise when a writer wishes to deal with events that preceded the change.

For example, the following sentences from a Wikipedia article illustrate the disconcerting effect of making the new pronouns retroactive:

Born Bradley Edward Manning in 1987 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, she was the second child of Susan Fox, originally from Wales, and Brian Manning, an American. 

By then, Manning was living as an openly gay man. Her relationship with her father was apparently good.

The Wikipedia article on the former Bruce Jenner deals with the problem by avoiding pronouns altogether:

After Olympic success, Jenner decided to cash in on celebrity status, which required forgoing any future Olympic competition. Jenner’s agent George Wallach felt at the time that Jenner had a four-year window to capitalize upon. Wallach reported that Jenner was being considered for the role of Superman, which ultimately went to Christopher Reeve.

Journalists are not the only ones struggling with the question of gendered pronouns.

University authorities, sensitive to the question of assumptions relating to gender, are rethinking the traditional Male/Female designations on registration forms. According to an article at AP The Big Story, students registering at Harvard are allowed to indicate the pronouns they prefer and are offered the gender-neutral options ze and they.

The State University of New York is “working on a data-collection tool to let students choose among seven gender identities, including trans man, questioning, and genderqueer.”

An article in Slate reports that Facebook now offers a drop-down gender menu containing more than fifty designations. Some of the options are cis female, gender fluid, transfeminine, neutrois, and two-spirit.

Facebook also provides pronoun options for the feature that alerts users to a friend’s upcoming birthday:

wish him a happy birthday
wish her a happy birthday
wish them a happy birthday

Perhaps the day is not too far off when English speakers drop the singular third-person personal pronouns altogether in favor of plural, gender-neutral they and them.

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19 Responses to “Gendered Pronouns”

  • Andy Staples

    I’m a journalist. I have no problem – if I’m in any doubt, I just ask someone how they’d like to be identified. I’ve been doing that all my career anyway – do you prefer Miss, mrs or Ms, for example.

    Unless a story is specifically about someone’s transition, their previous assigned gender is irrelevant and I wouldn’t mention it.

  • Connie Oswald Stofko

    We have needed gender-neutral pronouns for decades. I predict the use of “they” for “he or she” will be standard usage within the next 10 years.

    I’ve been saying that for almost four decades, and I will continue to say it until I am proven right!

    When I began writing professionally at the beginning of the 1980s, many people insisted that “he” meant “he or she.” But it struck me especially odd when I was editing something for a nursing school. We’d have sentences such as “Each student must return his library books and pay outstanding fees before he can receive his diploma,” but most of the students were female. Trying to simply insert “his or her” makes a long and cumbersome sentence. Using “their” is so much simpler.

    I see this usage more and more in less formal writing and have used it in my online gardening magazine.

    I hope the use of “their” and “them” will be seen as standard usage soon.

  • Curtis Manges

    ‘They’ and ‘them’ are too confusing as defaults when we really need a singular. I look forward to an eventual agreement on a gender-neutral singular, but I don’t think it will happen soon. ‘Ze,’ or something similar, is logical but it still sounds a little too weird. I think it’s time for a big assembly of language scholars to at least put forth a short list of recommendations.

  • Ray Thomson

    The ‘cumbersome’ gendered third person singular pronoun is already stuffed more than halfway down to the memory hole. Those who wish it replaced by standard usage of ‘their’ and ‘them’ will not have long to wait.

    The herd logic is inexorable. A million lemmings can’t be wrong. I can only hope for forgiveness for my increasingly queer refusal to leap.

    The impact on language of the complexities of gender/identity politics is complicated. Such complexities are an inevitable consequence of our progress as a species that writes. The question is whether it is best to acknowledge and work through, in writing, questions that are complex, ‘cumbersome’, not susceptible of any quick fix.

    The resort to ‘singular they’ too often looks like a vainglorious stab at simplifying, or even evacuating, genuine questions of moment. This can be every bit as cumbersome as the ‘problem’ it purports to address.

    Consider the following example from a report on broadcast media -arbiters of standard usage here in the UK – on the August 2011 Tottenham riots in north London.

