common gender

Gender-specific pronoun

A language has gender-specific pronouns when personal pronouns have different forms according to the gender of their referents.

The English language has three gender-specific pronouns in the 3rd. person singular, whose declined forms are also gender-specific: he (masculine — generally used for human males), she (feminine — mostly used for human females), and it (neuter — for objects, abstractions, and most animals). The other English pronouns (I, you, they...) do not make gender distinctions, i.e., they are "gender-neutral". (See English personal pronouns.)

Notwithstanding this traditional paradigm, each of these three gender-specific pronouns has at times been used in a gender-neutral sense: see "generic usage" below.

English gender-specific pronouns

Here's a complete list of the gender-specific English personal pronouns and their declined forms, with examples of their use:

Subject Object Possessive Adjective Possessive Pronoun Reflexive
masculine He laughed. I kissed him. His leg hurts. This house is his. He can support himself.
feminine She laughed. I kissed her. Her arm hurts. This house is hers. She can support herself.
neuter It is a very nice house. I have bought it. Its yard is big. That cage is its. It sells itself.

Ships and countries

Traditionally ships have been referred to using the feminine pronouns (even ships named after men, such as USS Barry), as well as countries and oceans. The origins of this practice are not certain, and it is currently in decline (though more common for ships, particularly in nautical usage, than for countries). In modern English, it can be said that the use of the pronoun "she" to refer to inanimate objects is an optional figure of speech.

In March 2002, the British newspaper Lloyds List announced that it would start referring to all naval vessels as 'it', but subsequently reversed its decision after receiving letters of protest.

Generic usage

Usage of him and his to refer to a generic member of a mixed sex group was prescribed by manuals of style and school textbooks from the early 19th century until around the 1960s. It was called 'generic' or 'universal'.

  • The customer brought his purchases to the cashier for checkout.
  • In a supermarket, everyone can buy anything he needs.
  • When a customer argues, always agree with him.

This may be compared to usage of the word man to humans in general.

  • "All men are created equal."
  • "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind."
  • "Man cannot live by bread alone."

Gender-specific pronouns were also prescribed when one might presume that most members of some group are the same gender.

  • A secretary should keep her temper in check.
  • A janitor should respect and listen to his employers.
  • Every hairdresser has her own style.
  • A junior doctor is at the bottom of his profession.

Generic use and non-sexist language

Some people feel that this can cause a variety of problems. In particular, many feminists feel that the male pronouns imply a man as referent, which they argue would tend to exclude women unfairly (see sexism).

Recently, some people also use female pronouns in a generic sense, to draw attention to feminist issues. Some authors recommend alternating between the use of the generic male and the generic female, perhaps on a per-chapter basis.

Some people use compound forms to emphasize the possibility of the referent having either sex: such as he or she, him or her, his or her or himself or herself. Any of these forms could be reversed, so as not to imply that males had priority: she or he, her or him, etc. There are also abbreviated forms, such as s/he and him/herself, but most language commentators dismiss them as unpronounceable for everyday speech. As an alternative, gender-neutral pronouns have been proposed.

When a non-specific person is being referred to, especially with indefinite constructions such as "someone," "anyone," "the person who," etc., the use of singular they has a long history, and is becoming increasingly accepted, though some writers still inveigh against it.

Government usage

It is not unheard of for governments, clubs and other groups to reinterpret sentences like 'every member must take off his shoes before entering the chapel' to mean that therefore female members may not enter the chapel. Indeed, the Persons Case, the legal battle over whether Canadian women counted as legal persons eligible to sit in the Senate, partially turned on such a point.

In 1984 the Minnesota State Legislature ordered that all gender-specific language be removed from the state laws. After two years of work, the rewritten laws were adopted. Only 301 of 20,000 pronouns were feminine. "His" was changed 10,000 times and "he" was changed 6,000 times.

By contrast, the Constitution of Ireland, describes the President of Ireland throughout as 'he', yet the two most recent presidents were women; in 1997, four of the five candidates in the election were women. Efforts in a court case to argue that 'he' excluded women were dismissed by the Irish Supreme Court, which ruled the term 'gender-neutral'.

