Monday, January 6, 2003

Gender-neutral Singular Pronouns

A Boston Globe reader suggests using “xe” (pronounced as in Xerox) to replace he/she. Besides already having multiple meanings in German, all different from the one proposed, “xe” and its variations don’t sound like English to me. Anyway, it doesn’t matter because English speakers decided long ago to use “they” instead. I think most casual speakers use “they” unconsciously. The real question is when, if ever, prescriptivists will consider it correct usage. Until they do, the best solution I’ve found is to randomly choose either “he” or “she” each time you need a pronoun. I do this by seeing whether the last digit on my menubar clock is odd or even. Taylor and Wheeler go as far as assigning subject-specific meanings (frames of reference, if I recall) to the genders of their pronouns. That’s a bit extreme, but I think it worked rather well for them.

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Singular “their” is not a new idea at all. My favorite page on the subject.

LambdaMOO had an interesting system of a nongendered gender, called Spivak. According to this FAQ:

              Spivak        Feminine     Masculine

Subjective:   e             she          he

Objective:    em            her          him

Possessive:   eir           her          his

Other familiar pronouns can be extrapolated: 'emself', etc.

So, not a new idea at all. I've heard of nongendered new words being constructed as early as the 40's, but I can't track that down when it's 3am. :P

Yes, the idea is hundreds of years old. What I find interesting is that it keeps re-appearing. I didn’t realize you had a blog, Raena—will have to check it out.

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