Gender Neutral in English

Oh, pronouns.

If you read a lot of social science books in English, you’ll undoubtedly find a statement about pronoun use in the front matter of some of them.  The dilemma seems to be that people feel uncomfortable choosing pronouns to use for gender-neutral purposes.  The everyday speech solution– to use the plural (they/their/them) as singular neutral– is inappropriately casual for writing.  Modern scholars have tried to artificially construct gender neutral pronouns for English, with mixed results.  Some authors alternate between masculine and feminine pronouns, and are then compelled to devise some system for making sure that the representation of the pronouns is balanced overall.  Some authors, especially in books about reproductive processes, assign a certain set of pronouns to all subjects of a certain description for clarity (e.g., in midwifery texts the baby usually takes the masculine pronouns because the person gestating/birthing/nursing the baby usually takes the feminine pronouns).  Very few modern scholars will defend the use of he/his/him as gender-neutral.

Feminist scholars have claimed that using he/his/him as neutral pronouns disappears people who take feminine pronouns because it creates the false impression that all these general persons are masculine, and that treating masculine as default and feminine as aberration is a form of misogyny.

Unfortunately, there’s an etymology problem with this line of reasoning– him and his aren’t simply masculine pronouns.

A proto-Germanic forbear of English created all of the masculine pronouns of modern English.  But, of course, it’s not that simple, because early English actually had a full neuter person.






nominative he hit heo (hio) hie (hi)
accusative hine hit hie (hi) hie (hi)
genitive his his hire hira (heora)
dative him him hire him (heom)

All these words are variations on the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root *ki-, meaning “this”, as opposed to “that”.  Over the course of time, the initial letter dropped from the neuter accusative and nominative to become “it”, which replaced all other cases for the neuter and became a way to differentiate between objects and people when English nouns lost their gender in the middle ages.  The assumption modern English makes is that things without gender are not people, so using the neuter pronouns that still exist to refer to people is offensive.*

In this space, when I need to use a gender-neutral pronoun,** I will use the traditional set of Old English neuter pronouns adapted for the modern English cases: “hit” for the subjective, “his” for the possessive, and “him” for the objective.



Chart adapted from here


*It occurs to me that this line of thinking conflates “being neither masculine nor feminine” with “being less than human”.  Is it necessary to fit into the gender binary in order to be human?  Is it necessary to have a gender in order to be human?  Obviously not, because unborn babies are humans totally without gender.  Is considering “it” to be a denigrating pronoun for humans in itself transphobic, because to think so accepts the assumption that if you aren’t masculine or feminine you aren’t human?

**I do use feminine pronouns for describing general case people who are pregnant, birthing, and nursing, because as a midwife, I have to hold sacred the feminine nature of childbearing.  I recognize that not everyone who is pregnant is a woman, and that some childbearing people prefer other pronouns, but for the general case, I will persist in feminine pronouns.