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Compensating for the Lack of a Gender-Neutral Pronoun in English: What Makes a Method Successful (with Evidence from Chinese) and What Should We Do?

Berkowsky, Danielle (2015)
Honors Thesis (75 pages)
Committee Chair / Thesis Adviser: Li, Yu
Committee Members: Pak, Marjorie ; Browne, Irene
Research Fields: Language, Linguisitcs; Gender Studies
Keywords: gender-neutral; epicene; pronoun; androcentric
Program: College Honors Program, Linguistics
Permanent url:


Gender-neutrality is necessary in many circumstances, yet cannot always be expressed optimally within the limits of the English lexicon. This paper looks at the ways English speakers compensate for the lack of a third-person singular gender-neutral pronoun in order to determine how to successfully navigate this deficiency. It uses results from a survey of native Chinese speakers from Emory University on compensation methods in written Chinese in order to detail the required characteristics of a successful gender-neutral pronoun in English. Based on the avoidance method used in written Chinese, this pronoun must be unambiguous, generally accepted, inclusive (specifically for those who do not follow the gender binary), not androcentric, and flow easily, to allow English speakers to produce grammatical and neutral language.

Table of Contents

1: Introduction 1

2. When is Gender-Neutrality Necessary? 4

2.1. Unknown Gender

2.2. Generic Gender

2.3. Secretive Gender

2.4. Irrelevant Gender

2.5. Transgender & Gender Non-Conforming Individuals

3. Compensations 9

3.1. Generic he

3.2. Singular they

3.3. Avoidance

3.4. Two-Pronoun Solution

3.4.1. He or she

3.4.2. Alternating Pronouns

3.5. Do English Compensation Methods Meet the Required Characteristics?

4. Pronoun Usage in Legal Language 24

5. Creating a Gender-Neutral Pronoun 26

6. The Impact of Gendered Language Change 30

7. What about Chinese? 34

7.1. History of Written Chinese Pronouns

7.2. The Problem

8. My study 37

8.1. Methodology

8.2. Preliminary Results

8.3. Specific Results

8.3.1. Unknown Gender

8.3.2. Generics

8.3.3. Secretive

8.3.4. TA

8.4. Survey Summary

9. Conclusion 52

Appendix 1: Survey 54

Works Cited 63


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