Gender-inclusive language

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Gender-inclusive language is writing and speaking about people in a manner that does not use gender-based words.

Inclusive language has been a major platform of the feminist movement. Those who oppose it claim that the masculine form can be used to incorporate both genders; some believe that this should change, and some believe it's already starting to.

It's had a significant impact on Christian denominations, as the language of the Bible is almost exclusively male-focused. Versions of the Bible that use inclusive language have been produced, with varying levels of acceptance amongst the Christian community.

Singular they[edit]

A very common example of inclusive language in English is the use of the singular they (or generic they). This is applying the words they or them, which are conventionally plural pronouns, as singular pronouns where him or her would otherwise be used, when talking about somebody whose gender is unknown or a generic "somebody."

For example, "if anybody asks me about it, I'll tell them they can try it for themself (or themselves)."

The singular they has been used in English literature for hundreds of years,[1] but is still a disputed point among some uptight prescriptivists, who see singular use of a plural pronoun, and especially variants such themself instead of themselves, as a corruption of English grammar (though singular use of "themselves" seems to be more common than "themself"). (Amusingly, a few centuries ago some used to say the exact same thing about the use of "you" to refer to a single person.[2]) Another issue is that while the "singular they" has a large degree of acceptance when referring to a generic person, it tends to look strange when referring to a named, specific person. For example, take the sentence: "When I found out who stole my phone, they're gonna wish they were never born!" vs. "Leslie called their friend yesterday to voice their concerns." The first sentence would not look out of place in typical speech, but the second one looks awkward, and given the normal use of the singular they, one may have a hard time discerning the meaning. The second case is not usually an issue, as the gender of a specific person will be known in the vast majority of cases, but it presents a problem when being used as a gender-neutral pronoun to refer to non-binary-gendered individuals. For more information on alternatives to "singular they" when referring to these individuals, see the section "Neologisms" below.

It also should be noted in the context of the Bible translation issue that Hebrew and many other languages have historically used their equivalent of "he" as their generic pronoun rather than "they," such that a translation of these languages into English would have to choose between literally translating the male pronoun into "he" or translating the gender-neutral intent of the pronoun into "they."

When speaking in the third person, "one" is often used in this way, though it usually comes off as formal or overdone. ("One can starve to death if one refuses to eat".)


Another popular form is to use "he/she", "he or she", "him/her", "him or her", "(s)he", or "s/he", when gender is unknown. This usually extends to using "Dear Sir/Madam" as a form of address in letters where "Dear Sir" would otherwise be the default, and other similar practices.

A flaw of the "he/she" formation is the assumption that a person must be either one or the other, and hence this language excludes those who do not conform to the traditional gender binary (such as those who choose not to identify with a gender). It's also awkward and somewhat limiting in its prosaic formality.


Many, many neologisms[3] have been created to fill the gap in English's set of third-person pronouns, or even possibly replace gendered pronouns altogether. Although none have gained much acceptance at present and using them will automatically mark you as a radical, man-hating feminazi, there are a few (relatively) popular ones:

  • Spivak pronounsWikipedia's W.svg, which were formed by chopping off the th of the third person pronouns (they, them, their, theirs, theirself). They are ey or e, em, eir, eirs, and eirself.
  • Ze or zie, hir or zir, hir or zir, hirs or zirs, and hirself or zirself, a set popular in the genderqueer community.
    • Xe, Xem, Xyr, Xyrs, Xyrself, a derivative set of the ones above.[4]

While there is a significant group of people who use and advocate for gender-neutral pronouns, nobody can agree on which ones to use, creating a lack of consistency likely harmful to getting any set or standard adopted by the greater populace — much like Linux and its many distros' situation. However, a group of people are saying that the respectful thing to ask would be "what are your pronouns?" and then using them. If that doesn't get you blank stares or a hostile reaction, of course.

See also[edit]


  1. There is at least one example of singular "they" in the King James Bible.
  2. [1], That false and senseless Way of Speaking, Mark Liberman, Language Log.
  3. Wikipedia has someWikipedia's W.svg
  4. Though it should be noted that for the most part these "derivatives" are not so much distinct pronouns as spelling variations: xe, xie, zie and ze mean the same thing and are pronounced identically, approximately /tzee/, and differ only in spelling. The genderqueer community seems to have a consensus that the singular gender-neutral pronoun has the vowel /ee/ preceded by a sound that contains /s/ or /z/; putative pronouns that don't have this form (such as co, thon, or li) don't meet the consensus and so aren't generally accepted. A standardised spelling will probably evolve in time.