Gender neutrality and pronouns


Transgender symbol Image Credit: ParaDox (Creative Commons)

As a writer, I have been thinking about preferred gender pronouns (PGPs) and the best way to reference an individual within an article without using a name every time. PGPs are third-person singular pronouns like he/she, which assume the subject’s gender. Should I always pick gender-neutral pronouns? Or maybe I should ask an interviewee what pronoun they prefer as part of the standard interview process?

Several recent experiences have opened my eyes to this issue. When I watched the video of Lana Wachowski (world-renowned movie director) speaking at the 2012 Human Rights Campaign awards, I was intensely saddened by the emotional (and often physical) trauma that transgender people face every day. Wachowski described the pain of growing up transgender and the need to seclude from the world but became visible to serve as a role model for the transgender community.

Last spring, I attended a local high school Gay-Straight Alliance community event, and we had the option of putting our PGP on the name tag. It was both enlightening and fun to see the students’ choices and think about my own personal preference. I realized that I am pronoun adverse, which also makes sense from the perspective of supporting women and diversity in the sciences. We are fighting for policies that limit gender bias (e.g., blind peer reviews), so removing gender-specific pronouns is a logical step in that direction to provide equal opportunities for every man, woman and transgender person.

I would love to know what others think about this issue. Do you have a standard PGP or another way to avoid gender references in speech and writing?


7 thoughts on “Gender neutrality and pronouns

  1. elkement says:

    I think I totally rephrase sentences so that I don’t use a name or a pronoun at all. Usually that issue comes up when I am suddenly part of a “global” e-mail or comment thread with lots of people from other countries (people I don’t know and and with first names I have never heard).

    If authors write about hypothetical scenarios or if they sanitized the text from names and other data, I found the alternating use of he or she not too bad as it keeps the text readable. Still not a complete solution.

    Generally, I agree – it seems we need a not-yet-existing neutral single person pronoun. I hope somebody will invent something that can be used “naturally”… in any language. I admit noticed that I personally tend to view “he” actually as a neutral pronoun – I don’t even realize those “too many he’s” in tech literature unless somebody else points me to it (assuming that I should take issues with it), and I need to make a conscious attempt to use equally distributed he’s and she’s (or perhaps anything else or workarounds). It is doable in writing, and I have once seen a German app for “genderizing” (as we call that) written texts in order to fulfill legal requirements for gender-neutral texts. But it is difficult in speaking.

    In German this is all much tougher still as we have gender-specific suffixes. All the attempts to “fix” those turns texts unreadable – and even more un-speakable – in my opinion.
    I think I once mentioned it before on your blog – they (;-)) started adding female suffixes (in superscripts) to academic titles. I am not a philologist but tacking on a female “-in” to “doctor” (with “-or” being the Latin male suffix) makes me cringe. The elegant and correct version would be “doctrix” but nobody ever suggested that.
    The suffix “-er” is male in German, and as the English neutral “user” has entered the German language it is considered “male”. Gender-neutrality demands that a female user is now a “Userin” in German.
    We have different equivalents of nobody (all neutral, on principle), but of them them has a male “-er” suffix – so according to rules being discussed (for being cast in “standards”) one should omit these variants.
    When referring to a group of people, like in a speech, you typically address both the female group and the male group (User and Userinnen). In order to make that somewhat shorter these have been concatenated to UserInnen (capital I)… and it should be pronounced as User[short break]Innen. But as you said – this would still explicitly exclude and offend a certain percentage of the audience.

    I understand that language impacts culture and perception. But it is very hard to come up with suggestions – for some languages at least – that will not put constant pressure on you while speaking. Or one could say that this is exactly the effect that is required to evolve as a modern society?