    ‘Appalled by their participation in looting, an aspiring ballerina gave themselves up to police the following morning.’

    Uncumbersome? Don’t think so.

  • venqax

    ”When I began writing professionally at the beginning of the 1980s, many people insisted that ‘he’ meant ‘he or she.’” Many people told you that because it’s true. And it has been since the beginning of the English language. Anyone who writes “professionally” should know that, whether they like observe it or not. Mankind and man, as in “The Ascent of—“ mean all humans, male and female, as well, so if that is going to be a new revelation we can wait while some’s shock dissipates. Everyone has the right to their own political opinions but no one has the right to corrupt the common language in their name. Using language as a political tool is quite totalitarian and really, urgently needs to be rejected by anyone who is in the least concerned with a free society. The “search” for the appropriate list of pronouns which have never existed before for the excellent reason that they have never been needed and remains so is not pursuit worth the time of a serious people, writers or otherwise. English is English whether it suits your politics or not. When I began writing, many people insisted that proper nouns were capitalized, periods belonged at the ends of sentences, and verbs will often change forms relative to tenses. Guess what? They are, they do, and they will.

  • Agua Caliente

    The problem I have with them/their is using a plural in reference to a singular. That riles my sense of logic. I’m all for equality in pronouns and elsewhere; I just want it to make sense.

  • Mike Rose

    Fingers crossed that I never see “ze” in print ever again. I certainly shall never type it again.

  • venqax

    The really, crushingly disturbing and frankly frightening element of this is that it is being fomented and encouraged by universities– the very institutions that are supposed to guard the civilized part of civilization. Of course, this is not new. Still depressing and ire-raising at the same time.

  • thebluebird11

    @venqax: You know, this really isn’t the venue/forum to go off on this topic, but I just will fan my tailfeathers a bit. I am sorry that I have to disagree with you. I have always assumed you are a man (please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong). I am a woman, and have always felt very marginalized, swept up with the floor dirt, when all of us women are lumped together with all the HEs and HIMs as if we don’t matter. One’s identification with a particular gender (or both or neither) is something very personal and powerful, or there wouldn’t be all this hoopla about it. Perhaps men, being always in control of things, don’t see it, because everything is just going swimmingly for them. But for someone who is NOT a man, this can be insulting, a brush-off (“Oh well, so what if you’re not actually a man? We won’t bother to trouble ourselves to worry about paying any more attention to you than absolutely necessary, shall we? Now run along and get over yourself.”) I mean this is not something I worry about on a daily basis, partly because just having a check box for “female” is sufficient for me. However, there are other people for whom the traditional gender nomenclature is not sufficient, which is the subject of Maeve’s post. It’s not as if this is a huge deal; I mean, what is the problem about adding a couple more check boxes on a form, if that will make people happy? You may not like the exact terminology proposed (cis female? genderqueer? ze?). If so, either come up with something better, or let others do it, and eventually things will settle down. It might take 20 or 50 years, but if there are enough people who are dissatisfied with the status quo, things will change, and no amount of stamping your foot will stop it. These are not things that are rules like in grammar. This is about the fluidity of language and the necessary changes language goes through to keep up with changing times. I advocate for tolerance. With all that is going on in the world right now (and here I am specifically referring to the situation in the Middle East and Europe), I close my eyes and ask why human beings can’t just shut up and exist in peace for ONE DAMN MINUTE. Imagine peace in this world for ONE MINUTE. Inhale, exhale. Life is too short to argue about this stuff.

  • venqax

    @bluebird: I was specifically responding to the farcical implication that someone (who is “writing professionally” no less) thought she was being coerced into accepting the ancient fact that the male pronouns are also the general, non-gender specific pronouns in the English language, and have been for over a millennium. But if you have felt marginalized by the English language then what can be said? An educated person like yourself of all people should realize, e.g.. that the word man has 2 meanings: males AND humans in general. That second meaning has nothing at all to do with assuming all humans are male and to think it does is simply shallow thinking. Someone’s “identification” with gender has nothing to do with the English language, it is as you suggest, a personal problem and the “hoopla” is not being made by the 99 out of a hundred who speak normal standard language with no political agenda implied, the “hoopla” is caused by the tiny statistical tale. You simply cannot be the one in a multitude who says “I want green to mean stop” and then complain that everyone else is causing the traffic trouble that ensues. I certainly hope things like this are not worrying you on a daily basis, or on any basis. They are not worth worrying about at all and those who keep starting the fires are the ones whose behavior needs to be addressed, not the ones who are trying to put them out. One can always find “some people” who are not “comfortable” with one thing or another that is simply standard. They, not the rest, are the ones who need to adjust and get on with it.

