A gender neutral pronoun/possessive with a chance?

We’ve all noted the lack of gender neutral singular possessives and pronouns in English; it’s a perennial topic among writers. I think I’ve identified a path toward a solution, and wondered what some other writers might think of it.

The problem crops up again and again, forcing us to stop and recast a sentence if we want to avoid making assumptions about the subject’s gender. There’s usually a way around using the gendered words (I once wrote a fairly long short story, including a lovemaking scene, without disclosing the genders of the participants until the last sentence), but it takes a deal of unnecessary extra work to avoid making such workarounds sound awkward and forced.

Many creative suggestions have been proffered, such as heesh for he/she and hirself for himself/herself, but there’s a strong chicken-and-egg problem involved. Until they become commonly used words the introduction of these novelties will always be disruptive and awkward; as long as they are so very disruptive and awkward, they are unlikely to be used enough to become common.

Using it/itself would logically work, but there is simply too much stigma attached to it; it is likely always going to be seen as offensive to refer to people with words previously used only to refer to objects.

One of the common workarounds has been to use the gender-neutral plural in place of the singular. This works fairly well but annoys some people because it replaces a gender assumption with a number contradiction. In the case of himself/herself the contradiction would exist in the single word (theirself)! (You also has a number ambiguity, but separate versions yourself/youselves; here in the South we also have a plural you, y’all!)

It was that point that led to a possible solution in my mind, though. Why not create a variant: ther/therself?

The advantage is that ther is closely homophonic with the gender-neutral plural their; some accents/dialects already pronounce their as one syllable, but the two-syllable they-er is still available as an aural distinction apart from using context, if needed. Because it has very nearly the same sound and appearance in print as their, it is far less disruptive to the ear in speech and to the eye in text than the completely artificial words.

Some disruption is inevitable with any novel usage, but by leveraging an already common mis-usage it is minimized. At first the new word will snag the attention slightly because it looks like a mis-spelling of the common mis-usage, but considering how quickly common misspellings become invisible that shouldn’t set too high a bar. Until the new wording catches on (assuming it does) writers can include a footnote, or for hypertextual usage link it to an explanatory page. (I shall copy this to a blog entry, for example: Each writer can decide for therself whether to use that link or just explain it in ther own words.)

The remaining issue would be with replacing he or she; s/he doesn’t work for me because I don’t know how to pronounce it! I would prefer to use the; yes, it’s the same as the definite article, but I can’t think of many cases where context would not make it clear which was meant. If anyone reading this thinks otherwise, could the please explain when and how it would be confused, providing ther examples?

What do you think?


~ by B.T. Murtagh on September 21, 2009.

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