Ask Max


Chris asked Max on September 29, 2008:

I need you to do me and the English language a favour. Can you come up with a gender neutral singular pronoun? When I write, I tend to use ‘he’ and ‘she’ in equal balance for gender-unspecified singular persons.

I see how and why you would object to this, and I think I do, too. I think this is an interesting exposure of how gender specific language is. Even when the gender isn’t specified, the rules of English compel us to specify one of two genders. Hey look! A microcosm of society!

Problem being, most people solve this (or commit a grammatical error) by referring to ungendered singular persons as ‘they’, which is grammatically incorrect. English specifies three pronouns here: ‘he’ or ‘she’ for singular, and ‘they’ for plural.

I would like to know your thoughts, as a writer and queer activist, on how to solve this dilemma. It is curious that the answer might be the problem. Perhaps ‘they’, ungendered and plural, is fittingly applied to catch gender identity in its plural state. I don’t feel that pluralising gender is any kind of solution, though. Just because you are not male or female, does not mean that you are both male and female. As I understand it, a lot of the notion of queer gender is not deciding between male and female, or even finding a middle ground, but perhaps associating with an ‘other’ that isn’t traditionally recognised. I am ignorant of the current thought on this. I am ignorant of your thoughts on this.

So, solve my linguistic riddle and assuage my grammatical conscience.



Max replied:

ah yes indeed – English does force us into this unfortunate situation. As you have drawn attention to, by forcing us to choose, English (as a language/system) reinforces/perpetuates the gender binary we see in everydaylife. However there are gender neutral pronouns (neologisms) available. 

A trendy set of gender neutral pronouns which are used by trans/gender theorists (including me & Kate Bornstein) is ze/ hir, as in

he, she, ze / him, her, hir / his, hers, hirs

which is pretty sweet in writing because it doesn’t look too weird (though weird enough), but obviously is a bit problematic in speech (hir sounding the same as her), but I’m ok with this. 

Michael Spivak suggests and uses the pronouns ey/ em, as in a singular of they/ them, but to me this sounds and looks too weird and people probably won’t know what the fuck you are doing / you can lose the meaning of the whole thing (ze/ hir does look like a pronoun).

Also, Del LaGrace Volcano uses herm/ herm’s – I think that’s pretty cool too.

Volcano says: “Herm is a term that works in some instances better than others. Her and him equals herm, it’s also short for HERMaphroDYKE and is a play on words. I also use male pronouns in my everyday life because that is the gender people see and I don’t have the time or energy to educate every person I meet, some of whom might want to cause me harm if they knew I was a transgendered intersexed queer! However, since what people see is not just a ‘man’ but what looks to them like a short chubby gay man using male pronouns does not guarantee physical safety.” (in G3 Magazine, September, 2008)

All of these however I fear you might not be able to get away with in ‘official’ / formal / legal writing. In which case, I recommend (politically) that you use the feminine she/her throughout. This is because in theworld at large the masculine/male is considered universal. So by using the feminine, you put women back in (to writing/’reality’). By using both, I fear (politically) it comes across as ‘equal’, when things aren’t. (This is also the case (problem) with s/he or (s)he, although there are instances where this may be more appropriate). That is, even if you always used only feminine pronouns, you would not come close to making even the number of feminine and masculine pronouns in use.

When/If you are using it as a universal, I think ze/ hir serves the purpose very well – it draws attention to the way the English language forces us to choose, and defies this expectation. At the same time, if you are referring to someone specifically, ask them. It’s not always obvious which pronoun a person would like to use, and not your place to assume or guess.

Queer love,




Filed under Ask Max

4 responses to “Ask Max

  1. i love the bornstein pronouns … i loved nearly roadkill so much

  2. Lia

    I find that the Spivak set is pretty easy for people to understand, especially in speech — in writing it can be tricky especially if you’re also talking about (or could be talking about) someone whose name is Em, but because it follows conjugation that everyone already knows it’s easy to pick up. Lecturers usually don’t mind when I use it in essays, though for exams I tend to use she/her.

    “Ze” just looks kind of like something from bad sci-fi to me, like the genderless aliens have landed and gifted us their pronouns … though maybe that’s kind of cool.

    “Herm” makes me think of hermits, and specifically hermit crabs, and plus Hermes is male, and the whole two-lovers-becoming-0ne-flesh Hermaphroditus myth is just kind of gross. So no.

    There’s a lot of historical precedent for using “they” as a singular GNP but I think there’s something to the argument that it’s better to be gender-inclusive than gender-neutral because masculinity is neutral, so I prefer weird-looking neologisms over “they” which is just an unmarked, unobtrusive pronoun.

  3. maxattitude

    One should also not forget that ‘one’ can be used as a singular pronoun effectively too. Although it can sound formal, it doesn’t necessarily, and it’s really practical in its meaning: one, one person, one human, one entity.

    And yeah ‘ze’ does sound kinda sci-fi but I think that’s cool, we cyborgs are like so post-human.

  4. maxattitude

    In Undoing Gender, Judith Butler writes:

    to be called unreal and to have that call institutionalized as a form of differential treatment, is to become the other against whom (or against which) the human is made. It is the inhuman, the beyond human, the less than human, the border that secures the human in its ostensible reality. To be called a copy, to be called unreal, is one way in which one be oppressed, but consider that it is more fundamental than that. To be oppressed means that you already exist as a subject of some kind, you are there as the visible and oppressed other for the master subject, as a possible or potential subject, but to be unreal is something else again. To be oppressed you must first become intelligible. To find that you are fundamentally unintelligible (indeed, that the laws of culture and of language find you to be an impossibility) is to find that you have not yet achieved access to the human, to find yourself speaking only and always as if you were human, but with the sense that you are not, to find that your language is hollow, that no recognition is forthcoming because the norms by which recognition takes place are not in your favor.”

    I think this is very relevant to the struggle in/for pronouns. The struggle itself (as well as gender-neutral pronoun use) draws attention to the impossibility of a subjectivity neither male nor female.

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