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Yo don't think so

The Sun’s editorial board discovered recently that Professor Elaine Stotko at Johns Hopkins had published on the discovery of a new epicene pronoun (neither masculine nor feminine, but not neuter) among African-American schoolchildren in Baltimore. Yo can substitute for he or she, or their, filling a much-discussed gap in the language.

The linguists at Language Log offer a more detailed and technical investigation of this phenomenon than was possible in The Sun’s brief editorial.

So now we see a spontaneous solution to the vexing everyone ... their problem: Instead of everyone has an addition to her or her pronouns, we have this available: Everyone has an addition to yo pronouns.

Well, maybe. English has always gleaned indiscriminately from other languages, and, within English itself, all sorts of slang words and usages have made it into the mainstream. But not all do, and predicting what will stay or drop out in language is more treacherous than predicting what voters will do in a primary some weeks away.

But there are a couple of points on which I am willing to risk a forecast.

First, artificial attempts to alter the language, such as George Bernard Shaw’s quixotic campaign to simplify English spelling, usually fail. The attempts to manufacture an epicene pronoun for English have been well-intentioned, numerous and unsuccessful. Dennis Baron, a professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has compiled a lengthy list of such nominees, and they are hilarious.

Second, I think I can see the direction in which the language is moving, because it already has in Britain and increasingly appears to be doing so in the United States: acceptance of they and their as a gender-neutral pronoun referring back to the singular. Everyone sees that there is no need for an addition to their pronouns.

Garner’s Modern American Usage is one of the foremost manuals to advocate this, and the celebrated linguist Steven Pinker articulated a persuasive grammatical analysis on this point in The Language Instinct.

Mrs. Elizabeth Craig, my eighth-grade English teacher, would recoil in horror to hear of my apostasy on this point. But I’m prepared to decree, if my masters will accede, that Sun house style will no longer insist on everyone ... his or her and will henceforth shrug and move on when everyone ... their turns up.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:55 AM | | Comments (3)


"Hu" is the gold standard in higher education for gender-neutral pronouns. "Hu" works for he or she, wihle "hus" works for his or hers. I'm not a fan, and refuse to use it, but I just thought I should share.

I should point out that Professor Baron has addressed the "yo" issue in some detail at his blog, the Web of Language. Have a look:

The experts at Oxford University Press agree with you. Here's what they have to say:

Various people have suggested new words to fill this gap, but none of them has caught on, or (frankly) is ever likely to: it is not practical to try to change such a basic element of the language by sheer will.

However, children and adults alike naturally find the obvious solution to this conundrum: rather than using the formal and awkward formula 'he or she', they simply use they, especially after words such as anyone and no one which are strictly singular but often imply a reference to more than one person.

This is not a new problem, or a new solution. 'A person can't help their birth', wrote Thackeray in Vanity Fair (1848), and even Shakespeare produced the line 'Every one to rest themselves betake' (in Lucrece), which pedants would reject as logically ungrammatical.

I couldn't say it better myself.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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