OPINION: A gender-neutral pronoun would be helpful, but is it possible?


Sweden recently added the gender-neutral pronoun “hen” to its dictionary, according to a March 24 Guardian article titled, “Sweden adds gender-neutral pronoun to dictionary.”

For those who may not know what a gender-neutral pronoun is, it’s fairly simple. The article describes it as a way “to refer to a person without revealing their gender – either because it is unknown, because the person is transgender, or the speaker or writer deems the gender to be superfluous information.”

As society (hopefully) begins to accept and welcome individuals who don’t identify with either gender, the need for a gender-neutral pronoun grows. While we have words like “they,” which doesn’t refer specifically to male or female, these words aren’t entirely satisfactory. Using “they” in a singular fashion (as in referring to one person) is repetitive and ugly, so to speak.

If you don’t understand what I mean, you can get a feel for this by replacing a gendered pronoun with “they.” For instance, “John saw a movie today, and he liked it,” becomes “John saw a movie today, and they liked it.”

“They” is useful, but only when we use it sparingly. In the long run, we need to find something that’s better. There are many members of society that don’t fit into a rigid gender description, and there are others that would like to be identified as a person, rather than a gender. As of right now, these people are left in a sort of limbo. What does a transgendered individual put on an official document asking for gender? A bigendered individual? An intersex individual? These people are forced to identify with something they may not be comfortable with.

Adding a gender-neutral word to the dictionary would go far to alleviate these problems. It would also serve as a valuable message to the LGBTQ community. It would be a message of acceptance and recognition, and it would be an invitation to come join the rest of society as members – rather than outcasts. I’m sure there are some who disagree with that, and that’s their prerogative. I believe society, however, would benefit greatly if we were all on equal footing.

I want a gender-neutral pronoun, for my reasons stated above, yet as I began to do research into the possibility of one being added to the English dictionary, I started finding evidence that implementing one might be impossible at worst, and very difficult at best.

The truth is, the English language has been experimenting with gender-neutral pronouns for awhile now. I found an interesting blog post from Dennis Baron, an English and linguistics professor at the University of Illinois. In the blog post, Baron notes that people have been trying to come up with a gender-neutral pronoun as far back as the 1800s. Unfortunately, none of these have ever stuck.

This is because we simply can’t force people to adopt new linguistic terms when the terms in question are so embedded in our understanding of the language. These changes and additions must occur naturally for them to really stick with people.

There’s also a problem of deciding a term that everyone agrees upon. If we add a gender-neutral pronoun to our dictionary, we need to find something simple, and acceptance of that specific pronoun needs to be unanimous. If we have three or four gender-neutral pronouns being used, it will cause a lot of difficulty and confusion, which may lead people to abandon the pronouns altogether.

Despite all of this, I still think that looking for, deciding upon and adding a gender-neutral pronoun to our dictionary is a worthy goal. There are even some steps being made towards that goal. The Vancouver School Board passed a policy that allowed transgender students to choose which gender pronoun they would like to be addressed by, and they added the pronouns “xe,” “xem” and “xyr” to accommodate this, according to a June 7, 2014 Vancouver Sun article titled, “Vancouver school board approves new policy addressing transgender students.”

We owe it to ourselves to put in the work required to add a gender-neutral pronoun to our dictionary. By doing so, we’re promoting a society of acceptance and equality.