The Junk of Gender
Note: Revised in January 2021 to include the Christine Elverson ey/em construction.
My latest book, Famine in the Bullpen, called upon me to provide numerous examples of individuals demonstrating proper engineering method. In these stories, an individual would have an idea regarding how to solve a complex problem. That individual would then engage in one of the behaviors that would help me to fully illuminate the discipline. I am trying to revitalize an interest in engineering and in order for that to happen, my reader needs to be provided with stories to which that reader, regardless their gender, could relate. I wanted my reader to feel the feelings and think the thoughts of the innovating engineer.
In none of those stories was it necessary that the person be understood as male or female. The gender of that character was utterly irrelevant as is true in almost all cases. I had a choice and my choice was that of the inexcusable coward: I alternated masculine and feminine pronouns. I would tell a story about a he and next about a she. That choice was simply wrong and yet, I remain uncertain what the correct choice may have been.
We fall back to gender-specificity simply because we are used to it. In most conversations about people, the gender is irrelevant. When I refer to my spouse, that person may be any gender because the concept of spouse is only important inasmuch as I have a long term relationship with a loving partner. That partner’s gender understanding provides nothing of value to any discussion of my spouse or that relationship.
It is even more concrete than this, applying to sex as well as gender. If the doctor asks my sex and I simply say “male,” that may be acceptable under most circumstances, but what if my actual malady is influenced by my genetic expression of an unconventional female hormone? That may be entirely normal for my body; but by giving a binary answer, I have directed the doctor to dwell on preconceptions based upon what would be expected from a male when the actual cure may require an understanding of my unique biology.
Of course we are familiar with the use of they to mean a singular individual of unspecified gender. Yes, it is true that the word they can, under the right circumstances, imply a single individual.
For each patron here today, I hope they are happy with this menu.
If a person lives in Paris they really should speak French.
Everyone who meets me is certain to know that they love me.
In some of these cases the word they is used with plural decorations around it even though it is clear that we are referring to only one individual. The word they is used rather idiomatically. In a way, the word is casually tossed off in these sentences. The individual as a singular has already been established and the word they is used to simply refer generically to something already understood. I hope to make the argument that the word they and the pluralisms around it, while useful in common discourse, do not define our ideal non-gendered singular pronoun.
When referring to a human whose gender is not fully expressed, such as an infant, we actually use the pronoun it. “It’s a beautiful boy.” or “Let me hold it.”
So, why is it that for an adult human of unspecified or uniquely defined gender, the pronoun it is absolutely unacceptable? I hope to be unambiguously clear on this: The pronoun it is utterly inappropriate for reference to any adult or juvenile human. We are used to it for infants but for any human whose gender is expressed in any meaningful way, that pronoun is not acceptable and that fact is an important part of this thesis for reasons which will be explained later.
We are confronting a real problem. Our culture has matured to the point that we finally recognize the myth of exactly two genders and yet, the English language is not currently competent to recognize this fact. The engineer may solve a problem in one of two ways depending on the circumstances. The engineering solution resolves the problem over the long term by addressing its root cause. A workaround is a temporary fix that may address the short term problem but will likely introduce new problems in the near future. Simply adopting they as our singular non-gendered pronoun looks like a workaround to me.
The fact that I am, in part, addressing the phenomenon of nonbinary gender expression requires a disclaimer. I am a white cis-gendered man. My gender has never held me back, in fact it has been a positive boon. Nonetheless, I am familiar with staring children and wincing adults. My left arm is severely deformed and I have modified my behaviors to minimize its negative impact. This does not qualify me to speak for the nonbinary community; but I hope I am qualified to discuss the English language and its effects on others as a person whose form is not consistent with the expected norm. If anything I write here is offensive, I assure my reader that it is not intentional and not for lack of understanding the experience of being other.
Therefore, let us move forward and solve the actual problem by introducing a new word into English that really means “that individual.” I am happy to use the word they upon request; but I have difficulty decorating the word with pluralisms. I might say “They is my very good friend from England.” Unfortunately, my friend is expecting to be referred to in plural because that is how the word they is typically used. The problem here is that the pluralisms dilute the meaning of my reference. I am not referring to a vague group of people; I am referring to this individual. This individual is to be understood and respected as a singular human being. There must be a way that I can express the respect deserved by that individual while not falsely calling out an inappropriate gender. This, of course, is why the pronoun it cannot be acceptable, we need to use a word that acknowledges the individuality and the humanity of the referent.
The workaround isn’t just an inadequate solution, it introduces error. In 2012 the Swedes actually gave up on the workaround and introduced a new singular non-gendered pronoun into their language. After a failed attempt to introduce the word hen as the non-gendered alternative to hon (she) and han (he), the author, Jesper Lundquist, published a children’s book that used the proposed hen. That courageous act popularized the word and brought it into the lexicon. The Wired article Actually, Gender-Neutral Pronouns Can Change a Culture reflects my own experience with problem solving. The solution that addresses the root of the problem yields unforeseen benefits over the long term. By actually correcting the language, the Swedes may well have changed attitudes overall regarding people of nonbinary gender. As I suggest in Use Your Words, the word shapes the culture.
This has been recognized as a real problem in English since at least the 1880s when C. Crozat Converse proposed to create a contraction of “that one” leading to the thon/thon construction for sentences like this:
Pointing at the stranger, Eric asked, “Who is thon?”
After writing that sentence, thon was pleased with thonself.
From time to time thon may question thons purpose.
Nineteenth Century linguists praised the proposal but lamented that it was not likely to achieve general acceptance since the gendered pronouns were familiar and generally useful. With our improved understanding of human nonbinary genders, we may now have enough impetus to move in the direction indicated by Converse; improving both the language and our inclusiveness.
