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Some languages like Persian do not have gender for pronouns. For example, they use just one pronoun (Ou) to refer to he/she. This makes the language gender-neutral which to me it is more convenient in the modern world in which men and women are equal. For example, as a university lecturer in Sweden, we are facing this evaluation from students that we use more he or she when we are teaching and we are biased in our speaking.

I am wondering if in English there is a pronoun that I can replace with he and she that includes both? If not, is the modern English language is going toward inventing such a pronoun?

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    There have been many cases of trying to "invent" new words -- with generally poor success. New words that get into regular use (words like shutterbug, junkie, or jalopy) generally come from slang rather than an intentional effort to improve the language.
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Sep 17 at 18:41
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    Welcome to Writing.SE! This feels like a question that would be better suited for English.SE, but at the same time, I'm not 100% certain that it's off-topic here (plus it's already been answered), so I'll leave it for the time being.
    – F1Krazy
    Sep 17 at 19:13
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    Wikipedia: English gender-neutral pronouns
    – Martin
    Sep 18 at 4:31
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"They" is typically the English pronoun you would use here. It is a generally accepted, gender-neutral pronoun that has been in usage for centuries to refer to any of the following:

  1. A group of people that may contain multiple genders ("They went to the Silicon Valley conference yesterday."). This differs from other languages like Spanish, which use gendered group pronouns. "Ellos" in Spanish means "they (masculine)", used for groups of men, while "ellas" means "they (feminine)," used for groups of women.

  2. A person being referred to in conversation with unknown or unspecified gender; i.e. the speaker doesn't know what gender they are ("I hear there is a new executive at that company who is doing great work. They must be very talented.")

  3. A person who is nonbinary or agender, for whom masculine or feminine pronouns are not applicable ("I met Mick the other day. They went to the store with me to pick up tomatoes.")

  4. (From @RichardTingle in the comments) A generic person in the abstract, without specifying anyone in particular. ("If a customer visits the store, ask them if they want a beverage with their meal.")

In each of these use cases, using "they" is the generally acknowledged practice, and you use it just like you would use any other plural-esque pronoun.

Edit: Seeing the ongoing discussion in the comments, I feel it's also an important note that using "it" instead of "they" can come across as offensive, impolite and dehumanizing when used to refer to a person in common English, because usually "it" is reserved for objects - i.e. "I picked up the phone and looked at it." I would personally recommend avoiding the use of "it" to refer to a person at all costs.

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    @FedericoNavarrete "It" refers to objects or animals, not people. It's not polite to refer to a human that way.
    – nick012000
    Sep 18 at 9:46
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    @FedericoNavarrete Logically, sure, but this is language and culture we're talking about, and the English language has made a feature out of the difference between "it" and "they". This question on English.SE has some valuable points and discussion around the topic. If you have a specific question about "it" and its history, consider asking a new question there.
    – TylerW
    Sep 18 at 13:06
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    @FedericoNavarrete you're entitled to your opinion. Be aware though that native speakers don't share the same perspective, and referring to anyone as "it" will be taken extremely offensively. I know logically we're still animals, but grammar isn't always logical.
    – Drake P
    Sep 18 at 14:01
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    @AustinHemmelgarn Traditionally and in highly formal German someone referred to as das Kind, das Mädchen, or das Fräulein would also be referred to with the neuter pronoun es. Of course in English we might also traditionally have referred to a baby as it.
    – The Photon
    Sep 18 at 15:49
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    @gilhd note that "they" is grammatically plural, even when it refers to one person - just like "you" - so it should be "they go"
    – user253751
    Sep 19 at 9:16
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You are looking for "they" (which can be used as singular or as plural).

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  • Are you using this with the singular or the plural form of the verb? "They are a human" or "They is a human"? Sep 18 at 23:26
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    @PaŭloEbermann You use the syntactically plural form of the verb, i.e. "they are" and not "they is", regardless of whether "they" refers to one person or multiple people. It works exactly the same as the second-person pronoun "you", which can refer to one person or multiple people but either way always takes the syntactically plural form ("you are", not "you is").
    – kaya3
    Sep 19 at 0:13
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"If not, is the modern English language is going toward inventing such a pronoun?"

Up until the mid-20th century English used the generic 'he' to refer to both genders. Language is defined by usage - if you frequently and consistently use 'he' generically, people will come to interpret it generically.

