Of indeterminate sex

In his latest blog on language, John E. McIntyre considers the acceptability of gender-neutral language to grammarians and stylists.

The only option for English speakers and writers who need a gender-neutral singular pronoun is to use the plurals ‘they’ and ‘their’.

Used this way, ‘they’ and ‘their’ are epicene pronouns, meaning they refer to either sex without changing grammatical gender.

Epicene also means ‘of indeterminate sex’.

Image, gender symbols.

I first read the word epicene in Henry Wright’s ‘Notice to epicene women: electioneering women are requested not to call here’, printed in 1902. Encouraged by my politically active grandmother, I was doing a primary school project about women’s right to vote.

For years afterwards, I thought epicene meant ‘politically active’. Mr Wright’s notice implies a cause and effect I still don’t understand. He suggests involvement in politics de-sexes women, and offers domestic activity as a cure for this undesirable condition.

The notice conforms to the rules of grammar. It uses ‘they’ and ‘them’ as plural pronouns for (epicene) women, and allows for ‘all right-minded people’ to include both women and men.

The Write Style Guide for New Zealanders offers no guidance on epicene women, either cause or cure. It does recommend epicene pronouns as a tool for gender neutral language, as long as the subject of the sentence or clause is clear.

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