Need for Gender-neutral Pronouns

Is God male or female? Is it correct to use the pronoun ‘he’ to refer to God? Is a devil male or female? What pronoun do we use to refer to a devil or Satan? When I threw these questions at my students to get their responses, a male student replied, “God is male because he is good and Satan is female because she is wicked.”

Published: 13th December 2013 10:14 AM  |   Last Updated: 13th December 2013 10:14 AM   |  A+A-

Is God male or female? Is it correct to use the pronoun ‘he’ to refer to God? Is a devil male or female? What pronoun do we use to refer to a devil or Satan? When I threw these questions at my students to get their responses, a male student replied, “God is male because he is good and Satan is female because she is wicked.” Pat came the reaction from a female student, “Only a devil can make such a remark.”

Yes, the English language has a problem with gender. There is no specific term to refer to a person whose gender is not known or who does not belong to either of the two genders. Almost a month ago I received an email from one T H Lawrence, a regular reader of this column and a constructive critic, regarding the use of gender-neutral pronouns. Here is an extract from the email:

“…while reading your (article), I noticed your reference to the singular pronoun (neuter gender) as ‘they’. I wonder whether this aspect has been recognised in our English education system. It still remains controversial, though of late ‘they’ is also found shown as ‘singular’ in dictionaries. And have we accepted it as formal and standard for academic purposes? You say: A person uses it when they do not know the answer to a question…”

I have been using gender neutral pronouns in most of my writings though many readers, academics and anglophiles have questioned the legitimacy of the use of the singular ‘they’, ‘their’ and ‘them’. Standard dictionaries legitimise the use of plural pronouns as substitutes for singular gender-neutral forms. Even great writers have used them in the past. Here are a few examples:

■  No one prevents you, do they? (Thackeray)

■  I shouldn’t like to punish anyone, even if they’d done me wrong.(George Eliot)

■  Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.(Oscar Wilde)

Gendered pronouns are those that indicate gender and examples are: he, she, his, her, himself, herself etc. Gender-neutral pronouns do not indicate gender. The examples of gender-neutral pronouns are: it, one, they etc. We use gender-neutral pronouns when we are not sure of the gender of the person referred to or when we don’t specify the gender of a person as in the examples below: 

■  An executive from Airtel may call me now. If you answer the phone, please tell them that I am not free and ask them to call me this evening. 

■  I don’t know who the external examiner is. Please remind them about the timing.

■  If any student is interested in taking part in the quiz competition they must contact Dr Ganesh Srinivasan.

Those who are against the use of plural pronouns for singular gender-neutral nouns raise many questions. There is a need for a singular gender-neutral third-person pronoun. Who is going to coin the term? Should it be coined by a native speaker of English? Will it be legitimised if the term is coined by a non-native speaker of English?

Fred E Foldvary offers the words zhe, zher and zhim, where the zh is pronounced as in the second g of ‘garage’ or the z in ‘azure’. Zhe means either he or she for the subject of a sentence. Zher is the possessive his or her. Zhim is the accusative or object of a sentence, meaning either him or her.

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