Probably every writer has come across this problem at some point. A paragraph is progressing nicely, everything fitting into place, and suddenly—wham!—logic requires a singular, third-person pronoun: he, she, or it.
For most writers, especially those that dabble in horror, the third-person neutral presents no difficulty. We deal with it all of the time; perhaps the only hesitance comes when a genderless monster started out life as a human being, and we are tempted to use the masculine or feminine pronoun instead, just to humanize the monster a bit. Consistency requires that we choose one or the other, and in most cases—notably in King’s magnificent novel by that name, it works well.
No, the problem comes when logic dictates either he or she. If the character in question is male, then he is appropriate; if female, then she. But what happens when the character can be either male or female? or both?
Traditionally (that is, following grammar rules I learned half a century ago), he is the pronoun of choice, functioning as both third-person masculine and third-person neutral. The best example is still one I heard during fifth grade, when the teacher was struggling to make some sense of the complications that are English grammar. “Each student has received the book for tomorrow’s lesson,” she said. “Therefore each student must bring his book to class”—even though half of the class was female.
Problem presented and problem resolved…fifty years ago. His in the second sentence stood for both his and hers, as it had for roughly the previous thousand years in English usage.
Over the past fifty years, however, that solution has come to seem facile and—to some at least—offensive, as if the grammatical usage in some way spilled over into real life and made men in an invisible, arcane sense superior to women.
Well, we can’t have that!
Therefore the grammar must change.
The easiest correction was, of course, is to recast both sentences into the plural, since we have at our disposal a plural pronoun that identifies both males and females within a group. In such a case, the lesson would proceed as follows: “All students have received books for tomorrow’s lesson. Therefore, all students must bring their books to class.” Plural all around, and no one is offended.
When I began teaching at Pepperdine University in 1979, one of the long-time professors felt strongly that such a resolution was, at best, avoiding the issue and, at worst, generating awkwardness in expression. She suggested instead the creation of a new paradigm of gender-neutral personal pronouns to replace he, him, his and she, her, hers. Among them she included heshe, shim, and herms. For years, she plumped for her new pronouns, arguing that they would be easier to use, that they would resolve the complexities of gender, and that they were close enough to tradition to be easily learned.
Her list never caught on.
Recently, Mills College was in the news because of an on-campus group that struggled with the same difficulty—what personal pronouns to use for someone who, for example, was physically female but identified as male. Neither she nor he seemed appropriate for the context. The article commented: “Inviting students to state their preferred gender pronouns, known as PGPs for short, and encouraging classmates to use unfamiliar ones such as ‘ze,’ ‘sie,’ ‘e,’ ‘ou’ and ‘ve’ has become an accepted back-to-school practice for professors, dorm advisers, club sponsors, workshop leaders and health care providers at several schools.”
I understand in theory what the professors and others are trying to accomplish—I simply don’t imagine them having any widespread success with the program, for a simple reason.
Pronouns are probably the most change-resistant parts of speech in English. In fact, the last major shift in personal pronouns took place somewhere around five hundred years ago. Nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives—all of the parts of speech that communicate lexical (that is, dictionary) meanings are almost completely fluid in English. Many have in fact reversed meanings over the years: cleave, for example, at one time meant ‘to join irrevocably,’ whereas now its most common meaning is ‘to separate irrevocably.’ But those tiny little words that seem to be almost irrelevant to communication—the articles (a, an, the), the prepositions (in, on, by, with, for, etc.) and the conjunctions (and, but, for, so)…and the pronouns are recognizable in written English from a thousand years ago.
There have been some shifts, of course.
The first-person pronouns have taken slightly different forms over the past millennia. I started as īċ, a cognate to the modern German Ich. We was pronounced differently but was still spelled wē. The only major difference a thousand years ago was the presence of a third class of first-person pronouns. In addition to singular (I, me, my) and plural (we, our, ours), there was a separate class called “dual,” based on variations of wit, unser, and unc, that referred to ‘just the two of us, you and me.’