    You are making my point and arguing against your own. To put it as you have: “ It’s not as if this is a huge deal” from which the correct conclusion is to leave “the checkboxes on the forms” and the English language that belongs to everyone, not a squeaky handful, alone. Do not be so presumptuous as to “come up with something better, or let others do it” because nothing better is needed— it is fine as it is. That is the whole point. And yes, eventually things will settle down and some people may, one hopes, stop feeling encouraged to raise these fatuous issues. True, no amount of stamping your foot or other whining will make people listen to you and it shouldn’t. And remember who is stamping and whining— the ones who want to politicize speech, not the rest of us. I advocate for tolerance of our language— stop messing with it as if it belong to you. It doesn’t (not you, personally, of course, but those who think OUR language should change to suit THEM and whatever their pet peeves may be). I share your exasperation that with all that is vexing the world, people can without shame or embarrassment mobilize to whine about something like “sexist pronouns”. Good god, how pampered must someone be for that to be anywhere on their list of concerns.

  • ApK

    While I want to give venqax a “right on, brother” on most points, and do think it would be better if we could not be so wrapped up in political correctness, I’ll take this opportunity to comment on a paradoxically mutually exclusive dichotomy that seems to come up often among the literati:

    EITHER:
    1. Words have the power to change minds, form ideas, enlighten, educate, raise the spirit, and change the world, as the best speeches and classic literature are purported to do,
    OR
    2. Words don’t matter, don’t get so hung up on word choice, he, her, him, who cares, it says nothing about how we think of women (and don’t censor anything because books and media, no matter how hateful and violent, don’t cause anti-social behavior).

    I often hear both arguments from the same people and I’d like to take this moment to say: You cannot have it be an absolute truth both ways, folks. Either pick one side and blindly stand by it , or admit that SOMETIMES either might apply, and either might be untrue and judge each case on it’s own merits.

    ApK

  • Maeve

    ApK,
    Like you, I’m usually in unqualified agreement with Venqax, but thebluebird11 makes a strong case for the anti-he-for-everyone faction.

    In my own experience, I can’t recall feeling traumatized by the convention of all-purpose “he” when I was growing up. I simply accepted the convention as something that had nothing to do with actual gender, like masculine and feminine nouns in Latin or French.

    And I don’t recall being bothered by the fact that so much of the literature I read in my youth featured male protagonists. I’m pretty sure I identified with Jim Hawkins and Johnny Tremaine, experiencing their adventures with them and not feeling that I was only looking on as a despised female spectator. I identified with Black Beauty and Bambi too.

    But times have changed. I grew up in a time and a place unsaturated with the daily media messages that keep everyone riled up about one thing or another nowadays. I didn’t even read The Second Sex until I was out of my twenties.

    It seems to me that much of the fuss over sexist language is misdirected zeal. For example, I don’t see how “mankind” is any more sexist than “humankind.” But, I have no way of knowing how deeply other people feel about such things or how sorely certain words may wound them.

    It’s my hope that all the angst over pronouns will die down once everyone gets used to the new permutations of gender and that the singularization of “they,” “them,” and “their” will be the worst we’re left with.

  • venqax

    @ApK: I agree that the 2 positions you cite are incompatible and both are often invoked when “convenient” to making a point. I think empirical examination would come down, with some extensive and crucial qualifications, on the side of Number 1. Speech can, at least, matter. As to PC speech in general, though, I would say the problem is in the proposed solution. Conscious forcing of changes in language is most certainly NOT “language evolution” as some would have it. It is instead genetic engineering: purposeful tinkering with a process and diametrically opposed to the concept of organic change inherent in evolution. Engineering of something as fundamental as language is very, very dangerous business with consequences far beyond those intended. That is why it is so often and legitimately berated as a tool of totalitarianism– because it is. Efforts to manipulate people’s thinking via language should be met with the highest degree of suspicion and resisted in almost all cases regardless of how “good” the goal intended might be in the opinion of some sector of society.

