You might wonder why we need another article on gender neutral English, and specifically the issue of non-gendered pronouns. Hasn’t this issue been beaten to death? Yes and no. There are many articles on why we need gender neutral and inclusive (GNI) language, but it’s often either (a) specific cases advocated by one group (e.g., gender inclusive pronouns for trans people) or (b) generic summaries that cobble together lots of single-case examples to create a “guideline” for GNI English. Neither provides a complete framework, and there are still many odd gaps I’m hoping to fill. In other words, what I hope is that this becomes the ultimate guide to GNI English, without being focused on the needs of any one group. And yes, I just made up the GNI abbreviation. I’m not in love with it.
- The “New Humanist” Solution
- Humanist Pronouns
- Humanist Nouns & Affixes
- Nouns & Affixes for Adults
- Nouns & Affixes for Children
- Alternative Suffixes (Exceptions)
- Special Cases
- Humanist Honorifics
Introduction to Gender Neutral English
The problem I have with almost all modern approaches to anything in the social sphere; everything is that is tribal. Transgender people want to solve transgender problems. Writers want to solve writing problems. Business people want to solve…well you get the point. And of course there are people on the “other side” who think it’s all a waste of time. But the opportunity we have with GNI English is to simultaneously solve a number of problems that span gender, party and even age in order to have a coherent solution that addresses multiple issues simultaneously. And I hope we can do it all without focusing on any particular tribe, instead solving a general problem that has plagued English for generations.
And the first thing I’d like to do is throw out nonsense like “GNI” or gender-neutral and inclusive, and just go with a more general sense of humanist and practical. Language is a technology, and like all technologies, it evolves naturally without any need for help from people like me. But sometimes, and this is one of those times, it needs a little help to avoid becoming even more convoluted and confusing than it already is. English is a hot mess. So let’s clean it up a bit.
Problems to be Addressed
To many this will be obvious, but for the sake of focus:
- Do we need to modify English at all? Of course we do. Politics aside, writing and speaking in English can be a real pain in the tuchus. See? I couldn’t even say it in English without using Yiddish. And more seriously, if you ever create business documentation or correspondence (I’m sorry), the lack of neutral options is incredibly time consuming and costly.
- What is the right overall framework to adopt? There are numerous neutral pronoun suggestions out there (meaning, a lot), none of which have succeeded in the USA or for English generally. However, almost all of this are point solutions, meaning pronouns only, and do nothing to solve other areas where binary language is problematic (e.g., chairman, manpower). And while there are collections and summaries of gender-neutral language guidelines, there is a staggering absence of a single, coherent solution. My goal here is to provide one such solution, and the only question is how to create it. And rather than reinvent the wheel, I’ve started with the pronoun-related work of others (as you’ll see below).
- Aren’t people already using “they?” As a pronoun, yes, and there’s nothing wrong with it other than an irritating grammatical problem with singular usage. In recent years, it’s even been adopted into style guides and dictionaries, which is great news. If that were the only issue, I’d say “they” fine and let’s just move on. But it’s only part of an overall solution, and in the context of any such solution, it doesn’t really fit (i.e., it can’t be used to solve issues with other areas of gendered language).
- How do we get it adopted? Good question. My focus is on non-political, practical issues, consistency, simplicity, etc., to avoid push-back to adoption, but it will still be a challenge.
So, how do we create a solution that addresses these issues? By using the following guidelines.
Guidelines for Gender Neutral English
I’ve tried to follow these guidelines for the proposed humanist model, but cannot emphasize strongly enough that improvement is always possible. If you think other guidelines would help, or have suggestions for a better proposal that meets these guidelines, let me know. In the meantime, the model should be:
- Unifyingly Humanist. I mean this both literally and figuratively. Whatever we choose as a model should unify us as a species and people rather than dividing us further into gendered or political tribes. It should for this reason take advantage of existing terms like humanity and hominid that indicate a common, shared existence that includes all of us.
- Simple. The goal here is to create a more neutrally humanist language for many reasons, while making the smallest number of changes so they’re easy to teach and remember.
- Internally Consistent. English is already a (wonderful) freakshow. We don’t need to make it any worse for non-native speakers to figure out what the heck is going on by creating a hodgepodge of partially adopted solutions.
- Linguistically Consistent. If we really want widespread adoption, we need to find solutions that fit within English less invasively than some current proposals. For this reason, I’ve avoided anything that doesn’t sound somewhat like existing nouns and pronouns.
