English Pronouns

When it comes to sexism in language1, there are all sorts of examples. On the one hand, you get the male/female differentiation in occupations. Sometimes this is well-established (waiter/waitress, actor/actress), sometimes still accepted but on the way out (stewardess—there are no “stewards” anymore but the right term is now “flight attendent”), and sometimes it just sounds ridiculous (there are no “aviatrices” any more, although to be fair there aren’t really “aviators” either.2) For my part, I try not to use the -ess forms of the words; I don’t see a reason why “waiter” or “actor” shouldn’t be gender-neutral. (I don’t think “princess” is going away, though.)

On the other hand, you have people who object to “female” and “woman” (and “human”) because they contain “male” and “man”. I can understand this but I think it’s a silly thing to worry about—no one really thinks they’re saying “man” when they say “woman” (they’re not even the same vowel sound).

Still, English has a more fundamental issue when it comes to gender. Most of my friends have heard me say that English is a horrible language. There are a number of reasons for this. Today, though, I’m going to talk about pronouns, specifically third-person singular pronouns.

That’s “he”, “she”, and “it”, for those who don’t remember their grammar lessons.3

The problem is, we don’t have a gender-neutral pronoun, for cases where we’re talking about a single person of unknown gender. This comes up fairly often, usually when you’re talking to someone about their cousin, friend, teacher, dog4, etc. People have proposed some rather awkward solutions to this problem (“ey/em/eir”, “ze/hir”, “(s)he”), but none of them have really caught on. (I tried once and it did not feel natural at all.)

Instead, English speakers (or at least American English speakers) have started using “they”. “I called my friend. / Oh, are they coming over?” It’s a little awkward, but better than the alternatives. You’ve probably used it.

If you think about it, it’s almost as if you’re talking about two hypothetical people: one female, one male.

The problem is looking at the inflections of our singular “they”:

  • “Your friend? They should be here soon.”
  • “Your friend is here; I’ll go let them in.”
  • “Is your friend around? I think this is their jacket.”
  • “Your friend saw themself in the mirror.”

I don’t know about you, but that last one doesn’t really work for me. “Themself”? I suppose “themselves” is even worse: one person definitely has only one self. But this is pretty bad…and the more I stare at the other examples, the worse they seem. (Try saying them out loud, though…that helps some.)

Still, maybe this is a language shift that will seem more and more acceptable as time goes on. We’ve dropped the intimate “thee”s and “thou”s of Middle English in exchange for “you” everywhere, which (by long rambling road) has led us to the search for a new second-person plural. (“Y’all”, anyone?)

To be fair, the “they” problem is not unique to English. In most Romance (Latin-based) languages, all nouns have gender, and the “it” equivalent is usually some form of “he”. If a gender is unknown, the sentence defaults to “he”. Even the plurals are gendered: in Spanish, “vosotros” refers to a mixed group or a group of all males, “vosotras” to a group of all females. (But the formal “usted” and “ustedes” are gender-neutral.)

In Mandarin Chinese, there’s an interesting situation: all three third-person singular pronouns are pronounced “tā”, but they are written differently. (Actually, according to that link, there are yet more ways of writing “tā”, for other uses besides “he”, “she”, and inanimate “it”.)

In Japanese, pronouns are normally omitted, and so unlike many other languages they are relatively long and are treated mostly like any other nouns. I don’t actually know if there is an “it” in Japanese because I’ve never needed to use it.

…and that’s all of the languages I know well. But as usual, Wikipedia has much more information. In any case, though, this is not a case where I can say English is a bad language. But it’s still an issue.

Or maybe it’s not. We all use “they” anyway…let’s make it stick.

Finally, obligatory xkcd (but pretending to be Dinosaur Comics):

"THINGS I AM UPPITY ABOUT: 'They' as a third-person singular gender-neutral pronoun. / I'm all for it! ..."

  1. Now there’s an unusual way to start a sentence! ↩︎

  2. Besides the sunglasses↩︎

  3. There are a ton of grammatical terms that I know from foreign language classes, plus a handful from linguistics. Of these, I often don’t know how they apply to English. I have no idea what “subjunctive” is, for example. ↩︎

  4. My mind has classified mammalian pets as intelligent enough that “it” is inappropriate. ↩︎