Gender-Neutral Pronoun on the Rise?

In English, there are three main singular pronouns: he, she, and it. When we’re talking or writing about people, we eschew it; after all, it suggests a non-human subject. This leaves us with he or she, which often are easy to use. We use he for male subjects and she for female subjects.

This is all easy enough, but there are two times when neither he nor she seems the right word choice. The first is where the gender of the subject does not matter. This situation comes up frequently in legal writing. In explaining a rule of law, we often need to include a pronoun. For example, For a plaintiff to maintain a cause of action for intentional infliction of emotional distress, he must prove the defendant’s conduct is extreme and outrageous. In that sentence, we want a singular pronoun to “match” our singular subject noun of “plaintiff.”

Writers are conscious of which pronoun to choose. Many are afraid if they pick the male pronoun—he­—they will be perceived as sexist. One easy fix to avoid picking a pronoun at all is to make the subject “plaintiff” plural so that we can use the plural pronoun “they” (e.g., For plaintiffs to maintain a cause of action for intentional infliction of emotional distress, they must prove the defendant’s conduct is extreme and outrageous.). But sometimes that doesn’t work well or we’d rather keep the subject singular. What to do then? Many writers (and speakers) default to the plural they even with a singular subject like “plaintiff” in order to stay gender neutral. But for a lot of us who are sticklers for such things, a plural pronoun with a singular noun just isn’t right.

Most of us recommend to our students that they choose the singular pronoun that “matches” the gender of the person who would fill the role of, say, plaintiff (or defendant). Thus, if we have a female client who may have a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress, we would write: For a plaintiff to maintain a cause of action for intentional infliction of emotional distress, she must prove the defendant’s conduct is extreme and outrageous. But it’d be even better if we had a gender-neutral pronoun.

The second situation where choosing only from he or she seems to fail us is where we don’t know the gender of the subject or where the subject’s gender identity is more fluid and thus rejects the he/she binary. Using a gender-neutral pronoun would alleviate speakers’ and writers’ concerns with having to choose between he or she, when neither seems appropriate. Sweden has recently added such a gender-neutral pronoun—“hen”—to its official dictionary. And while in this country we haven’t officially adopted a gender-neutral pronoun, there are a couple of options on the rise: ze and xe.

In fact, the Office for Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville this fall encouraged everyone on its campus—faculty, staff, and students—to think more broadly about pronouns and about adopting gender-neutral pronouns. The request is not official university policy; as a statement from the school said, “There is no mandate or official policy to use the [gender-neutral] language. . . .[W]e do not dictate speech. We do strive to be a diverse and inclusive campus and to ensure that everyone feels welcome, accepted, and respected.”

While ze and xe sound strange to us now, it’s just because we’re not used to the words. Like awsomesauce and hangry sound strange (to a good number of us, anyway), but those words, among others, have just been added to the Oxford dictionary. So, it just takes some time and use, and ze and xe will catch on.

For those of you, like me, wondered how to say such words and what their possessive versions were, UT’s Office for Diversity and Inclusion has provided a useful guide (as copied from here):GenderNeutral

Hat tip to Mary Pucci and to 1L Tyler Pluff for bringing to my attention the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, story.


This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Rebecca Blemberg

    It’s hard for me to imagine new words gaining acceptance when they appear in writing first. “Hangry” and “awesomsauce” were first informal conversational slang. I would not expect to read these words in formal writing (though admittedly I’m a fan of “hangry” because it so perfectly captures a state of being). I agree that the lack of a gender-neutral singular pronoun can be problematic, but the natural progression in language leads me to believe it’s more likely that “they” will become acceptable before “xe” or “ze,” even in formal writing. I’m nevertheless intrigued by the possibility of a new gender-neutral pronoun. I dislike “they” as a stand-in because it is imprecise. I think “ze” would confuse a reader, so at this time, my students are stuck with “he or she,” choosing one, or going plural.

  2. Tony Geinzer

    I feel what is at a loss is the proper adaptation to diversity, and trying to neutrally change what people already learned for years is dangerously uncalled for.

  3. John Rome

    In my personal writing I use “thon”, a contraction of “that one”. My research indicates that “thon” was first used as far back as the middle of the 19th century. Thus it feels less like adding a word to the dictionary and more like rediscovering one.
    I’ve been told that using thon in formal writing is still unacceptable, but I’m hoping thon gains more use. Plus all of the triple letter scores for “ze” while playing Scrabble just seems like cheating.

  4. Deborah Darin

    For me, xe and ze fail for being disharmonious with most English consonant words and common pronunciations. Something as important as personal pronouns should originate more organically. Recently, I listened to a speaker who exclusively used “she” and “her” in a lengthy presentation of a legal explanation, just like someone might have used the male pronouns. It was easy to hear, and not confusing, for its consistency.
    If readers and listeners became accustomed to expecting either female or male pronouns to be used for representing an unknown person, it may be a little easier to accept the inevitable next step: new pronouns for transgender or amorphously gendered individuals which surely will arrive.

  5. Wassim Malas

    This will help Scrabble players everywhere.

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