Is there a singular form for the ideas behind the words 'them' and 'they'? You have 'he', 'she', and 'they' (which often implies more than one person, but can imply one). In another tense you have, 'him', 'her' and 'them' (which again implies both a single individual AND a group).

Before I go on, I'm asking in Writers SE and not English Usage SE, because I don't mind what language the solution is in. I also feel Writers SE may be more aware of other conventions or phrases for what I'm after, maybe some writer or even entire language has already had this problem.

I'm trying to write a non gender-identifying 'prophecy' about an individual.

I don't want to write 'he' or 'she' as I want to keep the gender underwraps. I could use 'they', but I want to specifically indicate a single Individual* rather than a group**.

I'd also like to be able to mention non-specifc groups at the same time as the individual. A prophecy that goes...''and they decided that they need to get together with them''... (1 single and two groups, or is that 2 singles and one group, or wait is that 1 individual mentioned twice and one group?)

I'd also like to mention specifically gender-mentioned individuals (without actually naming them) alongside my unspecified individual. A prophecy that goes..."*He married her, much to the joy and celebration of 'them**'. After X years had an argument with 'them*'. 'They**' were not Impressed and kill him/her*" is kindof ambigious and confusing (to write and to read, if I hadn't put in some asterisks).

I realise prophecy is meant to be ambigious. But...

I'd still like myself, the readers and the characters to be able to sort of follow the gist. Yes, I'd like to be ambigious but not so ambigious that I can't even decipher the prophecies 2 months after I've written them, without using a cheatsheet!

Is there any known single (or maybe two-part) word that implies a gender neutral individual person? Maybe some writing convention I haven't come across. I'm not too fussed on the language. My story is set a long long time from now and would theoretically be in another language (although the reader would be reading an English 'translation'). As long as I will be able to explain the concept of the word in my text. I can have the word come across as 'didn't translate'/'no English equivalent'...

I have tried just making something up myself, I don't think with much luck.

The best I could come up with was combining, 'he', 'she', and 'them' to get 'shem'. I'm not too happy with it. Or should I just pick a random word or group of letters?

  • using Fate/Stay Night as an example (english translation), during flashbacks Saber, who is a Female King Arthur called Arturia, recalls Merlin's prophecy which never indicated the gender of the future king, it was just a common view that a King would be a man; the inscription on Excalibur (or Caliburn, I can't remember which it was) also didn't indicate that a man had to be the one to pull the sword out. it was something like "thou shall taketh this blade be the one true king"" or something like that
    – Memor-X
    Commented Sep 6, 2016 at 23:07
  • 1
    You could consider using gender neutral pronouns from the LGBT community. See this, for example.
    – vpn
    Commented Sep 7, 2016 at 1:32
  • This is an excellent suggestion! Thanks. The link seems to give several variations. Do you know which are more common/accepted than others? Commented Sep 7, 2016 at 8:22
  • @Standback, thanks for the title and tag edits. I was thinking this morning that I might edit the title but you beat me to it. :) Commented Sep 7, 2016 at 15:33

5 Answers 5


Why not just erase the requirement for he/her entirely?

As far as I'm aware prophecies don't tend to be overly long, so rather than saying He/she will accomplish these feats, just say The Chosen One will accomplish these feats, or whatever name you want to give in the prophecy. In at most a couple of paragraphs of writing, it shouldn't be too out of place.

It can even be an actual prophesied name. Take for example the prophecy from A Song of Ice and Fire:

There will come a day after a long summer when the stars bleed and the cold breath of darkness falls heavy on the world. In this dread hour a warrior shall draw from the fire a burning sword. And that sword shall be Lightbringer, the Red Sword of Heroes, and he who clasps it shall be Azor Ahai come again, and the darkness shall flee before him.

If you change the instance of he to the one and him to the Chosen One and all of a sudden you have a gender neutral prophecy. And if it is rewritten slightly then actual name of Azor Ahai could be used instead of pronouns at all.

In order to make this work, you may need to restructure the exact wording of the prophecy to minimize the requirements for these swaps. My answer to this question may help with minimizing the uses of pronouns in a piece of text.

Prophecies don't tend to fit with how languages are spoken in an everyday context, so having an uncommon sentencing structure that exchanges the instances of he, her etc. will not be overly conspicuous, it will simply seem to be how the prophecy was originally read and will allow you some artistic license with allowing it to seem historic or mystical.

  • I had actually seen your answer in the other question before. And upvoted! Thanks for the reminder. Commented Sep 8, 2016 at 13:01

Prophecies are often written as metaphors. So you can use a metaphor for the person which is an object or an animal. This allows you to refer to him/her as "it" and thus conceal their gender.

"*He married her, much to the joy and celebration of 'them**'. After X years had an argument with 'them*'. 'They**' were not Impressed and kill him/her*"

could be prophesized as

The holy bond of matrimony will bring great delight to the eagle. But the eagle will fall into disdain and they will slay it without mercy.

"The eagle" in that prophecy could be a male or a female person. As prophecies are, it could also be interpreted as a group of people or even as an abstract concept. How plausible that interpretation would be depends on how vague the prophecy is in general.

