Language changes as culture changes. That is supremely evident from any cursory historical analysis. And as feminism rose and made its impact on Western culture, language changed to reflect that influence. One only needs to read books from a hundred years ago to see the change. Where once humanity was referred to as “mankind”, and where it was acceptable to refer to doctors as “he” and secretaries as “she”, now gender-inclusive language is encouraged and used. Now mailmen are postal workers, stewardesses are airline attendants, and policemen are police officers. I view this as a positive change that better reflects the diversity of the culture in which we live.
But one difficulty has plagued this change to gender-inclusive language, and that is in the realm of pronouns. Although it is no longer acceptable to use “he” when talking about a single person of unknown gender, the alternatives are cumbersome. Using “he or she” or “he/she” can work if used sparingly, but otherwise it becomes a laborious exercise to read and write. “He or she should excuse him or herself before he or she leaves his or her seat.” Such a sentence is awkward and disjointed. In addition to this, using “he or she” as a binary choice fails to be inclusive to genderqueer individuals who may not identify exclusively (or at all) with one gender or the other. (Note that despite the current tendency to view gender as masculine or feminine, such a classification is not universal across time and cultures, and indeed many cultures throughout history have had a third gender that was considered distinct from masculinity or femininity.) “He or she” retains the idea that gender must fit into these discrete categories of one or the other.
Many invented pronouns have been created to try to deal with these issues. Unfortunately, since pronouns are one of the fundamentals of language, it is difficult to modify them, especially if the change does not spring up organically by the culture itself. Thus, most of the proposed solutions have failed to catch on. However, in the interest of bringing attention to these ideas, I think it is beneficial to examine a few of the more popular ideas.
One pronoun which was suggested by Charles Crozat back in the 1880s is “thon”. The implementation was fairly simple, and essentially involved replacing “he” or “she” with “thon”. “He kept his bike for himself” would become “Thon kept thons bike for thonself.” Evidently, the word was popular enough to make it into a couple dictionaries at the time, but it has largely fallen out of favour today.
Another invented pronoun which is popular within the transgender community is “ze”. There are a few variants to this one, but as far as I’m aware (and I’ll admit, I’m not all that aware), the most popular seems to be one used with “hir”. “Ze” replaces “he/she”, and “hir” (pronounced “here”) replaces most of the other forms. So, “He kept his bike for himself” would become “Ze kept hirs bike for hirself.” While I do enjoy this form because it combines “his” and “her” into one word, the “ze” seems out of place with the rest. Nevertheless, this set of pronouns has its supporters.
There is another type of pronoun that can be found within feminist literature (and probably transgender literature as well): “zhe”. This one seems to stay fairly close to how we already use existing gendered pronouns. In this case, “He kept his bike for himself” would become “Zhe kept zher bike for zhimself.” However, I find this pronoun somewhat confusing. If you remove the “z” at the front of each, it looks like a gendered pronoun again, but there is no consistency—some are masculine, and some are feminine. While that might be intentional, it becomes difficult to remember which form of the pronoun to use: Is it “zhis” or “zher”? Is it “zhimself” or “zherself”? I suppose this would become easier with practice and continued use, but the learning curve likely prevents it from being widely used by the general population.
Even with such a variety of options, my preferred solution is simple. I prefer the singular “they”. This solution involves no new word to learn, and seems to be used with increasing frequency in the vernacular already. However, because it is grammatically incorrect, it is generally discouraged in formal literature. The usage simply replaces the gendered pronoun with the corresponding existing (plural) form of “they”. So, “He kept his bike for himself” would become “They kept their bike for themself.” Such use of the singular “they” has been found in the works of various well-known authors such as Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and Mark Twain. And considering that English already uses “you” for both singular and plural second-person objects, a singular “they” at least has some precedent.
Regardless of one’s personal preferences about which solution to use to respect gender inclusiveness, I think it is important to use some solution. At the moment, a range of options presents itself to us, and various authors choose differently depending on the situation. Perhaps down the road, one solution (old or new) will present itself and become widespread, but for now I would recommend choosing one that works for you and sticking with it. The only way to promote inclusiveness is to be inclusive, and that must be present in our speech as well. Each person must choose for themself/hirself/zhimself/thonself how they/ze/zhe/thon will do so.