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Gender-Neutral Pronouns: Is That Alien a He, She Or an It?

Updated on August 30, 2014
Is this alien a he, she, or an it?  Be careful what you say.  You don’t want to offend he/she/it.
Is this alien a he, she, or an it? Be careful what you say. You don’t want to offend he/she/it. | Source

Where Man Has Gone...

© C. Calhoun 2012. All rights reserved.

As a girl growing up in an era of Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) episodes, I acutely recall how the original Star Trek, the theme song included the line, “where no man has gone before.” I was so relieved when TNG came out with that same line in the theme song, with an important change: “where no one has gone before.”

I was so glad that the 24th century was not defaulting to masculine pronouns.

But then my 7th grade English teacher said to “always” default to the masculine pronoun when making generalizations about people or when gender was unknown. She was a really great teacher. But when she said that…

…my mind fast forwarded back to the 24th century. How did all the humans come to address all the alien species they encountered? Did they use he, she or it? Did they come up with new words?

Historically, English has used he, him, or his to make statements that include both sexes:

A Klingon must always fight for his honor.

We all know there were female Klingons. Admittedly, they didn’t look that much different from the males, but well, to each his own, right?

What are all those pronouns that people are talking about, anyway?

He, him, his

She, her, hers

It, its

...To Where No ONE Has Gone

More recently, however, people have caught on that it seems rather sexist to just default to those pesky male pronouns. How will we ever classify the aliens?

So, without thinking, people have begun to use they, them or their to leave out the element of gender:

Whoever commands the Enterprise had better have their act together.

This is just in case you’re taken over by hostile invasion. Watch out for the Borg!

Back in the 21st century, the use of they, them or there is probably what drove English teachers everywhere to Roswell, New Mexico to observe alien events. They begged for abduction. Or, maybe they resigned themselves to science to pave the way for the first warp drive. In any case, they couldn’t shake the shrill sound of a “singular they”. They is plural, you earthlings!

Before the 21st century, evidence persists that there were plenty of victims of alien abduction. As many times as people have tried to insert a gender-neutral pronoun into the English language, it always sounded reminiscent of some distant planet’s alien vernacular - proof of alien abduction, don't you think?

Subject Pronoun
Object Pronoun
Possessive Pronoun
She
Her
Hers
He
His
His
They
Them
Their
Spivak Pronouns:
 
 
E
Em
Eirs
There are gender-neutral pronouns, but they haven't really caught on.

Did you know that pronouns currently exist that are gender-neutral in the English language? Spivak pronouns are among the most well-known. (See table - adapted from the Wikipedia page)

People have been trying, since the 1700's, to incorporate pronouns into the English language that leave out gender-biased pronouns. Unfortunately, they have never caught on. I would venture to guess that this is because we're talking about fundamental changes to the English language. How many people would go for that?

They might be more inclined if they were coerced by aliens....

Do You Think You Would Adopt a New Gender-Neutral Pronoun

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If I were Commander Riker learning about the pronouns, er, aliens of Spivak, I’d have a dandy time figuring out which ones were more feminine. Remember when he encountered that androgynous species called the J’naii? Of course he fell for the co-pilot Soren, who secretly identified with the female gender. Soren got in trouble, too. It was taboo to identify with a gender. It was less evolved. They made sure that wouldn't happen again.

But, back to the point. If those Spivak pronouns had really caught on, you probably would have heard of them by now. I mean, we’re talking about changing some of the most basic words of the English language. Maybe the aliens really are infiltrating: slowly but surely.

It doesn’t seem that far-fetched that we’d adopt new words into the English language. Ten years ago, how many people knew about Google and used it as a verb?

Did you google that already?

But we’re not talking about the random adoption of some Orwellian word. I’m talking about pronouns, people. Think about how many times you use he and she in a day. Holy moly! Can you imagine substituting in E, em, or eirs every time you use a phrase where the gender is unknown?

Everyone must set eir phaser to stun.

I would be too stunned to react. To whom was this person talking to? Me? Him? Her? I know that’s the point, but my poor brain would toil trying to figure out what the speaker meant. Maybe I could get used to it, but I think alien invasion sounds more likely.

It’s troublesome, though, to use other pronouns:

Everyone must set his phaser to stun!

My! I thought we had gotten over this chauvinistic language!

Everyone, set your phasers to stun!

That’s a little better. Just get rid of the pronoun. Now, you are an “everyone.”

Everyone must set his or her phasers to stun!

By the time you eke out that sentence, you’ll probably become the next victim of a Borg assimilation. How many extra words can you insert into one phrase to assert the fact that you’re trying to be gender neutral?

If you use they, you run the risk of upsetting the Rulers of Planet Grammar. If you’ve even visited such a place, their bodies seem to be shaped like alpha-numeric characters.

Did you see that lady over there? Her head was on upside down! Her body rested on top of her head! Oh wait, that’s Miss Exclamation Point, alien extraordinaire.

