The Need for a Gender-Neutral Pronoun

24 01 2010


What is a gender-neutral pronoun? What does English need a new pronoun for, anyway? Many people have expressed the need for a singular gender-neutral third-person pronoun: that is, a pronoun to use when someone’s gender is unknown or when the individual is neither male or female. Such instances occur when addressing transgender and genderqueer people who don’t feel comfortable being addressed with masculine or feminine pronouns, computers or robots with artificial intelligence, sexless fictional creatures, angels, and the God of many monotheistic religions. “He,” “she,” or “it” won’t do, “one” doesn’t work when speaking of a specific person, e.g. “Samus washed one’s dishes,” and in some cases even a singular “they” just won’t work – specifically when a name is used, e.g. “Charlie tied their shoes” or “Sam thought they were late to the party.” (For more information, check out the comprehensive links page.)

Over the centuries, hundreds of new words, or neologisms, have been proposed, with the vast majority being abandoned by all but their creators. There are a few exceptions: the pronoun “co” used by residents of the Twin Oaks Intentional Community, “zie/hir” and its derivatives used by people in the transgender/genderqueer community, and Spivak pronouns (ey/em/eir) used in the genderqueer community as well as in some text-based online games and computer textbooks. There is some valid argument by linguists that it’d be extremely difficult for the English language to pick up new pronouns at all, but in the Internet age, sometimes your only clue toward someone’s gender is a username, and, like the long-awaited adoption of the honorific “Ms.”, the need for a gender-free pronoun may overcome the barrier of language limits. (I originally found the comparison of epicene pronouns and “Ms.” in an essay by Jed Hartman.)

One of the biggest problems facing the adoption of a new gender-neutral pronoun is the lack of unity and organization among supporters of the idea. People propose new pronouns without knowing about the scores of previous ones, and people interested in using gender-neutral pronouns can’t find any they like, or can’t figure out why they like or dislike certain forms. My aim is to compare and contrast the most usable epicene pronouns, and also provide text with the pronouns inserted so those curious can see each pronoun in action. My criteria were influenced by that of the two most in-depth comparisons of gender-free pronouns I’ve found: one in the Evaluation page of the Gender-Neutral Pronoun FAQ, and the other in the Pronouns article on the Footnotes site. I’ve included a couple variations that neither of them explored, but their arguments were very influential to mine.

The title of each pronoun links to the first few pages (and concluding paragraph) of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, available for free from Project Gutenberg. I did this not because I think Alice should be made gender-neutral, but so that the readers have the opportunity to see for themselves how each pronoun fits into a larger narrative, one many of them may already be familiar with.


This table was taken and edited from this Wikipedia page.

  Nominative (subject) Objective (object) Possessive determiner Possessive Pronoun Reflexive
Traditional pronouns
He He laughed I called him His eyes gleam That is his He likes himself
She She laughed I called her Her eyes gleam That is hers She likes herself
It It laughed I called it Its eyes gleam That is its It likes
They They laughed I called them Their eyes gleam That is theirs They like themselves
Invented pronouns
Ne Ne laughed I called nem Nir eyes gleam That is nirs Ne likes nemself
Ve Ve laughed I called ver Vis eyes gleam That is vis Ve likes verself
Spivak Ey laughed I called em Eir eyes gleam That is eirs Ey likes
Ze (or zie) and hir Ze laughed I called hir Hir eyes gleam That is hirs Ze likes hirself
Ze (or zie) and zir Ze laughed I called zir Zir eyes gleam That is zirs Ze likes zirself
Xe Xe laughed I called xem Xyr eyes gleam That is xyrs Xe likes xemself


1. Ne/nem/nir/nirs/nemself

Ease of pronunciation: 4/5
Distinction from other pronouns: 4/5
Gender neutrality: 4.5/5

Although relatively obscure, this has become my favorite contender. It follows the formats of existing pronouns while staying more gender-neutral than any but Spivak – you could call it gender-balanced. “Ne” is n+(he or she), “nem” is n+her+him, “nir” is n+him+her. Because it has a different form for each declension, it doesn’t lean towards following male or female patterns – patterns made very obvious when you read works about obviously male characters with female-patterned pronoun forms. The letter “n” itself can stand for “neutral” – a property we are searching for. A reader may be uncertain how to pronounce “ne” at first glance, but pronunciation of the other forms is relatively obvious. One problem when reading aloud is that the “n” sometimes blends with words ending in “n” or “m,” but it didn’t occur as often and wasn’t as problematic as “zir” with words ending in an “s” or “z” sound (see entry #4).


