Pronouns are some of the most commonly-used words both in literature and conversation. They are defined as a word that replaces a noun, used to avoid repetition – I recommended a book to my friend because I thought she would enjoy it. We assimilate the sense without caring that the order of the elements described is then reversed and accept that ‘she’ means my friend and ‘it’ the book. In comparison to many languages, the English language does not assign genders to all words or demand that we identify by gender; my neighbour, my partner, even my dog all have no assumptions attached to them.
Once we start using pronouns however, we are quickly sucked into both stating gender but also being restricted to a choice of two. Where we can’t tell, say for pets, we use ‘it’ but this is not an appealing option for humans. There is a clear need for such a pronoun, even without considering the needs of trans and non-binary people. Where we do not know who has done something, we could say ‘someone left his or her book behind’ but we sound idiotic. In a 2015 article, Gary Nunn describes over a hundred attempts to come up with a simple gender-neutral pronoun spread over a hundred and fifty years. All have fizzled out because of either lack of adoption or because no one knows how to pronounce them.
Examples do exist of languages without gendered pronouns, including Turkish and Finnish. On that basis, the use of gender for pronouns is a matter of history and culture rather than necessary. As a writer, I care about this because I want to be able to write about all people in a fair and representative way.
My belief is that the most practical solution proposed is to use ‘their’. A big advantage is that it passes the ‘sounds right’ test – someone left their book behind. Although this is the approach now used by The Economist, it is not universally supported. It infuriates grammarians by using a plural for a singular. It’s use has also attracted criticism from individuals within the trans community because the use of a neutral is considered misgendering where someone wishes to be identified as he or she.
My answer to this is that language evolves. He/ him used to be the universal term for referring to all people – who else had to sing ‘He who would valiant be?’ at school? We have mostly moved on from this, though many legal contracts still have the arcane introduction that where masculine is referred to, this includes feminine – gosh, thanks loads for including little old me. We have seen possible solutions of melded gender pronouns, though this only works for a binary world. The use of ‘they’ as a true gender-neutral is just a further evolution and one which should be relatively easy to adopt. Whether this becomes a staging-post on the way to a removal of gender from all references is an argument for tomorrow. Even though this is a problem where no single solution will please everyone, the benefits from an approach that is generally adopted will provide immediate benefits. A way to speak about all people equally should encourage equality of thought as well as the more mundane pleasure of being able to write simple sentences.
Follow Alex on twitter at @_AlexandraClare
Alex Clare is the author of crime novels featuring trans woman detective DI Robyn Bailley.