  • Roberta B.

    1. Our language has a perfectly good gender-neutral pronoun: “It” While typically used for inanimate objects or non-specific animals, it will work if we want it to.
    2. I refused to accept use of the word “ze” as a gender-neutral pronoun for third person singular. It’s totally PC and totally contrived.
    3. Can someone enlighten me as to whether there is a modern language (not a primitive one or a primitive one still in use) that does NOT have grammatical elements related to gender?
    @venqax, your last comment is right on. For better or worse, we are seeing a paradigm shift in the culture. I agree there is danger in being passive about changes in language for social engineering purposes because our freedom to understand and comprehend can be limited rather than expanded.

  • Ray Thomson

    As substitutes for the gender-neutral third person singular personal pronoun go, the best you can say about ‘ze’ is that you like it or don’t like it. Sure, it isn’t pretty but I would venture that there’s nothing intrinsically ‘wrong’ with it. Certainly nothing to justify the spleen vented upon it here. In its favour is its ability to rattle the cages of the dwindling number of those prepared to defend the continued use of ‘he’ as a gender-neutral signifier of natural, universal order. It was never thus.

    Privileging ‘evolution’ over ‘social engineering’ is another spin of the old nature/nurture refrain, as unenlightening now as it’s ever been. It has long been recognised that the making of social, grammatical and gendered orders is far from being a natural process. The very concept of evolution is itself an evolving product of social engineering.

    ‘Singular they’ isn’t pretty. I don’t like it and won’t be signing up to use it. However I would venture that one of its virtues lies in its signifying the passing of an era of certainties in which gender was considered as biologically determined. To the extent that it represents a challenge to this prejudice, ‘singular they’ represents social progress.

    But it’s a temporary fix, a practical solution, deployed to patch over the admittedly ‘cumbersome’ legacy encoding of gender difference along the lines of ‘he or she, s/he, his or hers . . .’ until such times as a smarter solution, well, evolves.

    Championing ‘singularly they’ as some kind of final solution only repeats the ‘totalitarian’ gesture it purports to criticise.

  • Roberta B.

    @Ray Thomson, don’t you mean: “…..until such times as a smarter [fairer] solution…..” is “invented,” because (right or wrong) that’s what a lot of people actually believe is happening.

    Also, I must say your observation sums up the cultural shift I was trying to imply: “the passing of an era of certainties in which gender was considered as biologically determined”……….and restricting. The removal of such limitations seems to be derived from the heavy influence technology now has on our daily lives.

  • Eddie

    The problem with ‘xe’ is it sounds alien and looks alien. ‘ye’ would be a better replacement and is closer to ‘they’ and was previously related to second person ye/thou distinctions before they fell into disuse.

    “xe” does *sound* good, as it kind of mixes the she/he words together. “ye” looks good, but might make everyone sound… well…

  • Oliver Lawrence

    There have been several attempts at introducing new gender-neutral singular pronouns in the past, but none have worked.
    Littering a text with “he/she”, “his/her”, “him/her” and “s/he” makes it look cumbersome and ugly.
    Always using the noun/noun phrase and never the gender-neutral pronoun (as in the “Jenner” example above) becomes ugly, too.
    Always making the subject plural (using plural “they” to get around the gender-neutrality problem) doesn’t always work, as sometimes it can give the wrong impression that you are necessarily talking about more than one person when in fact you are not.
    Using “he” as a so-called gender neutral pronoun to embrace all genders is no longer acceptable.
    So that leaves singular “they”, a solution that sounds natural, has been used for centuries by ordinary people and great writers alike, and is here to stay. Strictly speaking, singular “they” is not the same word as plural “they”, it is merely a homograph, a different word with the same spelling – no one objects to the word “bow” being used to mean both something you tie with a ribbon and something actors do when receiving applause. And other languages manage to use the same pronoun to refer to different persons (e.g. the German “sie”/”Sie” and the Italian “lei”).
    Sentences like “Appalled by their participation in looting, an aspiring ballerina gave themselves up to police the following morning.” are daft not because of the use of singular “they” but because of the use of a gender-neutral pronoun to refer to someone who has been identified as female (the ballerina).

