Intersexual/gender-neutral pronouns

Chris F Waigl chris at LASCRIBE.NET
Wed Dec 5 02:11:13 UTC 2007

James Harbeck wrote:
> Just incidentally, I read this in my facebook news feed today: "Kebin
> Schwartz updated their profile. They is now looking for friendship, a
> relationship and networking."
Just yesterday, I took note of Facebook agreements, though my example
doesn't have blatant "they is":

"Bernhard Rohrer
updated their profile. They edited their looking for field, profile
picture and address."

Now my friend Bernhard might potentially have chosen not to enter his
sex in his profile, but this is not the case: He indicates that he's
male, and this information is available to his Facebook friends -- the
same people who receive these little notes. (Also, you need some
knowledge of Facebook profile not to stumble over the second sentence.
I'd have written " their 'looking for' field" or at least hyphenated

> "They is." Right there, barefaced, on facebook. That's facebook's
> syntax, by the way, not my friend Kevin's, so it's appearing in a lot
> of people's news feeds.

Back to less extreme cases: From observing usage at my workplace, I'd
conclude that "singular they", when a person's sex is unknown,
indeterminate, irrelevant or inappropriate to mention (because it would
allow to identify an individual), has become the unremarkable norm.
"Universal he" shows up once in a while, but in my immediate environment
it is mostly used by some colleagues whose native languages are Spanish
and/or French, and corrected into "they" in formal contexts.

For background, I work in the UK, for the European division of an
American company in the internet technology & associated professional
services sector, with most of my oversees collaboration taking place
with the Toronto office. Native speaker of English are in the minority,
even in upper-middle management positions, in the technology
departments. My own team counts not a single native speaker of English,
and my counterparts in North America and Asia-Pacific are a
Chinese-Canadian and a Korean-Australian, both first generation. The
native English speakers I deal with come from an array of
English-speaking areas around the world.

In this diverse group, "singular they", is the norm, including for
example when the sex is known but irrelevant (when referring to a single
member of a team that happens to be all-male, for example), and I could
find examples for any of the above categories in a few days' worth of my
email. This include communication with clients.

What is remarkable to me is not so much that  "hir" or "zie" are absent,
but that "he or she" is so totally out.

Chris Waigl

The American Dialect Society -

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