In the controversy over Grantland contributor Caleb Hannan’s outing of transgender golf-putter inventor Essay Anne Vanderbilt, who committed suicide while the story was being reported, Hannan was also criticized for referring to Vanderbilt as "he" rather than "she" in a passage about her previous identity as Stephen Krol. As Grantland editor-in-chief Bill Simmons wrote in his apology, "Our lack of sophistication with transgender pronouns was so easily avoidable, it makes me want to punch through a wall." It also makes one wish English provided a way of avoiding mentioning Vanderbilt’s sex at all.
Many people have proposed all sorts of creative solutions to the problem, and, in fact, most of the world’s languages don’t have separate pronouns for males and females. Even in English, they already applies to both men and women. Yet to invent a new gender-neutral pronoun hoping for any change in English As She Is Spoke is a waste of energy, despite even the most enlightened of intentions.
Make no mistake: the current situation is lousy. The grand old idea was that he could stand for both women and men, but it never made much sense ("Sally prided himself on his penmanship"?), and studies prove what we all know: that he is readily interpreted as male. As early as the 1950s, when E.B. White was revising William Strunk’s The Elements of Style into the version we know today, White suggested avoiding the whole business by using plurals and other tricks, such as changing The writer must address his reader’s concerns to As a writer, you must address your readers’ concerns. Yet even he admitted that this might leave one’s prose “general and diffuse.”
And never mind the distracting alternation between he and she, which has been shown to come off to readers as favoring she—or the unpronounceable smudges s/he and he/she. This is where the idea comes in, so reasonable on its face, of a brand new pronoun that does the job of he and she both. Such as hesh—he plus she—or a 1970s attempt, co. The latest attempt is ze, proposed by LGBT people who seek a pronoun that doesn’t shore up conventional assumptions of gender identity.
Ze is a great idea in itself, but that it is too easily confusable with he in casual speech—The problem is ze doesn’t live close enough—is only the beginning of the problem. Ze, like co, hesh and thon (from “that one,” a nineteenth-century attempt), can’t truly catch on. In language there are open-class and closed-class words.
Open-class ones, such as nouns and verbs, can be made up, or used in brand new ways, as new things and actions arise in the course of human affairs. Closed-class words are much harder to create out of thin air. They aren’t things or actions, but tools to show the relationships between them. For example, prepositions situate things in space and time. Note that you can’t make one up, such as one that describes something being airborne instead of on the ground. The plane is gunch the air—cute, but hopeless.
Pronouns are the same way. They stand for something, namely nouns. They’re tools. We use them more than we use nouns themselves—rapidly, unconsciously, all day. Thus, we are no more likely to change them than we are to alter the way we swallow. We are, as one might say, “severely” conservative about pronouns.
And not just lately. In Middle English, there was a time when the words for he and she, pronounced “hay” and “hayuh,” were starting to sound alike—and speakers spontaneously created a new word she to maintain the distinction. Pronouns can fall away now and then—thou made way for you to cover both singular and plural. Pronouns can also change if it’s a matter of adding something familiar to one that already exists—hence you all to give us something else we’d like to have, a plural for you. But then note that even there, we are told that it is slangy, unsuitable for company, not a “real” word.
In that vein, the only thing we can actually do about the gendered pronoun problem has already been done—using they as a singular, as in Tell each student where they can hand in their paper. English speakers have been using they that way since the Middle Ages; later on, Thackeray was casually penning “A person can’t help their birth” in Vanity Fair, hardly a slangy work. Yet even here, guardians of the language tell us we are wrong to subject they to such abuse: Strunk & White is categorical on the matter, dismissing it as unduly “bashful.”
Some of this is silly: If we can’t use they in the plural, then imagine how singular you, instead of thou, would have sounded to an Old English speaker. Yet in truth, singular they can only take us so far, as seen in the Chasing Amy scene when Alyssa gives away her reluctance to specify an ex’s gender by using too many theys (“the pronoun thing,” as her interlocutor calls it). Too many singular theys can only sound like you’re hiding something.
Not to mention just plain ugly. As much of a fan of singular they as I am, lexicographer Bryan Garner has taken me to task asking whether My friend said they might come over by themselves this afternoon is a legitimate sentence. I openly admit that it isn’t. Those who condemn singular they outright are unclear—as Garner often is—on where their concerns with clarity drift into aesthetic whimsy. However, singular they is indeed useful only in small doses. Sooner or later you have to either start jumping through the circumlocutionary hoops of the kind Strunk & White liked, or more likely, give away the game and call it a he or a she.
In some ways, a person can’t help their language.
John McWhorter is a contributing editor to The New Republic.