Singular (th)ey? — Nay, make it ey!

In case you don’t know, ‘singular they‘ refers to the use of ‘they’ for single entities when one doesn’t want to specify eir gender. Mainstream English speakers tend to view the native ‘it’ as dehumanizing for some reason.

Historically, this was used because the antecedent entity is unspecified, as in [1]:

The patient should be told what’s wrong with them.

Recently, singular they has gained popularity for known entities for whom gendered pronouns (‘he’ and ‘she’) do not apply, exempli gratia:

This is Jim Bob Funkypants. I met them through the looking glass.

This use was coined Word of the Year [2] [3] and Word of the Decade [4], even defeating ‘ammosexual’, the most creative word of the year πŸ˜‰. The pick shows, “how the personal expression of gender identity has become an increasing part of our shared discourse” [4].

Proponents will generally point out that singular they has been used for centuries, almost as long as plural they. Thus it is an accepted part of the English language and the extension of it to include entities for whom gendered pronouns do not apply is trivially small (for the particular entity being unspecified is but one reason why one may not desire to use a gendered pronoun).

What they gloss over is that people have complained about the use of singular they for centuries as well. The reason is simple: once one tries to simply explain the ‘rules’ of English, it seems weird to use a plural word as a singular word in special cases. I recall finding it weird when I was younger and find it misleading to pretend people haven’t been complaining about it for ages πŸ˜›.

I suppose the recent update to ‘they’ gets rid of the ‘special case’ and makes the grammar more systematically streamlined: ‘they’ is no longer a plural word. It is like ‘sheep’ and can be either singular or plural. (After learning Japanese, a language where most nouns are neither singular nor plural by default, this isn’t so strange. It’s good to have a simple way to indicate the count or plurality, however.)

The better argument, in my opinion, is to point out that English is a pretty screwy natural language. English is not a systematically, prescriptively constructed language. People often ignore its finer distinctions anyway. So we shouldn’t worry much about how the grammar makes sense. Let’s just use it as is easiest and the most fun ~

Descriptivism vs Prescriptivism, baby ~ ~ ~ :- D

I tend to support liberal abuses of languages as we continually reinvent them and I also value their making sense. The distinctions we make in our languages can be important with regard to how we make sense of our worlds (see the hypothesis of Linguistic Relativity).

Ironically, it seems that Japanese, Korean, and Chinese added gendered pronouns to be more ‘Western’ [5]. Is it a feature or a bug? -sigh-

Frankly, I tend to prefer using other gender-neutral pronouns to de-pluralizing they.

As far as I can remember, I didn’t get why ‘it’ is considered wrong to use for people. When playing the game Tag (鬼ごっこ), kids say, “you’re it!” Yet, if anything, we are moving in the direction of not calling dogs ‘it’ because “dogs are people too and they deserve more respect than that.” It seems like the primary reason is no more than “just because“. Id est, people just ended up creating a speciesist divide between “people” and “non-people” — and now that we’re used to it, tough titties πŸ€·β€β™€οΈ πŸ˜‚. Hey, I’m glad English doesn’t assign genders to nouns as many other languages do! For what it’s worth, I am totally for de-de-humanizing ‘it’.

There’s also the officially sanctioned generic ‘he’: id est, just use ‘he’ for anyone. The same suggestion has been made for a generic ‘she’. As someone who doesn’t care strongly for gender distinctions, my stematizing mind is fine with either of these options. But some people seem to really value gender distinctions and others will feel it’s unfair if one gender’s pronoun is chosen to be the pronoun. (It seems like ‘they’ was taken from Old Norse and was originally a masculine pronoun [6] … weird πŸ€ͺ.)

People have tried to create new gender-neutral pronouns to rectify this problem. ‘It’ has been suggested and ‘ou’ was suggested in 1972 [1][5]. Back in the day, I read Diaspora [7][8] where [ve ver vis vis ve] is used as, well, the characters are AIs and liked them. So I used the Ve-pronouns in various blog posts as well. There are long lists of suggested new epicene (gender-neutral/common) pronouns [5]. The problem is that there are many to choose from and they all have their own merits and demerits (δΈ€ι•·δΈ€ηŸ­): thus, as is often the case with constructed languages, everyone picks their favorite, and many (including myself) give up as mainstream adoption is not achieved. To make the problem worse, I found different version of the same pronoun on different sources. Talk about the personalization of language!

This is perhaps the strongest argument in favor of singular they: maybe it can really just work and achieve mainstream adoption! Sure, it’s not perfect but nothing else seems to stick and it’s better than nothing! And it seems like it really is winning and gaining the support of people who have hardly even heard of other epicene pronoun options for English.

Another complication with regard to the adoption of epicene, gender-neutral pronouns is the development of a culture where people request specific pronouns to be used in reference to them. What if Qorxi requests the Qe-pronouns while Xorqi requests the Xe-pronouns and they both dislike the singular they and the gendered options? I guess humans are more-than-capable of learning the cases for a few dozen pronouns if the cookie really crumbles that awy. . . πŸ˜‹. Hopefully veto-power won’t be used much and people will generally be happy if others use their own preferred epicene pronoun choices. — I think the core issue is one of respect, acceptance, understanding, and having options available for those who have vetoed ‘he’, ‘she’, and ‘they’.

I don’t like it singular ‘they’ and I would rather not see a patently inferior option become fully adopted in impatience to advance social justice. This prompted me to revisit the case of generic pronouns.

I approach this question from a systemizer’s point of view. English may be far from perfect but we don’t have to copy its quirks when adding new features 😏.

