Gender-Neutral Pronouns?

kdt26417

Official Greeter
Staff member
What do you use instead of he and she when you intend to mean either gender, or prefer not to specify a gender? See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gender-neutral_pronoun#Summary

Do you prefer:

  • all-masculine pronouns (default),
  • all-feminine pronouns (default),
  • random/alternating usages of all-masculine or all-feminine defaults,
  • "him or her," "he or she," etc.,
  • "her or him," "she or he," etc.,
  • "him/her," "he/she," etc.,
  • "her/him," "she/he," etc.,
  • "s/he," etc.,
  • "they," "themselves," etc.
  • "they," "themself," etc.
  • "zie," "zir," "zirself,"
  • "xe," "hir," "hirself,"
  • "en," "ens," "enself,"
  • other?
I try to avoid gender-neutral pronoun situations as often as I can, because I know it can seem confusing, cumbersome, and/or annoying. If I need to use such a pronoun just once I'll usually go with he/she (or "they" if designating the singular isn't needed or doesn't seem to matter). If I need to use such a pronoun multiple times I'll usually go with xe and hir. That's because those were the first invented pronouns I was introduced to -- though I kind of fancy the en/ens/enself set. When conversing with someone who uses something like "zie" or whatever, I'll often follow their lead and do the same.

What about you? How do you handle a "gender-neutral" situation? What do you prefer to see when you're reading some else's posts? Do you think gender-neutral pronouns should be used generously or sparingly? When is it appropriate to use them? Should everyone use the same convention and if so, what should that be?
 

MusicalRose

Member
I don't use them a whole lot yet, as I'm not comfortable with them. However, I'm thinking of starting to use them more. I'm not sure which convention I'd use.

I do, however, think that gender neutral pronouns are a good thing and it has long felt like a failure in our language to me that we don't have them. That is why I'm thinking of starting to do so.
 
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kdt26417

Official Greeter
Staff member
Yeah, I think our language does need a set of gender-neutral pronouns -- and that was true long before we had an acknowledged thing such as trans or queer.
 

KerryRen

New member
I'm used to "sie" and "hir" from Usenet days, where it seemed to be standard. (though there were variations) I rather like them, particularly in text communications where a person's gender identity may not be obvious.

Masculine/feminine/neutral pronouns do have their effect, or at least their usage frequently demonstrates perception. I've always found it fascinating how many, in 'Net conversations, would end up referring to me as "he" with absolutely no evidence -- and even when informed, some would frequently forget, I assume because they read my argument/conversation style as "masculine".

Then again, in a religious argument once, someone thought I was a lapsed Jew upon learning my original first name. I'm all for inferences from evidence, but there's really not much to be drawn from a single data point. The assumptions are sometimes just astounding.
 

MusicalRose

Member
I also frequently am assumed to be male when I post on anonymous forums. My personality is highly androgynous, so it makes sense. My user name in a lot of places if I'm not posting anonymously typically gives me away as female, though not always.
 

Inyourendo

New member
Gender neutrality in language does not interest me in the least. I use "him/her" and "she/he" if gender is uncertain. I also dislike the use of "cis-" as a prefix. It's an English language issue for me.

Same here. Also in a context of group relationships using terms like "they"for an individual is just confusing. When you say they im assuming its the group you're in a relationship with
 

kdt26417

Official Greeter
Staff member
Why Xe?

The Wikipedia chart seems to make a point of linking "xe" to its Wiktionary entry. That entry then mentions "hir."

But hir's usage notes seem to direct us towards ze instead of xe. [shrug] Those notes also mention sie.

In this thread, the most votes in agreement are the "him/her" and "she/he" votes. (Does it matter if it's "her/him," "he/she," etc.?)

I usually like "he/she" (and admittedly I use "him/her") when I'm writing, and for some reason I seldom seem to need gender-neutral words when I'm speaking vocally. If/when I do, do I fall back on "they?" Probably, but I've never caught myself in the act.
 

opalescent

Active member
I used to default to masculine pronouns when writing because I was taught that was grammatically correct and was easiest.

However, while I've been aware of trans* concerns for a while, I recently went to a workshop on gender identity that has really pushed me to act on these types of things more. (The * is to include the many, many ways to being trans.)

So now I will use a 'ze' or 'hir' as often as I remember to. (I don't believe there is any difference between 'xe' and 'ze' - they mean the same thing.) I will ask someone what their preferred pronoun use is - even if they look gender conforming (i.e. look like a man or a woman). I try not to wait for someone to tell me they have different pronoun preferences than the mainstream. It's important to realize that not everyone who is trans* 'looks' that way. I know quite a few people who physically present as male or female but who actually don't think of themselves as those things. Some don't accept gender as an important category for themselves at all. Some shift along a vast spectrum.

