Home > Uncategorized > Pronouns again: Neutral vs. Indefinite

Pronouns again: Neutral vs. Indefinite

So, I’m seeing a lot of people around the blagosphere using “ze” as a neutral, indeterminate pronoun for when the gender of some distant or hypothetical person is unknown, unspecified, or unimportant. Can’t say I’m a huge fan. Let me explain what I mean:

“Ze” (declension ze-zem-zeir-zemself) is my preferred pronoun. For those I am actually out to, this is the pronoun I ask them to use with me. This is my “he” or “she” equivalent, one that refers to me as a person. The difference between this and the usage described above is exactly the title of this entry, a difference between gender-neutral and indefinite pronouns.

A gender-neutral pronoun is just what it says, any pronoun that does not specifically refer to the gender of the referent. More specifically, in my case, they can be pronouns that specify that the referent does not identify within the gender identities assumed for “he” and “she”. On the other hand, and indefinite pronoun is one that does not refer to anyone in particular. A good example in English is “one”, when we use “one” as a pronoun we mean anyone, but no one in particular. “You” is used in similar circumstances. Indefinite pronouns are also used when there is a specific person involved (although the person might be hypothetical), but whomever you’re talking to or the situation does not require any specific information about this person; “The doctor called” “what did they say?” In this handy example, the second speaker may not know the doctor in question and there really is no important information to be communicated about this person except that they are a doctor.

But where I see “ze” being used is with hypothetical people. Talking about an unspecified person from a certain group or performing a certain activity, an example from one of the articles I was reading this evening that sparked this post: “…you’ve got someone who won’t safeword when ze probably should.” The author here isn’t referring to a gender-neutral or non-binary identified person engaged in kink activities, this is just some hypothetical, unspecified individual being brought up for illustration purposes. This is where an indefinite pronoun would work great, a nice singular “they” or something, but instead a gender-neutral one is utilized.

I understand where this comes from, people are trying to avoid the generic “he” that assumes that any unspecified person is automatically male. But using “ze” actually produces the opposite effect for me that generic “he” does with men: when I see my preferred pronoun being used in a sense of “hypothetical, unspecified person”, the fact that it is so rare to see this pronoun used produces a sensation that “ze” is a nonperson pronoun like “one” because this is the only place I see it outside my own little self-created world of usage (I honestly only know of a small handful of people who use my pronoun actively, even among the people I informed about it). I view “ze” as being on par with “he” and “she”, and I dislike that it gets used in situations where people are actively avoiding using the gendered terms, I actually see “ze” as being just as gendered as the binary words.

I’ve mentioned singular “they” up above, and I know some people get squicky about using it and prefer to use singular ungendered terms, but singular “they” is an actual indefinite pronoun used for just the purpose that “ze” is being used for. It’s been in use for centuries, and it was made for this purpose, use it. It’s OK, I’m a linguist, I know what I’m doing here. If a grammarian gets on your case about “they” being plural, just tell them a linguist told you it was OK. It really is the proper word to be using here, instead of appropriating my identity into a generic. Please?

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  1. April 26, 2011 at 02:25

    I totally understand your position, but I really really really don’t like they as a nonspecific pronoun. Part of it is the grammar thing (just because other people have been misusing nauseous forever doesn’t mean I will!) and the other part is because somehow, to me, they also contains implications of genderedness. I guess to my brain they=hes or shes or both, but still leaves people with nonbinary identities out in the cold. Maybe it’s an effect of having studied so many other languages where they have masculine and feminine “they”s or even masculine and feminine “you”s (singular, dual and plural). Whereas I don’t want to hold my hypothetical person to a binary identity, and I want a truly neutral pronoun – I would looooove to use ze for myself but as a ciswoman everyone I know would think it frivolous. I understand that the word is very important personally to you, and I completely understand that it must be frustrating to most often see your chosen pronoun used in hypotheticals, but I think it serves a purpose, and I also think it will spread faster that way. I live in a very liberal community and only knew two or three genderqueer folks who embraced that set because when people say “ze” most people respond with “???”
    In Uyghur, third person singulars are all “oo” (plural oolar), which I love and which we could transplant. :/

    • April 26, 2011 at 11:48

      Well, I wouldn’t worry about the grammar thing. Again, singular “they” has been around since Middle English or before. I fully understand your position on “ze”, though, I just wish it was a lot more common in other situations.

      On the topic of third person pronouns in other languages, Hindi’s two third-person pronouns (yah, vo) express distance from the speaker rather than gender, although the verbs use gender in conjugation so it’s a bit of a give-and-take.

  1. November 16, 2011 at 16:48

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