So, first, I think it’s better if all of the cases are distinct. Duh. ‘He’, ‘she’, and ‘ve’ all violate this most basic of constraints. I found many versions of ‘ze’ online and most of those also violated this constraint (so this version here is of my own creation πŸ₯ΊπŸ˜™πŸ˜). If you refer to this list of over 15 options [5], you can see that most violate it πŸ€¦β€β™€οΈ.

Anyway, here are some of my top picks from scrounging around:

NominativeAccusativePronominal PossessivePredicative PossessiveReflexive
he laughshugged himhis beautythat is hishe loves himself
she laughshugged herher beautythat is hersshe loves herself
they laugh(s)hugged themtheir beautythat is theirsthey love themselves
ve laughshugged vervis beautythat is visve loves verself
ze laughshugged zimzir beautythat is zirsze loves zimself
zhe laughshugged zhimzher beautythat is zherszhe loves zhimself
ey laughshugged emeir beautythat is eirsey loves emself

A generic patterns seems to be copying and mixing the cases of ‘he’ and ‘she’ for fairness and ease of remembrance. My impression is that this can sort of backfire and feel a bit off. If one is going to do it, however, copying ‘her’ and ‘hers’ seems superior as appending ‘s’ for the predicative form seems clean πŸ˜‰.

As an aside, I’m not sure why the reflexive case is ‘accusative + self’ rather than ‘possessive + self’ πŸ€”πŸ§πŸ€“.

The pronouns should ideally sound aesthetically cool and they will ideally have an easy explanation or story behind them.

The coiner of ‘zhe’ has a fairly concise, cogent article presenting the case [9]. It seems to get the ‘she’-‘he’ combination right. And to my mind, seems fairly natural: the ‘zh’ sounds a bit like the combination of ‘sh’ and ‘he’.

The ‘ey’ pronouns are called the Spivak pronouns [10] and I find the ‘ey’ variant preferable to the ‘e’ variant. Their generation story is straightforward: drop the plural ‘the’ from ‘they’ and you get ‘ey’!

This means that most English speakers should have little trouble remembering the cases of ‘ey’; moreover, even if singular they becomes mainstream, ‘ey’ can be used fairly seamlessly without major offense nor confusion.

Pronunciation-wise, ‘she’ and ‘he’ are both fairly soft whereas ‘ve’, ‘ze’, and ‘zhe’ all seem a bit hard to me. ‘Ey’ is pretty soft.

I find the pronunciation of the Ey-pronouns quite confusing, actually. I could see pronouncing ‘ey’ a bit like ‘he’ with a silent ‘h’ and a mock-Aussie accent; likewise, ‘eir’ could be a bit like ‘her’ with a silent ‘h’. This deviates from just dropping the ‘th’ from ‘their’ but might work more naturally for me in use. Frankly, this flexibility seems like a perk and I’ll have to see what feels good in practice 😏.

Finally, I want epicene pronouns to replace singular they in general, not just when referring to known entities. To this end, Ey-pronouns have a leg up over the rest.

Let’s revisit the easy cases [1]:

  • The patient should be told what’s wrong with em.
  • This is Jim Bob Funkypants. I met em through the looking glass.
  • Somebody left eir umbrella in the office. Could you please let em know where ey can get it?

This works quite smoothly in cases where the antecedent is clearly a singular entity.

The Logical Analysis section of the Wikipedia article [1] provides some additional complications, however. In the following cases, the antecedents are referring to general groups. Something like, \(forall x in H, P(x) to Q(x)\) where the \(x in H\) is clearly singular but the statement being made is a general one referring to a (possibly) plural group of entities.

  1. If anybody comes, tell em ey are loved.
  2. If someone loves animals, ey should protect them.
  3. A journalist should not be forced to reveal eir sources.

Or to geekily expand the sentences:

  1. For all humans, if the human comes, then tell the human that it is loved.
  2. For all humans, if the human loves animals, then the human should protect animals.
  3. For all humans, if the human is a journalist, then the human should not be forced to reveal its sources.

It logically works but feels semantically off in some cases. One suggestion for cases where it feels sentantically off is to reword the sentences:

  1. Tell everyone who comes that they are loved.
  2. Everyone who loves animals should protect them.
  3. Journalists should not be forced to reveal their sources.

Hmm, I actually find this analysis kind of confusing. First off, the condition \(P\) is moved into the set being quantified over, producing, \(J = \{x \in H | P(X)\} \), the set of humans that are journalists. This syntactic shuffling allows us to simplify \(\forall x \in J, Q(x)\) into \(Q(J)\).

But this doesn’t quite work for (1) and (3). The sources are not the sources of the journalists as a group, per se: we really do want to say that each particular journalist, \(x\), should not be forced to reveil eir own personal sources. It’s the same for (1), every single creatures who comes deserves a personal declaration of love! Which would produce something like:

  1. Tell everyone who comes that ey are loved.
  2. Everyone who loves animals should protect them.
  3. Journalists should not be forced to reveal eir sources.

Me oh my, will it be fun to see what style guides would make of trying to accurately use singular and plural referents in English πŸ₯³πŸ€£

Another fun tricky batch of noodles is or-statements:

  • Let me know if your father or your mother changes eir mind.

What if both of them changed eir mind? It seems to depend on whether they are considered as a group or individuals:

  • Every dog has eir day.
  • All of my siblings chainged their minds and agreed to eat curry with me.

The Wikipedia article presents some fun examples where plurality is clearly implied, including one from George Bernard Shaw:

  • No man goes to battle to be killed. But they do get killed.
  • Everyone promised to behave themselves.
  • Everyone loves their mother.

These mostly fit the distinction made above, however πŸ˜‰

I am tentatively sold on Ey-pronouns, or Spivak pronouns, as a good ‘n wholesome addition to the mighty English language.

I’m giving them a trial run this April. Feel free to join me πŸ˜‰πŸ€ 

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