Ip, co, xie, per, en, ne, nis, nir.
Contrary to how it may seem, the above isn’t the next refrain to a futuristic version of the Sound of Music’s ‘Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, Ti’. Rather it’s a mere cross-section of the over 100 English gender-neutral pronouns that have been coined over the last century and a half in an effort to, on the one hand, fill a semantic black hole and, on the other hand, free us from the shackles of the gender binary.
If you haven’t been following the debate over these kinds of terms, we’ll quickly catch you up — by having you think deeply about Taylor Swift.
Those of you who just cringed, stay with us. We wouldn’t subject you to that kind of experience if we didn’t think it could accurately encapsulate the early rumblings of the war between grammar pedants and lexicology progressives.
More specifically, the pop songstress recently came under fire from the Princeton Review (PR), the body that helps US students prepare for college admissions tests, for this lyric in the song ‘Fifteen’:
According to the purists at the PR (and grammar ideologues everywhere), ‘somebody’ is a singular pronoun, and if we’re strictly following the cardinal rule of pronoun use, which stipulates that all pronouns must agree in number and gender with their antecedents (the noun being replaced), the plural pronouns ‘they’ and ‘them’ can’t be used. Instead, ‘he or she’ and then ‘him or her’ need to be slotted in to write the sentence correctly. Alternatively, ‘s/he’ and ‘him/her’ can be used.
It doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, does it?
It’s cumbersome, it’s convoluted and, in the minds of wordsmiths who pride themselves on the elegance and rhythm of their sentences, it’s downright garish.
Of course, to those stalwarts who follow the black-and-white dos and don’ts of grammar more closely than the rats do the pied piper, to go with Swift’s original lyric is on par with murdering a first-born in the days of the feudal system — it’s just plain wrong!
Interestingly enough, years ago there wouldn’t have even been debate. Rather, ‘they’ would’ve automatically been replaced with ‘he’, and ‘him’ would’ve scooted in where ‘them’ stood — as it was generally accepted that this kind of patriarchal use included women too.
We’ve come a long way from this dated, sexist approach, and despite the outcries of devout grammarians, it’s generally accepted — even by the esteemed Oxford Dictionary — that when a singular pronoun, like ‘somebody’, ‘no one’ and ‘anyone’, needs to be replaced with another pronoun it’s perfectly peachy to use a plural gender-neutral pronoun, like ‘they’, ‘them’ and ‘their’.
Similarly, if the subject in question has an unknown gender, either because the author or speaker thought it was extraneous to include this information or because the person doesn’t conform to conventional gender identities, then the same course of action can be taken.
Many gender activists and even some linguists, though, are pushing for more. They argue that plural gender-neutral pronouns are not acceptable substitutes for the unwieldy ‘his or her’, ‘he or she’ and ‘himself or herself’ constructions.
But unlike those in the hard-nosed grammar camp, their reasons don’t have anything to do with the rules of agreement. Rather, they want an alternative to the terms that continue to uphold the gender binary. They want something that can mirror the manner in which our ideas regarding gender constructs have evolved over the last decade. In short, they want a ‘hen’.
No, not the feathered thing with the strange red floppy hat. The Swedish ‘hen’, which as of April 2015 has been adopted by the Swedish Academy’s official dictionary as the gender-neutral alternative to the ‘hon’ (he) and ‘han’ (she) third-person pronouns.
The English language isn’t without its own ‘hen’ attempts though, as we pointed out in the beginning of this piece, and as Dennis Baron, a professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois, rather humorously chronicles in his blog. It’s just that none of the inventions over the years seem to have stuck, a reality that many academics have attributed to the fact that pronouns must evolve naturally and gradually — they can’t be plucked out of thin air and packed into reading material and speech patterns.
Some of the most popular can be found in the chart below, and if all goes well, maybe one day a bigwig on the board of one of the respected English dictionaries will add ‘spivak’, ‘ze’, ‘xemself’ and more to their (or, for the grammar pedants, his or her) publication.
Until then, the debate rages on. Do you think English should have a gender-neutral pronoun?