It is a pain in the ass to do this. It is awkward and I forget too often, or screw up someone's pronouns. (Etiquette in that situation - apologize and then move on.) It is grammatically ugly and annoying. It can be confusing as most people are not familiar with this.

However, I guarantee you that it is even more annoying, frustrating and ugly to be gender non-conforming than make some linguistic and grammatical adjustments. And it could be worse. Some languages assign gender to every word and declensions of verbs can be dependent on gender. English is actually not so bad.

My preferred pronouns are she and her, by the way! I have always thought of myself as being very female but I hardly ever think of myself as feminine.
 

kdt26417

Official Greeter
Staff member
Okay, I'll say it: I'm cismale. [ducks]

Using default male (when gender is uncertain or undefined) is definitely the traditionally-correct way to handle gender neutrality. But, then, we live in a traditionally-patriarchal society and we don't want to perpetuate that institution, do we? It's for that reason that "he/she" instead of just "he" came into usage.

I think we all have to walk a delicate balance between what's already established in language (descriptive usage), and between what we'd like to see established in the future (prescriptive usage). English has long been an evolving language, and it's still evolving. Just think of all the poly and kink words that people are freely using, possibly nudging those words into the mainstream part of the language.

Modern words about relationships and sexuality are in a state of flux; people often disagree on definitions. "Polysexual" is a good example of that; I've heard it defined as

  • interested in (or having) sex with more than one partner,
  • interested in (or having) sex with more than one gender.
I suppose it will end up having either meaning depending on context. But right now I think some confusion surrounds the word. And I'm certain there's other similar examples though they're not popping into my mind right this instant.

There's a lot of room for argument about what really counts as an established part of the language. You could of course hold up the Oxford Dictionary (as if it were one volume) as the standard here, but you could also argue that Oxford makes a point of staying somewhat behind the times so that it can add a word only when it and its definition are well-established. In the meantime Urban Dictionary clarifies much that Oxford wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole.

I personally like Wiktionary as a standard, but I also know it's a wiki project and as such, not equipped with a guarantee of accuracy (or even of appropriateness). I imagine that the Oxford people do keep an eye on Wiktionary. Probably on Urban Dictionary too.

When it comes to gender neutrality, my objective is to try to make my best guess at what words and usage would cause the least amount of confusion and irritation in the largest amount of readers. Usually "he/she" works perfectly, but I find that there are exceptions. There's especially an exception if the person I'm speaking of identifies as neither particularly male nor female (or as both, or as one or the other depending on mood and circumstance).

So, "xe" and "hir" (or "sie" and "hir") tend to be my last resorts (which makes me less than very progressive), but I will use them if a whole bunch of gender-neutral pronouns are going to be called for in a few sentences. A pile of "he/she's" (and "himself/herself's") actually seems more cumbersome in my eyes than does a pile of "xe's" (and "hirself's").

And even if I stuck to he/she religiously, I'd still want to be educated and aware of the gender-neutral pronouns other people might use. I'd want to be able to follow and understand their posts (even if it's a bit awkward/challenging for me).
 

nycindie

Active member
But what do "ze," "xe," "sie," and "hir" mean, exactly? How does one know if those pronouns are referring to a biological female identifying as male, a biological male dentifying as female, a transperson transitioning, a person identifying as both genders, or someone identifying as genderless? "Ze," "xe," "sie," and "hir" are indecipherable to me. At least, the long-established grammatically correct terms have clear meanings, and one can say "not that" if need be.
 
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JaneQSmythe

Active member
I recall an online game that I used to play where I deliberately refused to disclose my gender...which was a fun exercise in and of itself. The chat allowed one to perform "actions" so it was fun to play with referring to myself in the third person without giving it away...but often resorted to "it" (since it was in reference to myself and I knew that Iwouldn't be offended).

Generally, though, I will use "they" or "one" rather than created words and resort to s/he when needed. Although reading zir/xe/etc. doesn't bother me personally- I know it bothers some.
 

JaneQSmythe

Active member
But what do "ze," "xe," "sie," and "hir" mean, exactly? How does one know if those pronouns are referring to a biological female identifying as male, a biological male dentifying as female, a transperson transitioning, a person identifying as both genders, or someone identifying as genderless? "Ze," "xe," "sie," and "hir" are indecipherable.


Personally, I think that's the point. By being "gender-neutral" you don't have to distinguish any of those points - biological gender, identifying-gender-or-not, trans-whatever etc. - you are JUST referring to another human individual regardless of all of that.

In many cases we have to "choose" a gender-pronoun when that is entirely irrelevant to the conversation - i.e. Does it matter if you don't know the biologic gender/gender-preference-or not/etc of your auto mechanic if they give great service at a fair price and you just want to recommend them to a friend? NO - I don't want to get into gender politics with my mechanic so that I know what pronoun to use, I just want to let my friend know that "J.C. is an awesome mechanic and I recommend them."
 
