He, Ze, and Thee

Students at the University of Tennessee have been asked to use a new set of gender neutral pronouns when appropriate, as reported by the Tennessean.

University of Tennessee students have been asked to use gender-neutral pronouns such as “ze.”

The University of Tennessee Office for Diversity and Inclusion is asking students and faculty to use the pronouns in order to create a more inclusive campus, multiple media outlets report.

“Transgender people and people who do not identify within the gender binary may use a different name than their legal name and pronouns of their gender identity, rather than the pronouns of the sex they were assigned at birth,” the University of Tennessee’s Pride Center Director, Donna Braquet, wrote on the university’s website Wednesday.

Braquet requested that teachers, rather than calling roll, will instead ask each student to provide the name and pronoun he or she — or ze — wishes to be referred by. She says it relieves a burden for people expressing different genders or identities.

“The name a student uses may not be the one on the official roster, and the roster name may not be the same gender as the one the student now uses,” Braquet wrote.

University spokeswoman Karen Ann Simsen said there is no mandate or official policy to use the language.

“The information provided in the newsletter was offered as a resource for our campus community on inclusive practices,” Simsen said.

Braquet said if students and faculty cannot use pronouns such as ze, hir, hirs, xe, xem or xyr, they can also politely ask.

“‘Oh, nice to meet you … What pronouns should I use?’ is a perfectly fine question to ask,” Braquet said.

This suggestion, although not any sort of official policy at the University has met with a certain amount of mockery at the expense of the ivory towered institution completely removed from common experience and it does seem to be more than a little silly to invent new pronouns, considering that something like 99.999% of the population is quite certain which gender they identify with.

Still, I must admit that the English language is somewhat lacking in certain respects when it comes to pronouns. English does not have a third person singular pronoun to refer to a person whose gender is unknown or to refer to a single, generic person. For example which pronouns should be used in the sentences, “Every student will take ______ test tomorrow. ______ will receive a grade the day after”. In a mixed class, one might use “he or she” and “his or her” but these usages, while correct, seem awkward. “It” and “its” are the neuter pronouns but they are not used to refer to persons. The grammatically correct pronoun would be “he” and “his”, since in English, as in related languages the male pronoun is the default pronoun used to refer to a member of a mixed company, but this usage has become politically incorrect. The plural pronouns “they” and “their” are often used but that is grammatically incorrect when referring to single members of a mixed group, although such usage has been attested at least since the sixteenth century. Such new-fangled pronouns as xe or ze refer to a person of indeterminate or ambiguous gender rather than a generic person of either gender and have been invented and promoted by left-wing gender theorists and are likely to be resisted by more sensible people.I am not sure what the best solution to this problem is.

Another way in which the English language is lacking in regards to pronoun is that there is no distinction in number or case with the second person pronoun. English makes such distinctions in the first and third person, but not in the second person, except for the possessive case.


Thus there is no way, except in context, to determine whether a person is speaking to a single person or to a group of persons. Since most of the languages related to English do make this distinction and often have a more formal pronoun to use. German has ‘du’ for singular you, ‘ihr’ for plural you, and ‘Sie’ for formal use. Spanish has, depending on dialect ‘tu’ ‘vos’ or ‘usted’ for singular and ‘vosotros’, ‘vosotras’, or ‘ustedes’ for plural. Usted and ustedes are the more formal you but have replaced vos and vosotros outside of Spain. Latin also has tu and vos. This is called the “tu-vos” or “T-V”. In many languages which make the T-V distraction between singular and plural you, the plural you has come to be considered more respectful and is used to address one’s social superiors.

Modern English entirely lacks the T-V distinction, but this was not the case in early forms of English. Old English or Anglo-Saxon had a full complement of noun and pronoun inflections which Modern English has largely dropped, including a singular and plural you. English did not make the T-V distinction between formal and informal you until after the Norman Conquest when English speakers picked up the idea from the French speaking Normans. Here is the full set of Old English Pronouns.

First person
Case Singular Plural Dual
Nominative ic, īc wit
Accusative mec, mē ūsic, ūs uncit, unc
Genitive mīn ūre uncer
Dative ūs unc
Second person
Case Singular Plural Dual
Nominative þū git
Accusative þēc, þē ēowic, ēow incit, inc
Genitive þīn ēower incer
Dative þē ēow inc
Third person
Case Singular Plural
Masculine Neuter Feminine Masculine Feminine
Nominative hit hēo hiē hēo
Accusative hine hit hīe hiē hīo
Genitive his his hire hiera heora
Dative him him hire him him

Note that þ is pronounced “th” , so “you”in the nominative case would be thu and ye. They also had a dual form in the first and second person.

By Middle English the dual form was dropped and the pronouns are closer to Modern English

Personal pronouns in Middle English
The Modern English is shown in italics below each Middle English pronoun
Person (gender) Subject Object Possessive determiner Possessive pronoun Reflexive
ic / ich / I
me / mi
min / minen [pl.]
min / mire / minre
min one / mi selven
modern (archaic)
þou / þu / tu / þeou
you (thou)
you (thee)
þi / ti
your (thy)
þin / þyn
yours (thine)
þeself / þi selven
yourself (thyself)
Third Masculine
him[a] / hine[b]
his / hisse / hes
his / hisse
sche[o] / s[c]ho / ȝho
heo / his / hie / hies / hire
hio / heo / hire / heore

hit / him
hit sulue
us / ous
ure[n] / our[e] / ures / urne
us self / ous silve
modern (archaic)
ȝe / ye
you (ye)
eow / [ȝ]ou / ȝow / gu / you
eower / [ȝ]ower / gur / [e]our
Ȝou self / ou selve
Third From Old English heo / he his / heo[m] heore / her
From Old Norse þa / þei / þeo / þo þem / þo þeir þam-selue
modern they them their theirs themselves

So in Middle English, depending on dialect, nominative singular you is thou, thu, tu, or theou and nominative plural you is ye. The objective singular you is thee and the objective plural you is eow or you. The distinction between singular and plural you was retained in Early Modern English, which most people are familiar with as the English of Shakespeare and the King James Bible.

Personal pronouns in Early Modern English
Nominative Oblique Genitive Possessive
1st person singular I me my/mine[# 1] mine
plural we us our ours
2nd person singular informal thou thee thy/thine[# 1] thine
plural or formal singular ye, you you your yours
3rd person singular he/she/it him/her/it his/her/his (it)[# 2] his/hers/his[# 2]
plural they them their theirs


Here singular and informal you is thou and thee while plural and formal you is ye and you. Most people today use thou and thee believing that they are the more formal and respectful way to address person, particularly in prayer. They have it entirely backwards. Somehow, between Shakespeare’s time and our own, the formal plural you has replaced every other second person pronoun.

I don’t think anyone who speaks English really misses the T-V distinction when it comes to addressing someone formally or informally. Most English speaking countries have become fairly democratic and have tended to eschew the idea social hierarchy implied by the T-V distinction. The inability to distinguish between singular and plural is another matter, especially in translation from languages that do make this distinction. English speakers are instinctively aware of the lack and are always trying to invent pronouns such as you all, y’all, you guys, or youse to make up for the perceived lack, only to be told by grammarians that such usage is informal and improper. Why? We do need the pronoun.  I would propose that we go ahead and make “you all” the formal second person pronoun with y’all, youse, etc as examples of informal or regional, but still acceptable usage. Formally recognizing existing usage would be better than inventing a whole new set of pronouns or trying to resurrect the older pronouns. I think, however, we can do without ze and xe.


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