  • Nice answer. I already have my metaphor all lined up. But I think reading and writing 'the eagle will do this and the eagle will do that. The eagle will smite this and raise that. The eagle will feel joy at their destruction.' is repetitive. I think I'm trying to get a pronoun for using with the metaphor. So more 'the eagle did this and he/she also did that... He/she was very happy in their destruction.' obviously prophecy isn't written like I just wrote it, but as an example of my intent. Commented Sep 7, 2016 at 15:53

Could the prophecy be worded as if spoken to the Chosen one by the prophet or a deity?

And the Goddess called out to the future bloodline of the Chosen: You shall be joyous at the marriage of X and Y. But after many years you will be consumed by bitterness and slay X, and be forced to flee the land.

  • That could work quite a few different prophecies. Not all of them, as my prophet/deity would also be talking to others about 'the chosen one'. Commented Sep 7, 2016 at 19:29

Actually the solution to what you are asking should be your creative achievement!

George Perec wrote a novel without the letter "e". He didn't ask others how to do it and then just followed their advice. He found out how he could do it. It was his creative genious that made that novel possible.

If you lack the will to experiment and find the solution, or if, after much experimentation, you cannot find a solution, then you are not meant to write this story.

Some suggestions, nevertheless:

  1. Write in first person perspective:

    I sat there thinking, what gender am I?

    If you write in first person, you never have to disclose the sex or gender of the protagonist.

  2. Avoid pronouns altogether. There are many ways to do this:

    • Use the uninflected or imperative form of the verb:

    Tired. Get up. Yes, get up. Good. Now walk over and press the buttion. No. No. That is wrong. But do it, nevertheless. Do not care what is right or wrong. Good. Yes. Press. Well done. Now go back. Sit.

    • Use (non-gendered) names. Here is the beginning of To Kill a Mockingbird:

    When Whorl was nearly thirteen, my sibling got an arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Whorl's fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, Whorl was seldom self-conscious about the injury. Whorl's left arm was somewhat shorter than the right; when Whorl stood or walked, the back of Whorl's hand was at right angles to the body, the thumb parallel to the thigh. Whorl couldn't have cared less, so long as Whorl could pass and punt.

    Of course simply replacing pronouns by names in an existing text will create an odd effect, but if you adapt your writing to this, you can avoid some of the oddity. Also note, that I replaced some of the possessive pronouns by "the" (e.g. "his arm" becomes "the arm"). I could also have used the continuous form in some places (e.g. turning "when he stood or walked" into "standing and walking"). And I deleted the name in one place without replacing it by anything (so that "my brother Jem" becomes "my brother" or, to take the gender out of that noun also, "my sibling"). I just wanted this to be an example for replacing by names, so I left many of the names-for-pronouns in place, but you can of course combine all the options to make each single replacement or avoidance less jarring.

I'm sure there are many more options, but now it's your turn and you need to just sit down and experiment and find out how you can achieve the effect you want. I'm sure it can be done. But I'm also sure that the result will by necessity sound strange to our ears, because signifying gender is such an essential part of our culture and language, that you will have to create a new way of handling language – and that cannot be done without people stumbling over it.

  • How did Perec write his name? Good suggestions. Thanks. I'm sure that if Perec had had the opportunity to check if his attempt had been successfully implemented in the past he would have asked. Sadly he seems to have died before the public use of the Internet, ie he didn't have access to a vast international network of people on public forums. He couldn't then check if he was reinventing the wheel or not. I'll happily go with a new 'made-up' word, but I would like to check if there are existing versions that can maybe influence the 'made-up' that I create. A sort of Etymology for my choice. Commented Sep 7, 2016 at 7:41
  • If you want to use pronouns but want them to be ungendered, vanderpn's suggestion in their comment above to use the existing gender-neutral pronouns seems the best option. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… for examples.
    – user5645
    Commented Sep 7, 2016 at 7:48
  • Yeah. I saw that and agree. A very good suggestion from vanderpn. Commented Sep 7, 2016 at 8:20
  • 1
    A problem with the use of something like xe/xem/xyr in writing targeted at a general audience is that some readers will not understand the words as pronouns but confuse them for example with names, while others will be irritated (see the heated debate surrounding gender neutral language). The advantage in my suggestion is that if done well it is not necessarily readily apparent that you are trying to avoid gender at all. Even if someone notices that you are not using pronouns, there can be many reasons for doing so, making the experiment more interesting and less controversial.
    – user5645
    Commented Sep 7, 2016 at 8:37

Word Usage

The proper word is "one", when one wishes to avoid specifying the sex. For example, "One might well consider this."

However, in English even though this is a number nonspecific neutral reference, this could be still mistaken for a number, and thus fails to fully meet your criteria.

Grammar Options

The other option is grammatical in nature, and is called circumlocution, defined as:

cir·cum·lo·cu·tionˌ(sərkəmˌləˈkyo͞oSH(ə)n/), noun; the use of many words where fewer would do, especially in a deliberate attempt to be vague or evasive.

It is also a term used when talking around a subject without using a keyword or certain keywords. As you have noted, you could use plural nonspecific words, but again that connotes a number, namely any number other than one.

Your best bet might be to refer to events, causes, and effects without referencing any people specific words at all, unless such a word is important to the prophecy in question. Except, again, you do wish to be able to on occasion.

Tricky Language

One more option is to use another language. Make up words and define them as you like. In another language there may very well be words which refers to people singly and/or in groups, with and/or without a reference to the sex, and in any, or as many combinations as you need.

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