Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Gender Neutral Pronoun

Gender Neutral Pronoun
I find it really annoying that whenever I refer to a hypothetical person, that there is no support in the English language for gender-neutral pronouns. If I'm writing instructions that will be followed by an undetermined audience, why should I have to classify the reader as male or female? Gender is totally irrelevant in many situations yet we're still required to identify a gender by our language.

Then there's the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis which claims that the language one speaks influences and shapes what thoughts they are capable of. If that holds credence, then enforcing gender distinctions where none are necessary serves to emphasize and deepen the gender divide. I definitely think that mindset gets reinforced when you can't even talk about a person in the third person without defining their gender first.

This problem leads to clumsy alternatives like consistently referring to "he/she" or "(s)he" or alternating between he and she throughout a text, but these usages are awkward and confusing.

Several proposals for gender-neutral pronouns have been made already.

I am partial to the Ve/Ver/Vis conjugation popularized by Greg Egan in his oustanding book Diaspora. (Brief aside: Diaspora is a fascinating hard sci-fi book touching on the future of humanity, artificial intelligence, and the nature of the Universe. I cannot recommend it highly enough.)

In practice I tend to use the singluar "they". It's a pratical short-term solution as "they" already provides a gender-neutral reference to a group of entities. The American Heritage Dicationary (since 1992) and the Chicago Manual of Style (1993) both approve the use of a singluar they gender-neutral pronoun, and the Australian government officially encourages it's use.

It can still be confusing though in certain situations ("That guy said they needed to use the phone").
English is a constantly evolving language. I'd like to see it shed some of these lingering and effects of the past.


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