Pronounlessness

peace
Gender exists in a spectrum. I for one enjoy hot towel shaves and haircuts, and I carry a purse—all pursuits considered by my more manly-inclined male relatives to be girly. When the issue of personal pronouns arises, I’m pretty old school—he, she, it. Perhaps in thinking like this, having a traditionalist view of the English language and its grammar, I limit myself not only as a writer but as a person.

When a close personal friend of mine came out of the closet, told me about being pansexual, I did not know how to react. I don’t mean I was shocked. I had my suspicions already. And I do not mean I was horrified. My reaction was more on the grammatical level: what pronoun do I use?1

  Nominative (subject) Objective (object) Possessive determiner Possessive Pronoun Reflexive
Traditional pronouns
He He laughed I called him His eyes gleam That is his He likes himself
She She laughed I called her Her eyes gleam That is hers She likes herself
It It laughed I called it Its eyes gleam That is its It likes
itself
They They laughed I called them Their eyes gleam That is theirs They like themselves
Invented pronouns
Ne Ne laughed I called nem Nir eyes gleam That is nirs Ne likes nemself
Ve Ve laughed I called ver Vis eyes gleam That is vis Ve likes verself
Spivak Ey laughed I called em Eir eyes gleam That is eirs Ey likes
emself
Ze (or zie) and hir Ze laughed I called hir Hir eyes gleam That is hirs Ze likes hirself
Ze (or zie) and zir Ze laughed I called zir Zir eyes gleam That is zirs Ze likes zirself
Xe Xe laughed I called xem Xyr eyes gleam That is xyrs Xe likes xemself

Do you write he or she, or do you alternate between the two pronouns? Additionally, what do you do about the generic non gender specific he? Alternatives exist, of course, none of which I find very satisfying. The alternatives are false constructions, engineered to fit unnatural writing situations.The technical term for these artificially constructed pronouns is epicene. Middle English actually used to have a natural epicene—a, paired down from the he and heo pronoun constructions along with similar pronoun forms such as un, hoo, and u. The English language was in the throes of upheaval and change back then, and much confusion arose from listeners trying to figure out who the speaker was talking about. A cry rose up for gender specific pronouns, and heo, in most likely a fit of mass mispronunciation, evolved into she.

Singular they worked to pick up the slack that forgotten a no longer did.

But, the 18th century respectability happened and by the late 19th century grammarians such as Goold Brown wrote and printed things like, “Those terms which are equally applicable to both sexes (if they are not expressly applied to females) and those plurals which are known to include both sexes, should be called masculine in parsing; for, in all languages, the masculine gender is considered the most worthy, and is generally employed when both sexes are included under one common term.” Brown is not even concerned here about alternative gender identities. He simply wants to subordinate all women in general.

You see this attitude in other languages. Mädchen in German means “little girl,” and the word is a das word, a that and not a her. Yes, the chen makes the word diminutive, but most Germans probably couldn’t point to why Mädchen is an it and Junge is not. In Spanish, a group of people of mixed sexes is always referred to in the masculine, even if the mixed sexes number only a single male. In French, quelqu’un (someone) is always male, never female.

In English though, we have come full circle, and are in want for a non-binary word that better expresses our culture and who we are as a people—even if you don’t agree with the LGBTQ agenda, language eventually catches up to you, ingrains into your subconscious and patterns your thoughts. All of this takes time. I don’t see Ey, em, eir, eirs, eye, emself moving into our everyday vernacular soon, or even at all. English language reform cannot be planned out or executed in an orderly fashion because no one cares except the few people who do care, and those people have no real power to control how language evolves. From he to heo to she happened not because grammarians from on high said, “From now on, she.” She happened because of natural changes occurring in spoken language. We lost the singular they because of the printing press and the proliferation of style guides, but I still hear they in quick-witted spoken conversation, and no one shouts in condemnation that the conversationalist has violated number concord grammar rules.

But when the singular they is found in writing, people get touchy. It is a lazy writer who falls back upon singular they.
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Professor Marc A. Grinker in 1994 put together an online writing guide for law students. He has a section on gender neutral language. Grinker writes, “The use of gender-neutral language may seem unnecessary to some writers, but the consistent use of masculine pronouns leaves the impression that women could not be among the group to which the writer is referring. While some may respond that the masculine pronouns ‘he’ and ‘his’ refer to men and women both, the impression left is in the eye of the reader, not that of the writer.”

Ginker suggests almost any sentence can be rewritten without the reliance upon pronouns. And pronounlessness, today more so than in 1994, keeps peace because neither right-winger nor leftist-liberal will notice the style change.

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  1. My friend explains pansexuality refers to a sexual orientation and not gender. Pronouns do not matter in regards to sexuality, but in regards to male/female/genderqueer identities. Still, the pansexual discussion we had worried me initially concerning what exact pronoun to use, and formed the jumping point for my essay.

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Interested in some editing services? Email me your project, and let’s talk!

Further reading:

Pronoun Table from The Gender Neutral Pronoun Blog

The American Heritage Book of English Usage: A Practical and Authoritative Guide to Contemporary English

Baron, Dennis. The Epicene Pronoun: The Word that Failed.

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