Language evolves with the shifting values of society, but it doesn’t always keep pace. Despite advances in gender equality, some people still use—and teach—biased language. And even though our understanding of gender identity has expanded, our lexicon hasn’t. Sure, we have neutralized a good deal of nouns (e.g., fireman is now firefighter), but we still rely on the pronouns of old. The lack of a singular gender-neutral pronoun has left a gaping hole through which bias easily slips through.
Here’s a refresher on how pronouns function and why they cause problems.
The problem with pronouns
A pronoun replaces, or refers, to a noun that has already been mentioned (an antecedent). The pronoun must agree with the antecedent in number and gender; for example, the requisite pronoun for mother is she. But what if the antecedent is singular and genderless, like person? You have no choice but to replace it with he or she. The traditional—and sexist—approach is to use masculine pronouns by default, implying that the dominant gender is male. Bias also occurs when feminine pronouns are used only with nouns like nanny, which are historically associated with female gender roles.
We’re more likely to encounter these problems when the antecedent is a generic noun or an indefinite pronoun.
Generic nouns: Generic nouns like firefighter do not specify a gender. This poses a problem when you need a third-person singular pronoun. Example: “For a firefighter to give more than the average citizen, he must be physically strong.”
Indefinite pronouns: Indefinite pronouns are generic because they do not point to a specific noun. Singular indefinite pronouns like everyone can be tricky, because they sound plural—but they always require singular pronouns. Example: “Everyone wants his fifteen minutes of fame.”
Some culprits to watch out for include: another, anybody, anyone, each, either, everybody, everyone, nobody, no one, somebody, and someone.
The Singular They
The pronoun they is traditionally plural, but is widely used as a gender-neutral alternative to he and she (e.g., Everyone wants to have their cake and eat it too). Sticklers still argue against it however, and the practice is not accepted in formal writing.
They is also gaining popularity with people who don’t identify as strictly male or female, or don’t want to be associated with a gender. Unlike the use of they to refer to a generic noun or pronoun, this usage points to a specific person. For example, you could say, “This is my friend Brett. I met them at work.”
The singular they doesn’t cut it for everyone, and other gender-neutral alternatives have been created to fill the gap. Instead of he or she, we now have a plethora of pronouns to choose from, such as ey and ze. Many institutions are adopting their use, giving people the option to pick the pronoun that resonates with them. The table below compares some popular nonbinary pronouns, the singular they, and the traditional gendered pronouns.
As society continues on the path to gender equality and inclusiveness, language struggles to catch up. It is getting closer though, with the acceptance of the singular they and the introduction of nonbinary pronouns. These pronouns may be unfamiliar and confusing to the novice, but they promote inclusiveness and allow an individual to have power over their own identity. Respecting someone’s wish to be called by a particular pronoun isn’t just politically correct—it is considerate and respectful.
The choice is not so clear when writing about generic nouns or pronouns; we still lack gender-neutral pronouns for nouns like person and indefinite pronouns like everyone. Until there is a common approach, bias will continue to infiltrate our writing.
Thankfully, there are many ways to avoid gendered pronouns altogether—and some techniques can actually improve your writing. Stay tuned for my next blog on how to take the bias out of your writing without sacrificing style.