Rather than evolving a new pronoun, English usage (outside the intensely political gender-activist sub-culture) has instead moved towards not caring. Statements that are obviously intended generically can use either pronoun, and readers will not normally take any offence. We all know it's a difficulty. We all know there's social pressure not to make assumptions. So if an author refers to the reader with the pronouns 'she' and 'her' the male readers will just shrug. And I think most modern women would dismiss the generic use of 'he' and 'his' as no more than a minor irritation. There are far more important things to worry about.

English society is moving towards being gender-blind, where your classification into one gender-tribe or another doesn't matter. We are all people, just the same. The walls between the groups have broken down. The 'he'/'she' awkwardness in language is just a sometimes-wryly-amusing historical remnant.

The thing about taking offence at pronoun use is that it is a clear sign that you don't consider the genders equal and interchangeable, that you are maintaining strong tribal divisions between the groups, strong tribal identification of each person with a particular group, and promoting division and conflict between groups. To take offence at being ascribed the wrong gender is to imply that being accused of being of that gender is somehow an insult. Sexist males would certainly object to being referred to as female, because they perceived that as inferior and therefore insulting. But if we genuinely value all genders equally, then it is merely an error, not an insult, and so of no consequence.

In modern society we no longer consider gender-misclassification such a serious matter, since all genders are of equal status, so there is little remaining pressure to avoid it by inventing new words.

Should you have the misfortune to find yourself in a culture where rigid categorisation / division into gender categories (or any other tribal/caste/class system) is the norm, and where deep offence may be taken if you get it wrong, then you may need to adapt to the local culture. Unfortunately, it is not as simple as finding a generic pronoun applicable to all cases, because conflict and division is the entire point of tribal identifications. Language usage is a classic shibboleth for distinguishing between conflicting social groups, and when division is seen as socially advantageous, the tendency is for society to fragment into smaller and smaller factions and splinter groups. You don't just have male and female, but also trans, intersex, non-binary, genderfluid, fae, bunny, plants, animals, celestials, and so on. You have to memorise dozens of grammatical tables and know what category every person you meet belongs to. And you have to know how many of each there are in the general population so that they may each be represented both proportionately and equally. Having a single set of universally-applicable pronouns would spoil all the fun!

It's not possible to comply. But that's actually the point. It's a manipulative social strategy with a very long history...

"There's no way to rule innocent men. The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren't enough criminals one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws. Who wants a nation of law-abiding citizens? What's there in that for anyone? But just pass the kind of laws that can neither be observed nor enforced or objectively interpreted – and you create a nation of law-breakers – and then you cash in on guilt. Now that's the system, Mr. Reardon, that's the game, and once you understand it, you'll be much easier to deal with."

In summary - most modern non-sexist English-speakers don't care what pronoun you use any more, and the political gender-activist sub-culture who do care are moving rapidly in the opposite direction from having one simple set towards even greater complexity and opportunities for social awkwardness. There is no significant movement towards any new simplified universally-applicable pronouns.

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    "English usage ... has instead moved towards not caring. Statements that are obviously intended generically can use either pronoun" - what are you basing this on? My opinion aside, almost all modern usages and recommendations I've seen involve using "they" for someone of an unknown gender and only using "he" or "she" when someone's gender is known. Unless by "intensely political gender-activist sub-culture" you mean "anyone who isn't leaning very strongly to the right", but most of them likely often use "they" (possibly without even knowing it).
    – NotThatGuy
    Sep 19 at 22:38
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    "The thing about taking offence at pronoun use is that it is a clear sign that..." - what does that, or anything following that in your answer, have to do with Writing? It seems to be more of an attempt to express conservative political opinions while insulting the left. An unbiased answer may express similar ideas, but without insulting anyone who may disagree, while acknowledging that this only applies to part of the (US) population, and that it would simply be factually incorrect for a rather large percentage of the remaining population.
    – NotThatGuy
    Sep 19 at 22:49
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A different sort of idea:

This is not official English, but I have a thought, and don't downvote it just because it's not official. Alternate pronouns are new territory linguistically. I'm interested in feedback more than votes, so feel free to leave a comment on your opinion.

I would not recommend alternate pronouns for a routine story, as it would be a distraction from the flow. I personally write almost exclusively in science fiction (dabble in horror), and in stories where alternate gender, or LACK of gender are real things, there are situations where the story focuses on the lack of gender or difficulty of defining gender. In those situations, rigidly adhering to gender pronouns can be it's own distraction for characters as well as being inaccurate. But using the SAME neutral pronouns for everyone could be confusing in it's own right.

