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What are Gender Neutral Pronouns?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A gender neutral pronoun is a pronoun which does not associate a gender with the person or creature being discussed. Some languages, such as English, have no truly neutral third person pronoun available, and women especially have criticized this, as many writers use “he” when referring to a generic individual in the third person, and some activists for equality dislike this. In addition, the dichotomy of “he and she” in English does not leave room for other gender identities, a source of frustration to the transgender and genderqueer communities. People who are limited by languages which do not include gender neutral pronouns have attempted to create them, in the interest of greater equality.

A pronoun is a word used to replace another noun, or a proper noun. For example: “Henry ran to catch the bus, but he was too late.” In this sentence, “Henry” is a proper noun, and it is replaced with “he” later in the sentence, to avoid repetition. However, a pronoun can also be used to discuss an anonymous or generic person, as in the sentence: “If someone calls for me from the doctor's office, tell him that I need to reschedule.” Up until the late twentieth century, the use of “him” in the previous sentence would have been appropriate English usage, and probably it would not have incited comment.

However, writers are under increasing pressure to include women in their sentences, thus leading to awkward constructions like: “When someone goes to the store, s/he must bring money to pay for the goods purchased.” Even worse, some writers create grammatically incorrect sentences, like: “That veterinarian sure is advertising a lot. I hope they are as good as the ads say,” in an attempt to keep the sentence gender neutral. Some writers simply resort to awkward sounding, though technically correct sentences, such as: “When one goes for a walk in San Francisco, one should wear layers, as the weather can be quite changeable.”

In English, the word “it” is used for objects, and is considered offensive in reference to people. Therefore, some activists have been agitating for a truly gender neutral pronoun to use in place of he/she, or along side these pronouns. A precedent for a neutral pronoun actually exists in English; both “ou” and “a” were accepted pronouns in the English language, but they died out in the 1400s. Among the suggestions have been “sie,” opposed by German speakers, as “sie” is a gendered pronoun in German used to refer to women, “zie,” to sidestep the “sie” issue, “hir,” and “per.” All of these pronouns could be used just as “he, his, him, himself,” and so forth are used, but without assigning a gender to the person under discussion.

Integrating a gender neutral pronoun into an already existing language could prove difficult, but not impossible. Many gender activists already use neutral pronouns, although they have not, unfortunately, agreed on which pronoun should be used, which results in “zirs,” “sieself,” and “per” being scattered across gender neutral literature. If a single pronoun were to be agreed upon and used extensively, it might enter common English usage, and it would at least stimulate a discussion about equality, gender, and the potential value of gender neutral pronouns.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon221100 — On Oct 10, 2011

Yeah, I'll attest to 'they' being increasingly popular (it's what I and all the other non-binary people I know personally tend to use), and having the benefit of being pre-existing and only needing a little extension from non-referring to referring. (Anyone who's arbitrarily decided that 'they' can't be used in the singular for things like "when the shopper enters the store, they will be greeted by a clown" 'because it's plural' is condemned to distinguish between ye and you for all eternity.)

By anon105130 — On Aug 19, 2010

anon104481: I used a site to search for "a was a good king" and didn't find anything. I really don't think that "a" and "ou" were ever pronouns in English.

By anon104481 — On Aug 16, 2010

I know you can use 'a' like 'he' or 'she'. For example, in shakespeare's time instead of saying," 'he' was a good king," people would say, " a'was a good king." that's straight out of hamlet. A was a good queen worked too. "Ou" I don't know about but i suspect it could be used like him or her.

By anon80586 — On Apr 27, 2010

thank you "wisegeek." You have helped me a lot in my studies.

By anon79217 — On Apr 21, 2010

I wish I knew how to properly use "ou" or "a". Does anyone out there know?

By anon21660 — On Nov 19, 2008

You could also mention the popular Spivak set of pronouns.

By boy — On Aug 15, 2008

This article mentions something about “ou” and “a” being accepted pronouns in the English language. I have no idea what this is referring to. “ou” and “a”?

English has a gender-neutral pronoun: "they" has been used as a common-gender, common-number pronoun since the 1300s.

The ryȝtwys man ... Þat takeȝ not her lyf in vayne,

(the righteous man... that taketh not their life in vain)

Pearl, c1300

There's not a man I meet but doth salute me

As if I were their well-acquainted friend;

- Shakespeare, A Comedy of Errors IV, iii

But every body is to judge for themselves, and the Lucases are very good sort of girls, I assure you. - Jane Austin, Pride and Prejudice, 1813

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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