Are you tired of the English language only containing masculine and feminine pronouns? Well, some people are… and Matthew Rozsa is one of them.
This is an article about pronouns. Don’t worry, I won’t write one about amateur nouns.
Now that the groan-inducing pun is out of the way (this is an article about language, so you should have seen it coming), it’s time to address the central question of this article:
Why have we still not created a neuter pronoun?
For those of you unfamiliar with English grammar, a pronoun is a general term used as a substitute for a more specific noun. While many languages make it possible to refer to specific people by masculine, feminine, or neuter pronouns (with the latter being, as its title suggest, a pronoun that is neither distinctly male or female), conversational English only offers masculine (he/him/his) and feminine (she/her/hers) options. Although “it” and “its” do technically exist as neuter alternatives, the word “it” has an impersonal quality which makes it awkward at best, and insulting at worst, to use on another human being.
As a writer, I can safely say that the absence of a neuter pronoun is by far the biggest stylistic headache of my profession. On the one hand, the progressive in me abhors socially constructed gender divisions and strives to purge them from his own writing. While that’s easy enough to do when it comes to the substantive content of my work, it can be nigh-on impossible whenever a pronoun is more appropriate in a given sentence. Sure, I can simply use “he or she” to cover all of my bases – and believe me, I’ve done so more times than I’d like to remember – but it has the undeniable effect of disrupting the flow of my prose, even if only by a smidge.
Barring that, I’m left with no option than to use “he/him/his” as a neuter pronoun as well as a masculine one. This is the course adopted by many writers (including myself, depending on the occasion), but for all of its immediate convenience, its use depends on a troubling social assumption. After all, when your language suggests that being male is synonymous with having no gender at all, it establishes masculinity as normative and femininity as implicitly “other.”
That last point may seem like a bit of a stretch, but it’s important to remember that language shapes how we view the world in ways that are subtle as well as overt. Considering that our culture and history is already marred by the notion that men are the norm and women are a special gender, the absence of a neuter pronoun and use of the masculine form as a substitute at the very least reinforces that problem.
The worst part is that, for the life of me, I can’t think of an easy fix. It would be one thing if our current masculine/feminine pronoun dichotomy was the result of a sinister plot or government policy (problems are usually easier to fix when that’s the case), but as Gretchen McCulloch of The Toast explains, conventional use of neuter pronouns was dropped from the English language at a time when it was in developmental flux… and, consequently, the simplification made everyone’s life a whole lot easier.
That may have been a good reason when English was confined to Medieval Britain, but today it is the fourth most widely spoken language in the world, with more than half a billion of the human race using it as a primary or secondary tongue. More importantly, it is prevalent in an era when the scourge of gender inequality is finally receiving the attention it deserves. Although a solution does not readily present itself, that doesn’t mean the problem itself should be overlooked. Even writing about it for a few hundred words, though not much, can spread awareness by simply acknowledging that the dilemma exists.
And so here we are.