  2. Donna Kridelbaugh says:

    Yes, that drives me crazy too when addressing people in email. It’s easy if they have a doctoral degree so I can say “Dr.” but in other cases I just put their whole name if I don’t know. And why would anyone start adding female endings to professional titles?! There definitely needs to be gender-neutral titles and pronouns. I agree that an even mixing of he and she gets around the issue when not speaking about specific people. And yes, I guess this discussion shows that at least some individuals are striving to evolve to a society that is more inclusive and sensitive to all. Do you have any German words that might make a good gender-neutral pronoun?

    • elkement says:

      Female endings are added to titles is because the titles actually have male endings now (Latin as in Doctor or Bachelor, Pseudo-German as in Master… or French as in Diplom-Ingenieur). Those are only used when addressing female academics of course. It is interesting that those male suffixes in titles are not an issue for native English speakers – following the logic of neutralizing English pronouns any male or female suffixes imported from other languages should need sanitizing, too, shouldn’t they? In some sense it is awkward that “he” is an issue while “doctor” is not, but it seems those titles lose they gender when being imported. It would be interesting if it might be an issue for native English speakers who have studied ancient languages.
      In Austria Latin has been on the curriculum in most high schools, so doctor definitely feels “male” – in the same way as any other German professional title or any noun used for persons in general. There is a male and female version of any professional title – there is no neutral “teacher” for example, but there is “Lehrer” and “Lehrerin”… there is no neutral “passenger”, or “driver”.

      People discuss endlessly if female teachers should feel included or not if only the male version is used. This is exactly the same discussion as with sanitizing pronouns. As any noun used for human beings comes with a male and female version sanitizing “only” the pronouns would solve only a minor part of the problem anyway. My intuitive reluctance to neutralizing pronouns might be stem from this – if I would use a neutral pronoun, I’d solve only a small part of my issues with “speaking neutrally”. There is no candidate term for a neutral pronoun in German; one would have to make one up. In the moment those female endings are the biggest issue of “language designers”. These endings are about to be declared a “standard”; and companies need to follow these rules in job ads for example. Looking at the big picture it might have been better to neutralize all nouns instead of femali-zing them… but this would be an even more drastic change to language that this infamous Capital I Innen. I rather feel included in the so-called male plural as I would not want to re-learn my mother-tongue.

      I think what I trying to say is: I sympathesize with all the points being made in favor of neutral pronouns – in English. But if I try to extrapolate to German this would end up in an enormous task of re-engineering spoken language that I would not be willing (or not able) to apply in daily life.

  3. Donna Kridelbaugh says:

    Yikes, that is a lot to keep in mind! So I would find that impossible too. As you said, I guess a big problem is that they tried to introduce feminine versions of masculine words and then that just opens up a whole other set of issues with the corresponding pronouns and those people who identify with a different gender or no gender at all. I obviously know nothing about linguistics but it would very interesting to read on why some languages felt the need to assign genders to objects and such. For English, I never even thought about the fact that masculine words often lose their gender when imported, which is a nice feature. I have seen a bunch of different pronouns proposed including the use of “ze”, “hir” and “ou”. Overall, I just don’t feel that people should be put into a gender category and will keep striving to figure out how to translate this principle in my writing and speech.

    • elkement says:

      I’ll need to follow your blog carefully – and try to use a similar approach when communication in German 😉

      I was thinking of your post now when I read this:


      “Now the gender field on your profile will contain four entries, ‘Male,’ ‘Female,’ ‘Decline to state,’ and ‘Custom,’” writes Google software engineer Rachel Bennett. “When ‘Custom’ is selected, a freeform text field and a pronoun field will appear. You can still limit who can see your gender, just like you can now.”

      More than ever now, social networks play a powerful role in defining society’s norms: giving people the option to define their gender for themselves is the least we can do.

  4. Donna Kridelbaugh says:

    Thanks for sharing! It’s great how much technology/social media can help push social progress forward. I just ran across this Time article that mentions it’s good practice for journalists to ask what pronoun a person prefers:

    Also, another friend shared with me that they prefer to use “they” as the preferred gender pronoun. I agree but not sure if all editors would like this usage from a grammatical standpoint. I need to check some style guides to see if this usage is addressed.

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