Guest view: Pronoun Lowdown

Dan Weckerly//October 25, 2019

Guest view: Pronoun Lowdown

Dan Weckerly//October 25, 2019

Once upon a time, English pronouns were simple: him/his, her/hers, it/its, they/their.

But even Shakespeare saw limitations with this scant number of options. As far back as 1594, he was bending grammar rules, especially the stricture that a singular noun takes a singular pronoun. From his Comedy of Errors comes this line: “There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me. As if I were their well-acquainted friend.”

This workaround still exists, as when an organization – a single entity – writes with a plural pronoun: “The SPCA is celebrating the pet adoptions they have facilitated.” The effect is certainly more intimate – warm and fuzzy – which fits the SPCA.

Once writers call into question pronouns’ singular/plural assignations, it’s not a huge leap to consider their gender binary as well. As far back as the 1970s, inclusiveness started to chip away at sentences such as “A nurse should always wash her hands” or “A plumber must remember his tools”.

In search of a gender-neutral substitute, writers gave a shot to his or her, but rejected it for wordiness. Again, they stepped to the fore as an answer.

With today’s increasing awareness of gender fluidity, there has been some support for new pronouns. Zie has been suggested to cover both he and she, with variants that include sie, xe, zee. The reflexive versions are hirself (pronounced “here-self”) and zirself.

Whether these substitutes catch on remains to be seen. Until a generic pronoun gains prominence, they seems to be winning by default. It is still occasionally awkward – “Alex is here to pick you up. They will meet you out front.” – but with time, our ears and keyboards will adapt.

The inventiveness of language will continue to shift and shape the words we have available and the manner in which we use them. Democratic Presidential candidate Cory Booker (D-NJ) used a 2009 word niephew (“nee-few”) to describe his brother’s trans child, sidestepping the restraints of niece or nephew.

For the business communicator, its best to be as inclusive as possible when writing. In 1:1 settings, it’s acceptable – preferable, in fact – to simply but curteously ask: “How may I best address you? Is there a pronoun you prefer?”


Dan Weckerly is PR Director at Lehigh Mining & Navigation, an advertising agency in Allentown. He can be reached at [email protected].