Fun_People Archive
12 Jul
Third Person Animate Singular, Gender-Neutral

Date: Wed, 12 Jul 95 01:45:26 -0700
From: Peter Langston <psl>
To: Fun_People
Subject: Third Person Animate Singular, Gender-Neutral

Forwarded-by: "Daniel R. Tenenbaum" <>
From: (Chris Kedzie)


Christopher R. Kedzie
RAND P-7896, April 1995

(Please feel free to share widely while preserving textual content and
appropriate credit to the author.  Comments welcome:

A policy analyst addresses his or her colleague for grammatical advice
regarding a gender-neutral pronoun for the circumstances in which the human
subject at issue is either hypothetical, unknown or intentionally
disguised.  She replies, that it seems the current linguistic trend is to
substitute "she" in cases where one in the past would likely have used a
generic "he."  This is to avoid reinforcing stereotypical gender roles and
traditional power structures, she explains.  The policy analyst is left
unsatisfied.  He or she is troubled that grammatical reverse discrimination
can be just as noxious, imprecise and connotation-laden.  However, s/he
admits that cumbersome contrivances, combinations and alternations only
further obfuscate his/her attempts to communicate clearly.  When the policy
analyst tries to use nouns to avoid the pronoun dilemma, the policy
analyst's writing becomes repetitious and dull.  It is frustrating for them
(nondescript in gender, incorrect in number) because their intention is to
use language to express their ideas correctly, succinctly and without
insult.  Language, like the other tools employed by the policy analyst
(such as economic principles, statistical techniques, behavioral science
theories, etc.) can be pernicious when it overstates, confuses or
inaccurately reports the extent of the available information.  Thus, what
the policy analyst needs - as does the English language - is a
gender-neutral third person animate singular pronoun.

As a metaphor for what would be right in any policy debate, a good place to
start this discussion would be in the search for the common ground.  As
usual, in spite of some very obvious differences, there is a substantive
region of agreement between "he" and "she" - in the letters "h" and "e."
Obviously a solution which combines "h" and "e" is a non-starter, since it
is identically the word which has perpetrated the historical bias.  A lower
common denominator is the letter "e."  A simple e, however, dangling in a
sentence appears powerless and vulnerable.  It has a meek presence no more
commanding than that of a certain common article.  Capitalization, though,
could give an E backbone and teeth.  "E" would be unequivocally elevated to
the stature of the first person singular pronoun, "I."  Following the much
criticized "Me Generation," an E Generation would be a good thing - to
encode the "Golden Rule" into English grammar - to treat others (at least
in writing) as we treat ourselves.  Symbolically, the new pronoun would
suggest that everyone deserves the respect we traditionally have reserved
for ourselves, including and especially those people whose demographic
character is not known to us.  The capital letter "E" can even venerate God
without ascribing gender.  It is said that E can be found in each one of

In speaking, "E" slides of the tongue since it sounds familiar to the
pronouns we are comfortable using.  In writing, "E" looks like a variable,
such as X or Y, which we are accustomed to substituting for unknowns.  For
ease of grammatical use, this third person singular animate pronoun "E",
like the second person pronoun (both singular and plural), "you," would not
decline.  E treats you with respect.  You treat E with respect. The
potentially confusing contracted form with the verb of being and the
possessive form would follow the model of the third person inanimate
pronoun: it's and its, respectively.  E's going to have Es day under the

One potential risk of a discussion such as this parallels that of many
current policy debates.  Tangential deliberations about words may divert
attention from real social problem-solving to vocabulary window dressing.
Too often, if one doesn't know what to do about an issue, for instance,
access for the handicapped population, E may take moral refuge in the claim
that E is using the "right" term, such as disabled, physically challenged,
differently-abled, or whatever is the most current "pc" vogue.  Similar
semantic distractions occur in the debates about race, nationality, class,
profession, etc.  However, a gender-blind pronoun debate differs from the
other linguistic inventions in three salient ways.

First, instead of emphasizing the differences of our identities and
potentially exacerbating the differences of our perceptions, the essence of
"E" is equality.  Each of us is sometimes E to someone else.  The new
pronoun celebrates the distinctions between genders by identifying those
instances in which the differences are not relevant.  Currently, the
absence of a generic third person singular pronoun contributes to
divisiveness while simultaneously blurring distinction between the genders.
Either pronoun can be, and is, used to refer to a person of either gender,
whereas "E" could also stand for "either."  Use of the new pronoun when we
really mean "either" would enable the old pronouns to retain their precise
meanings.  The word "he" would mean "he" unequivocally and "she" would mean
"she" free of misinterpretation, with E as a recognized option.

Second,  "E" is an additive complement rather than a destructive substitute
on the menu of usable words.  The new pronoun provides an additional word
choice to be served when appropriate without shortening the list of today's
alternatives.   The options for singular pronouns would be "he," "she,"
"E," and "it," whichever would impart the most complete and accurate
information.  No vocabulary choice, nor their chooser, need be vilified for
being insensitive to gender issues or un-pc.

Third, while subtle, the suggested change goes to the philosophic heart of
the language.  Many of the more ostentatious changes are merely superficial
letter shuffling.

We English speakers are fortunate that our language offers such a simple
fix in the direction toward gender neutrality.  Adjectives in Romance
languages betray the gender of the modified noun, even for sexless objects
such as table and chair.  In other languages such as Hebrew and Russian,
the gender of the subject is reflected in the verb.  And. incidentally,
Hebrew does not use capitalization.  Capitalizing the first person singular
seems a rather peculiar audacity of the English language.  It was as if we
thought, as individuals, we were more important than everyone else.  Even
the first person plural "we" starts with a small letter.  Does this imply
that if I include you in my group, "we" together are less significant than
"I" was alone?  Relatively few languages capitalize i.  However, in other
languages, other pronouns are capitalized.  It is common, for example in
German,  to capitalize the formal You.  Again, it is an issue of respect.
Also, in Russian, there is a precedence for a grammatical distinction
between animate and inanimate forms.

With serendipity and symmetry, in English, the second person pronoun, "U"
could also easily follow the same grammatical pattern proposed here for the
third person pronoun.  I believe that U deserve as much respect as E does.
However, this aesthetic alteration, as yet, lacks a compelling
justification such as overcoming explicit gender biases of the currently
available third person animate singular pronoun options.

[=] © 1995 Peter Langston []