Neutral Pronouns Aren't New

Written on 08/03/2021
Jayme Tucker

Pronouns are one of the most common parts of verbal and written language. They hold a great deal of power to respect or harm others and have their own winding historical path leading to the inclusive language we use today.

Often when thinking about pronouns, the set of ‘they/their/them’ comes up. Using a singular ‘they’ is incredibly common and has been used off and on in the English language for the last 600 years. You probably use the singular ‘they’ without even realizing it; the best example is that of a lost wallet. “Someone lost their wallet.” 

Gendered pronouns (he/she) were the default for quite a while, with many linguists using ‘he’ as the generic default. In the English language as derived from Latin, William Lily wrote in 1567 that “The Masculine Gender is more worthy than the Feminine, and the Feminine more worthy than the Neuter.”  This fits right into the 18th-century idea of society, where women were less worthy than men, and the generic ‘he’ could be used to mean everyone except in the cases of voting, rights, or personhood.

Gender-neutral pronouns have been being invented, used, rejected, and resurrected for many, many years. The pronouns ‘his’ser’, ‘thon’ (a contraction of that one), ‘co,’ and ‘ze/zir’ (which first cropped up in the ‘90s) have had their own storied history as far back as 1884.

Using a neutral pronoun is not “the end of language,” nor is it a fad for the youngsters. Using someone’s correct pronouns is like using their correct name. It’s respectful and welcoming, and using inclusive language creates a space for a diverse range of people who do not adhere to the assigned binary.

Sharing your own pronouns is a great way to make space for others to share their own pronouns and interrupts the usual privilege of assumption that comes from meeting someone for the first time. “Hi, I’m (name), and I go by (she/her, he/him, they/them, etc.)” and including pronouns in your email signature are two small but impactful ways you can start making space for others to share their pronouns.

Mistakes happen, but don’t make it about you. Apologize, correct and move on. “He-sorry-They said they’re coming over at 2.” Simply acknowledging your mistake and correcting it going forward is a fantastic starting point to forming inclusive language habits.

Next week, we’re going to pivot a bit and talk about conversion therapy, including what it is, why it’s harmful, and why it’s become a hot-button topic.