Gender Neutral Pronouns


Various groups of people have been trying to create and popularize gender neutral pronouns in the English language for quite some time. Ze/hir, hu/hus, and many other neologisms have been tried – but none have ever caught on outside of the transgender communities. Their primary function has been to irritate and confuse our cisgender allies, and make people who are normally our allies avoid talking about transgender issues for fear of forgetting to use these pronouns or using them incorrectly.

In an ideal world we would have gender neutral pronouns that are used naturally by everyone, but we don’t live in an ideal world. We live in a world where changes in language don’t come from someone instituting them and then getting upset when people make mistakes. They come from slang (hobo), from other languages, large groups of people thinking a neologism is funny (santorum), and from branding (to Google).

When I teach about transgender issues someone often asks me about gender neutral pronouns. They do this cautiously, uncertain of how to ask the question, and often even forgetting the words they were told to use. The most common story I hear is that they have met a transgender person, who asked them to use gender neutral pronouns, and then got annoyed or upset when they made a mistake.

Look again at the last two sentences. What is the gender of the person asking me this question? Give up? That’s because I used a perfectly legitimate singular gender neutral pronoun. “They” may be a little clumsy at first, but it’s a word we already use for this purpose in the English language. We use it when the gender of the individual is unknown, or when it changes depending on circumstance (as in this case). While most people are unfamiliar with using it to refer to an individual who they know personally, it’s a MUCH easier transition to make. It works.

However, this morning I read an interesting new development. Apparently schoolchildren in Baltimore are using “yo” as a gender neutral pronoun. I love this – it’s happening spontaneously, coming from inside of the community using it, and has not been pushed on them by anyone. While it is unlikely to catch on, it does show that this can happen naturally and may do so again in the future.

(7:32 pm Central) Edit: This post was made in frustration and I want to make an apology.   I’m going to work on thinking a lot more about this issue, and I want to hear what you all have to say about it. I do still think the thing in the last paragraph is pretty cool, but other than that part I need to do a lot more thinking on this issue, and less writing.

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  1. This piece made me extremely upset. Let me go through it paragraph by paragraph and explain why.

    First of all, excuse me? The “primary function” of gender-neutral pronouns is alienating allies? So I guess the fact that I have a pronoun I can identify with is just a side-effect, then? Barely worth mentioning compared to the sea of cis tears?

    You say that words have to arise naturally and can’t be forced on people, but you used the word “cis.” Now there’s a word that trans people unilaterally made up because they needed it. It’s a word that gets cis people upset, too. Why is that okay when my pronouns aren’t? I’d hate to have to draw the conclusion that you’re saying it’s only acceptable to make up words when they benefit binary-gendered trans people, but that’s how it looks to me.

    If I have to tailor my identity to keep myself from confusing students in your trans studies class, everyone should have to. I mean, really, wouldn’t it be easiest if we all just pretended to be cis? I am an androgyne. I prefer ve/ver/vis pronouns. That identity and that preference are not going to change, and I’m not going to pretend that they aren’t true.

    I don’t like the singular “they.” It doesn’t feel right to me. I want to have a pronoun that I feel refers to my gender. Maybe it would make my cis friends’ lives easier, but it would make mine worse, and they care more about me than about the inconvenience. I would think that any trans person would be familiar with this. Usually it sounds something like “Can’t you wear whatever you want but just stick with your old pronouns? It’d be so much easier for everyone.”

    No. Absolutely not. I am not going to sit around and hope that some day some group of schoolchildren will come up with a pronoun that I can finally identify with. I have my pronouns. I don’t expect everyone I meet to get them down on the first try, and I try to be as understanding as I can, but no one has the right to tell me that my identity is just too darn inconvenient for the trans community.

    I was very, very hurt by this piece. I expected better from Queereka and from Benny.

  2. The piece was about gender neutral pronouns, and it sounds like your primary criticism is that you want a pronoun that’s not gender neutral, but specific to your gender. That’s cool.

    I’m just not sure it’s fair to assume that by writing about gender neutral pronouns, Benny was saying that androgyne gender-specific pronouns are therefore bad and confusing to cis people. Though he does seem to be kind of merging the two concepts in this piece.

    Unrelated point: I’m not sure I buy the existence of the shrewbitch trans person who goes around getting upset when a cis person who makes a mistake with pronouns. It just reminds me too much of the tales of the ungrateful feminist who gets pissed when the speaker held open the door for her, or the atheist that stands outside of churches shouting abuse at the parishioners.

    Maybe it happens, but I’m guessing that since trans people have to put up with misgendered pronouns a lot, it doesn’t happen as often as you might suspect from how often cis people cite it as the reason they’re uncomfortable around trans people. Their discomfort with discussing trans issues isn’t the fault of Unreasonable Expectations Trans Person. Pronoun fears are more of a convenient scapegoat.

  3. Yessina: You’re right. There are two different things being confused here (in my comment as well as in the original): the academic question of whether English ought to have a commonly recognized gender neutral pronoun, and the (for me, at least) much more personal and urgent issue of nonbinary trans people having their own pronouns.

    I really feel like the example of the student asking a question is about the latter. While the shrewbitch trans person may be a strawman, the idea of someone trying to introduce gender-neutral pronouns as an academic exercise and then getting mad when people mess them up seems even less likely.

    I felt like Benny was saying that all us nonbinary weirdos should just make do with “they” and stop confusing the cis people. If that was not what he meant, I’d appreciate a clarification.