2. Ve/ver/vis/vis/verself

Ease of pronunciation: 4/5
Distinction from other pronouns: 4/5
Gender neutrality: 4/5

“Ve” is another good option, found in some science fiction, without a specific bias towards either gender. The declension is again gender-balanced, being evenly split between forms that resemble “he” and “she.” But it does feel a bit more gender-heavy than “ne” – since “ver” and “vis” directly derive from “her” and “his,” readers are more easily reminded of the gendered forms.  There are some cases where “ve” will bleed with words ending in “f” or “v” sounds, like “of” or “if,” but this wasn’t a problem very often – maybe about as often as with “ne.”


3. Spivak (ey/em/eir/eirs/eirself)

Ease of pronunciation: 4/5
Distinction from other pronouns:2/5
Gender neutrality: 5/5

Spivak is the most gender-free pronoun that parses well in English (as opposed to “ta” or “thon,” which are also gender-free but simply don’t work in the English language), since it derives from “they” rather than from a mix of “he” and “she.” The problem is, not only does it remove the “th” from “they,” it also changes its grammatical structure. Even ‘singular’ they is grammatically plural (i.e. you would say “they were in the building” rather than “they was in the building”), while Spivak is grammatically singular. The claim that the Spivak pronoun is “more natural” to say than other neologisms is undercut by the fact that it doesn’t actually have the same structure as the already-existing forms.

Furthermore, when spoken aloud, not only does “em” sound like “him” in speech, but people already write a plural “them” as em or ’em in informal writing, making the Spivak pronoun more ambiguous.


4. Ze/Hir and its derivatives

(ze/hir/hir/hirs/hirself) (zie/hir/hir/hirs/hirself)
(ze/zir/zir/zirs/zirself) (zie/zir/zir/zirs/zirself)

Ease of pronunciation: 3/5
Distinction from other pronouns: 2/5
Gender neutrality: 2.5/5

“Ze and hir” is the most popular form of gender-free pronoun in the online genderqueer community, derived from the earlier “sie and hir,” which were considered too feminine/female-sounding since “sie” is German for “she” (among other things), and “hir” was a feminine pronoun in Middle English. The current forms are still leaning on feminine, by using the same declensions as “she.” “Hir,” although it’s supposed to be pronounced “here,” is read as “her” by many people unfamiliar with the term, and the less-gendered alternative, “zir,” along with “ze” itself, often runs into problems when it follows a word ending in an “s” or “z” (or “th”) sound, sometimes sounding just like “her” and “he.” For example, read this sentence aloud: “As ze looked up at the stars, ze realized that this was zir favorite moment of them all.” This isn’t as much of a problem with “ze,” which doesn’t follow words ending in s/z terribly often, but the problem occurs much more often with “zir” than it did with any of the declensions of “ne” or “ve.”


5. Xe/xem/xyr/xyrs/xemself

Ease of pronunciation: 2/5
Distinction from other pronouns: 2.5/5
Gender neutrality: 3/5

“Xe,” it turns out, is supposed to be pronounced the same as “ze” – apparently it was an aesthetic change in order to distance the pronoun from its “sie/hir” roots one step further. It also balances the genders in the way “ze” does not – but it runs into the same pronunciation problems when following words ending in “s” or “z” sounds, and the pronunciation is much more difficult to guess at – I assumed the “x” would be pronounced “sh” or “ks,” which would be either much too gendered or much too unpronounceable to even be considered. All in all, it has slight advantages over zie/hir in its gender-neutrality, but it keeps the same difficulties in pronunciation and is even more difficult to read than the original.


Honorable Mention: Shklee (links to YouTube)

It’s nearly impossible to pronounce, but that’s kind of the point. Used in the Futurama film The Beast With A Billion Backs, it was the pronoun used for Yivo, a planet-sized alien of indeterminate gender. Years ago when I first started searching for and asking about gender-neutral pronouns, there were cases when this was the only gender-neutral pronoun anyone was aware of.


What’s next?

This post and the list of comprehensive links is an attempt to consolidate information about gender-neutral pronouns for people who are interested but simply didn’t know about them.