- Clear in Writing & Speech. Here, for instance, is a good summary of neutral terminology. But you’ll notice it gets very awkward when you move from written to spoken usage.
- Apolitical. The model must not be intrinsically feminist or meninist, trans or anti-trans, liberal or conservative. Thus any current proposal that is highly politicized already is ignored even if it might be great on academic grounds.
- Flexible Where Appropriate. Flight attendant, for instance, eliminates the gender identity of the person, which then requires further elaboration in writing or conversation and wastes time. If you know the flight attendant is female and wish to say so, you shouldn’t necessarily need another sentence to do it. So rather than eliminating policeman or policewoman, we need a way to say police-something in a smooth and universal way, if we want to.
- Not Accidentally Gendered. This is hard, but for instance “hir” as a pronoun option sounds too much like “her” and thus feminist, and probably puts conservatives on edge. For a similar reason, “honom” was rejected in the Swedish “hen” version for sounding too male (in Swedish).
- Built on Prior Work. Much of what I propose here is borrowed from prior suggestions and models. This proposal is not about me being clever; it’s about all of us finding a solution we can agree on, and leveraging work that’s already been done by very smart people. Note that while I started this based on Wikipedia’s entries, Dennis Baron’s book, What’s Your Pronoun, provides a far more extensive overview. He advocates for “they” as the winning singular pronoun, but without extension to any more generalized solution.
- Elegant & Aesthetically Pleasing. This may seem subjective and arbitrary, but getting new things adopted by anyone is hard. Doing it if seems like a kludge or is jarring to the ear just makes it harder.
One additional consideration:
- The solution should be widely encouraged, but not be mandated. If you want to use “they,” use they, but if you’re looking for a grammatically pleasing solution that can be adopted for general use in all contexts, there should be something else.
With all that in mind, the proposed solution follows. After this summary, a more detailed a background discussion is provided, including notes on remaining challenges and a sincere solicitation for input—please help me make this better, so we can put it to actual use in the real world.
If you want more background on prior proposals before jumping into this, check out Wikipedia’s articles on gender neutral language, gender neutral pronouns and the Swedish pronoun Hen, UN linguistic guidelines, Dennis Baron’s book (this dude loves his pronouns), and of course anything else you think is helpful.
The “New Humanist” Solution
In 1982 or so, writer and publisher Sasha Newborn proposed a “humanist” gender-neutral model that I’ve used as the basis for some of what follows (specifically, pronouns). Similar efforts (use of the same or similar pronouns) were later made by Dr. DeAnn DeLuna and earlier by Donald Darnell and Wayne Brockriede. None of them made much headway at the time (no one ever has), but a lot has changed in the intervening years. So without further ado, here’s how I’ve updated and expanded these prior models to make English better for everyone:
Use the pronoun root “hu” as the foundation for all neutral pronouns. This is derived from humans in order to be unifying, non-gendered and humanist:
hu /hyo͞o/ nominative pronoun: used to refer to any human being when gender is unknown, unstated, or non-binary; neutral equivalent of he or she
hum /hyo͞om/ accusative pronoun: neutral equivalent of him or her
hus /hyo͞oz/ possessive pronoun: neutral equivalent of his or hers
The word “hu” is pronounced just like the first part of “human”. For reference, this is how the current English (non-neutral), English augmented by “They / Them”, Swedish (neutral), and new humanist models compare.
|Pronoun System||Nominative (Subject)||Accusative (Object)||Possessive|
|I hugged him|
I hugged her
I hugged it
|his head (his)|
her head (hers)
its head (its)
|hen worked||I hugged henom||hens head (hens)||henself|
|they worked||I hugged them||their head (theirs)||themself|
|hu worked||I hugged hum||hus head (hus)||humself|
|I hugged him|
I hugged her
I hugged hum
I hugged it
|his head (his)|
her head (hers)
hus head (hus)
its head (its)
The Swedish neutral is shown here solely for reference to a system that has worked and gained wide adoption overseas. We obviously cannot use hen in English because everyone would want to eat their words, and vegans would object.
Using Hu as a Pronoun
|Current English||Humanist English|
|“What was he or she wearing?”||“What was hu wearing?”|
|“I love him.”||“I love hum.”|
|“I have two of her paintings.”|
“The car is hers.”
|“I have two of hus paintings.”|
“The car is hus.”
|“He should take care of himself.“||“Hu should take care of humself.“|
|“They [singular] should eat more.”|
“They [plural] could drink less.”
|“Hu should eat more.”|
“They could drink less.” (No change)
Pros & Cons of Hu
Among the pros are:
- It’s derived from existing words that include all of humanity.
