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"They" is not an acceptable substitute for a real gender-neutral pronoun

Get right with grammar -- "they" is plural, not singular. Sweden gets the new "hen," why can't English do the same?


Mary Elizabeth Williams
April 1, 2015 10:29PM (UTC)

We need a hen, that's what we need. Sweden has one now; can we get one too? Oh, and this one has nothing to do with poultry.

In a new updating of the Swedish dictionary that will roll out later this month, the gender neutral "hen" will join its brother "han" and sister "hon" as a third person pronoun to use when, as The Guardian puts it, a person's gender "is unknown, because the person is transgender, or the speaker or writer deems the gender to be superfluous information." Oh, language, is there is nothing you can't do?

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Though the Swedish "hen" has been around since the sixties, it never really caught on until just a few years ago, when the country's transgender community began embracing it. Since then it's been quietly making its way into the vernacular, getting a previously unexpected boost from preschool and nursery school educators eager to teach young children without the often confusing weight of "his or her" construction. Lann Hornscheidt, professor of Scandinavian languages and gender studies at Berlin's Humboldt University, told the Washington Post Wednesday that "The introduction of a pronoun which challenges binary gender norms has been an important step, following a more thorough debate over the construction of gender within the last ten years." Now hen's ready for its imminent official embrace. But though the shift is an optimistic move toward more inclusive communication, the Washington Post's Rick Noack is quick to note that other cultures, like Turkey, manage to have both gender-neutral pronouns and crummy track records on human rights.

English, meanwhile, has awkwardly lumbered for years to reconcile contemporary attitudes with its own old rules. Lacking our own gender-neutral pronoun, we've slipped into a kind of group tacit acceptance of "they" and "their" when a single gender is unknown, irrelevant, or not preferred. We say things like "Any child who wants their cake can have it now" even while some of us still cringe at the deployment of a plural after a singular subject. Or we dance around it. In the nineties, the New York Times' Janet Maslin famously did an entire profile of "The Crying Game" star Jaye Davidson without using a single "he" or "she" to describe the performer. But more than two decades later, the same paper found its editors "scrambling to their stylebooks and to past articles on other transgender cases of well-known people for guidance" after initially reporting in its coverage of Chelsea Manning that "he is female" and "he described a struggle." It would have been a simple to respect Manning's identity in the first place, but it's clear that reporting on gender issues sometimes requires more fluid language.

I am a hopelessly old-fashioned girl when it comes to grammar. You can tell me that "I'm doing good" is a perfectly acceptable response to "How are you?" and I will nonetheless go on to drill "I am well, thank you," into my children's heads. If they leave home with nothing but that and a reflexive ability to stand on the right and walk on the left when they're on escalators, my parenting work is over. You can tell me that "literally" can also mean "virtually" and that's it's even in the dictionary and I will throw a drink in your face. Literally. If you call me on the phone and ask to speak to Mary Elizabeth, I will reply, "This is she." I like a person who can brandish "less" and "fewer" with confidence. "Hopefully" as a synonym for "probably"? I cannot. Cannot. And a "they" for a "he or she"? It just doesn't seem right and I don't suppose it ever will.

The Oxford Dictionaries acknowledges that the traditional "he" or "his" as default is now "outdated and sexist," and that "You can use the plural pronouns 'they.' 'them,' 'their' etc., despite the fact that, technically, they are referring back to a singular noun." But it's still imperfect at best. Why use existing words that already have perfectly useful functions as plurals? If the Swedish can figure it out, why can't we? And if we want to move toward expanding our culture, sometimes we have to expand our vocabulary. We don't live in a world of just he or she. So why should we live in a language that does?


Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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