These and very similar questions have been asked before. I would agree that the universal pronoun is "they" and I really can't add a lot to it, except to use "them" and "their" as well. I still find this awkward for a singular, however. I personally like "folks" for a pluralized version when referring to any group of people.

If I needed to, I'd use a very short abbreviation of the person's name to maximize personalization. So Terry becomes te, John becomes jo. Or the second letter could always be an E or an I. Some names won't work so well, like Maya (ma? me? my?) but perhaps mi would. I haven't come up with an idea for what to do when you don't know a person's name, but something generic could work then, like zi. Is it really a gender issue to go -s versus -r (as in tis or ter, like in tis car, or ter door)? Either could work, or you could use whichever sounded right contextually.

It would look a bit like this:

Terry went to tis car and opened tis trunk. Ti dug through the duffel bag inside.

Terry's friend Shann spoke up. Si said, "Hey, Terry, how are you doing?"

Startled, Terry smacked tis head on the lid of the trunk. "Don't do that! It's rude to sneak up on people!"

Shann only shrugged sis shoulders.

This way, the language still has the flow of pronouns. Or do away with pronouns all together! It reads a little clunky because readers are optically lazy, which is why I'd go customizable.

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    It is a shame that we don't see more experimental grammar in modern writing. A couple decades ago, I read a Star Trek novel which had a character from a species which had three genders. The middle-sex was referred to with combined pronouns such as shim, hisher, and my favorite, shHe with both a soft and hard H sound in tandem. Unfortunately, I never saw any of that evolved grammar in other books, even in the same series. Sep 18 at 1:16
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    For me, a big problem with non-standard words like this is that they're distracting. Instead of focusing on what you're trying to tell me, I'm now focusing on this weird pronoun you're using. In a sci-fi context (like the Star Trek novel which Henry mentioned, that I also have read), it's less of a distraction because you expect alien cultures to have, well, alien constructs. But if you're writing about modern day New York, it's not something I'm going to expect, so it's a bit of mental dissonance. Instead of just seeing "him" or "her" or "they", I see "tis" and have to change mental gears. Sep 18 at 5:18
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    @RoddyoftheFrozenPeas It is true I write almost exclusively in the sci Fi genre, so that is the perspective I have on the subject. I'm currently working on a story where the four main characters are an AI, a girl who is now a cyborg and lacks gender, a boy unable to obtain consent due to his subconscious psychic power, and a man constantly watched by the invasive spirit of his grandfather. I don't need to deal with alternate pronouns (except for the AI, who doesn't mind being called "it"), but sexuality gets complicated in science fiction. Weird pronouns are a real concern.
    – DWKraus
    Sep 18 at 14:40
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    @RoddyoftheFrozenPeas It's certainly distracting initially.  If the story is well-written and engaging, though (and sufficiently long), then it'll probably become less so as you get used to it. (After all, every change has to start somewhere…)
    – gidds
    Sep 18 at 16:01
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    @gidds - While there is some truth to that, some people like me read slowly enough and get distracted enough that you never really do get used to it, especially when it's not something used in common parlance. Maybe if in 100 years we standardize an expanded set of gendered/agendered pronouns, contemporary readers who grew up hearing them would read "tis" or "xis" and not even blink because it's part of their standard lexicon; but until that happens it will remain jarring. But as you say, change does have to start somewhere. :) Sep 18 at 19:07
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There have been several attempts to coin one, including e/em/eir, xe/xem/xir, sie/hem/hir and ze/zem/zir, along with many other variations. Some of these have been around for more than a century, but none has caught on and become standard English. Singular they has, as others have mentioned. You will also sometimes see “she/he,” “s/he,” “his or her,” or something similar, although today that might not be considered inclusive of people who identify as non-binary.

“He” was frequently used in an epicene sense until the twentieth century, but no longer is. Ironically, his was originally a neuter pronoun, and their was originally masculine.

You can also use alternatives to pronouns. “The former” and “the latter” can distinguish between two people in the same contexts where you might use “he” and “she” without ambiguity but “they told them that they ....” would be confusing, and works for people of any gender even when you do not know their names. It might sound too stuffy, though.

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    How did you learn that "his was originally a neuter pronoun, and their was originally masculine"? Do you have any links to somewhere I can continue reading about that? Sep 18 at 22:31
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    @theonlygusti It was a while ago, but here’s a reference for his and, I apologize, but here’s a quick link to Wikipedia showing that þeir, from which we get they, was masculine in Old Norse, and the feminine and neuter pronouns were different.
    – Davislor
    Sep 19 at 0:05
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Mathematician Michael Spivak says 'e' for he/she.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spivak_pronoun

Prepare to downvote me.

