Epicene Third Person Singular Pronouns a guest post by Rio J. Picollo

Epicene Third Person Singular Pronouns by Rio J. Picollo

Rio Picollo is an English major at Southern Oregon University. She enjoys reading, juggling, and worrying about future career prospects.

Over the last few decades, a reform movement has been underway with the purpose of standardizing a gender-neutral pronoun. The English language’s most common and largely uncontested third person singular pronouns – he, she, and it– denote the gender of the individual in question. This can be problematic when a singular pronoun is is intended to refer to either sex.

Grammatical gender is one of the most basic components of many languages. Nouns can be classified as masculine, feminine, or neuter with corresponding inflections (though some languages, such as French, have only masculine and feminine classifications). Words are categorized arbitrarily rather than by biological sex (Wheeler 531). For example, the French word vagin meaning “vagina” is a masculine noun even though a person who has one is likely to be female. Old English had a functioning system of grammatical gender, but the practice died out during the Middle English period. The few remnants of grammatical gender in Modern English are based largely on biological sex.

Words like blonde/blond and brunette/brunet have maintained a questionable status as grammatically gendered, but by-and-large, gender is reflected only in pronouns (Wheeler 528). The continuing debate over epicene pronouns is, in part, a quest for social justice. Grammatical gender influences cultural perceptions of biological sex, which in turn affects an individual’s perception of the world (Perniss 227); therefore, grammatical gender may allow gender bias to permeate through our cultural consciousness. The feminist and queer rights movements have sought to reform language in order to reflect our society’s commitment to eliminating discrimination based on sex (Berube 170).

They are small changes overall, but may have a marked impact on the cognitive processes of future generations. Many occupational titles that once used a compound ending in -man (such as fireman) or a feminine suffix like -ess (stewardess) have been replaced with gender-inclusive terms (firefighter and flight attendant) in order to reflect the acceptance of women in the workplace, and many writers favour the term hero as a gender-neutral alternative to the feminine heroine to avoid differentiating between male and female bravery (Berube 170).

Though largely an issue of civil rights, the absence of an epicene singular pronoun also poses a practical issue to writers and grammarians. English lacks a universally-accepted pronoun that can refer to an antecedent whose gender is unknown. In such cases, it would be conjecture to suppose the gender of the referent, but there is no standardized pronoun to account for this problem. Various options exist, but none are considered perfectly suited for the task. Here is an overview of several of the options that are currently in use.

Generic he

English’s lack of epicene third-person pronouns prompted the acceptance of the gendered pronoun he as a generic referring to both males and females. It’s believed that the androcentric state of grammatical study was largely responsible for this Parliament proclaimed that the generic he a grammatically correct and gender-inclusive pronoun in 1850, though its usage as such dates back much farther (Berube 174). He was commonly used in legal practice and formal writing, including the King James Bible (Clason 23), but its popularity has waned in recent decades due to its sexist implications. Studies have shown that the use of he may reinforce gender bias (Fisk 481), which suggests that its use is incongruous with our modern sensibilities.

A generic she has been proposed as a way to combat the generic he. Rather than solve the issue, this merely inverts the inequality of power that he suggests; she is often used a generic specifically to draw attention to the issue of female subjugation throughout history. Some writers prefer to alternate between he and she in order to appear gender-neutral. This practice offers a balance between the two, but it could be said that this practice needlessly spotlights gender just as much as she (Berube 177-78).

Singular they

They is the oldest alternative to the masculine generic (Berube). Although it’s most commonly prescribed as a third-person plural pronoun, it’s widely accepted as a singular pronoun. Indeed, people have responded to the use of they as a gender-neutral singular pronoun more readily than any other (Jochnowitz 199). Its informality lends itself to common speech. Sentences like Someone forgot their keys sound natural and often goes unnoticed. The main drawback is that they, being a plural pronoun, doesn’t adhere to standard conventions regarding pronoun agreement. When used in conjunction with an indefinite pronoun that semantically implies plurality, such as someone, this disagreement is usually overlooked. But not as easily so when used in reference to a non-distinct singular antecedent. The American Heritage Usage Panel has found that sentences like A typical student will do their homework the night before it is due are seen as grammatically incorrect by an overwhelming majority (Berube). It can pose a problem for a writer by making them uncomfortable with using a pronoun that can easily be misconstrued as an error.


The use of one as a pronoun dates back to the thirteenth-century (“One”). As such, it has the benefit of being an established gender-indefinite pronoun, and is in concordance with prescriptive rules regarding pronoun-antecedent agreement, unlike the singular they (Carlton 157). However, one is perhaps most widely used to refer to a non-human object, as in Their dog died, but they’re planning to get a new one. This poses an issue of civil rights, as one may be seen as an objectifying pronoun when used with a specific human referent. Moreover, when used to describe human, one sounds overly formal and hypothetical, such as in the sentence One would do that if one were wise, which can easily be reworded to form a more concrete statement by switching to first- and second-person: I would do that if I were you. As a result, the use of one as a gender-neutral pronoun has never garnered much popularity in common speech (“One”).