Pronouns and transgender people

In general, transgender individuals prefer be referred to by the gender pronoun appropriate to the gender with which they identify. Some genderqueer or similarly-identified people prefer not to use either he or she, but a different pronoun such as they, zie, or so forth. Drag performers, when in costume, are usually referred to by the gender pronouns for the gender they are performing (for example, drag queens are usually called "she" when in drag).

Other languages with gender-specific pronouns

In these languages some personal pronouns are specific as to gender. Though this usually does not apply to all personal pronouns in the language, a speaker usually does not (at least traditionally) have an option of whether to use gender-inclusive pronouns, since the gender-specific ones do not have inclusive alternatives.

Indo-European Languages

In most Indo-European languages (though not in the modern Indo-Iranian languages, which are the largest branch of this family), third-person pronouns are gender-specific, while first and second person pronouns are not.

For example, in French,

  • First person singular je ('I'), me ('me')
  • Second person singular (familiar) tu, te ('you')
  • First person plural nous ('we', 'us')
  • Second person plural vous ('you')
  • Third person possessives ses ('his'/'her'/'its') and leur ('their')

are all gender-inclusive; but

  • Third person pronouns il ('he'), le ('him'), ils ('they', referring to an all-male or mixed-gender group) are all masculine.
  • Third person pronouns elle ('she'), la ('her') and elles ('they', referring to an all-female group) are all feminine.

In some languages (including most modern Germanic languages) this distinction is neutralised in the plural: English and Modern Russian both have gender-inclusive forms for the third person plural pronouns: 'they'/'them' and они (oni).

Where a language has grammatical gender, like French, gendered pronouns are used according to the grammatical gender of their antecedent, as il ('he') for le livre ('the book' - masculine). But there may be gender-specific pronouns in languages where grammatical gender has otherwise been largely lost or reduced. Danish continues to distinguish gender in third person singular pronouns, even though it no longer distinguishes masculine and feminine nouns grammatically.

For some languages, such as Norwegian and Swedish, there has been considerable effort in trying to provide for gender-neutral expression.

Icelandic

Icelandic uses a similar system to other Germanic languages in distinguishing three 3rd-person genders in the singular - hann (masculine gender), hún (feminine gender), það (neuter gender). However it also uses this three-way distinction in the plural: þeir (m. only), þær (f. only), þau (n., which includes mixed gender). It is therefore possible to be gender-specific in all circumstances should one wish - although of course þau can be used for gender-inclusiveness. Otherwise the form used is determined grammatically (i.e., by the gender of the noun replaced). In general statements the use of menn could be preferable as it is less specific than þau.

Norwegian

In Norwegian a new word is proposed, hin ('sie' or 'hir') to fill the gap between the third person pronouns hun ('her') and han ('him'). Hin is used, but in limited groups; it is not yet embraced by society as a whole. One can also use man or en or den (en means 'one'). These three are considered impersonal.

Swedish

In some dialects of the Swedish language there is a word hän (borrowed from Finnish) that means either han ('he') or hon ('she'). It has spread to hacker slang. Some more common gender-inclusive pronouns however are hen ('he'/'she') and henom ('him'/'her'). The Swedish Language Council recommends den ('it') for third person singular of indefinite gender. However, large parts of the Swedish LGBT community consider this a derogatory term, since it implies that the person referred to is linguistically equated with a lifeless thing. Instead the terms hen and henom is preferred if one wants to refer to someone without a definite placement inside the binary system of masculine and feminine.

Japanese

Written Japanese underwent a transition similar to Chinese when an archaic demonstrative kare (彼) was resurrected to translate the 'he' of European languages, while a word kanojo (彼女) was invented to translate 'she'. In the spoken language, the words carry the connotation of boyfriend and girlfriend respectively, and instead ano hito (あの人, literally 'that person') is used in those cases where a pronoun is required. Unlike Western languages, pronouns in Japanese are a type of nouns rather than a distinct class.

