03 jan 2016 He, she or ?
One of the beautiful things about language is that it is always changing, and therefore, as teachers of English, we need to ensure that we change with the times.
What would you say therefore to a student of yours who says that they do not want to be referred to by the pronouns ‘she’ or ‘he’? Which has increasingly been the case in educational institutions in both the United States and the United Kingdom, and probably other countries as well.
As ‘transgender’ people (a person whose gender is different from their assigned sex at birth) and ‘non-binary’ individuals (a person who does not identify as male or female) become more confident in asserting their gender identities, educational establishments and teachers are having to address the issue of ‘preferred gender pronouns’.
At the University of Vermont students can choose from ‘he’, ‘she’,’they,” and ‘ze’, as well as ‘name only’- meaning they don’t want to be referred to by any third-person pronoun, only their name. At other institutions, students are given free reign to select the pronoun they wish to be referred to as.
However, despite having a lexicon of more than a million words, English falls woefully short when it comes to pronouns. This has in turn led to a situation where there is no general consensus as to which pronouns should be used by and for people whose gender is neither ‘he’ nor ‘she’.
Discounting ‘it’ for obvious reasons, the evident existant candidate is ‘they’. However, the use of ‘they’ as a gender neutral pronoun is problematic. On the one hand, it gets up the noses of grammarians who say that it should only be applied to plural nouns. On the other hand, its use can lead to ambiguities, such as ‘Richard went to their house’.
So, while we wait for ‘they’ to become a singular referent (much as the plural ‘you’ finally morphed into) a myriad the ‘new’ pronouns have either been coined or borrowed from other languages and disciplines, such as botony, and even from science fiction films.
Wikipedia lists a whole gamut of alternatives to ‘he’ and ‘she’, amongst which are ‘Ey’, ‘Hu’, ‘Jee’, ‘Ney’, ‘Peh’ and ‘Thon’. However, things can get a bit complicated when we consider that the pronoun will have to change according to its position in the sentence. Hence, ‘Ey’ will change from ‘Ey is crying’ to ‘I phoned em’, through to ‘Eir books are blue’, ‘The books are eirs’ and ‘Ey gave eirself a present’.
Given that there is so much current disagreement as to which pronoun should be adopted, it begs the question of what we should teach. In my view, until a widely recognised standard establishes itself, which I am sure it will, it would be prudent to leave the decision to the person who is using the pronoun to identify their gender. For ‘they’ should know better than anyone.
I hope that one day a student of mine feels confident enough to approach me to say that he or she wants to be referred to using a gender neutral pronoun. For although it may mean a little bit more work on my part, I would at least feel that I have made English just a little bit more inclusive.