He or She, Him or Her: A Discussion of Gendered Pronouns

There was a Bark post earlier this week discussing the difference between a woman poet and a woman’s poet. The post as well as the comments had some interesting things to say about gender identity—particularly female gender identity—and writing. That, coupled with a commercial I heard for Nexium, made me aware of the majority use of male pronouns where the person in question is indefinite (“If anyone comes in, tell him we’re in the back”), or in academia, when you’re referring to a non-physical entity such as ‘the reader’ rather than saying “he or she,” which can get cluttered on the page. The general advice is to simply pick one and stick with it…yet it usually ends up being masculine (“The reader understands himself more when coupled with My Little Pony and Australian rugby.”)

I wouldn't be surprised if this fusion happened to be real. Australia is a horrifying part of the world. Ask the writers at cracked.com.

For the Nexium commercial, if you’re unable to watch it, a violinist is running to make her concert on time but her doctor is on stage, playing the violin…badly. The line to which I’m referring is, “You wouldn’t want your doctor doing your job, so why are you doing hers?” Yes, the doctor in the commercial is female, but I wasn’t paying attention to the TV when I became aware of it. All I heard was the use of a feminine pronoun and I perked up, surprised. The fact is that we do live in a male-dominated society and most commercials, unless they are specifically geared toward/for women, use a masculine pronoun. The next time you watch a lot of daytime television—which should be in a week, am I right, MFAers?—pay attention and see what happens. More often than not when unsure of the gender about whom I speak (or to be more neutral), I say “they” or “them” in the singular form, but this has normally been considered incorrect. My question is, why? If they/them is grammatically incorrect (though some people believe it shouldn’t be), why haven’t we created a pronoun that is gender-neutral to fix these issues?

I have a lawyer friend who edits law books for a big textbook company. Several years ago, I was able to help her out for about seven hours on a Saturday at the University of Texas at Austin, where she’d gone to law school, since their library had more than what she could find in Houston. On that particular day, we compared two versions of a book manuscript:  I read aloud word for word, including punctuation, and she made sure it was correct on her copy. When I came to an example given, I noticed there was “she” instead of the generic “he” and asked about it. My friend said that the judge whose textbook this “belonged” to preferred to use the feminine pronoun as he felt it was more inclusive. Interesting. I was on board with that, and frankly, as a young female, it felt a bit empowering. Yes, I remember thinking, you’re damn right you’re gonna use ‘she.’

However, when the edits got to upper management, they vetoed the feminine pronoun with the reasoning that it was “too obvious” compared to most textbooks, which use the masculine. My friend tried to convince them on the grounds that it was the way the judge wanted it, and that he’d have to approve it, but management said they’d make sure the judge was okay with it. Turns out, he was.

"Which do I want more--a huge pile of money to roll around in or my moral beliefs and integrity?"

All the generic pronouns were changed to masculine over the course of several weeks, undoing a lot of the progress my friend had already made in proofreading. Imagine if we could agree on the singular they/them, or if we could come up with a pronoun that is gender-neutral. I for one would use it often, because let’s face it—unless gender is a factor in using the male pronoun (you can’t say “Have your loved one get her prostate exam out of the way early”), the identity of the unnamed, faceless, stick figure that is a prop for a person in text has no gender anyway. Grammar Girl says to rewrite the sentence so you don’t have to use a gender at all, which makes sense, but sometimes it’s unavoidable. So my question is—what do you use when you absolutely cannot get around using a gendered pronoun? Do you consider “he” and “him” to be not necessarily masculine but neutral, as some do? Or do you throw grammar into the pool with its clothes on and go with a singular they/them?


  • Jonathan Frey Jonathan Frey says:

    I’m with Grammar Girl, here. Avoid the situation, which can almost always be done by making the antecedent plural. GG’s example is: “When students [plural] succeed, they should thank their teacher.” Used in lieu of “When a student succeeds…”

    Using “they” as a singular pronoun always feels awkward to me (except in speech), even in the C.S. Lewis example that your first link cites: “She kept her head and kicked her shoes off, as everybody ought to do who falls into deep water in their clothes.” In a case like that, I tend to create a kind of stick-figure character who does have a gender and then stay with the chosen gender for that character (usually only a sentence or two).