So, what’s a person to do? Resign him/herself to the possibility of Grammarian takeover? I hear that planet has a remarkable police-state. They often confine citizens to Grammar school for remediation after citizens have committed some sort of grammar crime.

That planet is one strange place. The trees look like randomly placed accents; exclamation points and question marks happily bob along in the streets. The clouds, even, are made of billowing full stops. The buildings are all made of small capital I’s. This place could be heaven for humans who call themselves grammarians.

Planet Grammar: A Being Shaped Like a Question Mark
Planet Grammar: A Being Shaped Like a Question Mark | Source

In any case, the Grammar Police have several suggestions to help keep their citizens in line on Planet Grammar. At least they have some rules and regulations. Perhaps we could learn something from them.

First, they suggest rewording your sentence to rid your statement of male preferences:

Instead of this: Visiting planet Vulcan will be a small step for man, and a giant leap for mankind.

Try this: Visiting planet Vulcan will be a small step for Captain Kirk, and a giant leap for all people.

If that doesn’t work, keep the police off your back by changing your sentence to the plural:

Instead of this: Every Vulcan must do a mind-meld before he dies.

Try this: Vulcans must do mind-melds before they die.

Or, you can offer up “optional pronouns” to appease the Grammar Rulers:

Instead of this: Every Star Fleet officer must earn his rank.

Try this: Every Star Fleet officer must earn his or her rank.

It’s cumbersome and you’ll lose some time getting the extra words out, but how much more time will you lose defending your honor against chauvinism? Think about that!

Perhaps by the 24th century, we really will have our gender pronouns worked out and we’ll have new words in the English language to combat this problem.

Or, perhaps we’ll just accept:

Everyone gets their synthehol fix in Ten Forward.

For now, I stay away from singular they as much as I can. But, maybe I’ll keep practicing the Klingon ritual of MajQa – a practice that induces visions. I envision perfect grammar, where everyone knows what to do. I have visions of grammatical harmony, where no grammar police exist and commoners are not compelled to commit grammar crimes.

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    • alocsin profile image

      alocsin 5 years ago from Orange County, CA

      I think rewording is the way to go here. Old English did have a neutral pronoun, like German does today. And Filipino, my native language, has no gender in the pronouns at all, which can make trying to figure out if someone is gay quite tricky, since you never know the gender of his or her date. Voting this Up and Interesting.

    • alocsin profile image

      alocsin 5 years ago from Orange County, CA

      Ooops, I meant it had a neutral pronoun for some people words such as "baby."

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 5 years ago from Olympia, WA

      You are much more fun to learn grammar from than the nuns were in elementary school. Great fun but still a lesson that I needed....thank you and great job!

    • cclitgirl profile image
      Author

      Cynthia Sageleaf 5 years ago from Western NC

      Thanks, alocsin. I don't know much Tagalog, but I'll just tell you Magandang Umaga. :) I probably spelled that wrong, but I remember it from when I was in Manila in 1995. That and "dahan, dahan" - there are some crazy drivers! Haha. In any case, I hope you weren't abducted while reading this. Thanks for the votes and commenting. :)

    • cclitgirl profile image
      Author

      Cynthia Sageleaf 5 years ago from Western NC

      Oh, hehe. No worries, alocsin.

    • cclitgirl profile image
      Author

      Cynthia Sageleaf 5 years ago from Western NC

      Just call me "Grammar Fairy", Billy. Haha. I really wish I could change my username to THAT. (Dratted username I have - my initials + literature + girl...it sounded better than it looks. Dang. Oh well.)

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 5 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I definitely was wondering about that username...the first time I saw it I thought, "Oh My!" lol

    • cclitgirl profile image
      Author

      Cynthia Sageleaf 5 years ago from Western NC

      I know, I know. I've gotten a lot of hack for it. Believe me. When I first got here, I thought it was like an "Ebay" thing where you just choose something random and nobody cares. Idiot greenie thing to do. :'( I wish I could change it. Hehe, billy.

    • B. Leekley profile image

      Brian Leekley 5 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

      Good overview.

    • cclitgirl profile image
      Author

      Cynthia Sageleaf 5 years ago from Western NC

      B. Leekley - I truly hope you are all right with the response. :) After all, you were the inspiration. Thanks for reading and commenting.

    • chspublish profile image

      chspublish 5 years ago from Ireland

      Great lay-out of ideas with a very entertaining teaching style. The use of the the word 'one' - Queen's English style - might be helpful with the return of those aliens. One would be happy to greet one's fellow space companions from afar, then! Thanks for the hub.

    • cclitgirl profile image
      Author

      Cynthia Sageleaf 5 years ago from Western NC

      chspublish - the use of "one" could certainly be an option. One should have fun trying it out. :) Thank you for your feedback and for stopping by.

    • JGoul profile image

      JGoul 5 years ago

      I'm rooting for use of the plural pronouns as gender neutral, singular words to catch on with stylists and grammarians. But I agree that for now, it's best not to use them like that.

