English is a weird language. It has thousands of words, but we still can’t describe everything accurately.
One of the gaps in the English language has to do with gender. Even though English isn’t as gender-specific as Spanish, for example, it does have gender-specific pronouns, such as “he,” “she,” “him,” and “her.”
Years ago, when a singular noun was used in a sentence, it was referred to as “he” or “him,” as shown in the following sentence:
The professor welcomed the students, and he passed out the syllabus.
With the feminist movement, women began to enter traditionally male-dominated fields, and they demanded to be treated equally in language. So the professor in this sentence could be a woman. In modern society, the sentence would be:
The professor welcomed the students, and he or she passed out the syllabus.
The problem is that there is no way to acknowledge both men and women without a sentence sounding awkward or clunky. The only options writers have are “he or she,” “he/she,” “s/he,” “she or he,” or possibly “she/he.” In proper grammar “they” cannot refer to one single person, and “it” can only refer to objects.
Sweden has faced a similar problem, and they created a third person pronoun that could refer to both men and women: “hen.” This is a combination of “han” (“he”) and “hon” (“she”). Although the main purpose of “hen” is to encompass people who identify as neither male nor female, it could also function as a replacement for the awkward “he/she,” or in this case “han/hon.”
Since language constantly changes, this could be a viable option for English. “He or she” could be replaced by just one word that would refer to both genders. Perhaps the gender-neutral pronouns from Middle English (“zhe” and “thon”) could be brought back, or something entirely new could be created. It would take a while to catch on, but writers would be grateful for another pronoun option.
To view the full article on Sweden’s gender-neutral pronoun: Sweden’s Gender-neutral Pronoun