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copperhead

New member
In many cases we have to "choose" a gender-pronoun when that is entirely irrelevant to the conversation

Exactly! I grew up learning a language without gender distinction in the singular third pronoun (one word for both he/she). I often find it rather annoying in other languages that I am forced to make an irrelevant point. I mean… if the distinction is relevant there are other ways to bring it up. Just heard that Sweden has accepted a gender neutral pronoun as an official part of the language \o/

I've uderstood that gender neutral pronouns would mean any of the things Nycindie mentioned and also be a neutral expression when you don't know what pronoun to use or when the information is not relevant. So you could use it for anyone. Although I do follow this process with interest as I see the possibility of differentiation. One set of pronouns could differentiate to mean one of the things Nycindie mentioned while another one would get another meaning. That would then be far from neutrality in my opinion as you would always bring up someone being transgendered (for example). If I've understood correctly trans people want to be accepted as having the gender they are transitioning to/have transitioned to (generalisation) instead of forever being treated as someone who used to have another gender. At least this is true for the ones I know.
 

JaneQSmythe

Active member
To those that object to gender-neutrality in pronouns - a question.

First person pronouns are already gender neutral in English -

My friend called me...
That is mine...
I like myself...

...and that doesn't seem to bother anyone, no one seems to be clamoring for first person pronouns that announce the biological gender/gender identity/trans-ness/etc. So why is it so important to make that distinction in the second person?

Just asking.
 

kdt26417

Official Greeter
Staff member
Yeah, I think the purpose of a gender-neutral pronoun is to bypass questions of gender altogether. It's like saying, "I'm not speaking about this person's gender at this moment; I'm only referring to them as a person in general."

Now whether more pronouns are needed for communicating specific trans/queer identities, that's kind of a separate question. If that's in our future, it's probably a long ways away. All-purpose gender-neutral pronouns already rub some people the wrong way and seem to them like overkill. I would think adding trans/queer-specific pronouns would just aggravate that state of affairs.

Sometimes I think you could just explain a person's gender identity, and then go on to use masculine, feminine, or neutral pronouns for them according to what's compatible with (if not specific about) their gender identity. Does that make sense?
 

InsaneMystic

New member
Big fan of the singular they here.

In English, it's the pronoun I prefer to be referred by, myself.
 

kdt26417

Official Greeter
Staff member
I do use "they" often, as long as I'm pretty sure it won't cause any singular/plural confusion.
 

KC43

New member
As the parent of a gender-fluid child (well, she's legally an adult now, but you know what I mean), I fully believe the English language needs a gender-neutral pronoun.

My issue personally with using things like "ze" and "hir", aside from never being completely certain what they mean, is that by having so many alternate pronouns, it seems that they *aren't* actually neutral.

The example given of "I, me, my, mine" is sort of what I'm talking about. There is *one* set of first-person pronouns, which are consistent regardless of the sex or gender of the person using them. I wish our language had a similar set of third-person pronouns, which would be the *same* regardless of sex or gender.

With my kiddo, I tend to default, when I'm not concentrating, to female pronouns, because she's only been out as gender fluid for a year and I had 18 years of referring to her as female. I do try to use preferred pronouns; the difficulty is that kiddo changes pronouns depending on her gender identity on any given day, and depending on what she feels like using, so I can't always keep up with what she wants to be called. (That's another reason for defaulting to female pronouns; I don't always know what else to use, and she accepts that.) At one point, she said she wanted "they", but the next time I used "they" she informed me that she was having a masculine day so I needed to use male pronouns. Which worked until that afternoon, when she decided she felt more feminine.

I've used the singular "they" when talking about kiddo, but that's resulted in a lot of confusion from people who didn't recognize, even from the context of what I said, that I was referring to one person.
 

kdt26417

Official Greeter
Staff member
Obviously many sets of (third-person) gender-neutral pronouns have been proposed. The problem is, how do we all agree on just one of those sets? and what criteria do we use for deciding?

As I said, I like the en/ens/enself set because it's so neat, unique, and compact. No danger of it being confused with other words (e.g. xe and ze which can elicit the tongue-in-cheek "French" version of the word "the").

But, xe/hir/hirself is a pretty compact set and more widely accepted. Perhaps the best criterion is figuring out which pronoun set is already most often used.

But, I can't decide whether xe, zie, or sie are the most-often used substitutes for s/he. I've seen all three used a lot. Hir seems to be pretty commonly "agreed upon" at least.

I like "xe" because it's 33% shorter than zie/sie (and because in written form it won't be confused with "ze" as in "the"). But Kevin's personal liking can't be the criterion the whole world uses for picking the right pronoun.

Sadly, I've noticed that en/ens/enself is gone from the Wikipedia chart. (It used to be there.) Sigh. Oh well; it was a nice thought.

So what do we do now?
 
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