Holistic local sustainability; food, water, energy, money, people
The absence of a singular gender neutral third person pronoun in the English language has defied resolution for centuries, according to Dennis Barron. If there is a silver bullet, he’s not telling us. The traditional he is fading out of use for obvious reasons, but how are the alternatives faring? Not particularly well. Substituting or alternating she with he or using combinations such as he or she are stylistically cumbersome. However, the fact that we continue to struggle on with these unwieldy solutions is a testament to our dedication to finding a solution.
The solution that has gained some common currency is to singularize they. This appears to have first emerged in the 14th century and has since been used in literature among the well educated. It is used especially when the antecedent’s gender is not known or is of either gender, such as The victim had money and jewelry taken from them. and It’s hard to move an aging mother or father from their long-term home. The use of they and its forms after singular indefinite pronouns (victim) or singular nouns with general reference to either or both sexes (an aging parent) has become more acceptable. More recently, it is even gaining ground when refering to a clearly specified, known, or named person to avoid reference to sex or gender, as in My hair stylist had their car stolen. This may be the preference of the speaker or the person referred to.
But what’s the problem with it?
It is regarded as an impersonal, neuter pronoun because it usually refers to inanimate (and therefore sexless) objects. As such, it commonly causes offense when used in reference to a person.
Note, I use the word sex to refer to biological sex and gender to refer to psychological sex.
According to Richard Nordquist, most new words ‘are actually old words in different forms or with fresh functions’. They are almost entirely lexemes – words that carry meaning in the real world – not grammar words that hold the language together. The lexeme gay was appropriated by homosexuals, but the history of the word suggests it was an easy transition. According to dictionary.com, in the early 20th century, it meant loose or promiscuous and was used to refer to women as much as men.
Grammar words that have changed recently include so and all, as in That is so not cool – popularized by the character Chandler in the TV series Friends. An earlier incarnation of this expression of emphasis in the 18th century went something like I am all astonishment instead of I’m so astonished!
There is no question that were it to broaden its meaning to embrace adults – not just infants and animals – it would be a milestone in the story of the English language. According to Bloor & Bloor, pronouns ‘are a closed set of items which cannot easily be added to or diminished, as witness the seeming impossibility of introducing a gender-neutral pronoun for human beings’ (Bloor, T. & Bloor, M.. 1995. The Functional Analysis of English. Arnold, London). It is used to refer to unborn infants and even after birth when the sex is unknown. Animals, too are often assigned it until corrected.
The English language has become somewhat ossified and unchanging because of its ubiquity and the effects of technology (think of auto correct functions). But centuries ago, it was in great flux. Like French, it was heavily grammatically gendered, but by the 17th century that diminished, except for pronouns. At the same time relative pronouns emerged and a split between personal who and impersonal which developed :1048. Scholars considered it to belong to the impersonal gender which and what.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/It_(pronoun)
The children’s author E. Nesbit consistently defied this and often wrote of mixed groups of children: “Everyone got its legs kicked or its feet trodden on in the scramble to get out of the carriage.”
The popular use of they as a singular pronoun demonstrates that a grammar word can change. In this case, a plural pronoun extending to the singular. This is no small alteration to the language. This grammatical change is a greater hurdle to the language than extending the semantic meaning of it to include animate objects. Why has this happened? Is it a trade off, because managing social offense is harder than maintaining grammatical integrity? How much social offense is actually involved?
Some argue, ‘After all, if “you”, which is also gender neutral, can serve both for singular and plural, why can’t “they” do the same?’ It can, but at what cost? The singular/plural meaning of they is established by context, not the text or word itself, so it is hardly fit for purpose, which is why some people say yous or y’all to show plural meaning. We know who did it; they left finger-prints. Here the use of they creates ambiguity as to the number of people involved – even if it is known that there was only one person. We lose the specificity that the English language is so well equipped for and that explains in part its success as the language of science.
It is preferable if we wish to accurately convey that one individual was involved, or conceal that individual’s identity (with regards to their sex) or where sex is either unknown or extraneous information – We know who did it; it left finger-prints. Note that in this example the person is not present and so no direct offense can be caused. There are sentences where the antecedent of it can be used to refer to either the person or the subject of the sentence, as in If an Australian trains up and fills a job domestically, it will help localize the economy . In this case, it can refer to either the Australian or the entire first clause. Consider this example; Everyone who agrees should raise his or her right hand. When pluralised All who agree should raise their right hands demonstrates how the loss of specificity gives the impression some people have more than one right hand! Everyone who agrees should raise its right hand is clearly what we mean, except that it sounds inanimate. That it encompasses both animate and inanimate objects might become convenient when we’re living with robots in our daily lives.
They is used to refer to both animate and inanimate objects, so why can’t it adopt the same function? It originates from Old English hit the neuter of he. Neuter means sexless and it has long had an inanimate quality. In order for it to be fully appropriated, it requires semantic change that is both extension (a word widens its meaning) and amelioration (a word loses an original sense of disapproval) to prevent offense occurring (Crystal, 1987 p. 330).
An example of this is the word mischievous, which has ‘lost its strong sense of “disastrous”, and now means the milder “playfully annoying”.’ (Crystal, 1987 p. 330).
Appropriating it for epicene third person pronoun use is not an original idea. However, the offense it causes seems impervious to amelioration. Or is it? As described, many uses are indirect, and could be accommodated with an explanation. More challenging is direct use especially when the person is in hearing shot.
The rise of offense culture among social progressives in the West would seem to create an even greater obstacle. But is there actually an opportunity in this crisis?
“While some genderqueer people use it as a gender-neutral pronoun, it is generally considered a slur against transgender people and should not be used unless requested by a specific person.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/It_(pronoun)
The debate over compelled pronoun use in Canada has heightened the issue and intensified the search for a politically correct pronoun. There is now a seemingly endless list of inventions that have been put forward; zie, sie, ye, ve, tey, e, E, ne, thon, mon, heesh, ho, hesh, et, hir, jhe, na, per, xe, poand co are some of them. None have really caught on.
In 2017, the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code was amended and University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson fueled a debate about where speech choice lies; with the person being spoken of or the speaker. Most people prefer to please and respect others whenever possible. What seems likely, however, is that the combination of social tension and the increased cognitive load of multiple pronouns required of speakers may simply compound the missing pronoun issue to such an extent that people simply give up and avoid both the topic and the person.
One approach speakers could take is to choose it with a preface that they mean no offense, especially when the individual is present. If offense is nonetheless taken, it challenges the sincerity of the speakers’ preface, which in itself is potentially offensive. However, as I’ve explained, we usually refer to someone in the 3rd person when – and I mean no offense – it’s not present, so it really shouldn’t be fraught with social anxiety. This is where most of the potential for the uptake of it is.