He or she, she/he

Periphrastic constructions such as these are a more modern solution to the gendered pronoun controversy (Jochnowitz 200) . Originally proposed in the 1800s, the he or she construction was dismissed in favor of the generic he. In recent years, these sorts of forms have garnered more support. They allow the sentence maintain grammatical accuracy while encompassing both binary gender orientations. However, they can be clumsy when used repeatedly, as in Every employee must wash his/her hands before he/she begins his/her shift.Furthermore, there is no standard pronunciation for these backslash constructions; his/her may be pronounced “his or her”, “his-her”, or “his-slash-her” depending on the reader’s preference.

In regard to reader’s preference, the he/she she/he forms pose yet another issue, as they may be considered gender-biased. By necessity of its construction, one gender must come before the other, which implies one is superior to the other. Alternating between he/she and she/he forms can resolve this problem, but tends to exacerbate the confusion created by repeated use. Transgender or genderqueer individuals that don’t identify as either he or she may also take issue with these types of pronouns.

Invented Pronouns

Another modern epicene suggestion has been the adoption of an invented pronouns. Standardizing an entirely new pronoun set would effectively resolve the grammatical issue, as well as account for those individuals who don’t wish to identify with either of the gender-definite third-person singular pronouns. Many such pronoun sets have been proposed over the centuries, such as the Spivak (ey, em, eir, emself), Humanist (hu, hum, hus, humself), and a litany of others (Berube 174).

One of the most widely known of these invented pronouns is ze and its inflected forms zir, zirs, zirself (also hir, hirs, hirself) which arose during the 1970s. It is derived from the German pronoun Sie meaning both she and they (Williams “Modern Neologism”). Using this construction, a sentence such as He went to the pharmacy to get her prescription for her could be written to Ze went to the pharmacy to get zir prescription for zir.This may cause confusion as to which antecedent the pronouns refer, but the same confusion currently exists when two individuals signified by the same pronoun interact.

One of these neologisms could suffice as effective gender-neutral pronoun if it were to become standardized. However, none have garnered enough support to warrant its introduction into the canon. Most individuals are understandably resistant to the idea of adding an entirely new pronoun form into their working vocabulary. So far, reforms geared toward adopting one of these invented pronouns has been an exercise in futility.

It’s evident that none of these options are perfectly suited for the position of a standardized third-person singular pronoun for one reason or another. It is important to remember everyone has a different threshold for what constitutes sexist language, so catering to every audience is an impossible task. Choosing which pronoun to use is a matter of taste in most instances. If in doubt, it may be wisest to construct a sentence that eliminates the need for any of the above-mentioned options: A typical student completes his their ones his/her zir] homework the night before it is due. The sentence is grammatically correct and connotes the same meaning without the pronoun. In most cases, it’s possible to rewrite the material in a way that neutralizes the problem component.

This is a good way to avoid the issue, but it doesn’t solve the underlying problem. We’ve made great strides toward reforming sexist language, but there are still hurdles to jump. Opinions are divided over this particular issue, and likely will be for the foreseeable future. Currently, any of the options highlighted here are viable options with varying degrees of acceptance. One may use whichever third-person singular pronoun he/she prefers as long as zir consistent. To each their own.

Works Cited

Jochnowitz, George. “Everybody Likes Pizza, Doesn’t He or She?” American Speech 57 (Autumn 1982): 198-203. Print.

Berube, Margery S., et al. The American Heritage Book of English Usage. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996. 170-85. Print.

Wheeler, Benj. Ide. “The Origin of Grammatical Gender.” Journal of Germanic Philoshophy 2 (1899): 528-45. Print.

“one.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, 2013. Web. 30 May 2013.

Fisk, William R. “Responses to ‘Neutral’ Pronoun Presentations and the Development of Sex-Biased Responding.” Developmental Psychology 21 (1985): 481-85. Print.

“Modern Neologisms.” Gender-Neutral Pronoun FAQ, John Williams: 2004. Web. 3 June 2013.

Clason, Marmy A. “Feminism, Generic ‘He’, and the TNIV Bible Translation Debate.” Critical Discourse Studies 3 (2006): 23-35. Print.

Perniss, Pamela, et al. “Speaking of shape: The Effects of Language-Specific Encoding on Semantic Representations.” Language & Cognition 4 (2012): 223-42. Print.

About Ed Battistella

Edwin Battistella’s latest book Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels was released by Oxford University Press in March of 2020.
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