While many of the world’s languages do not, English has historically had gender specificity in certain of their pronouns, particularly in the third person singular (he, she). For many years, a gender-specific, almost always masculine, pronoun was used to express a gender-neutral meaning:
“A candidate should work to the best of his ability, and he must comport himself appropriately.”
A few solutions that been used to improve on this, include “he/she” (clunky), the word “one” (did not seem to catch on), or the third person plural word “they” (which I hate). Some attempts have been made, by proponents of gender-neutral language, to introduce invented gender-neutral pronouns.
In September 2015, “Harvard University made a buzz after allowing students to select gender-neutral options like ‘ze,’ ‘e,’ and ‘they’ on registration forms. In doing so, it joined a wave of other major colleges in acknowledging that gender identity, and the pronouns that go with it, is more fluid than how previous generations understood it.”
American University’s Center for Diversity and Inclusion offers a pronoun guide which states “the practice of asking individuals what pronouns they use for themselves should be done in an effort to respect the diversity of gender identities beyond man and woman.”
Here are some of the gender-neutral contenders, with a breakdown of their strengths and weaknesses:
Ne: Ne laughed. I called nem. Nir eyes gleam. That is nirs. Ne likes nemself.
Ve: Ve laughed. I called ver. Vis eyes gleam. That is vis. Ve likes verself.
Spivak: Ey laughed. I called em. Eir eyes gleam. That is eirs. Ey likes emself.
Ze (or zie) and hir: Ze laughed. I called hir. Hir eyes gleam. That is hirs. Ze likes hirself.
Ze (or zie) and zir: Ze laughed. I called zir. Zir eyes gleam. That is zirs. Ze likes zirself.
Xe: Xe laughed. I called xem. Xyr eyes gleam. That is xyrs. Xe likes xemself.
As noted, “‘Hir,’ although it’s supposed to be pronounced ‘here,’ is read as ‘her’ by many people unfamiliar with the term.” The author prefers ne (n as in neutral) or ve (popular in science fiction), to ze, for reasons of pronunciation in combination with other words, as well as being more gender-free.
I’m not opposed to the use of more gender-neutral language. But the linguistic conservative in me wishes that some sort of consensus would have developed in the past few years, such as when firefighter replaced fireman, and flight attendant encompassed stewardess and steward.
Now, The New York Times Adds ‘Mx.’ to the Honorific Mix, at least on one occasion, in lieu of Mr. or Ms.
Of course, this all has been and will be, a continuing source of debate about whether the trend is cultural sensitivity, or political correctness run amok.