Nevertheless, pronouns in Japanese usually have traditionally carried a strong gender connotation (though it has somewhat weakened nowadays), even first-person ones. For instance, ore (俺 or オレ) or boku (僕 or ボク) is used as 'I'/'me' mainly by men (women have begun using boku nowadays), while watashi (私 or わたし) or atashi (あたし or アタシ) is used by females. (However, homosexuals are usually mocked in media by use of female pronouns; examples for such cases are Hard Gay and Sho Tsukioka from Battle Royale.)

Afro-Asiatic languages

In most Afro-Asiatic languages only the first-person pronouns (singular and plural) are gender-inclusive: second and third person pronouns are gender-specific.

Thai

In Thai, second and third person pronouns are gender-inclusive, while first person pronouns and particles differ for men and women. Thus speakers are grammatically required to indicate their own gender, but not that of others.

Auxiliary languages

Interlingua has both gender-specific and gender-neutral pronouns. All first and second-person pronouns are gender neutral, as are several third-person pronouns such as su ('his', 'her', 'its'), and se (himself, herself, itself, themselves). Ille, illa, and illo correspond to English 'he', 'she', and 'it', although ille can also be used as a general term. The three pronouns have plurals that are formed by adding -s.

Interlingua is one of two major auxiliary languages that are not constructed but are considered to be reflections of a pre-existing reality. The other is Latino sine Flexione. Occidental is sometimes placed in this group as well. Of the three languages, only Interlingua is widely spoken today.

Constructed languages

Esperanto

In common usage, the Esperanto pronouns ŝi, li, and ĝi correspond to English 'she', 'he', and 'it'. Although its creator Zamenhof recommended using ĝi in cases of unstated gender, this is done infrequently. The gender-inclusive demonstrative pronoun tiu is commonly used instead (a usage that does not occur in English). Reformers have coined gender-inclusive pronouns like ri or ŝli specifically for persons, and 'riism' has in fact made some limited progress.

The major reform project Ido introduced a specifically gender-inclusive pronoun, lu, which can mean 'he', 'she', and 'it' (both animate and inanimate). See below.

Ido

In Ido, the pronouns ilu, elu and olu, correspond to English "he", "she" and "it", respectively. But in addition there is the gender-inclusive pronoun lu, which may in principle be always used instead of any of the preceding pronouns, but whose basic purpose is to be used when the biological sex of a human being or animal cannot or will not be determined. This is useful especially in some cases such as "The reader can review this, if he or she desires to do so". Since "reader" ("lektero" in Ido) may refer either to a male or to a female person, "ilu" or "elu" are not appropriate, as each excludes one gender. And "olu" is not appropriate either, since it only refers to inanimate beings. So "lu" is used: "La lektero povas rividar co, se lu deziras lo".

Notice that in the plural, ili, eli and oli are used for groups of males, females and inanimate beings respectively, whereas li can be, and usually is, used instead of any of these, leaving the former exclusively when it is felt necessary to explicitly indicate the gender, as in "Viri e mulieri separesis. Ili livis ed eli restis". (Men and women split up. The former [literally "they" with an indication of masculine gender] left, and the latter [literally "they" with and indication of feminine gender] stayed).

But li is the only alternative for groups people of mixed sexes, or when the actual sex of some people cannot or will not be determined.

Lojban

In Lojban, all "pronouns" (of grammatical class KOhA) are all gender-inclusive. The closest equivalent of 'he' and 'she' are ti, ta and tu, which are equivalent to 'this' and 'that', and ri, ra and ru, which are equivalent with 'the latter', 'the former', and 'something I mentioned earlier'. A quite heavy way to obtain a gender-specific "pronoun" would be saying ti poi nanmu (this, which is a man) and ti poi ninmu (this, which is a female).

Novial

In Novial the third person pronoun le means 'he' or 'she' or 'it'. There are also the gender-specific pronouns lo, la and lu ('he', 'she', and 'it', respectively). Each has a corresponding plural les, los, las and lus all translated as 'they' in English.

See also

References

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