Generic pronouns. A proposal.

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Generic pronouns. A proposal.

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Redigeret: mar 20, 2013, 7:26pm

OK, here's a proposal for a set of gender-neutral pronouns. I use them occasionally in my private journaling and think they make sense.

  • 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.

I've heard of several efforts to invent gender-neutral pronouns, including hu, thon, zie, and zir. They all have the disadvantage of being made up.

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.

What could be more equitable?

So, could this proposal work? Would you adopt it?

mar 20, 2013, 7:32pm

A problem is that e in fast speech sounds identical to he.

Redigeret: mar 21, 2013, 10:25am

Denne meddelelse er blevet slettet af dens forfatter.

Redigeret: mar 20, 2013, 8:22pm

> 3

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.

Redigeret: mar 21, 2013, 10:25am

Denne meddelelse er blevet slettet af dens forfatter.

mar 21, 2013, 12:00am

These days, it seems, we already have a gender neutral pronoun. Using they, them, and their/ theirs, seems to serve, despite the clumsiness of apparently ignoring number. "Each person can hand in their paper at the back of the class" is perfectly understandable to any native speaker, and probably to many non-native speakers of English. Fine by me, and likely fine by the linguist John McWhorter, too, I'd bet. English is not Latin and is unbound by the rules of Latin grammar. We don't need no neologisms! (Double negative for emphasis. I'd rather imitate French than Latin.)

I still consider myself a kind of pedant, anyway. :)

Redigeret: mar 21, 2013, 12:04am

Whoa. Haven't been reading or posting here much lately and just noticed another thread that discusses using the plural when necessary to avoid the silly he/she business.

mar 21, 2013, 3:47am is a large table of such pronouns, including this one and several like it. Few have even reached the three independent citations needed for Wikitionary mainspace, much less being commonly understood.

mar 22, 2013, 7:05am

This is a thoughtful reasoned proposal, which has much to recommend it. Sadly, I suspect that rational approaches cut no ice where wayward English usage is concerned. (The case of 'universal' languages like Esperanto and so on is apposite here, I think.)

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.

mar 25, 2013, 6:01pm

> 8, 9

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.

apr 3, 2013, 7:10pm

>2 jjwilson61: It doesn't sound that different then she either.