    In most cases, there’s an obvious gender option. In the Lewis example, the obvious choice is female, since the actual character in the sentence is female. So my version reads: “She kept her head and kicked her shoes off, as everybody ought to do who falls into deep water in HER clothes.”

    In your prostate example, the obvious choice is male, so my version reads: “Have your loved one get HIS prostate exam out of the way early.” Although that one is easily avoided with the plural trick: “Have your loved ONES get THEIR prostate EXAMS out of the way early.” But the HE version is probably even a better choice in this case, given the content of the sentence.

    If there isn’t an obvious gender for the “character,” I go with female, for the reasons you cite in the beginning of the post, bearing in mind that I’m usually writing for an audience (academics, writers, and other pinko types) who tend to prefer that choice as a kind of antidote to historical gender-pronoun inequity.

    Sorry for the long comment, but you posted about GRAMMAR! How could I resist?

  • Being from the country, I am of course partial to Sweden’s handling of this issue. The debate has gone from gender equity to gender neutrality. The idea is that you shouldn’t have to pick a gender or that names shouldn’t be associated with gender. As part of this movement, they just entered a gender neutral pronoun into the dictionary, which combines both he and she.

    Nathalie Rothschild wrote about the movement for Slate: http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2012/04/hen_sweden_s_new_gender_neutral_pronoun_causes_controversy_.html

    Here’s the bit about the pronoun:

    “Earlier this month, the movement for gender neutrality reached a milestone: Just days after International Women’s Day a new pronoun, hen (pronounced like the bird in English), was added to the online version of the country’s National Encyclopedia. The entry defines hen as a “proposed gender-neutral personal pronoun instead of he [han in Swedish] and she [hon].”The National Encyclopedia announcement came amid a heated debate about gender neutrality that has been raging in Swedish newspaper columns and TV studios and on parenting blogs and feminist websites. It was sparked by the publication of Sweden’s first ever gender-neutral children’s book, Kivi och Monsterhund (Kivi and Monsterdog). It tells the story of Kivi, who wants a dog for “hen’s” birthday. The male author, Jesper Lundqvist, introduces several gender-neutral words in the book. For instance the words mammor and pappor (moms and dads) are replaced with mappor and pammor.”

    • Jonathan Frey Jonathan Frey says:

      This is really interesting. I hadn’t heard about this. I was thinking, though, about how complex this question would be in the Romance languages (and Russian, I think? And maybe Greek too?), where many words have genders, including all articles, nouns, etc (and–if I’m not mistaken–in Russian and Greek verb conjugations are gendered too). I was wondering if there were similar conversations in those languages, or if the impracticality of basically reinventing a whole living language squelched any such thinking. In Spanish there is a singular neuter personal pronoun (ello), but I haven’t heard or seen it used in the way that you’re describing this Swedish pronoun being used.

      So, do you think this new Swedish pronoun will be accepted into common usage, or will it go the way of Esperanto: an idea without the traction to make actual change in a living language?

      • The fact that it is in the dictionary and that a children’s book is already published gives me hope. Maybe it won’t die out the way the movement of changing the spelling of womyn/wombyn did. :-)

  • Laura says:

    Great post, Jen! I give a lot of thought to this too.

    I feel like I always “throw grammar into the pool with its clothes on.” Best metaphor.

    There actually ARE some gender neutral pronouns out and about, used most often in genderqueer/gender-neutral/not-giving-a-crap-about-gender communities. The one I know off the top of my head is “zie” (for the third person) and “zir” (for the possessive). But I’ve only ever seen this in super small sub-communities and cultures where verbal consent via gender (i.e. asking what a person prefers to identify as or be called before referring to them at all) was the norm, which is virtually nowhere except co-ops and communes and other designated safe spaces. At the co-op I used to live in, when we had parties we would wear nametags with BOTH your name on it and your preferred gender pronoun. So. There’s that.

    But when you bring it into the idea of WRITING, art that does not always involve a two-way communication, it does get tricky. I go out of my way to make my sentences neutral if they are neutral, and be specific as I can when they are not. I don’t like the “he or she” as a way to get out of being gender-specific, because binaries etc. etc., so I do use “they” occasionally — and there are quite a few examples throughout literature where that happens successfully (I think “Jane Eyre” might have a few). From my comp/rhetoric readings, I think this is going to become more the norm as colloquial usage continues to run with it. These things do tend to trickle down.

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