Generic pronouns. A proposal.
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- nominative: e, pronounced /IPA: i/
- accusative: em /im/ or /ɪm/ or /əm/
- genitive (possessive): es /iz/ or /ɪz/ or /əz/
- If a student succeeds, e should thank es teacher.
- If you could meet the next president, what would you say to em?
- The customer is always right, no matter what e does. You may think e's a jerk, but never insult em.
But think about the success of the invented honorific Ms., which has all but eliminated the convention of signalling a women's marital status through the honorifics Mrs. and Miss. One reason for its success, I suspect, is that it resembled a common speech pattern that already existed: People commonly altered both "Mrs." /ˌmɪsəz/ and "Miss" /mɪs/ to /mɪz/ for convenience. The Ms. honorific just gave them a way to spell it, with the considerable added benefit of not having to ascertain a woman's marital status before applying it.
So if we want a generic pronoun that will stick, it should resemble speech patterns that already exist. And it should decline in a way that seems natural to English speakers. I think e, em, and es succeed at this.
There's also some built-in flexibility for people who are more or less supportive of, or resistant to, gender-neutral language. If one supports a strictly generic set of pronouns, one can emphasize what e's doing by pronouncing the pronouns with a long e, "ee should thank eez teacher."
OTOH if one is less supportive, one can pronounce them as if merely dropping the h from he, him, his.
If this in turn leads to an objection that the pronouns are too similar to the masculine pronouns, one can point to em as a derivation of the plural pronoun, them. Or use the following formula to demonstrate the equity of the written pronouns:
- The nominative e contains only the vowel that is common to both he and she.
- The accusative em takes one letter each from her and him.
- Similarly, the possessive es takes one letter each from her and his.
So, could this proposal work? Would you adopt it?
Any proposal for a singular generic pronoun is far out, I suppose. So was "Ms."
Most people get around the problem with they, them, their, and have been doing so for centuries. But using plural pronouns to refer to a generic individual can be confusing, no less so in some cases than he, him, his.
I still consider myself a kind of pedant, anyway. :)
More likely to survive and be used are the ungendered plural pronouns they, them and their/s, as others in this thread have pointed out. We get round ambiguities in their usage by careful attention to context, just as we do with multiple hes or shes when conversations are reported. It's no more confusing than, for example, the use of second person plural vous in French when we want to be respectful to an individual,* or the converse, as perhaps in referring to 'the Bench' in UK courts of law where a panel of judges may be sitting ("Please approach the Bench...").**
*A more extreme development has happened in contemporary English, where the universal use of polite second person plural 'you' for second person singular 'thou' has utterly replaced it, except in small conservative communities.
**Though I wouldn't push the second analogy, as Bench is doubtless a collective noun.
Thanks for the kind remark, ed.pendragon, and the judicious summary. I suppose I'll keep confining these pronouns to my journal, where they at least save a few keystrokes.
Always expected to find that someone else had thought of this first. Thanks to the link from prosfilaes, I now know that a very similar e/em/es proposal was published in 1890! I suppose that doesn't augur well for widespread adoption within any of our lifetimes.