    • I’m with you on this one. Since when is making things easy and non-threatening for cis people more important than finding a way we’re comfortable with to express our identities?

      And, honestly, for people who do not have a gender at all, the difference between a gender neutral pronoun and one that would describe our non-existent “gender” is pretty academic at the end of the day.

    • Yea, I don’t want to speak for Benny. I did not mean that you don’t have the right to be upset when you ask someone to use a particular pronoun and they mess up/don’t make an effort to. It’s obvious to me that if a person goes to the effort of asking for a particular pronoun to be used, it’s because it’s actually important to them on a personal level.

      I just meant I don’t think that your anger is causing people who used the wrong pronoun to be uncomfortable talking about trans issues, because cis avoidance of talking about trans issues preceded any requests/fuck ups. Using the wrong pronoun for a cis person is commonly seen as insulting at worst and a major faux pas at best, and it’s an example of cis privilege that trans or non-binary people are expected to always smile and forgive, making sure that the primary concern is that the cis person feels minimal embarrassment.

      Whereas the shrewbitch skulks around looking for reasons to be unreasonably offended, a rightly cheesed trans or non-binary person is just fed up and all out of fucks to give. The whole narrative (trans person got upset with me, therefore I’m too a’scared to talk about trans issues) is about blaming trans/genderqueer people for our own marginalization. How unreasonable are those people to just expect the same common courtesy given to anyone else, and then to get angry with me when I fail at living up to their horribly unreasonable demands?!

  4. Language happens, not in my mind, not in your mind, but somewhere in the middle. Somewhere out in space. I can make-up words to use, but unless they mean something to the people I am using them with, then we aren’t communicating. Then we aren’t connecting. When everyone makes up their own, unique pronoun to use, then we are no longer using language to connect with one another and the words become meaningless. Yes, new words come into being and old words die, or morph, but we can’t force that, it has to be a part of the connection and the communication between people.

    Language has limitations. Life has limitations. I don’t have perfect words to describe exactly what I’m feeling at every moment of every day, but we make due. Using words to express ourselves to other people, as imperfect as they may be, is all we have. We don’t have to like it, but it’s the reality of the situation.

  5. apart from the thoroughly valid and astute criticisms that have been made of this article, which will hopefully lead to some good discussion, i just wanted to point out how aptly Yessenia’s neologism “shrewbitch” applies in this case, and how easily it was incorporated into the discussion. may everyone’s pronouns receive the same recognition!

  6. ‘They’ is very impersonal. And awkward. Anyone who’s spent time ‘playing the pronoun game’ can tell you just how clunky and ineffective it is. That said, I don’t have a solution to this. I’d love for a set of gender neutral pronouns to come into common usage. And I disagree that it’s because cis people get confused. It’s because anything like this is subject to derision by people who think it’s ‘political correctness gone mad’ being forced on them by radical left-wing fundamentalist feminazis. And those people will be there cutting down any attempt to introduce less gendered language for as long as we live in such a hyper-gendered society.

    • ‘They’ is very impersonal.

      I’m not sure I get what you’re saying here. Aren’t all pronouns “impersonal” when they are used in place of someone’s name?

      As far as it being awkward, I think that comes down to personal experience. I don’t find it awkward at all. I use “they” instead of “he or she” in writing and in speaking, and if someone tells me they prefer a particular pronoun when I refer to them, I will certainly do my best to use that pronoun. But absent knowing about that preference, I will stick to “they” because it’s something that people who aren’t versed in alternative pronouns can easily understand.

  7. Isn’t impersonality the whole point of pronouns? And if everyone has their own pronouns, wouldn’t that just make them nouns? OK, well, nouns that might carry case markings that English abandoned about a millennium ago.

    English really needs to evolve some proper gender-neutral singular pronouns that sound “natural” (to my ear, most of the proposed pronouns just don’t “feel” like English words, although I’m insufficiently educated to say why it is that they seem alien; probably all the Vs, Xs and Zs).

    Screw English, I’m sick of it. Time to start learning Lojban.

    • Yea, I think you’ve got it. They’re trying to create new pronouns by modeling them off of old pronouns and hoping that they’ll stick through the similarity. Using fricatives like V and Z is part of this, as standard pronouns use the fricatives H, Sh, and Th. It’s a rookie mistake, because it ignores the fact that spoken English does things like drop the “H” when the pronoun is not at the beginning of a sentence or clause (where’s ‘er dog? Where’s ‘iz donut? I’m sick of’im. ), so changing the FIRST sound means that you have to like, pronounce it. My brain doesn’t like pronouncing the first syllables of pronouns in fast speech. That’s part of what makes these pronouns clunky and awkward.

      The attempts to impose the archaic declension that you see with he/him and she/her alternations are probably motivated by the same desire, but having the gender-neutral pronoun decline not actually necessary (“it” undergoes no such declension). And since that’s not a regular process of English anymore, but an anachronism, it also makes these neologistic pronouns sound awkward.

      The advantage of ‘they/them’ is that it already has these features: everyone knows that ‘they’ declines in the object position to ‘them.’ “Th” as a sound is at the same place as another sound ‘d/t’ that commonly ends verbs (where’D THey go?). So in fast speech, a person can drop the onset of the pronoun without thinking about it. They can even do so while still conveying the pronoun to the speaker because the last sound (ey/em) is sufficiently different from (e/er) and (e/im) to make up for the syncopated onset.

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