Gender-neutral pronouns for English
|March 13, 2003||Posted by Fred Foldvary under Progress Report, The Progress Report|
Fred Foldvary’s Editorial
Zhe, zher, zhim
by Fred E. Foldvary, Senior Editor
The English language has a problem with gender. It uses the masculine “he,” “his,” “him,” both to refer to males and to refer to people or animals in general. The words “she” and “her” refer only to females.
For centuries, this was not much of a problem. But with the rise of the women’s rights movement, many women felt that this language usage entrenched the dominance of males. Many writers began to use alternative language. It is now common to use the plural in place of the masculine pronoun, as in “a buyer needs to have their money ready before making a purchase,” instead of “his” money.
But this use of the plural is traditionally bad grammar, and more importantly, mixing the singular and the plural creates linguistic confusion. It is grammatically better to use the neutral term “one,” as in “one’s money,” but it has a stilted sound to American ears, and in some usages it is awkward.
The English language needs new pronouns to refer to people in a gender-neutral way. I offer the words zhe, zher, and zhim, where the “zh” is pronounced as in the second “g” of garage or the “z” in azure. “Zhe” means either he or she for the subject of a sentence. “Zher” is the possessive “his” or “her.” “Zhim” is the accusative or object of a sentence, meaning either “him” or “her.”
For example: “Zhe was walking zher dog down the street and then gave zhim a treat.” The pronoun “one” would not do here: “One was walking one’s dog down the street and then gave one a treat” does not work. The use of the plural would make it sound like more than one person and more than one dog. For gender-neutral pronouns, new words are needed, and zhe, zher, zhim fits the need.
Some might argue that we don’t really need such new words, since the traditional masculine usage has served well. It’s true we can get by with that. But the problem is that many people are already rejecting the traditional masculine usage. They are substituting awkward usages such as plurals or “you” or “he or she” or the passive voice.
So it’s not a matter of pushing “political correctness” but of recognizing that the sensitivity to masculine usage already is out there, and salvaging the situation with new words rather than usage that reduces the clarity of the language.
Of course, it is much easier to suggest new terms than to put them into common use. One way is simply to start using the terms in one’s own writing. Feminist journals could adopt the practice. And if some high official, such as the president, says zhe will use gender-neutral pronouns for zher own writing, and ask that those writing to zhim do so also, that would provide a powerful boost.
In the previous paragraph, there is no presumption that the president be a male. The gender neutral “zh” words raise our consciousness that the president could be either male or female. I’m not saying that the zh words would or should replace all “he” usages, but that it become acceptable as an alternative.
There are attempts to make the Bible and religious texts more gender neutral, and these have stumbled on the pronouns, often just leaving them masculine. The zh words would help refer to God: for Zhe is just, and Zher love for humanity endless, and we worship Zhim, when God has been masculine only in the linguistic sense.
Save us from confusing grammar such as “everyone must have their books.” Make it instead “everyone must have zher books.” It then becomes clear that each person must have one’s own book and not the books of all the others. It is also shorter and less awkward than having to say “his or her” all the time.
English needs gender-neutral pronouns, and sooner or later it will get them. Why not start today with the zh words?
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Copyright 2000 by Fred E. Foldvary. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieval system, without giving full credit to Fred Foldvary and The Progress Report.