In nonfiction, it would often be convenient for the English language to have a standard, gender-neutral alternative to a generic “he,” “him,” or “himself.”
The point doesn’t arise as often in fiction. If you’re referring to a specific character, then, well, as the author, you ought to know the gender of your character. The issue does come up occasionally in fiction, though.
Back to nonfiction, we often write things like “he or she” or, more compactly, “he/she.” Some readers don’t like the use of the slash—which becomes really interesting when you want to write “and/or” without using the slash. (There are times in nonfiction where you want to make a statement where either the “and” or the “or” may apply specifically to the reader—and since it will be “and” for some readers, but “or” for others, the author must allow for both possibilities.)
One alternative that has been in use for hundreds of years is to use “he” to imply “he or she.” This seems to favor masculinity.
There are authors who do the opposite, using a generic “she.” Why not? It seems fair to me. She would be a fool to disagree, even if she is a he. 🙂
A few authors have taken this a step further, alternating between he and she (either every other pronoun or every other paragraph). However, this can get confusing, especially if some uses of “he” or “she” are actually gender specific.
Did you know that some pronouns have actually been invented for just this purpose? (The idea has been around for at least a hundred years.) Here is a sample:
- Use an apostrophe. For example, ‘e is “he” or “she,” h’ is “him” or “her,” ‘s is “his” or “hers,” and ‘self is “himself” or “herself.”
- Add a ‘z.’ For example, “zhe,” “zher,” or “zhim.” One problem with this is that there are some variations among the authors that employ this system (e.g. an ‘m’ may be used for one of the pronouns instead of a ‘z’).
- Change the vowel to a ‘u.’ For example, “hu,” “hus,” “hum,” and “humself.” This system left everything masculine, but just changed the vowel, which doesn’t quite resolve the problem.
Unfortunately, none have been in practice frequently enough to become adopted as a standard. (At least, not yet.)
You can see a main hurdle—or, rather, you can hear it—if you imagine trying to speak conversationally with someone using the pronouns above. Would you like to pronounce those z’s? Would you sound funny with those u’s? Imagine other people’s surprise if you suddenly spring those pronouns on them mid-sentence.
Another hurdle has been from the editors and publishers. Prior to print-on-demand, the only way for such gender-neutral pronouns to make a large-scale impact in print was for major publishers (not necessarily books—newspapers would have worked just as well) to adopt them. It would have been a huge risk to take, with perhaps a high probability for failure. And even if they had done this on a wide scale, lack of adoption in everyday conversation would still have been a major roadblock.
Why would you need these pronouns in everyday conversation? You don’t have to be formal when conversing with acquaintances, so the use of “they” or “their” will work just fine for “he or she” or “his or her.” Even informal writing often adopts “they” and “their” as the solution to this problem.
The modern publishing concepts of print-on-demand and e-books lend authors the freedom to adopt such pronouns, but, again, it’s a large risk to take. For most books, the audience isn’t likely to be receptive to the use of such pronouns.
If a few big authors bravely decided to adopt them, perhaps that would have a big impact. The small author might find too much risk and not enough reward, except maybe for a rare niche audience.
Gender-neutral pronouns seem to be academically fascinating, but don’t seem likely at this point to take off. Language can change significantly in the long-term, though. So who knows?
Are we like black-and-white television? Will children in the 22nd century say things like, “Can you believe they used ‘he’ to mean ‘he or she’ back then?”
1. Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gender-specific_and_gender-neutral_pronouns
2. A WordPress blog for this: http://genderneutralpronoun.wordpress.com/
3. An editorial: http://www.progress.org/fold162.htm
4. Wiktionary (rather comprehensive list): http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Appendix:List_of_protologisms_by_topic/third_person_singular_gender_neutral_pronouns
5. Huffington Post (Swedish “hen”): http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/11/swedish-gender-neutral-pronoun-hen-national-encyclopedia_n_3063293.html
Chris McMullen, author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers, Vol. 1 (formatting/publishing) and Vol. 2 (packaging/marketing)