He? She? Zhe? – an introduction to gender-neutral language

March 8, 2014 1:25 pm


March 8th is International Women’s Day. This day was first observed in the early 1900s and become a day for celebrating advances in women’s rights and a way of highlighting gender inequalities which still persist. Over the last 100 years, many women have struggled for greater equality in politics, in the workplace and in society at large. And the campaign for women’s rights and equality has even turned its attention to language. Many have pointed out ways in which sexist attitudes are reflected in language and have proposed changes to reflect women’s equality with men.

In a society based on gender equality, a person’s gender should be irrelevant. It is not necessary to indicate whether someone is male or female in their job title, so ‘chairman’ or ‘chairwoman’ is now avoided in favour of ‘chair’ or ‘chairperson’, ‘air hostess’ becomes ‘flight attendant’ and ‘policeman’ and ‘policewoman’ are replaced by ‘police officer’. There is no need for ‘actress’, ‘male nurse’ and ‘lady doctor’ when you can simply use the neutral forms of ‘actor’, ‘nurse’ and ‘doctor’.

Women’s rights campaigners also pointed out the inequality in titles for men and women. Why didn’t women have an equivalent for ‘Mr’; a title that can be used by everyone, without specifying if they are married or not. In the 1970s, ‘Ms’ was proposed as an alternative, and though derided at first, has steadily grown in use and popularity.


Another aspect of the English language that came under fire is the use of ‘he’ and ‘his’ as generic pronouns, for example, when you don’t know the gender of a person you are referring to. For many, the generic ‘he’ implies a deliberate exclusion of women and it is now generally accepted that this usage should be avoided. But then the problem is: what pronoun can be used when you don’t know or don’t want to specify someone’s gender?

One pretty logical option is ‘he or she’, or ‘he/she’, or even ‘(s)he’. Unfortunately, these solutions are quite clumsy and, to be honest, can look or sound very awkward in a sentence; especially when you throw ‘his or her’ or ‘his/her’ into the mix as well! For example:

‘If the student has any questions, he or she can contact his or her lecturer.’

So if there is no succinct word for ‘he or she’ in English, why not make a new pronoun? This is what has happened in the Swedish language. Last year ‘hen’, a generic alternative to ‘han’ (he) or ‘hon’ (she), was added to the online version of the country’s National Encyclopedia. The aim is to enhance the language by making it easier to speak about a person without specifying their gender, though some Swedish speakers are trying to promote the use of hen as a replacement for male and female pronouns; meaning everyone would be referred to without their gender being specified. However, this thinking has not spread widely and time will tell how the use of hen will develop in Swedish. Over the years many generic pronouns have been suggested for the English language, for example ‘zhe, zher, zhim’, and ‘ey, em, eir’, but none have managed to catch on so far.

The solution that seems to be most popular, to the horror and disgust of language purists and grammar fanatics, is the plural they. As in,

‘If the student has any questions, they can contact their lecturer.’

This is grammatically incorrect and can sometimes lead to ambiguities, but it seems to be the most readily adopted solution to the gender-neutrality problem. Although it might make some people shudder, the more it is used the more normal and grammatical it sounds to people. I think that it might be considered an acceptable form in years to come.

Other languages

As an institution, the European Parliament fully endorses gender equality and so undertook to create guidelines for gender-neutral language in each of its official languages; quite a monumental task, as the principle of gender neutrality is applied differently from one language to the other. For example, in French and German, the trend is to introduce specific forms for male and female job titles; e.g. ‘le directeur général’ and ‘la directrice générale’ (Director-General); which is exactly the opposite of the approach favoured in English of creating one neutral term.

But why go to all this effort? You might be wondering, ‘what’s the big fuss about gender-specific job titles and pronouns’? While it is true that changing our use of English is not going to make society a more equal place, language does influence attitudes, behaviours and perceptions. But then what about languages that don’t specify gender? Pronouns have no gender in Finnish so it is impossible to specify if someone is a man or a woman using them. In Japanese there are male and female pronouns but they are used far less often than in English. Does this mean that Finnish and Japanese speakers are inherently less sexist than English speakers? Are speakers of French and Spanish more sexist than English speakers because gender is more important in the grammar of their languages?

Well, obviously we cannot jump to such simplistic conclusions! Gender equality and sexism in society are complex issues which are influenced by far more than just our use of language. But, by focusing on how we use language we force ourselves to think about our own attitudes and behaviours. Writing ‘Ms’ or using the word ‘police officer’ is not going to close the gender pay gap or solve the problem of the under-representation of women in politics, but it’s a step in the right direction at least!


Barron, D. 1981. The Epicene Pronoun: The Word That Failed. American Speech 56 (1981): 83-97.

European Parliament, 2008. Gender-neutral language in the European Parliament.

Rothschild, N. Sweden’s New Gender-Neutral Pronoun: Hen. Slate. Online. (Accessed 07.03.2014)

Article written by Sarah O’Farrell, translator and terminologist at the Terminology Coordination Unit.

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