There has been much huffing and puffing recently about gender neutral pronouns. In principle, I rather like the idea. The fact that I dislike some of the other people who like the idea ought not to affect that. Not, I hasten to add, that I feel any animus against anyone purely on the grounds that they prefer to be referred to by one sound rather than another, or that their gender is difficult to specify externally, or that they feel that neither “he” nor “she” describes them, or that they advocate for lexical change. While it is true that the set of people currently talking loudest about gender-neutral pronouns would, if displayed on a Venn diagram, have considerable overlap with the set of people who wish to get others arrested for using the wrong word, that is a symptom of the addiction of our society to the use of force rather than persuasion, not a logical necessity.
The cause of the gender-neutral pronoun is ill-served by many of its current advocates. But in itself, it would be handy. That’s “it” as in “having a third person singular pronoun available to use to describe human beings without specifying gender”, not “it” as in “it”. It (as in the situation, not a person) tends to get an itty-bit hairy when one person refers to another (by which I mean another person, not another situation) as “it”. Thus, if I may reiterate, using “it” (as in “‘it'”) as a gender-neutral pronoun to refer to a person would put the user in a bad situation, even if they (here used in the singular) were not a singularly bad person. Wouldn’t it?
OK, I got drunk on words there. Sobering up, I am not seeking perfect “representation” for every one of Facebook’s 71 gender options. They can represent themselves. I just think it would be nice to have one more option, and to settle on one. That way those prone to being easily offended, and the subset of them that resort to bullying, could be kept from unhappiness and the occasion of sin.
I do think that the traditional use of “he” and “man” to include the female is a little, y’know, presumptuous. I am not one to go through old documents cutting out every offending “he-including-she” with a razor, but I would just as soon have some more inclusive style in new documents.It is tedious have to write “he or she” every time.
Singular “they” sounds all right when the subject is indefinite (e.g. “If anyone wants more details, give them a brochure”) but sounds wrong if the gender is known. At this point someone usually pipes up to say that Shakespeare used it in their plays. Only they don’t say their plays, they say his plays, unless they (gender unspecified here: no problem) are making some sort of claim that Shakespeare was a collective, a Borg or a woman.
The distinction between singular and plural third person is useful. We feel its lack in the second person. The singular/plural distinction keeps trying to creep back in “youse” and “y’all”. In some dialects spoken in Northern England, “thou” never went away, merely faded a little into “tha”. If making no difference between singular and plural is sometimes confusing when talking to people, it is a swamp when talking about people. Imagine an action scene in a novel where all the characters including the protagonist were referred to as “they”.
This link to a piece called “The Need for a Gender-neutral Pronoun” lists some of the leading contenders for a new pronoun. By clicking on the suggested pronoun itself (or the title of the set in the case of the Spivak pronouns named after their creator), you can read an extract from Alice in Wonderland using that set of pronouns. The author also rates the proposed words by ease of pronunciation, distinctiveness, and how truly neutral they are. The author prefers the set of pronouns based on “ne” in the nominative case. If you agree that a gender neutral pronoun would be desirable, which option would you like to take hold in the language? If you object to the whole idea, what would you like to see become dominant – strict use of “he” (or “she”), or “they”, or “s/he” and variants?
The thing is, I will not be the first in my circle of acquaintance to start writing “xe” or “ne” in any other context but science fiction for the same reason that I will not be first in my circle to start taking a daily stroll in the nude.
I would if you would, but I know and you know, neither of us will.