The Long Quest for Gender-Neutral English Language Pronouns

One of the weaknesses of the English language is that it presents no way to refer to person without being gender-specific. The use s/he and his/her, while accomplishing this goal, gets cumbersome. Guardian columnist Lucy Mangan put it like this:

The whole pronouns-must-agree-with-antecedents thing causes me utter agony. Do you know how many paragraphs I’ve had to tear down and rebuild because you can’t say, “Somebody left their cheese in the fridge”, so you say, “Somebody left his/her cheese in the fridge”, but then you need to refer to his/her cheese several times thereafter and your writing ends up looking like an explosion in a pedants’ factory?


Awareness of this problem is not new, and English Prof. Dennis Baron of the University of Illinois has a lengthy post describing how English users have tried to resolve it over the past 150 years. He writes:

In 1890, a report in the Rocky Mountain News recommends hi, hes, hem, as a paradigm that will be “readily taken up and assimilated spontaneously,” though of course that didn’t happen, and so, after more than thirty years of proposals for hi, ir, hizer, ons, e, and ith, no word took hold, in 1894 the paper called on the state legislature to create a gender-neutral pronoun to “correct a well known imperfection of our language.” And shortly thereafter, a reader suggests a “bi-personal pronoun,” either the coordinates he or she, his or her, him or her, or the compounds hesher, hiser, himer: “It was particularly appropriate that Colorado should do so, because the ladies are on a political equality with men.”

And in 1897 a Charleston, South Carolina, newspaper reports on a Massachusetts law that forbids certain kinds of feathers to be worn in hats, a law presumably aimed at women but which employs a masculine pronoun. This presents a problem for the Boston police commissioner, who insists that the masculine pronoun does not include the feminine: “I don’t believe I could arrest a woman on that law,” he said. “The masculine pronoun does not specifically include the women. The law including both usually says ‘person’ or ‘persons,’ but this one simply says ‘his.’”


Link via Marginal Revolution | Guardian Link | Photo of statute of Samuel Johnson by Flickr user ell brown used under Creative Commons license

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Who says you can't use 'their?' Ridiculous. Use it. That's how the language gets official: by using it incorrectly until it gets made official.

'A person should not ruin their writing by following stupid rules.'
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Almost everyone I know, whether they mean to or not, uses "they/their/theirs" as the gender neutral equivalent of "he/his/his" or "she/her/hers," at least in casual conversation.

That's the great thing about language: it changes over time to fill its own conceptual gaps, and the scholars often take generations to codify it. "They/their/theirs" will be considered formal usage in a matter of fifty years or I'll eat my hat.
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