Unknown persons.

Someone wrote…

I wish people would stop referring to unknown persons as “he or she” like it’s inclusive.

What’s your experience?

And what are you thinking about gender right now?

Posted by on March 13th, 2010 at 04:00 pm

Category: your voice 29 comments »

29 Responses to “Unknown persons.”

  1. Lanthir

    I most often use the singular “they,” and as far as I can remember, I always have.


  2. Shay

    I agree completely. I keep thinking that.


  3. Firebolt

    Ditto! That’s why I say ‘they’ and hope that other people would catch on and start using it too.


  4. Jessica

    English happens to have an indefinite pronoun: “he” as in “The aliens have no genders and reproduce asexually. When their leader first saw a male and female human, he naturally assumed that they were different species.” English traditionally uses “he” for things that have no sex, when it would be pejorative to say “it.” Colloquially, people do all kinds of things, especially he/she. Personally I think we need a new pronoun for an ungender specified person, and I nominate “ne/nar/nis” as in “When na gave me the present I thanked nar very much – nis face went so red!”


  5. softestbullet

    @Jessica: Yeah, but the whole male-as-neutral thing is pretty annoying and sexist.


  6. jmk

    I always refer to people as ‘them’ and ‘they’ until it becomes apparent what they identify as. I do it automatically


  7. nick

    I often use he/she or ‘he or she’ when speaking or typing. Not with the intention of excluding anyone, I just don’t know a comfortable more inclusive choice of words that will not immediately turn the conversation towards gender.
    I do love the expression ‘Ladies, gentlemen and variations thereupon’.


  8. Rin

    I’m a fan of the singular ‘they.’ Easy, makes no gender or sex specifications whatsoever, and everyone knows what it means. (Alternately, when writing about hypothetical imaginary persons, sometimes I just pick a pronoun at random.)


  9. Milo

    I agree. Singular ‘they’ is good. It’s actually been around colloquially in the language for several hundred years. The problem is that the MLA just isn’t too intelligent. ‘You’ is already singular and plural. Why not ‘they’ too?


  10. Dae

    I really wish the singular “they” was more standard than it is. It makes things so much better if you ask me.


  11. Jessica

    They can be used: “When they gave me the present I thanked them very much – their face went so red!” It sounds little bit awkward. I did a translation of Tao Te Ching handwritten verses bound and I used “she/her” when I had to, being unspecific as much as possible. The person for whom the gift was intended identified herself as female.


  12. Keanan

    I always use singular “they” unless I know the person. I also try writing with the singular “they” but unfortunately it is considered grammatically incorrect as in: Everyone bought their own concert ticket. It has to be: Everyone bought his or her concert ticket. Unfortunate. I know some other languages have gender neutral pronouns.


  13. jean c.


    I really like the Spivak pronouns. They were originally used in work/business contexts where the person’s gender is irrelevant to, or distracting from, the topic at hand:

    “The new employee is moving into eir office today, please welcome em!”

    “The artist-in-residence will give a presentation on eir recent work and how it relates to experiences from eir childhood. Ey invites audience members to share their own personal histories by writing em a message on this typewriter…”

    I like that these pronouns don’t involve any difficult pronunciation and thus slip right into the generally mumbly sound of English. I also like that they don’t give any clues as to the gender of the person referred to, making it impossible to pre-judge that person based on their (eir!) gender. They also make it easy to refer to people who have no specified or defined gender…


  14. Jessica

    I don’t know about where you work, but where I work, it’d take an act of of God to get Spivak pronouns adopted into the style guide – and Ey’d have to be really specific about it, too.


  15. Anonymous

    I agree it’s annoying. I sometimes use ze and zir, or hir.


  16. Anonymous

    haha, this is so sassy.


  17. shaedofblue

    I always use “they” and it doesn’t sound awkward to me.
    Like others have mentioned “you” was originally plural, so there is a precedent.


  18. Jessica

    Not exactly. You used to the a formal singular and a familiar plural. Thee and thou were the familiar pronouns. But none of this has a bearing he, she, his, her.
    They, their, them have always been plural, in the same way as We, our, and them has always been plural, except in the case of a royal personage, when referring to themselves in their office jointly. Jessica still thinks that when Tom uses their instead of his, they (meaning she) is confused.


  19. Roke

    “They, their, them have always been plural”

    Uh, no: http://motivatedgrammar.wordpress.com/2009/09/10/singular-they-and-the-many-reasons-why-its-correct


  20. jmk

    >>They, their, them have always been plural

    I can be more than one gender.
    I can more than one person too.


  21. Jessica

    I do not know who Christopher T is, but I dispute their findings. Nothing at all awkward about that is there? The quote from CS Lewis makes a common error of misplacing the persons to whom they refers: in this case everybody, which is a special case of a perfect singular which sometimes takes a plural.

    But where I do agree with Christopher T is in saying that we’re just being school marmish and that language is a fluid, growing thing and there is no real right or wrong to be had in any of these – the only thing we care about is what people understand from what we are saying.


  22. Anonymous

    I wish people would stop referring to “he or she” as if it were meant to be offensive. I don’t think that it’s really necessary to debate semantics.


  23. xyl

    Sometimes things that are not meant to be offensive still are. It isn’t semantics, some people are NOT a ‘he’ and NOT a ‘she’.


  24. Jessica

    There’s such a thing as a dead horse.

    We are who we are. Sometimes words can come pretty close to conveying they for a time, but we’re more than what the words made us. We are ourselves new each day.

    That we can envision a better world than the one we’ve got is an essential characteristic of the human condition. May you all have new surprises and better dreams.


  25. Regen

    I agree with the person who left comment number 22. If people aren’t meaning to be offensive, don’t take them that way.


  26. Anonymous

    I feel comfortable identifying as a ‘she’ but I think the OP raised a really great point. At my church they talk about “men and women” as if that includes the whole human family. I have started making a fuss about this. My church is very progressive on feminism and feminist issues but has yet to take the next step. So I am urging that process along. As for the idea that if you don’t mean offense, don’t take any– that doesn’t get things very far. Nobody “meant any offense” by using the word Lord to refer to god or by calling blacks “Negroes” or by only having “Mrs.” or “Miss” to refer to women (before Ms. was invented.) But when someone starts saying they’re offended, if they have a good point to make, then it is incumbent on the rest of the world to clean up its language.

    The he/she thing is just one more way that gender dualisms get naturalized. They get so deep into the language that they seem ‘obvious’ to people and then they can’t understand why anyone would possibly disagree or feel excluded. That’s why I agree with the OP and think this was a great point.


  27. Jessica

    Anon is lucky. Although we sing things like “…woman or man, all one to the Lord” nobody seems to understand this. Most organized religion is still in the 16th century as far as gender is concerned. In my church, if they knew I were trans, I would not be welcome. I am barely tolerated as a supporter of liberation theology and few people believe me when I admit to being a communist (like Jesus).


  28. Anonymous

    Does anyone know how the cultures that have more than two accepted genders handle this?


  29. epinards

    Jessica i wish you could come to my church one day. It’s episcopalian. We are already very far out there on feminism and me and some other queer folks are pushing for more gender awareness all around. All parts of you including your history would be welcome in our community just the way you are and you’d definitely find some fellow travelers, liberation theology is a big deal to us. If you are ever in Austin Texas come check out St. Hildegard’s.


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