The Search for a Gender-Neutral Pronoun

With the recent growth of the non-binary community and those just generally in favor of gender-neutral language, many have brought up a very specific area in which English is lacking: a gender-neutral, third person singular pronoun.

Of course the most common option at the moment is “they”, which also serves the gender-neutral third person plural, but this isn’t without its criticism.

Some have argued that use of this singular “they” is grammatically incorrect. However, its pedigree in English can be traced all the way back to the fourteenth century Cursor Mundi. Even Shakespeare used it, as in the line from his 1594 Comedy of Errors, “There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me / As if I were their well-acquainted friend.”

Singular “they” didn’t die out with Middle English, either. It continues to be used throughout history, such as in this 1759 letter from Lord Chesterfield to his son, which reads, “If a person is born of a… gloomy temper… they cannot help it,” or this quote from an 1848 Vanity Fair reading, “A person can’t help their birth.”

So the argument that the singular “they” is an incorrect piece of nonsense invented by SJWs who want to destroy our language is simply incorrect.  It should also be noted that, as is visible in the Shakespeare excerpt, language changes over time and that is a part of the natural progression of a society.

However, despite being the oldest and most popular option, there are still some noticeable flaws of “they”. Above all, it could either  singular or plural, which is asking for confusion, though many see this as a relatively minor problem, especially since the same applies to the second person pronoun “you” (unless, of course, you’re part of the growing population that uses “y’all” for the second person plural). Interestingly, singular “you” wasn’t always popular either, as evidenced by this passage in Thomas Ellwood’s autobiography, posthumously published in 1714:

“Again, the corrupt and unsound form of speaking in the plural number to a single person, you to one, instead of thou, contrary to the pure, plain, and single language of truth, thou to one, and you to more than one…”

In the past 150 years, a variety of other alternatives have been invented as an alternative, including ey, hu, jee, ney, peh, per, e, thon, ve, hiser, xe, ze, and zhe, though none of these have really caught on outside of very particular communities, primarily online and in the very liberal realm of the world.

Interestingly, other options have also arisen in particular communities and dialects. For example, youth in Baltimore have started to use “yo” in this place.

In other languages it varies. In some, such as Persian, Swahili, and Quechua, there is no gender distinction in pronouns at all, while in others, such as Lithuanian, Gaelic, and French, there is no popular gender neutral third person pronoun at all, and the masculine pronoun is used for all people except when referring exclusively to women, which leaves some proponents of gender-neutral language critical.

As for English, right now it looks like “they” is bound to stick, though there’s no way of knowing for sure what may come along in the future, and what may rightfully take its place.


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