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December 13, 2016

I see that the Oxford Union debating society has decided to introduce a new pronoun, ze, as a gender-neutral replacement for “he or she”. I agree with the spirit of the move; a gender-neutral alternative would indeed be useful. But I don’t think that you can graft artificially-created words onto the language; the graft won’t take, the host body will reject it. Languages evolve organically; words are subject to mysterious selection pressures which are not decided by committee. And as it happens, English has already evolved an answer to the pronoun problem, with the singular use of the pronoun they. I can’t do better here than recycle part of a post I wrote on this subject a few years ago:

They sounds natural, is widely used informally and has a long history. Mr Elton in Jane Austen’s Emma says: ‘Everybody has their level’. In Thackeray we find ‘Nobody prevents you, do they?’ Grammatical purists might object that this breaks the ‘Rule of Number’. Well, it looks as if we’ll have to break either the Rule of Number or the Rule of Gender if we want an all-purpose pronoun, and for reasons of inclusivity breaking the Rule of Number is the better choice. (I should say that I owe these points and these examples toThe Handbook of Non-Sexist Writing by Casey Miller and Kate Swift).

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One Comment
  1. Simon Carter permalink

    This could go the same way as Ms which now goes unremarked but could be another version of the suggestion of herstory to replace history. Or is that being hisetical?

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