The next step will be convincing people who like the idea of a gender-neutral pronoun but don’t think people would ever adopt one that it is possible. I’m not sure how to tackle this problem yet. There’s two possibilities I’ve been able to think of: firstly, to look into people in the communities where a gender-neutral pronoun has been adopted and ask them about difficulties they faced when implementing the word, whether they got used to using it over time, and why or why not. Secondly would be to form some sort of experiment where people who hadn’t used gender-neutral pronouns before could try using them. It’d have to be in some sort of closed environment, since the effort of teaching every single person you know about these pronouns just isn’t worth it in experimental stages. Looking at the trouble transgender people have had trying to get others to use new pronouns for them, it’s not worth the effort for anyone just interested in the general sense. If you start using the pronoun in an environment where everyone knows what you’re talking about and you don’t have to explain yourself to each new person, most of the tedium involved in experimenting with a new pronoun disappears. I’m not sure how to go about something like that, though – maybe start an online forum, or a group within an already-existing social network? Not just the “I support this” groups on Facebook, but one where people could experiment conversing with these pronouns.

I’ll keep thinking about this, but if you have any ideas or insight, or know of anyone else already trying something like this, drop me a line in the comments. I’d be delighted to hear about it.



9 responses

24 01 2010
Rob F

I don’t think there is anything wrong with the singular they. It’s always being syntactically plural even when semantically singular is an irrelevant issue. The pronoun you is always syntactically plural (except in reflexive/emphatic), and always takes plural verbs. Yet this is not the slightest hinderance to understanding. I don’t think that the sentence you offered using a name really hurts the singular they because it is an isolated sentence without surrounding matter. Context and pragmatics would indicate whether “Charlie” should be referred to as he or she.

24 01 2010

I actually think that singular “they” is fine, too, in most cases. But what about when you literally don’t know what “Charlie’s” gender is? With the internet these days, there are more and more cases when you don’t have the slightest clue to someone’s gender. Sometimes using “they” when referring to such people works, but sometimes, like in the examples I gave, it doesn’t. (Also, thank you for your reply!)

26 01 2010
Rob F

Then you can use “he or she” if there is no way to avoid it. You could also rephrase the sentence in passive voice (although this is wordy). Or, if it is possible to do so, you can ask what Charlie’s gender is.

Using “he or she” (inflected in the correct case) has the advantage of using words that are already present in the language. That way, no one has to “learn” (to call it something) and accept the existence of another, largely semantically empty word. “He or she” is better than “s/he” because it avoids unnecessary diglossia between how people speak and how they write. “He or she” is also better than alternating between “he” and “she” because using “he or she” would not make it difficult for foreign learners of English to understand and avoids confusion if you are speaking of one person of unknown gender and one person of known gender and using the singular is unavoidable.

30 01 2010
David Stenshoel

I like zee, zeem, zeer, zeers, zeerself. Pronunciation is unambiguous, it’s more neutral than “zir”, and it feels more natural, almost like a French pronunciation of “they”.

31 01 2010

The problem with “zeem” and “zeer” is similar to the problem with “hir” – when you start saying it quickly, it’ll start being naturally pronounced “zim” and “zir,” like “him” and “her,” which will defeat the purpose. It’s like your argument with “fe”: I actually like “fe” better than “ne” in theory, since like you explained it, it follows the already-existing pronouns more closely, and thus will fit into the language more smoothly.

5 03 2010

“Sie” is not only “she” in German, but also “they”, “you” and unspecified “he/she/it,” so for German speakers it doesn’t necessarily seem feminine.

5 03 2010

That’s true, it’s not a purely feminine pronoun, and I should probably modify that sentence in the article. When reading about sie/hir on pronoun-related websites, I’d seen people say that although “sie” could be used for things other than “she,” it couldn’t be used for “he,” and since I don’t know any German, I couldn’t confirm or deny this. Do you know if this is true?

5 03 2010
M Svairini

There’s also hy/hys/hym/etc which is part of the same cluster (imho) as your ze/hir grouping. I’ve seen (and used) it most often for butch women and for some transguys who id more as genderqueer than as male.

I’ve always like Marge Piercy’s innovation in Woman on the Edge of Time: “person” as subject, “per” as object, “pers” as possessive, “perself” as reflexive.

Interesting discussion of this topic, and why Ursula LeGuin rejected Piercy’s example, here:

19 03 2010

Interesting – I;ve always tended to prefer Spivak, only in reading that passage the ‘ey’ really throws me off. I had to re-read certain sentences to be sure it wasn’t referring to a plural, as was my natural inclination to assume (for example: “and of having nothing to do: once or twice ey had peeped into the book eir sister was reading”).

I do have one question, and I hope this will not come off as ignorant as it feels: in this study, is the proposition to induct a new pronoun into the English language as an addition to he/she/it, or as a replacement? I have seen it used in various sectors both ways, and I would guess that you mean it as an addition, but…?

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