The second-person pronouns were based on variations of þū (thou/you) and ģē (ye/you, plural), pronounced respectively ‘thu’ and ‘ye.’ The remaining second-person forms were all recognizable ancestors of modern forms.
By now the situation seems clear; most English pronouns from somewhere around 800 A.D. have persisted with only minor alterations in spelling or pronunciation.
The case is slightly different with the third-person pronouns, but only slightly.
He was originally hē (pronounced like hay); she was hēo or hīe (pronounced like hay-o or he-o), and it was hit. The masculine possessive (modern his) was simply his. The feminine possessive was hiere, from which comes her. Somewhere during the mid-twelfth century, the single major alteration of pronoun forms occurred when the Old English sēo, sīo, and sīe (feminine forms for se, meaning ‘the’) replaced hēo and hīe to give us the modern she—this also explains why we have her and hers, since those OE forms did not change.
Anglo-Saxon grammar and usage was, of course, much more complex than my simple explanations; but the fact emerges that he, she, and it (along with their other forms) have persisted in the language since before it was first written. And, given analogues in older languages such as Old German, Old Dutch, and Old High Saxon, the key Germanic pronoun forms actually go back much farther.
And this, I think, is why modern reformers frequently hit a proverbial brick wall when trying to introduce new forms to correspond to contemporary attitudes toward gender and language. These small words, structure words that essentially tell us how sentences are put together and what the relationship is between words, are enormously intransigent when it comes to change. Any new possibilities, including “ze,” “sie,” “e,” “ou” and “ve” simply have to deflect too many centuries of embedded usage to become viable.
This does not mean that writers cannot explore such possibilities. One way to create believable alien cultures in fantasy, science fiction, even horror, is to alter the basic structure words; the result is a language that, while intelligible to readers, will come across as strange, uncomfortable, truly “other.”
Some years ago, I wanted to explore the idea of a “Universal Christ,” one known to multiple species on multiple planets yet expressed in their own unique ways, according to their customs and beliefs. To do so, I altered pronouns…as well as a number of other word-types. The culture I imagined was not based on a Trinitarian belief but upon a Quadrinity—four essential elements to the ‘human’ experience. Their world, based upon their physiology, was based on eight, rather than ten. And such concepts as ‘male’ and ‘female’ were unknown and unneeded.
Christ of Universe
Christ of Universe, eight-finger-splayed
resemblance of heshe’s stern Quadrinity,
stood comfort on a hillock just beyond
the swell of pallid blades. Corved of liquid
aurum in a stasis-field, it towered
over heshes’ node. Waters met there.
Heshe chose the place of waters for their
node, accreting with each generation
body-lozenge-fundament for heshe spawn.
Each Bright, smooth bearers took the path to Christ
of Universe and laid at ParentChildBodySoul
their offerings, while sowers toiled among
the stalks. Each Dark, sowers retraced the way
and bowed in darkness to Christ of Universe
and lipped the SingSong of Quadrinity,
ParentChildBodySoul. Bearers burrowed
heshe young while sowers bowed.
Later, beneath the ever-solid black of night
when glolights died…when heshe bearers
opened hirmselfs to living seed… …when heshe
sowers sought other fertile fields…
they could not see, but knew beyond the hillock,
Christ of Universe stood comfort over heshe,eyestalks poised, eight-finger splayed.
The result was, I think, nicely alien.
But as far as the modern quandary goes—for writers locked into formal English grammar—here is what I think will happen. The neologisms will fade, unaccepted by the majority of English speakers. In their place, an old pronoun will simply shift to serve as masculine-singular, feminine-singular, and third-person plural alike, one that exists in the language and is already informally acceptable in speech: they.
More than once I’ve been tempted to edit a plural-seeming they when it clearly did not match a singular antecedent. Then I’ve realized that the antecedent is either female or genderless…and that the they is standing for both masculine and feminine.
In other words. “Each student has received books for tomorrow’s lesson. Therefore, each student [singular] must bring their [singular] book [singular] to class.”