Gender neutral pronouns

The lack of an obvious third-person singular, gender-neutral pronoun in English is a familiar feminist topic. So it’s fascinating to read that a new one may be evolving. Apparently, some younger speakers are using the word ‘yo’ in this way, as in “Yo looks like a freak” (via The F-Word). But there’s also a very old alternative, singular ‘they’, of which I’m a great fan. This one goes way back, as this web page documents (and as Anne Bodine documented in a nice paper from the 1970s). It continues to thrive in spoken, and even written English despite all the best efforts of prescriptive grammarians. Now I’ve learned (thanks, Sally!) that this may be due to divine sanction. And a lovely mug commemorating his fact has been proposed (though, as you can see, ruled out at the same time).

‘They’ mugIf someone were to manufacture this mug, their efforts would not go unappreciated. Though I’d be grateful if yo could insert some quotation marks.

14 thoughts on “Gender neutral pronouns

  1. My Bible is the Oxford English Dictionary, and the second entry under “they” is:

    2. Often used in reference to a singular noun made universal by every, any, no, etc., or applicable to one of either sex (= ‘he or she’).
    See Jespersen Progress in Lang. §24.

    1526 Pilgr. Perf. (W. de W. 1531) 163b, Yf..a psalme scape ony persone, or a lesson, or else yt they omyt one verse or twayne. 1535 FISHER Ways perf. Relig. ix. Wks. (1876) 383 He neuer forsaketh any creature vnlesse they before haue forsaken them selues. 1749 FIELDING Tom Jones VIII. xi, Every Body fell a laughing, as how could they help it. 1759 CHESTERFIELD Lett. IV. ccclv. 170 If a person is born of a..gloomy temper..they cannot help it. 1835 WHEWELL in Life (1881) 173 Nobody can deprive us of the Church, if they would. 1858 BAGEHOT Lit. Stud. (1879) II. 206 Nobody fancies for a moment that they are reading about anything beyond the pale of ordinary propriety. 1866 RUSKIN Crown Wild Olives §38 (1873) 44 Now, nobody does anything well that they cannot help doing. 1874 [see THEMSELVES 5].


  2. “They” is certainly less cumbersome and stilted than “she/he” – and therefore more user-friendly. But remember, it took a long time for “chairperson” or “chair” to replace “chairman”….

  3. Just, when you are translating the Bible for the upteenth time into English, please use the EXACT TRANSLATION for the words you use, don’t be “hip” or “modern” please. And this coming from a woman atheist.

  4. Oh, alright, Jersey! Next time I do a biblical translation, I will try to avoid the temptation to use ‘yo’. J– ‘Chair’ is actually an interesting example of the backfiring of reform efforts. There’s a paper (by Erlich and King I think) in Deborah Cameron’s anthology which discusses the fact that it often seems to be used only if the chair is female. Otherwise ‘chairman’ is alive and well. (Of course there are exceptions to this– some really do use ‘chair’ in a gender-neutral way.)

  5. I get so frustrated by those who say that ‘they’ or ‘their’ should not be used for the singular third person, since as far as I’m aware ‘you’ is technically the plural form of the second person (thee/thou being the singular). If we can use ‘you’ to refer to one person, we can use ‘they’.

    I think ‘they’ is a much more natural word to use than ‘yo’ (which, I have to admit, I still don’t really understand), and am hopeful that within a few decades ‘they’/’their’ will be completely accepted. (*knocks on wood just in case*)

  6. JJ and the ‘They with Singular Antecedent’, American Heritage Book of English Usage: A Practical and Authoritative Guide to Contemporary English, 1996 says that the singular they dates back as far as 1300! Woo!

Comments are closed.