English is an amazing language. It’s easy to learn and yet slippery to master. Its large vocabulary and flexible structure make it easy to say just about anything. It’s stunning, then, to realize that a glaring shortcoming not only exists but that nothing effective has been done to correct it. That’s why we’re here.
Genderless Singular Pronouns
English’s gender set is fairly standard. If a male is the focus of attention, then there’s a set of pronouns ready and waiting to be used: “He is the one.” “I’m looking for him.” “It is his ball.” If the focus is, instead, on a female, then we have just as easy a time: “She is the one.” “I’m looking for her.” “It is her ball.” And, if there happens to be a group of people, then that’s covered, too: “They are the ones.” “I’m looking for them.” “It is their ball.” It seems complete until we fall out of those three categories. What if we are only referring to one person, but we don’t know (or don’t have reason to care) what that person’s gender is? What pronouns do we use then?
For as rich a language as English is, it’s astonishing that there aren’t already pronouns for this. Given the gymnastics that have been employed over time, this omission becomes obvious. Often a combination approach is used: “he or she” or sometimes “s/he”. For centuries, the male form was the one used in a sort of “royal” sense to cover this epicene case. The most recent vogue has been to use the plural form in place of the singular: “When hiring, it’s important that an employee has their needs met.” That’s just wrong on so many levels.
In early 2006, I wrote a science fiction novel that had a gender-neutral species. I needed a way to address them properly and accurately. I researched the web, but the solutions I found always seemed to have some subtle (and some not-so-subtle) biases. I chose the simple approach. I took the plural pronoun set and chopped the “th” off the front. Simple as that. So now, for the example used above, we’d have: “Ey is the one.” “I’m looking for em.” “It is eir ball.”
I propose that ey, em, and eir (and various derivatives)* be welcomed into the lexicon. It accomplishes so much so easily:
- It uses an existing structure (they, them, their) for easy learning.
- The new words aren’t now commonly used in English.
- It simplifies the need to designate a single person without requiring knowledge of gender–which is great for legal documents, text books, etc.
- It clarifies meaning by explicitly showing that gender isn’t a factor.
- The plural pronouns aren’t used incorrectly and inappropriately.
I urge every writer who thinks this is a good idea to not only agree with this proposal but to use these new pronouns in eir own work. Yeah, it will look odd at first as everyone gets used to it…but seriously, if you can understand Twitter, this will be a breeze. It doesn’t require a law or anything official. Just you. Whether you’re an author, or blogger, or student (if teachers are amenable), or tweeter, or executive assistant, or…well, you get the idea. If you use it, then it will stick. Simple as that.
Here’s a chart to show it all more clearly (the new singular generic/epicene in red):
UPDATE: I have learned that I appear to have parallelly evolved what are known as Elverson Pronouns (thanks PW for pointing that out).
In 1975, Christine M. Elverson of Skokie, Illinois, won a contest by the Chicago Association of Business Communicators to find replacements for “she and he”, “him and her”, and “his and hers”. Her “transgender pronouns” ey, em, and eir were formed by dropping the “th” from they, them, and their. (See ’em.) The article that first reported the pronouns treated them as something of a joke, concluding with the line, “A contestant from California entered the word ‘uh’ because ‘if it isn’t a he or a she, it’s uh, something else.’ So much of eir humor.”Wikipedia