Writers have been lamenting the lack of a gender-neutral, third person singular English pronoun since the 1790s. Grammar books recommended the generic masculine to fill this void, but that raised questions about when he includes she, and when he means “no women allowed”?
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19th-century laws specifying that he in statutes applied to women made things worse: it was clear that women had to pay fines and taxes, but did the new pronouns laws mean that they could also vote or run for office?
The generic masculine’s inadequacy led to the coining between 1850 and 1920 of well over one hundred invented pronouns, words like hesh, thon, um, and ip.
The second-wave feminism of the 1970s prompted the decline of generic he, along with a spurt of new pronouns like jhe, per, E, and xe. And in the past decade, the movement for marriage equality and the acceptance of gender nonconformity renewed interest in nonbinary pronouns once again.
On university campuses and online, “Ask me about my pronouns” has become the new, “Hi, my name is _______.” True, the invented pronouns seem strange to the uninitiated, and there’s little agreement among advocates about which of the many coinages to adopt. But the strength of these new words lies in their ability to foreground the politics of gender and give people more control over how others refer to them.
This advantage may prove temporary: as gender nonconformity becomes more accepted, it will also become more ordinary, and the need for high-profile pronouns will decline. In the end, singular they is the form most likely to succeed. It has evolved naturally in English, along the same lines as the less-controversial singular you; it has a long track record, going back to the 14th century; and unlike invented words, whose spelling and pronunciation are never intuitive, it’s unobtrusive.
Singular they is gaining acceptance in style and usage guides. And most important, it’s popular both with people committed to gender equality and with those who give the matter very little thought at all.