I will not directly use people's preferred pronouns. I will use e/h/h and thereby indirectly use anyone's preferred pronouns, and therefore I am never wrong. if you want she and i say e, then you cannot disprove that i said she. of course, i cannot prove that i said she. devil's proof or something.

Note that 'h' is not part of the Spivak pronoun. I don't agree with Spivak's 'em' and 'eir' because those are just they/them/their without the 'th'. Get the common letter of his, her, him: h. Same idea as the common letter of he, she: e.

I will call all humans e/h/h. Maybe even animals. I would rather risk offending everyone than risk offending only a certain group of people. This way, I only risk being a jerk for offending everyone, rather than being a sexist for offending only a certain group of people.

But they shouldn't consider me a jerk anyway because I do call them by their preferred pronouns, just not directly. I am correct to identify any human as born male or born female (except intersex?). I am correct to say that any proposition is true or false. It's a tautology! I am correct to identify you as 'he or she' with the shortcut 'e'. Spivak pronoun is never wrong because it is a tautology. Why do you think Persian and the Philippine language/Tagalog even have a Spivak pronoun in their own language?

Wait about the preferred pronouns in re the code of conduct:

  1. Case 1: I want they/them/their, but I get he/she/his/her/him. --> Offensive of course, but come on do you really think that's what I'm talking about?

  2. Case 2: I want they/them/their, but I get e/h/h. --> Why is this offensive? You want singular they ONLY because that's what the English language has to offer. You can't possibly insist on a singular they when e/h exists in languages like say the Philippine language/Tagalog. Or you insist on that if and only if you insist on singular they in English when e/h exists in English.

  3. Case 3: I want he/him/his, but I get e/h/h. --> There is not 'but'. It's an 'and'. You get/got what you wanted. 'or' signifies a choice. Who says the choice doesn't belong to you? Just pick the 'he' from the 'he or she' and that's done.

Look why do you think there's a Spivak pronoun in English, but languages like the Philippine language/Tagalog or Persian don't have [insert someone's name] pronoun? The language already has something that doesn't have all these problems. Thus, it is necessary to invent (things like) Spivak pronoun (and singular they). I hardly imagine the code of conduct and my principle being a contradiction in the Philippine language/Tagalog or Persian

Plus, in Christian schools, you can get deducted points for referring to the holy spirit as 'it' (e.g. trinitarian denominations like Catholicism), so all the more reason to keep using e/h/h.

Bonus:

  1. Use Mx instead of Mr or Ms. I know a top university in a country that does this.

  2. Use sibling instead of brother or sister.


re

Please note that refusing to use someone's stated pronouns is a direct contradiction of our Code of Conduct which states: "Use stated pronouns (when known)." – linksassin

my responses:

  1. that's the thing! e is he/she, so i'm never wrong. slash is of course 'or'. so if you want she and i say e, then you cannot disprove that i said she. of course, i cannot prove that i said she. devil's proof or something.

  2. in the philippine language/in tagalog there's only siya for he/she/e. so if i speak about this person in the philippine language/in tagalog, then i am offending this person?

  3. i think the rule is for the he/she instead of they/them/their. THAT'S THE OFFENSIVE ONE. And that's the exactly what I'm trying to avoid! Get it?


Note:

If you're non-native, then just go with they/them/their as much as possible...I guess. IDK. This isn't ELL SE. And I'm making this note only because of the non-native thing in comment.

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    I'm not sure that "offend everyone and get called a jerk" is the best argument for why OP should consider doing this.
    – F1Krazy
    Sep 19 at 21:59
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    Your proposal is entirely unconvincing, I see no real advantage. I think the question seeks solutions that would also work for non-native speakers and those certainly won't accept such a weird concept.
    – Matt
    Sep 19 at 23:02
  • Please note that refusing to use someone's stated pronouns is a direct contradiction of our Code of Conduct which states: "Use stated pronouns (when known)."
    – linksassin
    Sep 20 at 0:32
  • @linksassin but that's the thing! e is he/she, so i'm never wrong. slash is of course 'or'. so if you want she and i say e, then you cannot disprove that i said she. of course, i cannot prove that i said she. devil's proof or something.
    – BCLC
    Sep 20 at 2:18
  • @linksassin in the philippine language/in tagalog there's only siya for he/she/e. so if i speak to this person in the philippine language/in tagalog, then i am offending this person?
    – BCLC
    Sep 20 at 2:20

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