“They” is the American Dialect Society word of the year: gender neutrality and gender inclusivity in English and French

How do you do gender neutrality in a language in which every noun and adjective is either male or female? Here’s the French approach.

“And whoso fyndeth hym out of swich blame,
They wol come up . . .”

  “Whoever finds himself not guilty of such, they should come up…”

—Chaucer, The Pardoner’s Prologue. Translation by me–I was an English major.

The American Dialect Society’s Word Of The Year for 2015 was the word they used as a singular pronoun.  The usage goes back to the 1300s, probably less than a hundred years after we borrowed the word itself from the Old Norse pronoun þeir.  In the dialect of English that I grew up speaking, it’s used to refer to a single person in the third person when their (wow–there it is–I didn’t plan that!) gender is not known or not relevant.  If someone lost their cell phone, Beverly has it.  If one more person tells me “God needed your mother for an angel,” I’m going to punch them right in the fucking stomach.  If you see a dog with a bone in their mouth, don’t try to take it from them.  There’s a beautiful analysis of Jane Austen’s use of singular they at this web page on the pemberley.com web site, your home for all things Austentatious.  The author points out that there are some grammatical constructions that you can tell Austen disapproved of because she only puts them in the mouths of characters who are idiots.  This isn’t one of them–Austen uses it narratively.

The American Dialect Society singled out they specifically for its conscious use as a gender-neutral or gender-non-binary pronominal referent for even a known person:

Screenshot 2016-02-12 05.22.54
Picture source: screen shot from http://www.americandialect.org/2015-word-of-the-year-is-singular-they.

As far as I know, France and the French language haven’t much gotten into the question of whether or not gender is binary and, if not, how we should do pronominal reference (i.e. using words like he/she/it/they/zhe/ix), but gender inclusivity is definitely an issue.  It’s an especially thorny issue in France because in French, every noun has a gender.  We have a very small number of such nouns in English–king/queen, actor/actress, man/woman, boy/girl, bachelor/bachelorette, etc.  In French, though, every noun has a gender.  Choix (choice)?  Male.  Liberté (liberty)?  Female.  Pied (foot)?  Male.  Main (hand)?  Female.  Many, many words referring to humans are gendered–director (directeur for a male, directrice for a female), actor (comédien for a male, comédienne for a female), dancer (danseur for a male, danseuse for a female), student (étudiant for a male, étudiante for a female)–on and on.  Some words only have one form, and French people struggle with those–for example, there’s a very current controversy over whether female ministers in the government should be referred to as Madame le ministre (with the male definite article le that ministre requires grammatically) or as Madame la ministre (with the female definite article that Madame seems like it ought to go with).  (I think that the ministers themselves prefer Madame la ministre, but the (female head of the) French Academy insists that it is Madame le ministre and that Madame le ministre it will stay.)

How do you go about being gender-neutral in French, then?  Here’s one attempt to do it.  It showed up in my email inbox yesterday.  What you’ll see is that the writer attempts to be not gender neutral, exactly, but rather gender inclusive: all of the nouns and adjectives have been modified so as to refer to both males and females.

Screenshot 2016-02-13 05.33.24
Picture source: screen shot of an email advertising a “summer school” in computational and statistical textual analysis.

All of the hyphenated things are attempts to make the words cover both genders, rather than just one.  Most of these work.  A male PhD student is a doctorant, and a female PhD student is a doctorante; the writer has written doctorant-e-s to try to cover the plural of both male and female PhD students.  “Advanced” would be avancés for the male plural and avancées for the female plural; the writer tries to cover both of them with avancé-e-s.  This technique doesn’t always work smoothly.  The male plural of “desirous of” or “wanting to” would be désireux de, and the female plural would be désireuses de; the writer has tried to cover both with désireux-ses, which doesn’t work out as cleanly as doctorant-e-s, but one gets the idea.  It works out even less well for the plural of “researcher,” which would be chercheurs for males and chercheuses for females; the writer went with chercheur-e-s, rather than chercheurs-seuses, as they did (there it goes again–I don’t know the writer’s gender, so my dialect uses they as a singular pronoun) for désireux-ses. 

A very common way that I see people try to be gender-inclusive in writing is by repeating nouns and pronouns that refer to people in the male and female forms.  Here’s an email about a Meetup in Paris about machine learning (a technique for getting computers to learn how to do things):

Screenshot 2016-02-13 05.45.50
Picture source: screen shot of an email from a Meetup group in Paris.

It’s saying “for those of us who stayed here in Paris,” but the word those is repeated: once in the female plural form celles, and once in the male form ceux.  It’s the same technique that we use in English if we write he or she. 

10 thoughts on ““They” is the American Dialect Society word of the year: gender neutrality and gender inclusivity in English and French”

  1. This gender stuff is my biggest headache in learning the French language.

    My former language tutor (Tunisian born and brought up speaking French & Arabic, with an Italian mother and a Ukrainian husband and admirably fluent in English) states with complete conviction that I will, one day, be able to FEEL whether a French noun is masculin ou feminin.
    I hope she is right

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I hate it when I produce some grammatically super-complicated with, say, the plus-que-parfait and the pronoun “en,” and then screw up the gender of a definite article!


  3. Wow. I was just thinking about this yesterday, actually. I always hate having to write out “he or she”, “himself or herself”, etc. etc. Using “they” is much more reasonable. Okay, it technically breaks tons of rules, but English always does that sort of stuff anyway, right?
    Great post 🙂


    1. A number of style guides now approve of singular “they.”

      Chicago Manual of Style
      Washington Post style manual, in some circumstances
      New Fowler’s Common English Usage (UK)
      Cambridge Guide to English Usage (UK)
      Federation Press Style Guide for use in preparation of book manuscripts (Australia)
      Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (I finally found a used copy!)


  4. I’ll look up the manuals you’ve listed, as I’m not quite sure what a singular “they” looks like in a sentence. Gender inclusive is a problem I often struggle with in translations, and whenever possible, I just put whatever it is in the plural. But it’s a plural, not a singular!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This is only a problem for speakers of one of the exceptional languages deprived of grammatical genders . I always vaguely smile when I read what a difficulty it makes for Anglophones . Me and my pairs from Russia, Germany, Spain, Araby, Israel, India we always learn in a new language the gender of a noun together with the noun itself . Chair is not just chaise, but “une chaise” and that’s it .

    There is a thing that seems hard to get for non-genders speakers, it’s a gender has nothing to see with females and males . It is a grammatical mark, just as plural/singular is . Nobody in elaborate languages countries will think that a chair is a female of something, no more than a computer, a stone, mechanics or trigonometry . Simple .

    .Now about this problem of doctorant-e, it is one of the recent hassles that occurred in modern times, with speed radars on the roads and “We are at war !” in what they call the informations . Until this hypocrit PC showed its nose there was no problem . From the creation of the Earth, French grammar has always stipulated that the masculine gender is used when both genders are concerned . “Les plat que j’ai lavés”, “les assiettes que j’ai lavées”, “les plats et les assiettes que j’ai lavés” . And it is the same when it concerns people . A sign showing ” L’entrée du park est ouverte à tous” was – and still is -immediately understood as meaning ” every woman, man or Djinn is allowed” .

    All of this is only a question of grammar, it has zero connection with any sex . Just like we add a final “s” for more than one thing while we should, as several languages do, have a different plural form for two and another for more than two . As the founder of a trio I find offending to be treated like a vulgar duo when people speak . I’ll do like they do in the States, and make a campaign until all TV presentators are obliged by law to respect my community !


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