    • cclitgirl profile image
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      Cynthia Sageleaf 5 years ago from Western NC

      JGoul - hey there! Yes, I would agree. :) In less formal situations, I use the plural form all over the place. In papers or when you need to sound a little more esoteric, I resort to the grammatically proper ways, but then I feel like I'm all stuffy or something. :D But if the people want to change "their" language, then may they be the catalyst that instigates the change. :D Cheers!

    • DzyMsLizzy profile image

      Liz Elias 5 years ago from Oakley, CA

      Great hub, and entertainingly written. Nice to meet a fellow "Trekkie!" ;-)

      I do find the "Queen's English" to be rather stuffy and pretentious-sounding. "We are not amused." The 'royal 'we' as a substitute for the singular personal pronoun of "I." Or "One must mind one's p's and q's lest one fall afoul of the protocols of polite society!"

      One thus avoids the troublesome gender-specific pronouns, but one does sound as if one is putting on airs.

      BAH! I vote for a new set of gender-neutral words!

      Voted up across the board & shared for all--regardless of their gender. ;-)

    • mwilliams66 profile image

      mwilliams66 5 years ago from Left Coast, USA

      I agree with DzyMsLizzy. This is a fantastically entertaining hub.

      Very enjoyable and enlightening.

      I too am voting across the board with a share.

    • Hot Rod Loves You profile image

      R. Fritz 5 years ago from Houston, TX.

      From this angle it looks like a female.

    • cclitgirl profile image
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      Cynthia Sageleaf 5 years ago from Western NC

      DzyMsLizzy - hehe, Live Long and Prosper! :D Those troublesome gender-specific pronouns! They make me crazy...but perhaps that's why I end up writing crazy hubs. XD Thanks so much for stopping by. Hubhugs!

    • cclitgirl profile image
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      Cynthia Sageleaf 5 years ago from Western NC

      mwilliams66 - thank you so much. :) Hehe, I do sneak in a crazy hub here and there. ;)

    • cclitgirl profile image
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      Cynthia Sageleaf 5 years ago from Western NC

      HRLY - well, it could be J'naii - the gender-neutral race. :)

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 5 years ago from New York

      He, his, him...the universal pronouns of Star Trek? Amazing comparisons.

      I could definitely use practicing "the Klingon ritual of MajQa" -- you know, need all the vision I can get!

      This was a great hub to run through pronouns. I bet there are some middle school teachers out there that would love to use it...it's light, interesting and fun to read.

      Voted up, awesome and interesting.

    • cclitgirl profile image
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      Cynthia Sageleaf 5 years ago from Western NC

      tillsontitan - hehe, yeah, sometimes I write a hub that's a little off the wall, but something to have a little fun. :) Pardon me...my nightly ritual of MajQa is calling. Hehehe. Just kidding. Thanks for stopping by! Hubhugs!

    • Docmo profile image

      Mohan Kumar 5 years ago from UK

      loved this. I do think about gender neutral style when writing and i am glad i read your hub. You've really offered some options - i just love the way you've doen this with a star trek theme. I used to love new generation! voting up and across. Make it so!

    • cclitgirl profile image
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      Cynthia Sageleaf 5 years ago from Western NC

      Docmo - ENGAGE! Haha! I admit I still watch TNG reruns. I'm a geek like that. I used to have t-shirts, card collections, autographs...I have those all stored away somewhere. Hehehe. In any case, I'm glad you enjoyed this. I appreciate you stopping by. :)

    • profile image

      kelleyward 5 years ago

      Your grammar hubs are extremely helpful to me! I'm bookmarking this one! Thanks for making it entertaining, although I don't know anything about Star Trek ha ha! Take care, Kelley

    • mwilliams66 profile image

      mwilliams66 5 years ago from Left Coast, USA

      But the looming question is...Do you watch Dr. Who?

    • cclitgirl profile image
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      Cynthia Sageleaf 5 years ago from Western NC

      Kelley - aw, shucks, thank you. :) Thanks for stopping by. I'm really glad you enjoyed this. Hehe, I grew up on Star Trek. I really wish it still came on. But, I have the reruns. :D Have a wonderful day! Hubhugs!

    • cclitgirl profile image
      Author

      Cynthia Sageleaf 5 years ago from Western NC

      mwilliams66 - I have watched Dr. Who. My husband is really into it. I prefer Trekking. For some reason Star Trek has always captivated me. :)

    • Vellur profile image

      Nithya Venkat 5 years ago from Dubai

      Loved your grammar hub as usual, interesting and informative. Voted up.

    • cclitgirl profile image
      Author

      Cynthia Sageleaf 5 years ago from Western NC

      Vellur - wonderful to see you! I'm so glad you stopped by. Thank you so much for commenting and for your kind words. Hubhugs! :)

    • skeltop profile image

      Pamela Skelton 4 years ago from Denver, Colorado

      I drafted a hub on the same topic, and then found yours. Thanks. I would add that I come from the days when "he" included all of us. I now prefer to use "they" when appropriate.

    • cclitgirl profile image
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      Cynthia Sageleaf 4 years ago from Western NC

      Skeltop - that's great! Let me know when you publish I can link up. :)

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