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by Brenda Looper | October 6, 2021 at 3:11 a.m.
Brenda Looper

You might remember that a couple of weeks ago, the Word Nerd asked for your help on a query from a reader:

"'Pronoun Challenged' sent me a note: 'I have a teenage relative who has decided that she is now gender-fluid and (in addition to a name change) wants to be called they/them instead of she/her. I am supportive of whatever this young person is going through, but I have a hard time using these pronouns, since to me these words have always been plural. I'm sure there is a history behind the choosing of these words, but can you please tell me that there are alternatives? I think some new words should be invented or appropriated (as appropriate).'"

I posted the column and question on my Facebook page, and Anne Titus responded: "How funny--my husband and I just had a discussion about what word could replace he/she. The plural 'they' bugs me, too. We decided on 'zee' as the perfect neutral-gender pronoun. Rhymes and everything! Couldn't find a good substitute for objective case her/him. My solution is: We continue to simplify English and just use zee for the objective pronoun too. It's usually preceded by 'to, at, for, with, beside, without,' etc., so it won't really be confusing."

Frequent guest columnist Coralie Koonce shared my column on her Facebook page as well. Kevin Carson responded: "We've had 'they' as a singular third person pronoun since the beginning. I'm totally fine with using people's preferred pronouns, along with 'they' for nonbinary people or someone of unspecified gender. ... I mean 'since the beginning' of English, because it was an entirely correct third person singular until the 17th century grammarians tried to impose a Latinate logic on the language, and persisted in ordinary use after that."

Very good point. Grammar grouches can be a pain, especially when applying Latin rules to English.

But, Coralie wrote: "In the printed word, singular 'they' grates on my ear. It's illogical. It doesn't recognize the distinction between one and many. ... I just wish people could have agreed on a non-gender-specific, first-person, singular pronoun."

Another frequent guest, artist and activist Shelley Buonaiuto, wrote: "Someone wrote into Dan Savage that it should be 'sha,' pronounced like 'the.' He said OK, but ... was too close to she. So I was thinking, umm ... what about 'um'? Maybe too much like 'him'? So maybe 'uh' ... give the book to 'uh' ... it might catch on ... except in Brooklyn, Boston or England where it would be heard as 'her.'

"Whatever it is, it must be respectful ... what about 'san'? Like the term of respect in Japan? It's bigender. 'As a rule of thumb, in Japanese business life, the surname name is always followed by the honorific suffix "san" (meaning 'dear' or actually 'honorable Mr./Ms.'),'" according to Japan Consulting Office.

Friend Earl Babbie noted on my blog: "On gender ... I favor using the third-person plural when gender is unknown: "When a student comes to office hours, I have them sit here." (Once more, I said it and the world didn't end.)"

Fellow blogger Susan Richards said: "[E]xcept for constructions similar to Babbie's example, I'll probably not be using 'they' as a singular pronoun. (I'm old and set in my ways.) I've read too many examples of that usage that were either ridiculous or impossible to understand. If we could invent 'Ms.' when it became necessary, we can invent a new singular pronoun."

There are pronouns, but I haven't seem many of them in use. Devin-Norelle wrote on "Throughout the history of the English language, pronouns have evolved to adapt to the circumstances of the times. The plural 'they' shifted to a singular 'they' several centuries ago, when writers went in search of a more gender-neutral pronoun; multiple gender-neutral pronouns have come about since and been embraced by members of the trans and nonbinary communities. Third-person pronouns like 'xe/xem' or 'ze/zim' are growing increasingly popular. Likewise, it is becoming more common for people to avoid using pronouns altogether, and instead just use their name in all circumstances."

Barring acceptance of newer pronouns, I think those of us who had it drilled into our heads that "they" is never singular may just have to suck it up and use that or whatever other pronoun someone requests. It's only polite.

The gender-fluid pronoun problem wasn't the only thing that readers responded to.

Ethel Simpson wrote in an email: "Very recently, I am seeing 'a pregnant person.' It is one thing to prefer 'mail carrier' or 'firefighter,' since presumably persons of both sexes can fill those roles. But only females can be pregnant. If someone wants to affirm women's importance in the world, why would they neutralize the one area in which the female sex is uniquely qualified?"

My understanding on the "pregnant person" debate is that it's a recognition that transgender men (meaning having made the transition from female to male) can and do become pregnant. While there's no exact number available, it has happened, and likely more often than you might think.

Language changes with the times. While it may not always make us comfortable, it's a fact of life.

Assistant Editor Brenda Looper is editor of the Voices page. Read her blog at Email her at

Print Headline: Pronoun poser


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