A Solution to the Gender-Neutral Pronoun Problem

Editors Note: Stimulated by Julie Jackson’s column in the Winter issue of Blueline (the "deadman" case), the following half tongue-in-cheek article was submitted.

In the current attempt to make the language of laws and other general writings gender-neutral, the thorniest problem has been the third-person singular pronoun. Other problems are more easily handled. For instance, the common occurrence of "-man" in many words, especially indicating offices, titles, and occupations, can be accepted as inoffensive and gender-neutral as soon as one sees that "man" originally meant simply a human being, not necessarily a male. Therefore the awkwardness of "chairperson," "personhole," "fire-person," "foreperson," and other infelicities becomes quite unnecessary.

However, no one can pretend or argue that the pronoun "he" does not mean specifically a male person and the pronoun "she" specifically a female person. How to make the third-person singular pronoun gender-neutral? Using the phrase "he or she" is distracting and cumbersome--and can be criticized for still putting the male form first--although the alternative "she or he" is no better. The conglomerate form "he/she," whereas gender neutral by cancellation, is certainly not any more attractive. What is needed is a simple, singular, gender-neutral pronoun ("it" does not qualify, being insultingly genderless--neuter rather than neutral).

Fortunately there is a solution. In the plural we have the third-person pronoun "they," which is gender neutral. From this we can back-derive a singular equivalent. Let us imagine that the "t" in "they" stands for "two or more," and simply omit it to make the singular form "hey." Hence, the declination of personal pronouns would be:


SingularIyouhey, he, she, it

The word "hey" would be pronounced to rhyme with "they." The word would cause no confusion, as the only existing meaning for the same spelling is an exclamation easily distinguished by context, and the only homophone refers to dried grass, hardly likely to be mistaken for a person.

Possessive, objective, and adjective forms of "hey" would be formed in a manner similar to that for "he," "she," viz.:



Singularmineyoursheys, his, hers, its


Singularmeyouhem, him, her, it


Singularmyyourheys, his, hers, its

I suggest that this simple and elegant solution to the vexing problem of the gender-neutral pronoun be adopted forthwith.

To illustrate how well this solution will serve to eliminate the problem, here is an excerpt from a paragraph of the sort that now causes awkwardness and worry in attempts to render the language gender neutral. The selected text is the opening of "Decorum in Debate" (item 36 in Article V) in Robert’s Rules of Order (1967 Pyramid Publications edition), page 69. The new gender-neutral forms are in italics, and in all cases they replace the original male equivalent.

36. Decorum in Debate. In debate a member must confine hemself to the question before the assembly, and avoid personalities. Hey cannot reflect upon any act of assembly, unless hey intends to conclude heys remarks with a motion to rescind such action or else while debating such motion. In referring to any member, hey should, as much as possible, avoid using heys name, rather referring to hem as "the member who spoke last," or in some other way describing hem.

This example amply illustrates how simply and effectively, and with no confusion, the use of the pronoun hey and its derivative forms solves the problem of the gender-neutral pronoun. I cannot imagine any reason to resist its immediate adoption.

—Peter H. Stauffer, U.S. Geological Survey, Menlo Park, CA

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