Suggestions for Invented Pronouns to Replace a Generic “He”

Generic Pronouns Pic

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?”

Further Reading

1. Wikipedia:

2. A WordPress blog for this:

3. An editorial:

4. Wiktionary (rather comprehensive list):

5. Huffington Post (Swedish “hen”):

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)

The Author’s Mighty Pen: The Power of Writing

Mighty Author Pic

Behold an example of the power of words:

This sentence commands you to read it.

Once you read it, there’s no use denying it. You can’t get any sort of acknowledgment that you didn’t read it.

Words are mighty.

The writer is a creator, of sorts. Creating a brand new world. Perhaps, intending a better world. Or maybe a scarier world. But the author may also create a vision of the real world.

Through words, authors have the power to:

  • evoke strong emotions from readers (crying, laughter, pity).
  • make people read fast (suspenseful page turner).
  • provoke action (letters to Congress, a call to arms, buy a DVD that’s on sale).
  • teach (textbooks, how-to guides, training manuals).
  • report news (headlines, articles, research).
  • create ideals (socialism, non-violence, freedom).
  • entertain (fiction, puzzles, cookbooks).
  • inspire (biography, motivational, children’s social situations).
  • provide leadership (by example, through characters in stories).
  • record history (textbooks, biographies, memoirs).
  • and much, much more can come just by stringing words together in the right fashion.

Just like Peter Parker, writers have a great responsibility with this power. 🙂 (I’ll just let you think about this, and spare you a lecture on it.)

But we know from everyday experience that it’s not just the words that matter:

In person, it’s often not what you say, but how you say it.

Facial expressions, gestures, tone, and context influence interpretation. This is a challenge for the author.

Well, we can add a few features, if we want. But the same effect can often be conveyed just as effectively, if not more so, with ‘naked’ words.

A sentence printed on a sheet of paper can be interpreted many ways. It can be read with different tones, stress can be placed on different syllables, and accents can vary.

When the same sentence is said aloud a certain way, this aids with interpretation.

Authors can leave expressions open to interpretation, or they can use additional words to help elicit a particular emotion, or they can allow context to help. They can tell the reader, or they can use words to show the reader.

They can add utterly useless words. Yet each and every word serves a purpose.

They can create new phrases. Yet even trite expressions can be used effectively.

A painting may be worth a thousand words. But the writer is an artist, too, and can paint a vivid picture just using words.


You can eat without them. You can sleep without them. You can find shelter without them. You can find comfort without them. You can make friends without them. You can reproduce without them.

If we had to, we could live without words. But could you imagine such a life?

Once you learn to read, words affect you the rest of your life. If you see a sign, you must make a concerted effort not to read it. Words have such power over us. They influence our emotions, our actions.

And we use them. They give us power.

Imagine trying to do everything you’ve done in your life without them.

Go an entire day without words. Don’t say one. Don’t write one. Don’t hear one. Don’t even think one. Good luck with that. 🙂

Words. Some silly. Some simple. Some pulchritudinous. Some serious. Some not. Some visual. Some abstract.

For writing to have influence, it has to be read. So authors use words in their marketing, too. To help others find writing that may interest them.

Love words. Read words. Enjoy words. Write words. Appreciate words. Learn words. Teach words. Respect words.

Words are mightier than the sword.

Words are more powerful than money.

Words can be used to form friendships.

Words can be used to ease tensions.

Words can incite rebellion.

Words can bring peace.

What can’t words do?

If you can experience it, you can express it with words.

Even if it can’t be done in reality, it can be done in words.

We live in a world that revolves around words.

Chris McMullen, self-published author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers