Whenever you refer to a person in your writing without using a name or a description, you usually have to use a pronoun. But embedded in these pronouns there is already a description. It’s the person’s gender: He/She, Him/Her, His/Hers.
I ain’t no linguist so I don’t know why there are different versions of pronouns. But I can see why, back in the day, gender would be an accepted way to separate them. Now, though, when people are more enlightened and the lines between genders have blurred, We don’t need artificial segregation in our language.
In creative writing it is not really an issue. You usually know the gender of the character being refereed to. And reading those pronouns just feels right. After all, we have been using them forever.
“Jane was a strong woman. When people looked at her they could tell she enjoyed doing impressive things with her muscles.”
“John was a beautiful man. When people looked at him they could tell he enjoyed doing impressive things with his hair.”
I have been working on a rule-book for a Role-playing Game. (Demonize! A competitive RPG debuting soon on this very website!) It contains a paragraph where the player is supposed to fill in the blanks to create a character. But the player could create a man, woman or anything in between, so how do you address pronouns in that situation? Here is what I did:
“In (TIME PERIOD/LOCATION) there lives a (GENDER) named (NAME). Most people see them as (OCCUPATION), but the thing they want most in life is to (ULTIMATE GOAL). If they can just get their (EVIL VICE) under control they might be able to attain that goal. In the meantime, they bide their time (HOBBY) and hoping that (FEAR) doesn’t happen. Little do they know that The Demons have taken notice of them for something terrible they did in order to get where they are today. (TERRIBLE THING)”
Notice I decided to use the “singular they” approach. It sounds fine, right? But when you start to fill in the blanks you will see that the results read quite awkwardly:
“In present day Washington DC there lives a man named Sterling Jackson. Most people see them as a US Congressman but the thing they want most in life is to be elected president. If they can just get their corruption under control they might be able attain that goal. In the meantime, they bide their time sailing yachts and hoping that they don’t get caught lying to the American people. Little do they know that The Demons have taken notice of them for something terrible they did in order to get where they are today. He once had a mistress who threatened to expose their affair. He had her killed before she could talk.”
See what I mean? Yes, I can use “He or she” and “Him or Her”, and besides the masculine pronoun always being the first part of that duet, the main problem is that it’s just too cumbersome.
I was alerted to the existence of gender-neutral pronouns such as Ze/Zir/Zirs and Xe/Xem/Xyr. But it comes down to respecting your reader. Do you really want people to have to look things up to understand what you are talking about?
Invented pronouns (chart stolen from Wikipedia)
|Spivak (old)||E laughed||I called em||Eir eyes gleam|
|Spivak (new)||Ey laughed||I called em||Eir eyes gleam|
|Humanist||Hu laughed||I called hum||Hus eyes gleam|
|Per||Per laughed||I called per||Per eyes gleam|
|Thon||Thon laughed||I called thon||Thons eyes gleam|
|Ve||Ve laughed||I called ver||Vis eyes gleam|
|Xe||Xe laughed||I called xem||Xyr eyes gleam|
|Ze (or zie or sie) and zir||Ze laughed||I called zir/zem||Zir/Zes eyes gleam|
|Ze (or zie or sie) and hir||Ze laughed||I called hir||Hir eyes gleam|
|Ze and mer||Ze laughed||I called mer||Zer eyes gleam|
|Zhe, Zher, Zhim||Zhe laughed||I called zhim||Zher eyes gleam|
|Yo||Yo laughed||I called yon||Yos eyes gleam|
Usually, no. And in the example paragraph I am working on, I feel the best choice is to leave it as-is with the the singular-they. It’s not perfect, but when it comes to grammar (and other things), we are still a society that segregates by gender. So for now this will have to do.