Ze Only Confuses Hir Students: Teaching Gender Neutral Pronouns

May 16, 2012 |  Ashley Thorne

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Ze Only Confuses Hir Students: Teaching Gender Neutral Pronouns

May 16, 2012 | 

Ashley Thorne

I’ve come to like the linguistics and writing blog of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Lingua Franca. Its contributors are English and Linguistics professors and professional writers, and the blog is a forum for their musings on word use, grammar, language—a good destination for word nerds like me. Today on Lingua Franca, writer Lucy Ferriss has a post on gender neutral pronouns. Her reflections come right after Sweden added a gender neutral word for “he” and “she” to its National Encyclopedia. 

Ferriss writes that her “partner” marks his students’ papers when they “fall back unnecessarily” on default pronouns such as “he,” “his,” and “man.” He “asks his students to employ gender-neutral language except where indicating gender is appropriate.” Ferriss points out that some students turn in work in which they use the new gender neutral pronouns, “ze” instead of he or she, and “hir” instead of his or her. Although Ferriss’s partner finds this usage distracting and bizarre, he does not ban it because it would be hypocritical of him after encouraging gender-neutral language, and because these words are becoming more accepted. 

Knowing the attitudes in academia today, I wasn’t surprised to read that a professor marks his student’s papers when they use “he,” but I wonder whether some faculty members actually dock grades for that. Again, in fields such as Gender Studies, I wouldn’t be surprised. But much is lost if our society enforces this. No rewording could capture the richness of “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” 

The point of Ferriss’s blog post is to say that people need rules. Instead of simply adding options for us to use, gender neutral pronouns tend to complicate and confuse. We should just pick one or the other, tradition or political correctness. But if a professor were to mandate that students use gender neutral terminology and grade them accordingly, Ferriss expects, “Students will emerge from those classes, I predict, not as converts but as survivors of a brief professorial dictatorship, determined never to engage in gender neutrality again.” 

To avoid uncertainty, we should come down on one side or the other. She suggests it may be easier to revert back to the classic “he” as the universal pronoun. Strangely enough—given that she just said a professor that mandated this would act, in essence, as a dictator—she also proposes that going with a gender neutral term would be easier than all this uncertainty. 

The problem is that if gender is socially constructed, as postmodernist academics say it is, then “he” and “she” no longer have clout. If gender is pliable, why not grammar? Ferriss is right in saying that it would be easier to choose one or the other, and it would be easiest to do as the grammar books have taught in the past – after all, simplicity is why we fell back on the universal “he” to begin with. But sometimes it is easier to capitulate to the demands of political correctness than to plant a foot on solid ground. At least you know you won’t offend anyone. 

As the old proverb goes, “Ze who knows not and knows not zie knows not: sie is a fool - shun zim. Ze who knows not and knows zie knows not: sie is simple - teach zir. Ze who knows and knows not zie knows: sie is asleep - wake zim. Ze who knows and knows zie knows: sie is wise - follow zir.” 

Image: Pexels


| May 17, 2012 - 1:21 AM

I find it much simpler to use “he” and don’t plan on changing. Most of the people who are irritated by this are usually desperately looking for an excuse to be offended by something, so I don’t worry about it.  They will never be satisfied anyway.


| March 22, 2013 - 12:09 PM

Gender-neutral pronouns aren’t necessarily a matter of political correctness or avoiding offense. They are a matter of respect. What is not discussed in this article is the use ze/hir to describe identities for certain transgender people. Some experience their gender as neither male nor female and when others use he or she to refer to them, it causes them considerable distress. If people could choose their personal pronouns and gender neutral was a choice, I think we would be surprised at how many people would choose those over gendered pronouns.


| April 08, 2013 - 1:45 AM

Except that first and second person English pronouns are gender neutral.  The only time you would refer to someone with a third person pronoun is if you’re introducing them at an event, when you retell a (preferably) humiliating anecdote about their childhood, or if they’re dead to you.

I can understand how someone might be distressed at having no control over how another might refer to them when that someone is not a part of the conversation.  There’s rarely a reason to use “he” or “she” when you’re directly talking to that person, let alone “ze” and “hir”.

I think the choice would be to go with the more descriptive “he” or “she” when speaking informally with the general public.  Getting wound up about pronouns in informal conversation has about the same impact as getting wound up about honorifics in informal conversation.


| July 17, 2013 - 1:36 PM

Is ‘one’ not already gender neutral? Also, the word ‘man’ refers, historically, not to the male gender, but to humans. Much like German mann and old English mann.

Many languages have m, f, and n genders already. And apparently there are languages out there with up to 5 gender markers (mostly seen in indigenous languages in the Americas). There are cultures out there that see gender as being much more than male, female, and neuter. Some also have not-male and not-female (though English doesn’t seem to have a way to adequately deal with these cultural aspects. So which 3rd person pronoun would a 3rd or 4th gendered person from another culture use in English?


| October 13, 2015 - 1:23 PM

The terms male and female are not words that refer to one’s gender but to one’s sex.

This has become a major point of contention and confusion in activist circles, and I really don’t know how it’s ever going to be fixed until official forms correct it first, and until people start being corrected every time they confound the two.

Next time you fill out a form, notice that when it asks you to provide information about your gender, it only offers male and female as the possibilities.

It should say man, woman, or other. Or, it should ask you to provide your sex, not your gender.

A world of confusion for sure.

What a wonderful article and comments section.

It’s refreshing to hear discourse about this topic among people who care about correct language usage.

Personally, I take Bob’s position. There is no reason to refer to a person directly as any third person pronoun. What you call them outside their presence is a matter of judgment and taste. 

I personally prefer to say “they” and “them”. It’s easier, it seems accurate, and I doubt I’ve offended anybody in saying it.