It’s far too late to predict that English will one day develop a set of gender-neutral singular pronouns. It’s happening now (finally, thank goodness). But I’m wondering whether the current practice of ‘they/them’ will prove to be a false start — or, to put a more positive spin on it, just a temporary bridge to something better.
‘They’ does start out with a built-in advantage. It’s already a familiar, established English word. Any possible alternative would have to be something new, made-up. It also helps that we’ve always used ‘they’ to refer to persons unknown — even where it might turn out to be only a single individual. But this usage was never a firmly established, universal practice. Until recently, it was also common to see ‘he or she’ used when referring to a theoretical, unknown person.
The downside of ‘they’, of course, is that it now has two different meanings — either a group of people or a specific, known person. While the intended meaning is often clear from the context, that’s not always the case. I ran into this in my own writing recently. Revisiting a short story I’d written using traditional he/she pronouns, I decided to give September, the main character, a gender-neutral set instead. Here’s a selection from the story, with ‘they/them’ directly substituted for ‘he/him’.
September put the flowers on the table, set a camera on the windowsill, then sat facing the sideboard. Sometimes it took them a while to get the client ready, so they opened a fantasy novel they’d been enjoying. To think that just a year ago, they’d still been running DoorStop deliveries. This gig involved way less time in the car, and paid thirty percent more. They still couldn’t believe they’d offered them the job so quickly, on the first attempt. Finally, they’d been able to start paying down their university loan.
When they brought Emma in, they stood to greet her. She looked frailer than last time. But her clothes were all in order, and her wispy white hair was immaculately coiffed. She even wore makeup, perfectly applied. That was definitely new — they had an eye for that sort of thing. At least she has the staff on her side, they thought. They often didn’t.
You can see the problem here. In both literature and everyday speech, we often want to refer to both an individual and a group of people in the same paragraph, or even sentence. Of course there are workarounds — you can change the sentence construction, or simply keep using the singular person’s name over and over instead of a pronoun. But this requires us to think ahead, and unlearn all the sentence construction habits wired into us back when we first learned English. Wouldn’t it be easier, I thought, to simply get used to a new set of words that work exactly like the old ones, with no ambiguity? After all, everyday words like ‘vegan’, ‘rando’, and ‘mansplaining’ didn’t exist a century ago.
Here’s the selection again, using ‘xe/xem’ — one of the most popular pronoun alternatives among trans and non-binary folk. If you’ve never heard of it before, you have now. Pronounce the ‘x’ as a ‘z’.
September put the flowers on the table, set a camera on the windowsill, then sat facing the sideboard. Sometimes it took them a while to get the client ready, so xe opened a fantasy novel xe’d been enjoying. To think that just a year ago, xe’d still been running DoorStop deliveries. This gig involved way less time in the car, and paid thirty percent more. Xe still couldn’t believe they’d offered xem the job so quickly, on the first attempt. Finally, xe’d been able to start paying down xir university loan.
When they brought Emma in, xe stood to greet her. She looked frailer than last time. But her clothes were all in order, and her wispy white hair was immaculately coiffed. She even wore makeup, perfectly applied. That was definitely new — xe had an eye for that sort of thing. At least she has the staff on her side, xe thought. They often didn’t.
It’s a lot clearer, no? And, while the sight of the new words — particularly, the leading ‘x’ — might be jarring at first, you’ll be surprised how quickly you get used to it — if , for example, you’re reading a novel that uses it. It also works really well in speech — exactly like the singular gendered pronouns ‘he’ or ‘she’.
Here’s the full set:
he/she = xe, him/her = xem, his/her=xir, his/hers = xirs, himself/herself = xemself
Spellings of this new pronoun set may vary. For example, ‘z’ is sometimes used in place of ‘x’, and ‘xir’ is sometimes spelled as ‘xyr’. Some of the forms are unsettled as well — for example, I’ve seen both ‘xemself’ and ‘xirself’ suggested as the reflexive form of ‘xe’. And then there are the other new alternatives, such as the ey/em/eir set.
Perhaps because of this uncertainty, ‘they/them’ is in the lead for now, and may stay there for some time. But I can’t help but think that, if an all-new set doesn’t become established in my lifetime, some future generation will adopt one just to be different — because that’s what generations do. Who knows, they might even go to the ultimate logical conclusion, simplify things even further by dropping the old gendered pronouns altogether. One can only hope — and xe who has hope has everything.