- It’s derived from neutral words without gender, though the etymology of “human” does lead back to man. I’m hoping this is not an issue, because we’re all human beings at this point. I don’t think anyone considers “human” to be a gendered slur. Even words like “American” used to mean American man, but are now generic. So, in full disclosure, hu is more precisely derived from words that are currently and I assume forevermore gender neutral.
- It’s easy to spell and pronounce.
- It doesn’t have the singular usage issues of “they”
- And it’s part of an overall, consistent system extending well beyond the pronoun issue.
- It meets all other guideline criteria.
I guess one disadvantage (con) is that hu is pronounced like the name Hugh, but I’m sure he’ll get over it.
Humanist Nouns & Affixes
The following examples are meant to cover most but not all cases, and all input on suggestions is always welcome.
- Recommendations are in green.
- Stuff we should get rid of is
- Words that aren’t true equivalents and should not be used as such are shown in red.
- Words where there is already a viable default (e.g., actor) are shown with a (D), generally meaning we should just use that universally and get rid of alternatives including hom.
- Suggestions shown in bold are meant as preferred defaults when there is no need to use a gendered word (in other words, use that option unless there’s a reason to use another).
BTW, an affix is just a prefix or suffix. Didn’t mean to get fancy there.
Nouns & Affixes for Adults
This refers to the use of man or woman as a noun, prefix or suffix. Use instead “hom” as a neutral alternative for adult man or woman, as both noun and affix where appropriate. This is derived from hominid (our primate family), and also alludes to the unifying prefix hum- in humanity.
hom /häm/ noun or affix: generic alternative to man or woman
homs /hämz/ noun or affix: plural of hom
Hom is pronounced just like the first part of “hominid.” Having this new term allows use a universal generic substitution for any use of man or woman as a noun or affix, meaning it can replace or augment all existing options. So if you’re ever wondering how to make “longshoreman” gender neutral, you have the answer: it’s longshorehom. Of course it sounds weird now, but you’ll get used to it. If you’ve read this far, I’d like point out how hard it was not to follow that last sentence with “That’s what she said.” This is a serious topic. Focus. Yes, I’m talking to myself.
Gendered Nouns (Man or Woman)
Adult or Person
Adult or Person
Adults or People
Adults or People
|Common Man||Common Man|
|Odd Man Out||Odd Man Out|
Odd Woman Out
|Odd Man Out|
Odd Woman Out
Odd Hom Out
Using Hom as a Noun
A few selected examples are provided below. Note that in some cases, even if (when!) hom is adopted for general use, other options such as “one” or “anyone” might be just a viable in some constructions.
|“The man crept down the dark hall.”||“The hom crept down the dark hall.”|
|“If any man or woman is subjected to sexual harassment, it is your duty to report your concerns to HR.”||“If any hom is subjected to sexual harassment, it is your duty to report your concerns to HR.”|
“If anyone is subjected to sexual harassment, it is your duty to report your concerns to HR.”
|“That woman really likes cheese.”||“That hom really likes cheese.”|
Nouns Gendered by Suffix
This is by no means a comprehensive list. It’s just a quick look at particularly troublesome or common words that might or might not yet have neutral alternatives. I’m assuming the same logic and model applied to these words apply to all words with man as a suffix, or with woman as a suffix, as well as their plural versions. If you find any words missing here that need more detailed treatment, just let me know.
Also, hom is not always the right answer; where possible, I would strongly suggest we just use a generic term for most cases and get rid of extraneous gendered options (e.g., just use actor, always, and nuke actress). But if that doesn’t work (e.g., longshoreman), hom is still there as a universal alternative.
|Historically Male Defaults|
|Member of Clergy||Clergyman|
|First Year Student||Freshman|
Maintenance Person or Fixer
|Mail Carrier19 Maintenance Man Janitor, Caretaker||Mailman|
or Postal Worker
|Maintenance Man||Maintenance Man|
|Romantic Partner||Man Friend|
Using Hom as a Suffix
These are just a few examples. In general, while “hom” can sound a bit awkward at first, it is far more efficient and cogent in general usage.
