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An Update on Gendered Pronouns

October 22nd, 2016
gender, they, ling  [html]

Executive Summary

The use of gendered pronouns has been deprecated in favor of singular they. All users of English should migrate to the new system as soon as practical, but we do expect this to be a long transition.

Why has this change being made?

Usage of gendered pronouns depends on an obsolete version of the gender system. While we're not making any forward-looking announcements about the gender system at this time, this dependency has been problematic:
  • The gendered pronoun system requires that people cleanly sort into male and female.
  • To enable user-level caching it requires that this mapping change only rarely.
  • For users to select the correct pronoun when making a reference, this mapping must be be immediately apparent from name, appearance, profession, or whatever other limited information the user has available.
  • With the deprecation of gender roles, gendered pronouns make excessive emphasis on a relatively unimportant attribute.
Switching to a single pronoun that doesn't depend on gender resolves these issues.

Timeline

While English '14 has full support for singular they, older versions have only minimal to partial support. For example, all active versions of English support it in someone and everyone constructions, English '92 added support for it in non-specific references, and only English '14 supports it with specific named referents. All users of English are encouraged to upgrade to English '14 or later, but we recognize that this may be impractical with older wetware.

At this time we are recommending that in situations where some participants have only partial support for singular they that people continue to use gendered pronouns for people with traditional binary gender unless there are strong reasons not to.

We may attempt to backport singular they to earlier versions of English, but pronouns are a very low level system. We are concerned we may not be able to safely make this change, and will only be able to offer an upgrade route. If you are interested in assisting us with testing a backport, however, please let us know.

We will continue to monitor the deployment of versions supporting singular they, and expect to issue another deprecation notice with a firm date when they-support is sufficiently widespread.

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