Non-binary pronouns: whatever happened to ONE?

People who accuse us English language writers of being Grammar Nazis will be intrigued to note that our beloved language is being challenged heavily right now by a very modern, pressing and important concern that may mean shaking up its whole orthography and more besides: non-binary pronouns.

HTWB non-binaryA new way of looking at gender and how the language’s representation of it as splitting conveniently into him and her just doesn’t cut it any more. The gender elements are not really within our remit here on HTWB, but when it comes to the words we use for people who are “non-binary,” we exponents of the English language would appear to have a whole lot of new work to do.

But do we really? Or is there an existing – an antique, even – pronoun which would do the job nicely, if only we can shake off its old-fashioned image?

First, let’s clarify what we’re dealing with…

To quote Gender Wikia on non-binary and related issues…

“Non-binary gender (see also genderqueer) describes any gender identity which does not fit within the binary of male and female. Those with non-binary genders can feel that they:

For the full definition and more about non-binary gender please click here to go to Gender Wikia’s site.

There is also a great deal of information about this and related issues here.

So what non-binary pronouns are being used currently?

Various new pronouns have been suggested as non-binary alternatives.

“At the University of Vermont, which has led this movement,” says an article on the BBC website, “students can choose from “he,” “she,” “they,” and “ze,” as well as “name only” – meaning they don’t want to be referred to by any third-person pronoun, only their name.”

“A card developed by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee LGBT Resource Center in 2011 has been widely reproduced and distributed across the US,” continues the article. “One side of the card lists eight pronouns, from “ey” to “zie,” and illustrates how they change depending on their role in a sentence. Instead of “he/she,” “him/her,” “his/her,” “his/hers,” and “himself/herself” it would be:

  • “ey,” “em,” “eir,” “eirs,” and “eirself”, or
  • “zie,” “zim,” “zir,” “zirs,” and “zirself”‘

Many others, it seems, go for the option of they, their, theirs, themselves, etc., but there is still confusion here when it comes to plurals.

And what about ONE? The non-binary pronoun that has been in the English language for centuries?

Here is what has to say about the indefinite pronoun “one…”

19. any person indefinitely; anyone: as good as one would desire.
20. Chiefly British. (used as a substitute for the pronoun I): Mother had been ailing for many months, and one should have realized it.
21. a person of the speaker’s kind; such as the speaker himself or herself: to press one’s own claims.

Wikepedia takes up the story, and here we have the first hint of why ONE as a pronoun has a somewhat undemocratic past…

“Monarchs, and today particularly Queen Elizabeth II, are often depicted as using one as a first-person pronoun. This is frequently done as a form of caricature.[3] For example, the headline “One is not amused”[4] is attributed humorously to the Queen, and also makes reference to Queen Victoria’s supposed statement “We are not amused“, which in turn contains the royal we.”

There you have it: a perfectly good, non-binary, singular pronoun that could be taken out of the priceless Hepplewhite antique cabinet, dusted off and used with total clarity by people who do not want to use binary pronouns.

Instead of “he/she,” “him/her,” “his/her,” “his/hers,” and “himself/herself,” you’d have “one,” “one’s,” and “oneself.”

Only the Brits, being the Brits, have clocked this poor pronoun as used only by upper class twits, chinless wonders, potless aristocrats and pretentious social climbers trying to sound posh.

Thank you, English language, for b*ggering up this opportunity.

One ought to be ashamed of oneself.

What do you think are the most appropriate choices of non-binary pronouns?

Please share.

And if you would like to read more on the sheer lunacy of the English language, have a look at the choices right here




  1. Joyce Russell says

    Shouldn’t the persons to whom this refers have a say? Not everyone wants nor feels the need for a label. On a form, application, or writing it is just another method for those persons who neither see nor know you, of well labeling you. I myself always struggle to answer the Mrs., Miss, Ms. box because I do not like the fit of any of them and I feel it isn’t anyone’s business. Personally, I like the use of one, one’s, and oneself. Whenever I get the chance to use them I do. The reason is, that they are bias free.

    • I’m hoping that the people to whom this refers will enter into this discussion – naturally! However it’s important that we as business writers (or people who need and want to write for public consumption of some sort) are aware of the options and sensitivities involved.

      As you’ll see from the text of this article, I think the use of “one / one’s / oneself” is a useful choice because as you say, they are bias-free. However in the UK they have this rather unfortunate connection with pomposity and “upper class” snobbery. Other feedback from elsewhere is suggesting that many people favour the “singular they,” but as I point out above that can get confusing when plurals are concerned.

      Anyway thanks for your input, Joyce, and please come back again soon.

  2. John Herbster says

    Thank you for writing about the pronoun “one”. You are years ahead of me – I just thought of this yesterday and found your article today with a “google”. Regarding the persons to whom we are referring to having a say, I say “no way” – mainly because they are not around when I write, but also because the pronouns “he”, “she”, “it”, etc. can convey useful information. (By the way: Feel free to discern what you can from my grammar. Good or bad – I will not be the least offended. )

    • Hi John: I think your grammar is great! Personally I agree with you about the de-genderising (if that’s a word and probably it’s not) of pronouns but I suppose we of the olderish generation need to respect people’s wishes here. Thanks for sharing your views and please feel free to comment further on this and any other topic you like. The more views we can share in a civilised way in what I hope is a civilised forum, the more informed we all can be. Sz