Gender pronouns: let’s start writing solutions

Once again the issue of non-binary pronouns has been highlighted with the recent declaration of pop star Sam Smith asking followers to drop the he/him and write/speak about ‘them’ and its derivatives.

An understandable and increasingly important issue we, in the writing world, need to contend with. But…

New pronouns

It’s evident that we need new thinking about gender and how we write about it. Here are a couple of ideas to get us started. Please join in and share your views!

Is the new shift already working?

British entrepreneur David Hardstaff points out that it is confusing at first, although of course there are many examples of “they” and “them” being used in a singular context when gender or any other information about an individual is unknown, which is kind of the point:

“I’ve found someone’s glasses on the floor – I’ve handed them in so they can collect them from the desk.”
“If whoever finishes the coffee could make sure that they buy a new jar …” etc etc.
The issue comes because we are knowingly talking about a specific person, so the normal conventions kick in and it just feels wrong. We will get used to it, and I guess that high-profile individuals like this will accelerate that process.
Both sides, however, need to chill about so-called “mis-gendering” when done by accident. Unless you are talking this way all the time, you are bound to be on autopilot and liable to make mistakes 🙂  

In a recent social media discussion, British lawyer/solicitor Melanie Lawrence made this very rational point:

“I wish the Oxford English Dictionary or some other authority would invent a new word instead of ‘they’ and ‘them’ because all my life I’ve known they/them to mean plural and now it’s meaning has been completely changed and I struggle with that because we’ve been taught it doesn’t apply to the singular. Except now it does. If the world is going to be truly supportive a new word needs to be invented and established into the English language which can then be taught to all and in schools. Only then will there be genuine acceptance.”

Good call, Melanie. Shame we can’t borrow from the French

The French use a pronoun that’s just one letter short of the old-fashioned and rather snotty English language ‘one’ – it’s the ‘on’ person. To pronounce it properly imagine saying the word ‘oh’ when you have a bad head cold or sinusitis. It’s that funny French nasal honk.

Ironically, to talk about ‘on’ in French – unlike ‘one‘ in English which is seen as upper class and old-fashioned – is considered very informal. Often it’s used to replace the rather more formal ‘nous‘ and hangs out grammatically in the third person singular with ‘il’ or ‘elle’ – for example:

Ce soir nous allons manger au restaurant
Ce soir on va manger au restaurant
(This evening we’re going to eat at a restaurant)

Qu’est ce que nous allons manger comme déjeuner?
Qu’est ce qu’on va manger comme déjeuner?
(What are we going to eat for lunch?)

C’est quelque chose que nous faisons pas
C’est quelque chose qu’on fait pas
(Something we don’t do)

Il ne doit pas faire ça
Ils ne doivent pas faire ça
On ne doit pas faire ça
(One/they mustn’t do that)

OK. How about some ideas for Melanie’s suggestion: a new departure?

I’ve tried a number of different ideas – in fact a large number of ideas – but anything vaguely appropriate boils down to two notions of potential new pronouns that don’t conflict with anything I can think of:

The letter L
He/she – lee
Hers/his/her – lees, lar
Him/her – lee

The letter V
He/she – vee
Hers/his/her – vees, var
Him/her – vee

Would you want to be referred to as a Lee or Vee?

Let’s look at a couple of examples to see how they might sit:

He sat down and looked hard at his phone, hoping to find an answer.
Lee sat down and looked hard at lar phone, hoping to find an answer.

She wasn’t in the mood to take crap from her accusers, and stood her ground with gusto
Vee wasn’t in the mood to take crap from var accusers, and stood var ground with gusto

A very basic start to find a decent gender-neutral pronoun

…but we have to start somewhere! What do you think?

Please share your thoughts in the comments: we could be breaking important new ground here!

In the meantime please enjoy my favourite of all Sam Smith’s wonderful ballads and other tracks … (I’m a blues lover, after all!)






  1. Here is a suggestion that might or might not impress: Re-write the sentence (or re-think the speech) to avoid the conflict. When speaking to a specific but unidentified person who lost “a pair of” (not is or her or someone’s) glasses. “I found a pair of glasses and turned them in; they can be collected at the desk.” Gender avoided. Singular/plural disagreement avoided. Point made.
    BTW, “one” may sound “stuffy” but it is correct; we’re looking for a solution without a problem, offendees not withstanding. Also BTW, espionage, sabotage, arbitrage, most-any-age, are stolen from the French. “On” would work but “one” already does.