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Gender-neutral language is on the rise

Jan 18, 2016

Credit John Keogh/flickr / http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

We commonly use the pronouns “he” and “she” to refer to someone, but what if that person doesn’t identify as male or female?

The Washington Post recently gave a green light to using “they” as a singular pronoun.

The gender-neutral title “Mx,” pronounced “mix,” is making its way into dictionaries.

The issue of generic pronouns may be fresh in our minds, but according Anne Curzan, University of Michigan English professor, it’s one that’s been on the table for a while.

She tells us that the use of “he” as a generic pronoun has been encouraged for a long time, dating all the way back to 18th century grammar texts.

“What they were doing was saying, don’t use ‘they’ as a singular, use ‘he,’ which would indicate that lots of people were already using ‘they’ as a singular and these grammar books were correcting them,” she says.

“He” remained the dominant generic pronoun until the 1970s, when, with the rise of second-wave feminism, “you started to see pushback.”

People started proposing alternatives, “and the alternatives that we’ve been living with for the past 20 or 30 years have been ‘he or she’, which I think many of us find can get a little bulky if you have to use a lot of them. Re-cast the whole sentence as plural, or re-write the sentence so you don’t have a pronoun at all.”

In fact, Curzan says there have been proposals for artificial pronouns like “Ze” and “Hir” that go back to at least the late 19th century.

“People think that this is new, that we’ve been proposing alternatives. But the alternatives go back more than a hundred years.”

Curzan is struck when people say English has no singular generic pronoun because she says in spoken English that word is “they.”

“It's already the pronoun of choice in the spoken language. It’s already happened ... we have been using ‘they’ as singular generic for hundreds and hundreds of years." 

Anne Curzan tells us more about gender-neutral language in our conversation above.

Meanwhile, Stateside's Cass Adair spoke with a University of Michigan senior, about what it’s like to use gender-neutral pronouns on campus. You can listen to that story below: