Gender neutral pronouns


Quite a number of languages do not have gender-specific personal pronouns. Estonian for example has no he/she/it – one of the reasons they have difficulty with personal pronouns in English.

Sweden, to avoid he/she or him/her has recently introduced a gender neutral pronoun,  hen. In the beginning some people used it enthusiastically, while others felt it was unnecessary. More and more official bodies are now allowing the use of hen in official documents, so it will be interesting to see if it will become a long-term feature of the language. I don’t use hen in Swedish myself, but I can see how it makes formulating sentences much easier and is also valuable for anyone who does not identify as either male or female (see further my article on Mx).

One of the issues I face in my job is the constant repetition of he/she, which can become quite cumbersome. I usually replace it with their or they. So for example if a notice reads ‘any visitor entering or leaving the premises must show his/her identification and must have his/her visitor’s badge visible at all times.  He/she must  have a permanent employee with him/her at all times. We also suggest that he/she arrives a little earlier to allow time for him/her to proceed through the security procedures’, I tend to rewrite it to be less wordy and then use the ‘they/their’ formulation. For example each visitor must wear their visitor’s badge at all times. All staff  must make sure their passports are valid for six months after their planned exit from the Italy.

I still have to use the most formal his/her formulation when translating legislation but anything less formal I try to make as simple as possible.

I was therefore very interested to read this article the other day.

In its 26th annual words of the year vote, the American Dialect Society voted for they used as a gender-neutral singular pronoun as the Word of the Year for 2015. They was recognized by the society for its emerging use as a pronoun to refer to a known person, often as a conscious choice by a person rejecting the traditional gender binary of he and she.

Presiding at the Jan. 8 voting session were ADS Executive Secretary Allan Metcalf of MacMurray College and Ben Zimmer, chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Zimmer is also executive editor of and language columnist for the Wall Street Journal.

The use of singular they builds on centuries of usage, appearing in the work of writers such as Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Jane Austen. In 2015, singular theywas embraced by the Washington Post style guide. Bill Walsh, copy editor for the Post, described it as “the only sensible solution to English’s lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun.”

While editors have increasingly moved to accepting singular they when used in a generic fashion, voters in the Word of the Year proceedings singled out its newer usage as an identifier for someone who may identify as “non-binary” in gender terms.

“In the past year, new expressions of gender identity have generated a deal of discussion, and singular they has become a particularly significant element of that conversation,” Zimmer said. “While many novel gender-neutral pronouns have been proposed, they has the advantage of already being part of the language.”


Author: Janet Carr

Fashion, beauty and animal loving language consultant from South Africa living in Stockholm, Sweden.

One thought

  1. It seems a pity that the plural becomes both singular and plural but it happened to the plural “you” which has ousted the singular thou/thee … and even the plural subject form ye.

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