In my previous posting, I discussed the lack of a practical, non-binary gender pronoun in English, bemoaning the unfortunate attempt to use “they”/”their”/”them” for a person who does not identify specifically as male or female — which just causes confusion, because those pronouns traditionally refer to plural subjects in English.
I was again hit by the need for a workable gender-neutral pronoun system yesterday, when I began reading a new nonfiction book in which the writer completely reversed the standard practice of using “he”/”him”/”his” (intended to refer to both genders) — instead, everything was “she”/”her”/”hers.” Where we would usually find “What matters is how he looks, what he achieves, and what he has,” the writer instead used “What matters is how she looks, what she achieves, and what she has.” But actually the author intended it for both males and females. And of course to a male, this is unsettling to say the least, because we males generally do not want to classified as “she.” But it also reveals the one-sided, masculine-dominant nature of the old “he”/”him”/”his” usage that is so predominant in English, and if the switch to a “she”/”her”/”hers” use in a book referring to both genders makes a male uncomfortable, one can only imagine how unpleasant it has been for females to endure the “he”/”him”/”his” standard in books all these long years.
Little did I know that someone (Charles Crozat Converse) had already come up with a gender-neutral pronoun system for English in the 19th century that actually made its way into a couple of dictionaries in 1897 and 1934 — “thon”/”thons.” So the sentence example I used above would read, “What matters is how thon looks, what thon achieves, and what thon has.” And the subject of the sentence can be either male, female, or not specifically-gender-identified — in other words, a fully gender-neutral pronoun system that causes no confusion at all, once one knows its meaning.
I have long felt uncomfortable using the “he”/his”/”him” standard in my own writing, because I know a considerable percentage of my readers are female. I usually end up using the lengthy “he/she” combination to acknowledge both, but have never been particularly happy with it due to the length, and of course in speech it would be even more unwieldy. I would be quite happy to use “thon” — and thus to give thon thon’s due — but of course how many would know its gender-neutral meaning now?
So while I am not averse to gender-neutral pronouns and can see their benefits in certain cases, I find the use of “they/them” to describe a third person of uncertain or indeterminate gender highly inadequate and often very confusing. That is because in English usage, “they/them” are commonly used to indicate a plural — two or more persons. “They/their/them” may however have a single-person usage in cases where the subject is of uncertain gender, for example:
“Whoever picks the flowers from my garden should stop. They should know better.” In that case, the subject is unknown. It might be a male; it might be a female; it might even be more than one person and more than one gender. But the critical point here is that the person is either unknown or the speaker is using the plural pronoun in a general sense, or both.
If, on the other hand, the speaker knows the identity of the person who picks the flowers, the speaker will refer to the person by that name: “John picks my flowers and he should stop. He should know better.”
It is completely illogical, however, to say of a non-gendered person, “Evelyn should stop picking my flowers; they should know better.”