|“All members of Congress must attend.”||“All congresshoms must addend.”|
|“The chairman or chairwoman will call role.”||“The chairhom will call role.”|
|“Given that meteorologist is a different profession, please refer to the weather person as a weatherman or weatherwoman going forward.”||“Given that meteorologist is a different profession, please refer to the weather person as a weatherhom going forward.”|
Nouns Gendered by Prefix
This is arguable a more awkward and lower category of words where change will difficult if most impossible. While words like manslaughter are unarguably gendered and thus biased (as if only men commit this crime), the alternative neologism “homslaughter” will take some getting used to. We probably should do it, but it will be more of a battle than for terms that negatively impact women given the current political environment. And in some cases the new word is shown in
green strike-through, meaning it’s just a bad idea to even try or it serves no purpose.
|Historically Male Defaults|
Labor or Work
Labor or Work
|Historically Female Defaults|
Using Hom as a Prefix
A few examples:
|“A manhunt is underway for a woman named J. Tarley.”||“A homhunt is underway for a woman named J. Tarley.”|
|“She committed manslaughter.”||“She committed homslaughter.”|
|“That will take a lot of manpower.”||“That will take a lot of hompower.”|
“That will take a lot of labor.”
Pros & Cons of Hom
The Pros include:
- Fewer misused words. In considering all these options, I’d strongly suggest going for the generic “hom” vs. having to find some other word you may or may not remember in context. For instance (unless a precise word is already available), some people have gone from calling dock workers stevedores instead of the gendered longshoreman, but how many people even know the word? And why didn’t they just go with dockworker? To solve one problem, the effort to find existing generic words often creates another, but this issue is avoidable using the generic hom.
- Vast time and cost savings. As another reason to consider adoption of this neutral standard, consider just the time and cost that the Marines have (laudably) spent in changing dozens of job titles from masculine to gender neutral (e.g., “riverine assault craft crewman” to “riverine assault craft marine”). Think how much less time and how many tax dollars could have been saved if they’d just swapped out every use of the word “man” with “hom”. It would have taken thirty seconds (minor exaggeration 😉 ). Now consider this for every job title in every branch of the government and military, including documentation and manual updates, etc. The actual costs are, probably, staggering (but good luck finding out). If you’re for smaller, more efficient government and lower taxes, you can bury your head in the sand or see the changes that are coming — and address them as systematically as possible. Just sayin’.
The Cons. Hey, it’s not perfect.
- You’ll notice that if the preceding letter is a T or S, I’ve kept hom separate from the preceding stem rather than creating a single word (e.g., sales hom vs saleshom) due to obvious pronunciation issues.
Nouns & Affixes for Children
Use “hem” as a neutral alternative for children or adolescents as noun or affix instead of boy or girl, where appropriate.
hem /hem/ noun: neutral alternative to boy or girl
hems /hemz/ noun: plural of hem
Hem is pronounced just like the edge of a piece of clothing (i.e., the hem on a dress).
or Sig. Other
or Sig. Others
Using Hem as a Practice
A few examples:
|“Whose boys and girls are these?”||“Whose hems are these?”|
|“I wish I had a boyfriend or girlfriend.”||“I wish I had a hemfriend…or two.”|
|“My partner’s late. They’ll be sleeping on the couch tonight.”||“My hemfriend’s late. Hem’ll be sleeping on the couch tonight”|
Alternative Suffixes (Exceptions)
This covers all cases where man, woman, boy or girl is not the gendering suffix. Use “-um” for any such words (e.g., -ess, -ette, -or) to create a non-gendered alternative. Or, if easier, just eliminate unnecessary gender distinction. This gives us a few options that can be selected on a case-by-case basis, or mixed and matched as needed.
-um /əm/ suffix: generic alternative for any gendered suffix other than “-man” or “-woman”
ums- /əmz/ suffix: plural of -um
Which option is chosen will depend entirely on social inertia and resistance. There is no one right answer; there is only the easiest way to get to a better overall solution. So, as shown here, it might be harder to make “waiter” gender neutral than to create a new word, but it might be easier to keep using “flight attendant.”
You’ll notice that there are few if any cases other than “bachelorum” (which makes me happy for some reason) where an alternative generic word does not already exist. If this is the general case, -um can be tossed out and ignored. It’s just not needed if removing it can simplify things. I’m ignoring all royal and noble titles like emperor-empress, king-queen, prince-princess, lord-lady and so on for now, but please let me know if you’d like to see these addressed–or if they already have been elsewhere. I suspect the lord-lady one is the only one that matters, but I assume women in the House of Lords are still “lords” in a generic sense (actually, it turns out they’re called Baronesses). It’s a rabbit hole.
