Gender-Neutral Pronouns Solved!

PronounsIt has always bothered me that we don’t have gender-neutral pronouns. People have tried with things like “ner” or “heir” or some such. Personally, I’ve always liked “it.” What’s the big deal? We are all its, after all. What is with humans that they mind being referred to in the abstract as “it”? But using “it” in this way just makes me seem like a freak, and I have more than enough freak cred. So some number of years ago, I just gave up. I decided that English was a language where the masculine was the neuter. I wasn’t happy about this but this struck me as the least terrible solution to the problem.

One thing I most definitely don’t like is the use of gender-neutral plural pronouns. “Someone entered the room; in the darkness, I could tell they were dressed in a gorilla costume.” What nonsense that is! It makes me long for my preferred “it” solution. Not only do we get a plural pronoun, but we are forced to conjugate the verb incorrectly. If anything could make me flee to Veracruz and take up Spanish full time, it is this approach to the English language.

An even worse solution is to use both genders. I’ll admit, there are times when this actually works just fine. But we end up with problems. Consider: “First, he or she should find his or her seat and then alert his or her friends via text that he or she has arrived.” And then there is the whole question of which gender should go first. Why is it always the male? Hmm?!

This brings us to the standard solution to this problem. People who think about this kind of thing have decided that the best thing to do when dealing with a neuter situation is to alternate. The first time a neuter is needed, use the male. The second time, use the female. And so on. It still leaves us with the decision of which gender to start with, but I guess that’s okay.

My problem with this is that it is a burden. I did not become a writer so I could do accounting. And since most of what I write is short, I would have to remember from article to article what gender I last used. It is a mess. In all things grammatical, I try to make my life simple and the alternating solution does just the opposite.

There is one solution that I very much like. We could just make the neuter female. Our society is so male-focused that a good step toward a more just society would be to make all our genderless examples be women. It would be a good thing for young people to be constantly reminded woman are at least the equal of men. And if it ever got out of hand, we could go back to making the neuter male. The problem is that just as with “it,” I don’t think I can do this on my own. Freak cred and all. But if anyone is starting a movement, sign me up.

Over the past few months, I have come up with a solution. It is a modification of the alternation method. But instead of alternating between instances, I am going to alternate between years. So starting on the first of this year, I switched to the neuter female as you can see in my article, The Worst American Addiction. This means that odd numbered years are female and even numbered years are male. But the great thing is that it doesn’t matter. I’ve only picked female because it is a new year and I was using male before that. The system would work best if people randomly picked their years so that any given reader would see a natural diversity of undetermined genders.

But there is another good aspect of my system. It makes the English language universe better and more egalitarian regardless of what anyone else does. However, the truth is that I don’t especially care. This system is designed to make me feel better. Because this whole subject really bugs me and has bugged me for decades. This decision will remove a small amount of anxiety from my life. But I hope the reader appreciates it — whoever she may be.

7 thoughts on “Gender-Neutral Pronouns Solved!

  1. What’s the point? Lots of languages have gender-neutral pronouns, including Persian and Turkish. There doesn’t seem to be any correlation between gender-neutral pronouns and reduced sexism.

    • The point is to make me feel better. But more broadly, physics textbooks in the past always referred to astronauts as males. It was a subtle form of coercion, “Girls don’t become astronauts.” The words we use very much shape the way we see the world. I think the pronoun issue is akin to the way white privilege manifests as white not being a race.

  2. Beyond calling a ship ‘she’, and perhaps an aircraft or spacecraft as an extension of that tradition, are there any other female inanimate objects in English? I sold a rifle to a man once and while inspecting it he referred to it as ‘she’, and it was really weird. This sort of creepy anthropromorphic sexualization, while not considered standard usage, is the only other instance I have seen of female assignment to inanimate objects.

    • That’s an interesting thought. I think “she” is applied to special possessions. It does reflect on the way that men look upon women. I’m sure there is all kind of postmodern feminist writing on the subject. I should check it out; I’ll bet it would be fascinating. Of course, most postmodern analysis does tend to get pretty far out in the weeds. But still, a little might go a long way.

  3. ‘They’ is here to stay, like it or not.

    I tried the assume-female stance for a while, but I got in trouble when I took a class with John Searle. I spoke of gladiators and as is my custom, called them ‘her’ and ‘she’. He thought that is absurd, and maybe he was right – as much as I dislike admitting it.

    Also tried the ‘him or her’ for a while – there simply is no way to make this sound or read well.

    It’s not logical, but it soon will be the default for many years to come – ‘they’ ‘their’ etc. I’ve even started doing it, and I hate it as much as you.

    • John Searle? Wow. Excellent humblebrag too!

      I know, I know. In common English, we go with the plural. But in the publishing industry, it is generally the alternating gender. And that just disorients me. Just my thing.

      And Searle was right: it is absurd! As far as I know, gladiators were all men. If you used the male neuter, you wouldn’t refer to one of Solomon’s wives as “him.” Just the same, it was a noble attempt.

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