Typical options like “he� and “she�

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Collin Binkley, "He? She? Ze? Colleges add gender-free pronouns, alter policy", AP 9/18/2015

Welcome to Harvard. Feel free to pick a pronoun on this form: __ He. __ She. __ Ze. __ E. __ They.

During the registration process at Harvard University, students are now allowed to indicate which pronouns they use, with suggested gender-neutral options like "ze" or "they." Harvard isn't the first college to embrace gender-neutral pronouns, but it's among a wave of major institutions that are widening their policies and pronouns to acknowledge transgender students, as well as "genderqueer" students, who don't identify as male or female.

The AP article includes this misleading paragraph:

Grammarians, too, have chafed at the idea of pronouns that stretch modern English. Some individuals who don't identify as male or female use the pronoun "they," which some academics say should be reserved for plural subjects.

I don't know anyone with any qualifications as a "grammarian" who is not aware of the long history of singular "they" usage, including in elite sources such as the King James bible and the novels of Jane Austen.

Anyhow, the non-traditional choices are so far a minority taste:

At Harvard, 4,000 students have submitted pronouns so far, with slightly more than 1 percent choosing something other than "he" or "she," said Burke, the registrar.

So something like 50 out of 4,000 — and I bet that most of them chose "they" rather than "ze" or "e".

Meanwhile, something went wrong with the quotation-mark encoding in the photo caption, resulting in this apparent message from another galaxy:


  1. John Roth said,

    September 19, 2015 @ 12:23 pm

    The mixup on the caption is, of course, UTF-8 rendered as if it was an 8-bit encoding. This used to happen a lot more.

    I have two issues here, which I'll say in two different comments.

    The first is a question: in these two fragments, one sounds perfectly acceptable, the other doesn't. Why is that?

    1. On each shift, the nursing staff is managed by a head nurse. They're duties are….

    2. During the age of sail, the captain of a ship under way was the absolute master under God. Their duties included….

    These are both "singular they." Why does the first one sound fine, and the second one not?

  2. John Roth said,

    September 19, 2015 @ 12:32 pm

    On the subject of epicine pronouns. I've long had the opinion that we won't get one in English as long as the advocates don't want to settle on one (or two, see below). Whether anything will get one adopted at this time is an open question, but having a free-for-all isn't going to help the situation any.

    Therefore, I have a modest proposal. Get all the writers who care about the issue into a room together and feed them through the keyhole until the agree on one (or two). The first as a generic epicine pronoun, the second for gender-queer.

    Then the survivors can browbeat their editors into allowing them to use it (or them). After a year or so, we'll see how it shakes out.

    I will make one commitment: I'll drop my preferred versions and adopt whichever comes out. (For the record, they're ce, cis, cim and cimself for the generic, and ze, zir, zis, zirself for the gender-queer.)

  3. John Roth said,

    September 19, 2015 @ 12:33 pm

    Oops – I made a boo-boo. The first sample sentence ought to be Their, not They're. My bad.

  4. Tim Martin said,

    September 19, 2015 @ 1:46 pm

    "I don't know anyone with any qualifications as a "grammarian" who is not aware of the long history of singular "they" usage…"

    Yes, but as a number of LL posts have explained, singular they seems to be used when not referring to any specific person (for example, see http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/002742.html).

    Using singular they to refer to a specific person isn't the same thing, and personally it doesn't sound natural to me. A lot of people who are pushing for "they" as a personal pronoun are referencing the history of singular they without including this caveat.

  5. Jonathon Owen said,

    September 19, 2015 @ 1:53 pm

    I don't know anyone with any qualifications as a "grammarian" who is not aware of the long history of singular "they" usage, including in elite sources such as the King James bible and the novels of Jane Austen.

    I think that's because, for most people, "grammarian" isn't a job that has any qualifications beyond learning what popular style and usage books say and being generally cranky about it.

  6. Ellen K. said,

    September 19, 2015 @ 2:17 pm

    Tim Martin, at one point I would have agreed with you that using "they" for a specific individual sounds odd. Thanks largely to Facebook, and it's use of "they" for individuals who haven't indicated a gender, singular "they" for a specific individual sounds merely unusual rather than wrong.

  7. ah said,

    September 19, 2015 @ 2:23 pm

    Ze = Hebrew for masculine "it".

    But then, why not just use "it"?

  8. Idran said,

    September 19, 2015 @ 2:32 pm

    @John Roth: For what it's worth, I disagree that either of your examples sound wrong; they both sound fine to me.

    And really, why do we need an "official" one? Have people use whatever pronoun they want to use, correct people politely when they use the wrong one, exactly like we do for names.

  9. hanmeng said,

    September 19, 2015 @ 2:56 pm

    Why not follow a usage like Mandarin, where everybody just uses the same pronoun (tā)?

  10. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 19, 2015 @ 3:00 pm

    Pronouns are trickier because of the background sense that there should generally be only one (as inflected for case) used for a given individual in all circumstances regardless of register etc. (at least all circumstances where there is no lack of clarity as to whether that's the individual being referred to). Whereas the same student might be plausibly referred to (without defying any traditional norms) as "Andrew Jones," "Mr. Jones," "Andrew", or "Andy," depending on context – with the bearer of the name(s) often preferring to pick his battles as to when it's worth complaining when someone else uses an option that's more or less formal than he thinks is contextually appropriate. (And in a classroom context a given teacher might legitimately wish to adopt a uniform policy on addressing students by surname v first name rather than figure out the personal preference of each student and comply with it.) Although if Mr. Jones prefers "Drew" (or some less obvious third possibility) to "Andy" he may get irked by anyone who uses the latter.

