“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:
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.
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):
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.