Simone de Beauvoir wrote The Second Sex in 1949. In the English translation from the French, the translator uses the standard pronouns (he/him, she/her) throughout. This seems reasonable because Beauvoir is writing specifically about the challenges and opportunities of women in a male-dominated world. Nonetheless, she is not referring unambiguously to those with penises and those without. She is writing about a manipulative Patriarchy dominated mostly by those of the masculine gender who exercise power over those who are not deemed worthy to participate as full citizens in that patriarchal culture. Were she to write today, she may well be writing not only about she/her but also about any gender not seen as fit to participate as a wielder of power in that patriarchal system. To do that conveniently, she may need a new pronoun (one not even available to French) which identifies that gender which is not allowed to rule in the patriarchy. Such a pronoun may apply to any person discriminated against due to gender expression.
Make no mistake, there are two problems here, one more easily addressed than the other.
- The English language has very poor support for identifying an individual whose gender is irrelevant to the story and does not need to be defined. (a problem for writers and speakers)
- We now understand that gender is not a simple binary and the English language provides no grammatically consistent way to refer respectfully to nonbinary individuals. (a problem for people expressing any nonbinary gender)
The introduction of a singular non-gendered pronoun addresses the first problem nicely; but some complications remain when two genders have a dedicated pronoun and others must share a common nonspecific pronoun. That is a larger issue which may need to be addressed, at least for a while, on a case-by-case basis. I think a new pronoun remains a good start, though. It at least opens the language to the understanding that not everyone is simply man or woman.
For this reason, I would like to encourage my reader to stand with me in favor of a real correction to the English language. There are numerous proposals; but if we consider carefully the options, we may reduce all of those down to one or two serious possibilities. That subset of the Spivak Pronouns proposed in 1890 in The Writer, Vol IV, №1, That Impersonal Pronoun by James Rogers, is a clever solution. He simply removes the gender-expressing prefix and we end up with the e/em construction:
E is my best friend, I bought em a novelty coffee mug.
Whoever painted this, I must admit that es skill is unsurpassed.
What must the person who made this mess think of emself?
There is merit in that suggestion although I worry that it might be easily mistaken for he/him when spoken. Other proposals such as hu/hum and pey/pehm also make great sense when written but, as above, when spoken are easily mistaken for other existing words which have nothing to do with the intended pronoun. Richard Creel’s ze/mer construction is distinct from other pronouns and is unlikely to be confused with other likely words but I find it difficult to get my mouth around it. It is a bit too unlike what we are expecting. I am coming to conclude that Christine Elverson’s solution seems to really hit the mark. While Rodgers removed the gender-expressing prefix from “he” and the the “th” from “them” to yield the “e/em” construction, Elverson, in a much more consistent adjustment, removed the pluralizing prefix from “they/them/their/theirs” yielding a singular “ey/em/eir/eirs”, a construction that slips easily from the English-oriented tongue and also is unlikely to be mistaken for other words.
The thon/thon construction is old and respected and I have trouble finding fault with it except for the failure to distinguish between subject and object. As a curmudgeon, I should welcome the opportunity to advocate such an old comfortably frayed term but I have come to settle on two other options.
After some reflection, I find myself torn between James Rogers e/em and Christine Elverson’s ey/em constructions. Rodger’s e/em may be mistaken for he/him when spoken and that is a concern. Ey/em, on the other hand, seems fairly unambiguous in context whether spoken or written and both are similar enough to the existing gendered pronouns that they fit well into the lexicon. In my next book, I plan to abandon gendered pronouns unless I am referring to a person whose gender is essential to the point being made.
Consider this text using Rogers’ e/em:
Imagine an individual who was raised in a traditional patriarchal household. E has seen es mother always subservient to es father. The father drives the direction of the family delivering orders to the mother and to em. E recognizes these roles as immutable and, as a result, finds emself trapped in a childish world wherein e is always subject to a comforting and awesome authority. Even after the father is dead, an authority figure must be identified forcing a life as a perpetual juvenile.
And now using Elverson’s ey/em
Imagine an individual who was raised in a traditional patriarchal household. Ey has seen eir mother always subservient to eir father. The father drives the direction of the family delivering orders to the mother and to em. Ey recognizes these roles as immutable and, as a result, finds emself trapped in a childish world wherein ey is always subject to a comforting and awesome authority. Even after the father is dead, an authority figure must be identified forcing a life as a perpetual juvenile.
It takes a little while to get used to these since our mouths have not yet adapted to the transitions. My reader can probably see why I’m leaning toward the ey/em proposal since the vocal transitions are natural and the pronouns are distinct and easily identifiable when written or spoken. Also, every English speaker is familiar with they/them/their/theirs as a convenient mnemonic for ey/em/eir/eirs.
Regardless your preference, the problem of assigning a gender to an individual for whom the gender is obviously irrelevant is entirely resolved. We avoid the vague group of they and we avoid the inanimate object of it. We may refer to a fictitious individual of irrelevant gender, as in the above example; but we may also refer respectfully to an individual who boldly rejects the binary myths.
This also avoids the they workaround in common parlance. The three examples following the fifth paragraph above may be rewritten more clearly as:
For each patron here today, I hope ey is happy with this menu.
If a person lives in Paris ey really should speak French.
Everyone who meets me is certain to know that ey loves me.
Now we are using singular pronouns to unambiguously identify one of many individuals without finding ourselves making any comment at all about that individual’s gender.
I truly appreciate all of the people who have proposed non-gendered singular pronoun constructions, but it’s time to pick one. I will probably narrow my choice down to ey/em before I release another serious work and I encourage other English writers and speakers to do the same. In the end, the language will evolve based upon needs. I am hopeful for the ey/em construction; but if another succeeds, I remain satisfied that we are solving the problem and not just working around an accepted error.
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