There is still a significant amount of backlash against gender-neutral pronouns, but signs are beginning to point to these becoming a new standard, and to “What pronouns do you prefer?” becoming a question in regular use.
There has long been a call for a set of singular pronouns, in English (it should be understood here that this is an issue in many, but not all, languages), that do not define the gender of the subject. With the movement for transgender and non-binary rights finally gaining some traction, the effort may finally see success.
Note: Such terms have been proposed before, and the terms shown above have been around for a while, but are not in widespread use. Transgender people, gender-non-conforming people, and allies may use them regularly, but they do not show up much outside communities where expressing gender identity is a topic treated with nuance and sensitivity, nor have they been treated as standard in grammar texts or teachings. Nonbinary has a list of many gender-neutral pronouns that have been proposed in the English language and some history of the need.
It should be understood that speaking accurately to transgender and gender-non-conforming individuals isn’t the only reason for seeking a gender-neutral set of pronouns. Grammar aficionados and writers long for a way to refer to an individual whose gender is not known, such as a hypothetical stranger or an unborn baby, without using “he or she,” “he/she,” or using “he” as a neutral term (a standard that University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Writing Center, among others, points out is sexist and reinforces male dominance).
The Web Of Language discussed the need five years ago, referencing far older examples, such as a news clipping from a 1887 issue of Charleston, South Carolina’s News and Courier, in which a sheriff, discussing a law that begins, “Whoever shall have in his possession…” wonders whether a woman could be charged with breaking this law.
Of course, cases like that are commonly solved by, as Web of Language itself notes, using such language as “person or persons” rather than “he,” “she,” “his,” and “hers.” Still, it demonstrates that the English language has long sought clarification on gendered pronouns — and indeed, “person” as commonly used in legalese could certainly be seen as a successful gender-neutral pronoun.
Now, however, with transgender and gender-non-conforming people speaking up and being heard, in calling for basic human rights, and the basic dignity of being addressed in the preferred manner, it seems that non-gendered pronouns may finally catch on.
What’s the biggest clue?
Take a look at what the University of Tennessee is doing this year. Their Office for Diversity and Inclusion is asking professors to consider asking students for their chosen pronouns.
Many of us have, at some point, filled out a form that asked, among other things, for both legal name and preferred name — so that Susan could be Sue, John Rogers could be J.R., a student who typically uses his middle name may do so, and in general, a student could expect to be called a name that was comfortable. The change being suggested here is simply adding the question, “What are your preferred pronouns?”
It’s also important to note that this isn’t being enforced, only suggested. Professors who refuse to use “xe,” “hir,” and “zirs” (three of the 12 gender-neutral pronouns listed in the school’s new chart) aren’t going to be kicked to the curb or punished. Those who choose to make their students of all gender identities more comfortable may simply choose to accept this recommendation.
However, this early stage of implementation in higher education is a clear hint that we are on our way to normalizing and standardizing gender-free pronouns.
It’s not likely to be a quick process — change usually isn’t. In this case, the push against neutral pronouns can be seen in comment sections, among other places. For instance, in AL‘s coverage of the University of Tennessee story, comments include name-calling with a number of rude terms not worthy of reproduction here, a lot of confusion about the difference between sexuality and gender, and a lot of anger over the entire spectrum of LGBT rights.
However, if the practice catches on at the university level, the growth to society as a whole should be exponential. English will, in a few years, have its gender-neutral pronouns, not as a list known only to transgender, gender-non-conforming, and listening allies, but as a set of vocabulary that is standardized and understood across society.
[Image via: University of Tennessee]