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Gender Pronouns

Gender Pronouns and Why They Matter

Gender-specific & gender-neutral pronouns

(Source: The 519)

What is a pronoun?

  • A pronoun is a word that is used instead of a noun or noun phrase. Pronouns refer to either a noun that has already been mentioned or to a noun that does not need to be named specifically. The most common pronouns are the personal pronouns, which refer to the person or people speaking or writing (first person), the person or people being spoken to (second person), or other people or things (third person). (Source: Merriam Webster)

What are some commonly used pronouns?

  • She, her, hers and he, him, his are the most commonly used pronouns. Some people call these “female/feminine” and “male/masculine” pronouns, but some choose not to use these labels because they do not identify as female/feminine, male/masculine, or for socially just reasons. A gender-neutral or gender-inclusive pronoun is a pronoun that is not gender-specific. Some languages, including English, do not have gender-neutral or third gender pronouns and instead “he/his” and “she/hers” are typically used when referring to a generic individual in the third person. People who are limited by languages that do not include gender-neutral pronouns have attempted to create them, in the interest of greater equality. (Source: Middlebury College)

Why is it important to respect people's pronouns?

  • When someone is referred to by the wrong pronoun, it can make them feel disrespected, invalidated, dismissed, or alienated. Asking and correctly using someone’s preferred pronoun is one of the most basic ways to show your respect for their gender identity and to cultivate an environment that respects all gender identities. Making a commitment to this action sets an example for our community. (Source: Middlebury College)

What if I make a mistake?

  • Everyone makes mistakes sometimes. If you use the wrong pronoun, apologize, correct it, and then move on. If you realize your mistake after the fact, apologize in private and move on. Avoid continually talking about how bad you feel for making the mistake, because it could make the person feel like they need to console you and/or create uncomfortable or unsafe environments for them if others are not aware of differences between their preferred and legal name/pronoun. (Source: Middlebury College)

History of Gender Inclusive Pronouns

Native English Pronouns

  • “Ou, a”: Native English Gender-Neutral Pronouns. According to Dennis Baron’s Grammar and Gender:
In 1789, William H. Marshall records the existence of a dialectal English epicene pronoun, singular ou : "'Ou will' expresses either he will, she will, or it will." Marshall traces ou to Middle English epicene a, used by the fourteenth-century English writer John of Trevisa, and both the OED and Wright's English Dialect Dictionary confirm the use of a for he, she, it, they, and even I.
The dialectal epicene pronoun a is a reduced form of the Old and Middle English masculine and feminine pronouns he and heo. By the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the masculine and feminine pronouns had developed to a point where, according to the OED, they were "almost or wholly indistinguishable in pronunciation." The modern feminine pronoun she, which first appears in the mid twelfth century, seems to have been drafted at least partly to reduce the increasing ambiguity of the pronoun system....
  • Baron goes on to describe how relics of these sex-neutral terms survive in some British dialects of Modern English, and sometimes a pronoun of one gender might be applied to a person or animal of the opposite gender. (Source: LGBTQ+ Resource Center)

"One"

  • In 1770, Robert Baker suggested use of “one, ones” instead of “one, his”, since there was no equivalent “one, hers”. Others shared this sentiment in 1868, 1884, 1979, and even now. Others throughout this period disagreed, finding it too pedantic. (Source: LGBTQ+ Resource Center)

“His or Her” vs. Singular “They”​

  • Around 1795, the language authorities Lindley Murray, Joseph Priestly, and Hugh Blair, amongst others, campaigned against pronoun irregularities in pronoun use, such as lack of agreement in gender and number. Without coining words, this can only be done in the third person singular by use of compound terms like “his or her”. Grammarians in 1879, 1922, 1931, 1957, and the 1970s have accepted “they” as a singular term that could be used in place of “he” or “he or she”, though sometimes limiting it to informal constructions. Others in 1795, 1825, 1863, 1898, 1926, and 1982 argued against it for various reasons. And whatever the grammarians might argue, people have been using the singular “they” for about the last 600 years, though (as mentioned earlier) it can only be applied in certain cases. If new gender-neutral pronouns are not adopted, i’m sure that singular “they” will still be a point of contention for centuries to come. For further information on the use of singular “their” throughout the centuries, see the large body of information that Henry Churchyard has compiled on the subject. (Source: LGBTQ+ Resource Center)