  11. quodlibet said,

    September 19, 2015 @ 3:08 pm

    @John Ross – I have the same problem with both of your example sentences:

    1. On each shift, the nursing staff is managed by a head nurse. Their duties are….

    2. During the age of sail, the captain of a ship under way was the absolute master under God. Their duties included….

    In each case, it is possible to construe "they" as referring to a plural antecedent. In the first sentence, we might be talking about the duties of the nursing staff, rather than just the head. In the second, we might be talking about the duties of the captain and God. One would certainly hope that any discussion of the duties of God would not be exhaustive.

  12. Quodlibet said,

    September 19, 2015 @ 4:12 pm

    @John Roth.- Please forgive me for mangling your name

  13. January First-of-May said,

    September 19, 2015 @ 4:20 pm

    When it comes to alternative pronouns, I always keep remembering the line from the Canterbury Tales prologue: "So priketh hem Nature in hir corages" (I might be misremembering some of the spelling).
    I know that it's just normal Middle English there, without any alternative pronouns involved, but it still makes me wonder what kind of pronouns would one use for "(the) Nature" as an antecedent (it? she? they? xe? I suppose "he" is also an option, though I couldn't think of a reason why).

  14. David Morris said,

    September 19, 2015 @ 6:20 pm

    I would be afraid of causing further offence by mispronouncing “he� and “she�.

  15. John Roth said,

    September 19, 2015 @ 6:53 pm


    I seem to have mangled the first example in order to make it clearer (which it didn't). The version I've been using for a while is:

    A head nurse manages each shift. Their duties are….

    This makes the grammatical antecedent "a head nurse," which is singular. "Each shift," however, makes it clear that there are multiple shifts, hence multiple head nurses. The notional antecedent, therefore, is plural, thus justifying the plural pronoun without any need to invent a "singular they" that strangely still takes a plural verb. See the extensive discussion in MW(C)DEU under the heading of they, their, them, especially the reference to Otto Jesperson's comment that English grammar lacks an indefinite number: that is, one that is neither singular nor plural.

    My contention is that many of the historical examples of "singular they" have antecedents which are, in fact, notionally indefinite or plural, and hence take a plural pronoun. That plural pronoun need not be the third person, although that's most common.

    In the second example, "the captain" is the grammatical antecedent, so it correctly shows the phenomenon I'm seeing. The difference to me seems to be that the first example explicitly makes the antecedent a notional plural, while in the second the fact that there is more than one captain is a historical fact, but is not present in the actual example.

    It may be helpful to know that I'm 72, hence one of the older generation. The younger generation seems to be more comfortable with using they in situations where older people balk.

  16. Steve Morrison said,

    September 19, 2015 @ 7:39 pm

    The mixup on the caption is, of course, UTF-8 rendered as if it was an 8-bit encoding

    Or in a word, mojibake.

  17. quodlibet said,

    September 19, 2015 @ 8:43 pm

    "The fact that there is more than one captain is a historical fact." True enough, but if we're going to let historical facts guide us, then we'd be using "he" instead of "they". The historical situation with head nurses is more complex.

  18. quodlibet said,

    September 19, 2015 @ 9:29 pm

    Incidentally, I don't see any logical problem with a singular pronoun taking a plural verb. After all, in English the second person singular is inflected the same as the third person plural, and this is also true of the polite second person in languages like German.

  19. Eli Nelson said,

    September 20, 2015 @ 3:12 am

    @qudlibet: there's no particular logical problem I see with using a plural verb form. In practice, though, when I've tried writing using singular specific "they," I have found it a bit tricky because while the anaphoric pronouns take plural verb agreement, anaphoric(?) nouns (nouns that refer back to whatever you're referring to) still have to take singular agreement. For second person, it's much less common to use any other types of anaphora besides pronouns.

  20. RJP said,

    September 21, 2015 @ 7:18 am

    I can't imagine "e" taking off here in Britain. It's too easily confused with "he", whose "h" is usually unpronounced by some people (and when unstressed in normal speech, by many more).

  21. Gen said,

    September 21, 2015 @ 10:17 am

    A bit late, but: I actually wouldn't bet on most of the non-gendered pronouns being "they." Ze is quite popular from what I've seen on tumblr, although the data might be skewed because people tend to list "they" as an acceptable pronoun for if the other person in the conversation can't remember or can't figure out how to inflect their preferred pronoun (especially some of the more esoteric ones). I'm actually more surprised by the inclusion of E, as I have honestly never seen that one used by a real person.

    As for singular they, I would guess that there is a /massive/ generational gap coming up for this. Singular they is pretty much standard internet usage on some sites, to the point where I've seen it used to refer to users whose genders are actually known. It is effectively non-controversial with people who grew up on the internet unless they /really/ like being grammar pedants. Right now the major debate seems to be over 'nounself' pronouns, which are… certainly a thing.

  22. DWalker said,

    September 21, 2015 @ 1:57 pm

    Steven Pinker's new book "The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century" has a great discussion of singular "they". And, as already mentioned, there are references here on LL.

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