Understanding Neopronouns
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Published in: March-April 2020 issue.


PRONOUNS are a part of daily life and are used by all of us hundreds of times a day. For this reason, pronouns tend to be taken for granted. However, pronouns can become problematical in times of social change, as they are today for those in the trans and nonbinary communities, and for society at large.

            Pronouns in English (unlike in many European languages) differentiate gender only in the third-person singular, “he” and “she” and their attendant cases: him, his, her, and hers. However, this distinction isn’t carried over to the third-person plural, leaving “they” as a possible replacement for the gendered singular form in some situations. Thus, for example, a sentence like “Someone left their coat in the theater” is quite widely accepted by grammarians. More recently, “they/them/ their” has been used in a more specialized way, to refer to a category of person who does not identify as either of the standard singular pronouns. And while “they” was named as Merriam Webster’s word of the year for 2019, it has not gained universal acceptance as an alternative to binary pronouns.

            Neopronouns are new coinages that were created as an alternative to “they.” Some of them go back further than you might guess, and new ones have cropped up over the years. For example, the pronoun set “ey/em/eir” was created in 1975 by Christine M. Elverson to replace “he/him/his” and “she/her/hers.” It was the winning entry in a contest by the Chicago Association of Business Communicators, who were looking for an alternative to the gendered pronouns. Elverson described this set as “transgender pronouns” and came up with the three words by dropping “th” from “they/them/their.” Another set, “thon/thons/thonself,” was listed in Funk and Wagnalls dictionary from 1898 to 1964. This set was created for ease of use by a lawyer named Charles C. Converse, whose strategy was to combine the words “that” and “one.” This set popped up in crossword puzzles, comic strips, and some publications, but it never really caught on and was eventually forgotten. Still more remarkable, the pronoun set “ne/nis/nir” originated half a century before that, in the 1850s. An article in The New-York Commercial Advertiser in 1884 explained the pronoun set and noted the brevity of its lifespan. After that, the record on this brief experiment goes silent, though it seems to be enjoying something of a revival with today’s “ne/nem/nirs.”

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Sebastian McGaughey is a nineteen-year-old freelance writer based in Barrie, Ontario. He is a transgender man and uses he/him pronouns.



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