  • Ray Thomson

    @Roberta B. I think I rather meant what I wrote. I do agree, though, that the use of ‘singular they’ at least represents an attempt at recognising a certain, hitherto unrecognised, fluidity in the matter of gender construction. To that extent it is ‘progressive’, or, to use your term, ‘fairer’.

    If by ‘invent’ you mean someone sitting down and coming up with linguistic solutions capable of accommodating cases where normative categorisation of gender is in question, or categorisation is refused altogether, this is almost certainly foredoomed. For the moment, the genius of the English language has granted us singular they. For the moment, this ungainly usage has gained its share of followers among the community of speakers of said language and looks likely to become the de facto standard. For the moment, I choose to exercise my right not to buy in. The problem is that the latent totalitarianism of liberal institutions will not doubt one day impose singular they as some kind of final solution, leaving those who reserve the right to remain cumbersome, out in the cold. I’m pleading for a little intolerance to final solutions here.

    I don’t really understand your comment about technology. I do however see singular they as analogous to a software patch, an inelegant piece of coding, written to get round a sticking point in legacy encoding (in this case of gender).

    @Oliver Lawrence. ‘There have been several attempts at introducing new gender-neutral singular pronouns in the past, but none have worked.’. This looks like a case of singular they begetting plural ‘none’. Which raises the point about whether verbs following singular they should assume the singular form. This would have the virtue of consistency.

    ‘Littering a text with “he/she”, “his/her”, “him/her” and “s/he” makes it look cumbersome and ugly.’ Agreed.

    The admittedly cumbersome and ugly ‘He/she was late late for his/her appointment’ instantly becomes ‘They was late for their appointment’. Many speakers in my north London, England, constituency would see nothing amiss in such an elegant formulation.

    ‘Always making the subject plural (using plural “they” to get around the gender-neutrality problem) doesn’t always work, as sometimes it can give the wrong impression that you are necessarily talking about more than one person when in fact you are not.’ Agreed, but this is in fact what’s happening.

    ‘Using “he” as a so-called gender neutral pronoun to embrace all genders is no longer acceptable.’ Absolutely agreed.

    ‘So that leaves singular “they”, a solution that sounds natural, has been used for centuries by ordinary people and great writers alike, and is here to stay.’ The history bits are absolutely true. The ‘sounds natural’ bit grates on my ears. And before we rush to yodel hallelujah, job done, nothing in life or language is ever ‘here to stay’. Tagging the non-historical bit to the historical bit is rhetorical sleight of hand.

    ‘Strictly speaking, singular “they” is not the same word as plural “they”, it is merely a homograph, a different word with the same spelling – no one objects to the word “bow” being used to mean both something you tie with a ribbon and something actors do when receiving applause.’ A point well taken and one I’d not come across before.

    And other languages manage to use the same pronoun to refer to different persons (e.g. the German “sie”/”Sie” and the Italian “lei”).’ An interesting point, well made and taken but also bit of a red herring that confounds modes of address, ‘speaking to’ with ‘referring to’. Interesting as it may be, little of this is translatable into English.

    ‘Sentences like “Appalled by their participation in looting, an aspiring ballerina gave themselves up to police the following morning.” are daft not because of the use of singular “they” but because of the use of a gender-neutral pronoun to refer to someone who has been identified as female (the ballerina).’ Precisely my point. I cited the ‘daft’ sentence in question – it’s not the worst – because it entered the public domain through broadcast and print media regarded as authoritative in setting standards for English usage. While it is not impossible to imaging a male ballerina, in this instance I’m affirming your point about the systematic and unthinking use of singular they in cases where gender is not [nominally] in question. On your suggesting that the ‘daftness’ did not arise out of the (mis)use of singular they, we’ll have to agree to differ.

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