These are gendered words that are do not include boy, girl, man, woman or other common affixes. Or their different in some other way; hence, exceptions. This is by no means a complete list, but hopefully covers enough to get the conversation going:
or Committed Partner
|Plurals, Groups or Other|
|Group of People||Guys (D)|
Using Special Case Suggestions
|“Welcome, ladies and gentlemen.”||“Welcome, adhoms.”|
|“What up, dudes?” (to group of men)|
“What up, guys?” (to mixed group)
“What up, ladies?” (to group of women)
|“What up, homies?”|
As with all systems, this one is not (yet?) perfect. Here are some things not yet addressed because they are corner cases in the wonderful world of English linguistic evolution. Also note that some groups advocate using the neutral terms here by default (when they exist), but that’s a cultural and not grammatical issue.
Husband and Wife. Partner exists for those who want to express a serious adult relationship that may or may not be formalized by law, but it’s still frustrating and awkward. Partner, for instance, can now refer to a business or personal relationship, and is often confusing without additional context. Significant other just sounds labored. And there’s no way to distinguish between committed marital relationships and less committed or formal relationships (e.g., man-friend vs. husband). Are there better options?
Midwife. Yes, there are male midwives; however, given the related challenges and controversy around this, I doubt any generic term can be adopted in the near future.
Nurse. The word “nurse” is a grossly and irredeemably gendered term based on a biological function of which men are incapable. There is no way to make this term gender neutral, so a new term is needed. What is it? I don’t know. But expecting male nurses (murses?) to feel included in this career until a better name is found is a bit absurd.
Adhoms (L&G). This is suggested a neutral alternative to ladies & gentlemen. See discussion of Sir or Ma’am (below) for origin and details.
Group (Homies). It once was and often remains acceptable to call a group of mixed gender or even all women “guys,” but this is not universally true or safe. I don’t know of anyone who says “gals” for all-women groups, though “What up, bitches?” gets used informally. In the southern USA, of course, there is the “y’all” alternative, as in “What up, y’all?” or “How y’all doing?” but this is looked down on outside of the south (for historical and somewhat elitist reasons). It’s also insufficient, as no one says “What are those y’all doing?” instead of “What are those guys doing?” Maybe “What are they-all doing”? I’ve suggested “homies” here because (a) it’s already a gender-neutral group term (b) it perfectly fits with the “hom” of this framework and (c) people already like the word. I realize it means friends or community, but with a little flex it can work perfectly. Still, I’m open to thoughts and other suggestions.
This honorific seems to be handled in that Mr. can mean any male, Ms. any female and Mx. any person of any gender (pronounced “mix” or “mux”), but this has not been widely adopted, and part of the problem is I think aesthetic. Have we as a culture decided that adding “x” to a thing (a) makes it neutral and (b) is aesthetically pleasing enough not to be jarring and encourage adoption? I’m not sure. The situation with formal salutations (e.g., Dear Sir or Madam) is even worse
|Honorific Prefix||Mr. Smith|
|“Dear Mr. Johnson:” (male customer)|
“Dear Ms. Johnson:” (female customer)
“Dear Customer:” (unknown)
|“Dear Mu. Johnson:” (any)|
|“Dear Sir or Ma’am:”||“Dear Adhom:”|
“To whom it may concern:”
|“Excuse me, Sir. Where’s the restroom?”||“Excuse me, Adhom. Where’s the restroom?”|
Adhom. As a neutral alternative to Sir or Ma’am, Adhom is suggested by combining “ad” with “hom” to give the word a sense of elevation and formality, kind of like admiration (not speaking etymologically). There is to the best of knowledge no other alternative in usage. Adhom sounds a bit like ad hominem, but I doubt that’s a major issue, and given the identical pronunciation, it might even be helpful.
Royal Honorifics. To the best of my knowledge, Your Highness, Holiness, Honor, Grace, Lordship, Majesty and Worship are all gender neutral (except Lordship?).
Gender Neutral English Questions
You mean everything isn’t clear and perfect in every way? Fine.
Should we use gender-inclusive language even when genders are known?
An argument can be made that making language more inclusive can include not using anything but neutral language except when absolutely necessary. I tend to think this is a bridge too far, but it remains a valid question for many and I’m sure those many will have strong opinions on the subject; fortunately, it doesn’t matter in this context. As long as the word exists (my goal here), deciding how and when to use it can be left to better minds.
First, if you have any questions, comments or criticisms, please let me know in the comments below. All civilized input welcome. Second, if you agree this new humanist (gender neutral and inclusive English) can be useful, promote it. Put it in practice. Send others here to learn and engage. And thank you.
More on Gender Neutral English
Rather than make this article longer than it already is, here are all of the resources used in this post and more.